Those who are not familiar with comic books and the history surrounding them may be confused about the recent kerfuffle over the Batgirl cover and it being pulled. Never fear! For I have in my Utility Belt of Knowledge, the proper gadgets to give some context and offer critique.
Batgirl, or Barbara Gordon as she is better known, has had a tumultuous publication. The most relevant part of that history in this context is the one-shot graphic novel called The Killing Joke. In this story, Barbara was shot through the stomach and subsequently paralyzed. The person who shot her, the Joker, proceeded to remove her clothes and take pictures of her. All to drive Barbara’s father, Police Commissioner Gordon, to insanity.
Some have alleged that Joker also sexually assaulted or even raped her. Alan Moore, the writer of Killing Joke has gone on record saying that that was not his intent or the implication he was going for. But it’s hard to ignore the implications of those naked pictures of Barbara while she is crying.
Regardless, this move on the part of DC forever gave a fairly personal relationship to the Joker and Barbara that not many others had.
Fast-forward to 2014 and the Batgirl comic has been given a new creative team which is replacing the famous Batgirl writer and feminist Gail Simone and intent on making Batgirl a lot lighter.
In an interview I did with one of the co-writers Cameron Stewart and one of the artists, Babs Tarr, Stewart explained the shift in tone:
For the last several years the Batgirl title has skewed in a dark, grim direction and I was more interested in returning the character to her iconic, light-hearted roots. The armoured, tech-heavy design that preceded ours didn’t feel appropriate for something lighter, so it felt proper to change it to something more befitting of the tone.
She represents a hopeful worldview instead of a dark, pessimistic one, and I feel it’s appropriate to keep her distinguished from the grimmer mood of the other Bat-titles. I also wanted to make a comic that would ideally appeal to younger female readers by being reflective and relevant to their actual lives instead of focusing on graphic violence and darkness.
This shift in tone at least partially explains the subsequent backlash against this variant cover for Batgirl #41. The variant cover was first released online on Friday, March 13th as a preview for its actual release in June. But by Tuesday, the 17th of March, it had already been pulled by DC.
Before and after the cover had been pulled people alleged many things about the cover: It was sexist, misogynistic, it was reinforcing Barbara’s victimhood, it was portraying double standards in comics about how men and women deal with being vulnerable, it was in huge tonal conflict with the larger comic and so on.
When DC pulled the comic it released a statement:
We publish comic books about the greatest heroes in the world, and the most evil villains imaginable. The Joker variant covers for June are in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the Joker.
Regardless if fans like Rafael Albuquerque’s homage to Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE graphic novel from 25 years ago, or find it inconsistent with the current tonality of the Batgirl books — threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society.
We stand by our creative talent, and per Rafael’s request, DC Comics will not publish the Batgirl variant. — DC Entertainment
Rafael Albuquerque, the artist behind the cover, released his own statement saying:
My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. “The Killing Joke” is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker.
For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited.
My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art. For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled. I’m incredibly pleased that DC Comics is listening to my concerns and will not be publishing the cover art in June as previously announced.
With all due respect,
There’s a lot to unpack here, least of which is to point out that when DC is referring to folks who were being harassed or threatened they aren’t talking about Albuquerque. Rather, according to Stewart the people who were objecting to the cover were the ones who got the threats.
One of the most ubiquitous critiques was that DC, the “vocal” minority (more on this later) who disagreed with the cover and others engaged in “censorship” of one sort or another.
Let’s tackle this issue first.
(The) Censorship (Debate) is Over (If you want it)
The two statements above seem to admit to something, though neither exactly apologize at the same time. Unsurprisingly, Albuquerque speaking as an individual comes much closer than DC speaking as a corporation to some sort of apology. But even if that is what both DC and Albuquerque were going for it’s not clear what they are even apologizing for.
The first paragraph of DC’s statement about centering the cover around Joker makes the problem pretty clear, but I will get into that later.
Most relevant to the current issue of “censorship” is that DC states that it didn’t pull the content because of the opinions of their customers, but rather because its creative artist told it to pull the cover.
That’s important to note. Of course, it’s impossible to say that DC and Albuquerque were not, at the very least, influenced by the opinions of comic book fans online. But it is up to them to define what the deciding factor was. For DC it wasn’t the people online.
For Albuquerque it was the “nerve” that it “touched” when it came out as well as the way it hurt others. In addition, Albuquerque was left feeling that their opinions (or anyone else’s) should not be discredited. Though it is obvious that Albuquerque chose, in the end, to prefer one opinion over the other. But perhaps that doesn’t meet his definition of “discredit”, I cannot say for sure.
Regardless, this is part of where the “censorship” claim comes from.
Now, first and foremost, the legal use of censorship is completely irrelevant. At no point in this process did the government come in and throw up any barriers to this cover being used. They did not tell DC to pull the cover or put any pressure of a legal nature at any time on anyone.
So that use of the word “censorship” is out, which, subsequently, means that any critique of this pull is going to have to involve some sort of thickness.
Cathy Young of Time talks about a “feminist outrage machine” that “chills creative expression” and Katherine Timpf of National Review Online implies, at the end of her article, that Albuquerque bowing to not wanting to “hurt or upset anyone” also means bowing to “political correctness” rather than his own artistic desires.
So this critique that involves censorship (or something much like it) has much more to do with the way that groups and individuals relate to each other, then how we relate to the government.
