Clickbait and You

 by Steve Wetherell

Not so long ago I made a joke post about how Doctor Who wasn’t allowed to be a woman. I made this post because I woke up one day to a sea of posts about how misogynists were frothing at the mouth over the decision, and, inevitably, that the Doctor Who