As Brian Doherty of Reason helpfully explains:
While that outcome is not inherently unlibertarian in an obvious way, it impacts various penumbras, as the Supreme Court might say, of what is valuable about a liberal culture of free and open expression. If this incident becomes a bellwether or how our culture will work from now on, it will be a precedent we should regret. To be less oblique, I don’t like the idea that an angry mob on the Internet can get artistic products pre-emptively cancelled because they don’t like the product, for whatever reason.
I will have much more to say about Doherty’s argument and the much less helpful bits later, but for now let’s bring our attention to Jim Sterling of the Jimquisition. For me, Sterling has blown this censorship out of the water with his video entitled Editing versus Censorship.
This part in particular hits all the points it needs to:
It needs to be stressed, however, that the artist who on that picture, Rafael Albuquerque himself, requested that it be changed. He also says he was under no pressure to do so, explaining he realized it made no sense to run the cover with the current direction Batgirl is in.
So what we have are creative individuals who decided to change a creative thing in order to better suit their creative needs.
Creative expression has not been stifled, this is creative expression working as it should work. Free expression does not exclusively apply to the production of content. It can apply to the removal of content too. If the creator chooses to do so for the sake of its creation.
In this light, it seems more accurate to say that it is the people who critique this on the basis of censorship who are undermining artistic expression. They are expressly ignoring the fact that the creative team behind Batgirl was not notified of the cover (due to it being a variant cover), did not agree on it when they saw it and agreed with the decision to pull it. It ignores how Albuquerque and DC feels about the event. It ignores how artistic expression can be as much about withdrawing as it can be producing, as Sterling pointed out above.
At the same time, this cry against censorship is psychologically understandable. After all, it is awfully convenient to be among a minority defending free speech and artistic expression. While meanwhile you pose most of the people around you as if they are not concerned at all. Those same uncaring people are the same folks who can be quickly identified and dismissed in the same breath through acronyms like “PC” and “SJW”. Whose only goal, according to these “Brave Defenders of Free Speech,” is to (intentionally or not) eliminate free speech.
But this simplistic narrative not only fails the Ideological Turing Test in many cases, but it is also more likely to make folks feel good more than actually help them stay centered on the issue.
Joshua Rivera at EW.com also criticized the idea that the cover being pulled involves censorship:
The claim of “censorship,” however, is objectively false. The art was never suppressed. You can look at it all you want — in this article, even! The fact that the creators themselves were involved in the cover’s cancellation is further proof that this is a move for artistic integrity — the people making the book have a vision for it, and the cover did not match that vision.
This is simply what happens when a work attracts a wide and diverse readership — “listening to the fans” sometimes means other fans won’t be listened to. Naturally, as comics become more welcoming and books are made for audiences other than stereotypical male hardcore comics fans, sometimes those new voices will take precedence. And you know what? That’s okay.
IGN‘s Jesse Schedeen makes it even simpler:
To label DC’s decision to pull the cover “censorship” is a bit overblown. They’re not suppressing free speech or making changes to Albuquerque’s artwork without his permission. They’re simply choosing not to publish an image they commissioned and that they own.
Though, as he admits in the next sentence, the concern that this will discourage other writers from tackling thorny topics is a very real concern. And he might be right that it could have that effect. But given that this hardly seems like the main problem from most of the big name sites that have hosted critiques, I do not see this as something that is likely to occur.
Still, the idea that this pull could represent a “chilling effect” (as Young argued) is certainly much more arguable than full-on censorship. For now, I want to tackle something that may first appear as a side issue, but is actually deeply connected to the controversy at hand.
In Praise of the “Vocal Minority”
Erik Larson, notable for his work on Savage Dragon, recently spoke of a “vocal minority” who DC and Marvel were “placating” with the practical redesign of Wonder Woman. To Larson’s credit, he could have, also, been targeting the recent redesign of Spider-Woman or the less recent (but still practicality focused) redesign of Batgirl.
Larson’s opinion has already been taken to task by Jill Pantozzi of The Mary Sue so I’m not so much interesting in arguing one way or the other about Larson’s view. But I feel like highlighting this concept of a “vocal minority” could be helpful to the conversation about Batgirl.
This is especially pertinent with regards to discussions about markets and what sort of effects this new dynamic between consumers and producers causes.
Surprisingly, Nick Gillespie of Reason writing for The Daily Beast makes some fairly left-libertarian points in this area:
There has been, in short, a great leveling across virtually all aspects of contemporary society. This is without exception liberating and freeing, a net increase in giving voice to the voiceless and some small amount of power to the powerless. In the cultural arena, it means that once-mighty authors and creators must now engage in conversation with their audience, a humbling reversal in status and attitude. Artists must now effectively collaborate with their audiences — not slavishly giving them what they want, but seriously respecting their wishes and desires.
Ultimately, that’s what the controversy over the Batgirl cover illuminates, and whether you think the critics are right in this particular case is totally besides the point. It’s a new world out there, and the smartest providers — of art and food and services and you name it — will explain themselves more fully to increasingly demanding customers.
Of course, Gillespie, like Doherty, Young and others don’t agree with the critics. But in this case Gillespie can refreshingly appreciate other aspects of this instead of just dawdling on what he doesn’t like.
Now, it’s certainly true that the use of Twitter (or any social media platform) to get social justice is a very mixed affair to say the least. But in some cases it can also raise up the voices of “vocal minorities” who the artists actually end up agreeing with and thus change their mind.
This convergence of space between artist and consumer makes the relationship between them more comparable to the early days of Marvel. These were the days when you could write letters to Marvel HQ and have a pretty good idea that they’re not only going to read it, but they might respond to you personally. If you’re lucky, they might even take your advice to heart and change something.
The democratization of the market through social media isn’t always going to be a win for our favored side, that much is for sure. But the new dynamic it creates keeps the relationship between consumer and producer a little more consistent and it helps (as Gillespie notes) flatten hierarchies, even among such corporate giants like DC.
A result of this democratization is that any “vocal minority” may have the power of a “majority”. Through this it reduces the less appealing aspects of democracy such as majoritarianism while keeping it’s potentially liberatory aspects of lowering barriers to enter discussions in meaningful ways.
The fact that these corporate organizations exist to begin with is part and parcel why this whole mess happened to begin with.
This is something Janelle Asselin of Comics Alliance (intentionally or not) points out:
The Batgirl cover is not only a poor choice for the book that Batgirl has become, it’s also evidence of the often unwieldy corporate structure that makes up DC Comics. Readers might assume that variant covers are cleared with the creative team or even the editors, but especially when it’s a special theme month, that isn’t usually the case. Variant covers are often commissioned and approved by art directors who have little to do with the actual books the covers will be placed on.
While the creators on Batgirl have a clear vision for their book — and the style of that book doesn’t jibe with this new variant — they don’t own the characters, and so decisions can and often are made without the creative team’s approval. It’s not ideal, but it happens. Similarly, sometimes editors just aren’t shown a cover until after it’s already been sent to Previews, or when the completed cover makes the rounds for approval internally if it was commissioned by another department.
From a market, organizational and a general perspective on ethics and responsibility it seems like the corporate form does more harm than good.
Thus far I’ve taken the concept of the “vocal minority” for granted. It may be true that it’s just some small number of really loud, angry and obnoxious SJWs who are really upset because villains are being villainous!
Caricatures aside though, Larson’s framing may not work so well with woman superheroes.
For as Noah Berlatsky points out, “…[Larson’s] right that most of the superhero comics audience is still men . . . but books with female heroes have generally sold badly to men. The audience for the new Batgirl comic is clearly thought to be (and I would strongly suspect actually is) mostly, or at least substantially, composed of women.”
This all comes back to the cover. What makes it so problematic to begin with?
Although I had mixed feelings about posting the cover here, I feel it’s more appropriate than to exclude it.
Here, we can see a terrified Barbra crying a single tear while Joker is wearing a hat that is similar to the one he wore when he crippled Barbara. In general this cover is a pretty clear reference to The Killing Joke. The gun Joker is carrying is placed right over Barbra’s chest, which, intentionally or not, could be read as sexual. And Joker’s red lipstick is smeared all across Barbara, showing how much he has control of her.
The first problem is something I alluded to earlier when looking at the beginning of DC’s statement:
We publish comic books about the greatest heroes in the world, and the most evil villains imaginable. The Joker variant covers for June are in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the Joker. (emphasis mine)
In the article previously cited by Noah Berlatsky, they also make the excellent point that this cover isn’t about Barbara. It has no intention of empowering Barbara or showing her in any positive manner. It’s all about the Joker and showcasing how terrible and villainous he can be. And that, in of itself, isn’t a problem. Katherine Timpf and other writers acting as if villainy itself is being objected to are missing the point. It isn’t about the villainy itself or the fact that Barbara is a woman (though that’s obviously part of it), but the fact that on her comic Barbara comes off completely disempowered.
This tone of disempowerment runs completely counter to the direction of the comic that Stewart and others have been carving out for months now. They’ve been trying to create a fun space within the Bat-family comics that appeals to younger crowds who might not otherwise pick up a comic. Albuquerque’s cover runs completely counter to these aims.
Now, it’s perfectly true that heroes don’t always need to be empowered. There’s nothing wrong with showing depictions of women hurt (though be careful of refrigerators). But it’s also true that you likely wouldn’t be seeing Batman crying and being held against his will on the cover. Some have disagreed and if you want to play a fun numbers game here is the link Cathy Young put in her Times article.
But what Cathy (and others who use this rebuttal) miss out on is that this discussion also involves proportionality and context.
For example, the issue of representation of women in comics to begin with is still lacking, as Cathy herself admits. So obviously when men have many more shocking incidents of violence happen to them we shouldn’t be surprised or act as if women are asking for double standards.
The problems with representation in comics with regards to women is something that lends to the situations that Cathy critiques:
Indeed, objections to supposedly sexist cruelty toward female characters can look like a sexist plea for special protection for women — given how often male comic-book characters are subjected to shocking abuse. In The Killing Joke itself, Commissioner Gordon is stripped naked and chained to an amusement-park ride while forced to watch giant images of his wounded daughter. One storyline in which the Joker temporarily gained the power to shape reality had Batman being tortured, killed, and resurrected by his enemy day after day.
While critics of the Batgirl cover have argued that Batman and other male heroes would never be shown so powerless, others have readily found examples of such depictions — including one in which Batman is helpless at the hands of a female villain. Male heroes in peril may be far less likely to look fearful or distressed; but one may ask, as does Canadian entertainment journalist Liana Kerzner, if the answer is to expand the men’s range of allowed emotions rather than limit the range allowed for women.
The so-called “plea for special protection for women” once again misses the context of comics that Cathy herself admits. That men are much better represented than women are. And thus the situations that women are in versus the situations men are in are going to be on different levels from each other due to plain numbers. I think the representation issue is why people feel so much more affected when someone like Batgirl is disempowered as opposed to Batman.
That’s why you see the male comic-book characters subject to “shocking abuse” (I wonder whether this would be so “shocking” for Young if it happened to a woman and feminists complained but I digress) so much more than women. They’re in comics so much more than woman are and are, more importantly, front and center more than women. So of course they’re going to be subject to the most extreme forms of abuse and suffer such abuse more often than women.
And the fact that they get so much more abuse and no one complains doesn’t mean men are persecuted, as Young may be implying here. If anything, it makes it all the more obvious that men are much more empowered because whatever editorial board feels like they should be the one who takes the damage, not the women. Well, unless the women are to be used as mere props for the male’s character progression when they are captured or killed.
Is it a double standard to ask the cover be pulled, but not to ask for one of those other covers that Young links?
This question misses the point because it’s not about Barbara as a woman being vulnerable (again, that’s part of it but not the whole story), but the context of this cover. Feminists and associated social justice advocates aren’t just saying the cover reinforces patriarchy or rape culture or whatever. They’re making concrete connections to comic book history and calling on Barbara’s troubled publication history to make their points.
Rob Bricken makes this point about “double standards” even clearer:
But let me start with this: We’re not heading to a “we can never threaten a woman with danger” scenario. Literally every single comic starring a female superhero in it features a woman in danger. They’re fighting supervillains. Of course they’re in danger. We’re in no danger of them not being in danger. What do you think Black Widow’s doing over at Marvel, the housework?
There’s also an area of pure conservatism to this whole thing. DC Comics and the comic book industry, the fans, Marvel and almost anyone and everyone is guilty of this thing called nostalgia. You see it with all of the movie reboots (that are more often booed than lauded to be fair), all of the sequels to long-forgotten or previously given up on franchises and so on. The comic book industry has this problem in spades. Every comic has to be a reference to a previous one or we have to have events that recall events that happened twenty years ago.
Or maybe we should have a cover that references one of the heroes weakest moments on their own cover.
More and more I have trouble understanding how anyone thought this cover was a good idea.
Speaking of which, there’s another double standard (an actually existing one) that seems obvious, most male superheroes aren’t so defined by their trauma quite like Barbara is.
I’ll let Bricken take this:
The next problem is a bit more subtle: Batgirl, as a female superhero, is being defined by her trauma in a way other male superheroes aren’t. Batman isn’t obsessed with the time Bane broke his back. Even Jason Todd’s gotten over the time Joker actually murdered him. But Barbara? She’s haunted by this event, to the point where it came up constantly in Gail Simone’s New 52 Batgirl run. This is not a problem male superheroes have, and it’s a double standard.
And before you start, no, Batman is also not obsessed with his parents being shot. Sure, it gets brought up from time to time. He thinks about it and lets it inspire him when he feels he’s failed or is going to fail. But it doesn’t define him in the way that this one moment in Barbara’s life seems to.
To be sure, it was an important point in her life when she was shot and paralyzed. But does the audience need to be reminded of this time and time again? Hell, handle it like Batman. Keep it in the background, have it be something she can reflect on from time to time and make her a stronger person because of it (or a stronger person who goes through tough times and is weak at times too, whatever works).
Critics of feminism and people who opposed this cover seem to be under the impression that we all just think Barbara is a soft little angel who just can’t handle this hero business.
But once again Bricken smashes this idea:
Finding the cover gross does not mean you think women are fragile angels who must be protected at all times even in fiction. You know why? It’s because it’s a goddamn cover. It’s not a story, it’s a promotional image. And promotional images are supposed to make people want to buy the comic inside.
I think it’s awesome that Batgirl gets into fights but having her defined by this one bit of harm seems unnecessary and not comparable to the times that Batman seems in peril. Batman is in peril from time to time on the cover but the fact of the matter is that the people are almost never close to him.
And when they are they don’t have the same historical relationship that Joker and Barbara do. You know, the sort of relationship where he paralyzed her and possibly sexually assaulted her? That one.
Young wants us, at the end of the day, to do less policing and more creating. But that idea seems counter-intuitive to me because part of the process of creating is destroying and modifying.
This goes back to what Jim Sterling said about the artistic process. Young isn’t giving the artistic process its due even though she herself is very much an artist and even an acclaimed writer in some circles. She’s certainly honed her craft to be a top editor at Reason and published fairly often in Time. So I don’t see how someone so accomplished could ignore this part of the process.
I would say that we should engage in more policing and more creating (especially since I think the two are interlocking), but of course that’s accepting Young’s terminology and framing and I reject both.
I think we should do more talking and engage more open dialogue about the creations that artists make. Artists don’t always (or ever, really) have to listen to their audience, but shouldn’t Young, as a libertarian, appreciate that the market process can go both ways? Gillespie can certainly appreciate it so it isn’t just me.
Speaking of Reason I found Brian Doherty’s piece “Why a Libertarian Might Not Be Thrilled with the Resolution of the Joker/Batgirl Cover Controversy” one of the most entertaining and problematic of the Reason trio.
In fact, when I get down to it, Nick Gillespie, Cathy Young and Brian Doherty are the people who wrote the most emblematic articles of the folks who intelligently argued against the cover being pulled.
So in that spirit let’s address these fine folks (especially Doherty) and then part with some concluding thoughts.
Endgame: Part I
I want to first step back and applaud Brian Doherty. His article is a pitch-perfect example of what thickness looks like from a libertarian perspective. I use “thickness” here to mean positions that take into consideration things that do not violate rights, are non-aggressive and don’t violate private property.
Now, in my opinion, he’s using thickness for misguided purposes or reasons. But I’m just happy to see Reason, even if just implicitly, recognizing the benefits of having thickness in libertarianism.
I don’t think this interpretation is a loose interpretation either. Doherty makes it pretty clear (as I quoted earlier) that most libertarians might be a little confused why this is an issue given, “Nothing foundationally and inherently libertarian is implicated in this story.” Doherty points out that this resolution will harm “…what is valuable about a liberal culture of free and open expression” (emphasis mine) which doesn’t sound like a concern about physical aggression or property rights violations to me!
The greatest part of this article is how Doherty reaffirms the importance of a strong and vibrant culture for liberty.
Sure, I find a lot of his premises questionable and some of his conclusions downright wrong, but I still appreciate the rigor and spirit of this article for sure.
So with this praise in mind, what’s in Doherty’s article that is so objectionable?
At first, it doesn’t seem like much.
Early in the article Doherty outright grants almost everything there is to grant:
…it is anyone’s right to denounce; it was D.C.s right to react to it any way they wanted; that artist Rafael Albuquerque stated that he wanted to kill it; that the creative team on the actual comic wanted to kill it; that it doesn’t tonally fit with the current comic. It may even be great for the world and the future of humanity that this particular cover never appears physically on paper, stapled around a few dozen comic book pages, but merely will appear all over the Internet in profusion forever.
Just a few minor nitpicks here: One doesn’t need to “grant” that Albuquerque stated that he wanted to kill it. He literally said as much. You also doesn’t need to “grant” that it doesn’t tonally fit with the current comic. The creative team behind Batgirl agreed that it didn’t.
But besides those minor points I can’t help but feel like Doherty grants a bit too much. To me, if you’re going to grant all of these things about the cover: That it tonally didn’t work, it’s very possibly a good thing it won’t appear physically on paper anytime soon, that everyone’s rights were in order…I mean…what’s left?
For Doherty though there’s a lot more than rights and legal censorship however. There’s also matters of culture, social media and the repercussions of what Gillespie pointed to as flattening of hierarchies. That seems fair to me so let us look at his arguments.
Doherty’s first argument I’ll highlight is a powerful one:
Censorship in the political and legal sense requires government action; but libertarian disapproval of the state is in fact rooted in the fact that it is prone to do things that are inherently not good things to do. The state does some potentially good things that are only problematic because they are being done or financed by force and violence; the state does some bad things that are problematic regardless of the entity doing them. Intolerant attempts to repress culture, to shut up expression that is disapproved of by either majority or minority, is one of those things.
These are some great points. The state doesn’t just do bad things, but also tries to provide valuable services through immoral means. This is a distinction that I wish more libertarians would recognize and Doherty has my thanks for incorporating them into his argument.
That said, his argument here seems to imply that the people against the cover are “intolerant” and aim to “repress culture” and “shut up expression”. But he doesn’t actually try to prove that they’re intolerant or that intolerance is somehow inherently bad.
Hell, I’m intolerant of racism, sexism, abelism and much more. Does that make me a bad person? I’m fairly intolerant of people violating others rights and violating the NAP, as are most libertarians. Does that make us bad people? I know what Doherty’s answer is, but my point is to point towards some ideological tensions that I see.
Further, he undercuts his argument when he earlier said in his article that the cover “…will appear all over the Internet in profusion forever.” If that is Doherty’s idea of “repression” or “suppression”, then sign me up! Looks like repression and suppression suddenly got upgraded to levels I was unaware it could conceptually go.
Doherty’s second striking bit is less impressive than the first, sadly:
I don’t like the idea that an angry mob on the Internet can get artistic products pre-emptively cancelled because they don’t like the product, for whatever reason.
There’s a few things to take apart here.
First off, this wasn’t a random angry mob. Most people who were criticizing the cover who I’ve quoted or linked to online were obvious comic book fans. Maybe they still “represent” an angry mob to Doherty, but in concrete terms (AKA within the context of the example he wants to leap from) he can’t really reduce them to that.
He also implies, earlier in the article, that when he says, “…(who may or may not be the company’s actual audience)…”. But it’s not really clear to me why we’d doubt the people who care enough to critique it aren’t the company’s audience.
I mean, they’re at least a potential audience, right? Do you think most people would spend so much of their lives debating comics of all things? I mean what kind of loser would do that?
Another point is that the “pre-emptive” cancelling isn’t quite right. Technically speaking, yes, the audience got to see the cover before it was released and got it canceled long before it went to print. But if there’s some inherent problem with this that Doherty sees then I’m somehow not seeing then maybe I’m just being dense. Why does the time difference matter? If a product doesn’t look like it’s going to meet the expectations of the audience, then why should the audience wait till said product comes out? To really take in how much they were right about it?
Another point Doherty makes is about boycotts more generally:
The culture of boycott and anger about art or belief or words is not inherently unlibertarian. But perhaps it is dangerous to the truest and richest possibilities of communication and expression that should characterize a post-Enlightenment society that respects the Voltairian epigram about disagreeing with what one says but defending to death one’s right to say it (not, that is, disagreeing with what one says and letting the people who are paying to distribute that saying know that we strongly disapprove of it and would rather it not be said in public and will punish you with obloquy and boycott if you continue to say it.)
But if DC and Albuquerque had the right (as Doherty granted) and the creative team did as well… then what’s the problem here? Is he saying that the boycotts and anger will undermine these rights in the future even if they had nothing to do with that in the context he’s using? If so, then OK but it doesn’t seem like the platform Doherty is leaping off from is quite what he imagines it to be.
None of this is to underplay how powerful of a tool boycott can be. More generally, I don’t think we should be careless with tools that can heavily affect how society orients itself towards individuals and groups. These are delicate instruments and we cannot act like the state does and treat everything as if they are all nails to be hit with our hammers. It is also worth noting that boycotts seem most justified when they are used in situations where an egregious violation of some important social norm has happened. This can be violent or non-violent. I don’t think rights have to be necessarily violated, but that would make it a larger concern.
So, if for example your local seafood restaurant decided to openly discriminate against queer folks in a state where that wasn’t illegal and it didn’t look like the state legislature was going to do anything (not that we should count on it anyways, mind you).
Boycotting in this situation would make sense to me. That’s partly because this is an example institutional discrimination on a fairly notable scale that harms queer folks ability to make a living (they don’t have a right to this, of course, but just like Doherty I think there’s more to the conversation than rights) and thus may keep some of them lower in terms of class. It may also help perpetuate homophobia because if the local restaurant is okay with doing it then why should we care about those queers either?
I think in such a situation a boycott not only makes sense, but is commendable for a host of libertarian reasons. That doesn’t mean that we should try to drive the restaurant completely out of business. But hurting its sales enough that it either rethinks its policy entirely or at least heavily reforms the policy would be a good step forward.
Much like Doherty, I have my concerns about angry mobs and social justice being used for the wrong purposes or leading to bad consequences. But I suppose I’m more positive about it in this case for whatever that’s worth.
Those who support any power, public or private, to quash expression might want to remember that the specifics of what it is OK to say can and will change, not always in your favor, which is why it’s safest to avoid the fallback position of “It’s only OK to say and think things and make art that are OK.”
Okay, again, this is a good point made by Doherty. But I can’t see how the Batgirl controversy supports it. The idea that the expression in this case has been “squashed” just doesn’t add up since you can easily find it online. Is Doherty’s problem that it isn’t physically in people’s hand? Well, there are these things called printers…
All snarky rejoinder aside, my interpretation of what Doherty is trying to say is that he thinks that the fact that this cover wasn’t published means that creative expression has been squashed. I think I’ve already gone over a few times why an argument like this does not really work though. It ignores the two-way street of the artistic process. Thus, Doherty makes the same mistake that Young and others are making.
The next bit I saw quoted quite a few times when people shared this on social media so I think it deserves extra-special attention:
We can nod when good modern liberals point out sagely that “saying ‘shut up’ is an act of free speech” but also believe that is a sterile, often destructive, unnuanced and unrich form of free speech, not one to celebrate too quickly. It sets in motion a game where expression is decided by loudness and the strength of one’s sense of grievance, and that seems like potentially a bad game for anyone who values the ability to speak their thoughts, speak not their thoughts, or make art.
I agree that simply saying “shut up” isn’t exactly an award-winning form of “free speech”, but I am also unsure how it is comparable to any and all forms of disapproval.
Telling DC or Albuquerque to pull the cover isn’t asking them to “shut up” in some absolute sense, if any at all. It’s asking them to remove a piece of art that they have control over because their intended audience doesn’t like it. When I get a product, take it back, complain about the product, ask for a refund and ask that the company take it back, have I told the company to “shut up”?
I’m finding more and more as I go down the rabbit hole of this argument that I’m not even sure what telling people to “shut up” means. This is especially when it comes to the Batgirl controversy, in which case I’m even more confused. Because Albuquerque hasn’t lost any of his platforms to talk, has he? And if you think DC has somehow suffered in terms of social capital, then I don’t think you know much about DC.
Further down, Doherty makes an excellent point about thickness and libertarianism:
Again, one can believe that private attempts to quash expression are also a bad thing without losing one’s libertarian cred, I hope. One might believe it’s a bad thing for the same reason you think it’s a bad thing for government to do it — just as one would I hope oppose private wholesale murder of the innocent and destruction of property for the same reasons one opposes government wars. It’s not always the case that libertarians hate the government just for being the government. Sometimes we hate it because it does things we think inherently worth hating.
This particular kind of thickness is called thickness from grounds where, as Charles Johnson explains, “…you could consistently accept libertarianism without accepting these commitments or beliefs, you could not do so reasonably: rejecting the commitments means rejecting the proper grounds for libertarianism.”
Now we’re getting into the final part of Doherty’s argument:
There is an apparent self-undercutting quality to saying it’s not great for a healthy libertarian culture to tell others to shut up. To say that is to do the very thing you are saying is a bad thing: declaring some expression best avoided. Those folk strongly encouraged by the victory for feminist, anti-rape, or merely consumer-power of the Batgirl cover controversy are merely saying the same thing, right?
But still, something rich and valuable might be worth preserving about a culture of expression that tolerates everything but intolerance.
Not intolerance in the colloquial sense of not liking or supporting or approving of some set of behaviors or people or ideas, but intolerance in the sense of not tolerating expression itself.
But if the folks strongly opposing the cover really could not tolerate the expression itself then don’t you think they’d try to do something about the images everywhere? Of course, they practically can’t. But that’s the point.
The standards for expression that Doherty is setting up for what counts as a suppressive culture are actually far too lenient. There’s so many ways around this standard since we can obviously see that this expression hasn’t been crushed at all. People are selling pictures of it on Ebay and making money off it and others are using it as their profile picture. Some may even be hanging it on their walls, giving it to friends, taking pictures of themselves with it and who knows what else.
In a culture where this is all very easily done, how can Doherty honestly say the expression has been suppressed in any meaningful way?
Sure, DC didn’t publish the content, but that’s hardly stopped the content from existing and being widely accessible. Doherty may be laboring under the delusion of intellectual property here, I am not sure. But some of his argument with regards to intangible expressions of artistic intent seem to fall into the mistake of treating them as if they’re scarce. But the second anything goes on the internet it pretty much becomes a non-scarce good if even just one person can get their hands on it. And many more than that have gotten their digital hands on the Batgirl cover.
Moreover, I do not see how DC deciding not to publish it based on the wishes of the artist is somehow a grand example of free speech ending. If anything it’s another form of artistic expression. If Albuquerque had not agreed and stood by it then that too would have been another form of artistic expression. One that I would’ve disagreed with, sure. But much like Jim Sterling I think I’d have to at least respect Albuquerque for sticking to his guns and deciding to go with the cover anyways despite protests.
If DC had gone against Albuquerque’s wishes in that scenario and denied publishing it then I’d be more sympathetic to the argument of censorship or the “chilling effects”. The reason for that being that Albuquerque’s intentions and artistic desires matter to what counts in this particular context as “suppression”. If he doesn’t feel like his art is being suppressed then I’m much less inclined to think so as well.
This doesn’t mean that Albuquerque couldn’t be wrong. But the person who created the damn thing to begin with is going to influence my opinion on this.
Here’s the last bit of Doherty’s article I’ll look at:
An overweening busybody concern with what other people are saying, thinking, publishing, drawing to the extent one wants to make it stop feels unlovely. A culture where it becomes customary for people who don’t approve of art and expression to pressure — even intellectually pressure — publishers and artists into eliminating that expression or art isn’t the culture I prefer to live in.
This sort of intellectual turnaround always feels cheap, and yet here it seems helpful to remind people of the principle behind the particulars: don’t you imagine that the distribution of approval of how this cover controversy went down vs. those bothered by it would have been different if this cultural conflict, or some other future one, arose from avowed Christian traditionalists/moralists condemning something for violating their sense of propriety and successfully getting a major media company to suppress work based on their offense?
I’ve never been a big fan of the concept of false consciousness, but the concept of duress has some intellectual validity. So I wouldn’t necessarily trust the truly voluntary nature of the expressive culture that results from artistic decisionmaking [sic] triggered by popular anger becoming common. That’s why, though there is nothing at heart “unlibertarian” about anyone’s stances or actions re: the Batgirl cover, I have a hard time celebrating it.
I agree with Gillespie that this sort of dynamic between creators is very much part of the market process and it’s part and parcel what makes market transactions beautiful. A culture where this sort of dialogue is discouraged because people have a legitimate, but over-bearing concern about “busybodies” isn’t one I want to live in. To me, Doherty’s ideal “liberal” land seems much more cold and lifeless than what my preferred ideal is.
Doherty’s “intellectual turnaround” is fair (it certainly feels cheap, but that’s not enough to discredit it on its own) though I have to say that the particulars do impact the principle.
For example, I’m much more likely to find common cause among feminists than Christian traditionalists.
And to take a more specific and real life example, if a Christian traditionalist wanted to ban an awesome movie because it’s “blasphemous” then I would take issue with that. Both because I am not a Christian, but also because I don’t agree in censorship on a general level (even if I think movie goers and movie theaters have the right to refuse to buy/show the movie) and think it is usually a hard tool to solve delicate issues.
But again, the Batgirl issue wasn’t about censorship so that isn’t exactly relevant to the matter at hand. And “suppression” and censorship aren’t the same thing either. Or if they are, Doherty is not making it clear how that is the case.
Lastly, I think the concept of duress is fair here but I think there’s also value in taking the creative team and the original artist at their word. I think they all would admit to some external pressure, but I think their own feelings count here too.
But hell, what do I know, I just want to suppress their feelings!
Moving from Doherty there’s an argument or two worth addressing from others, like, from Young:
Yet the Joker cover was a variant, not the standard version of the comic book issue; it would not have been foisted on any unwilling readers, only made available to customers who would have wanted it — mainly collectors and Joker fans. They no longer have that option.
Even though the cover was still a variant it was something that’s supposed to tell you what to expect in the comic. Given that the comic’s content wasn’t going to match that cover, it didn’t seem to make any sense to have it. Now, it’s true that variants often don’t match the content (and covers more generally don’t) and especially in a tonal context. But here it seems so widely divergent that it’d make no sense to try to string them together.
And of course, it isn’t true that the collectors and Joker fans don’t “have that option” anymore. They don’t have that option within its original slated context but it’s not absolute in any sense. They’re still free to print them out or sell them or even recreate the variant comic if they really wanted to make a buck. Yes, they’re obviously restricted in one sense but through the choice of the artists and the company that both own the art.
Finishing the Reason trio with Gillespie I think makes a point or two (okay, two) that I found off-base:
Indeed I find it appalling when art or literature or a video game or whatever is assailed for not properly encoding the “correct” thinking of the moment, especially when it comes to depictions of sexuality or violence. Art is, among other things, a space for both dark and light fantasies, and the notion that certain scenarios cannot be countenanced should be deeply unsettling to all of us who believe in free expression. That’s not to say, as Albuquerque suggests, that all opinions need to be accepted uncritically or that they can’t be shown to be in error.
Art is definitely something for both dark and light fantasies. But when you have a dark fantasy on the cover for a light story does it make much sense? This doesn’t even have to do with morality (since Gillespie seems so concerned about that). Instead, it just has to do with aesthetics and what we think works. Maybe Gillespie thinks such a situation inherently works or maybe he thinks it doesn’t matter. But regardless it has a lot to do with the situation at hand and we don’t even need to look at the issues of sexism (though I think we should of course) to see that this cover was a poor choice.
From here though Gillespie gets…bizarre:
From this point of view, the Batgirl controversy bothers me because it proceeds from the same assumptions as attacks on comics in the 1950s, when the left-wing psychiatrist Fredric Wertham assailed the medium for supposedly turning boys into homosexuals and sexual deviants and girls into lesbians and nymphomaniacs (that Wertham routinely lied in making his supposedly scientific case against comics only drives home for me the stupidity of demanding that art be morally instructive).
Both Wertham and people pushing to exclude certain themes and topics fundamentally misunderstand one of the core functions of art, which is to create a space where we can explore some of our worst impulses and ideas. Those following in Wertham’s footsteps further seem to worry that the audience for popular culture is especially subject to being influenced if not literally programmed to act and think in socially suspect ways. “We” — the putatively dumb, unthinking audience — must be protected from the wrong ideas because we’re so goddamn likely to mistake fantasy or art for reality. Or we are too delicate to countenance uncomfortable art.
First off, Gillespie just compared anyone who is attacking the cover to someone who knew almost nothing about comics and seemed to use it as a way to mostly just get notoriety and political power. And I can assure you that most of us nerds are way too upset about the cover to care about either of those things, trust me.
Second, the fact that Wertham lied to make his case more scientific does not drive home anything. It proves that Wertham was a hack and a fraud, but most people already knew that. Is Gillespie accusing anyone who is attacking the cover as lying? Are we making a scientific case against the cover for some reason? Where’s the relevancy?
Third, and lastly, I’m certainly worried about the effects mass media can have on people. Since, as you might figure, it has an effect on people’s perceptions of the world and their value systems, etc. That doesn’t mean I think they’re easily duped or are just plain brainwashed or something. But recognizing that audiences can let in biases or ideas unconsciously into their head doesn’t seem that unreasonable to me. Nor does it seem unreasonable to suggest that a work of art may be bad without really arguing that people are too “delicate” for it.
Endgame: Part II
Take a look at this:
That’s the cover for Batgirl #41 that’s happening in June. It shows Batgirl vulnerable while keeping the poppy aesthetic and having Barbara active in the air.
Now look at this:
This is the cover for Batgirl Endgame #1. It clearly references the Joker and has a slightly darker tinge to it, but still empowers Barbara and makes it seem like she’s actively involved in a fight with the Joker — not just some damsel in distress.
Finally, consider this quote:
It also means that the companies themselves can — and perhaps have to — become more engaged and more responsive. The companies and those who work for them are direct participants in these sorts of freewheeling public conversations now, and they make business choices accordingly. You can see that in the Twitter feed of Batgirl co-writer Cameron Stewart, who explained to his followers how he felt about the cover and also what DC was thinking. You can see it in the rapid decisions by both Marvel and DC to cancel their controversial variants. And you can also see it in non-culture war episodes like Marvel’s decision last fall to release an Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer a week early following a leak. There’s now a direct back and forth between the public and between these big corporations that simply didn’t exist two decades ago.
Nor is this confined to geek culture or even to the market; there’s a similar dynamic at work in politics, where debates about political ideas that might not have broken through to the mainstream a few decades ago have gained traction and have helped push the two major parties — the DC and Marvel of politics — in new directions. Both parties now have to respond to, and account for, ideas and arguments that they previously would have been content to ignore, and that party traditionalists might not approve of.
This is, for the most part, a good thing, and the overall dynamic has, it seems to me, fairly clearly benefited libertarians. And in general, it’s a dynamic that I think libertarians ought to embrace — if only because it’s all part of the back and forth between market participants. Not all market signals are price signals. This is how companies and their potential consumers communicate and negotiate in 2015. And while the actions it results in are often symbolic, that symbolism is often still important, because it’s a sign the party in question is listening.
That’s from Peter Suderman.
“Who is that?” I hear you ask.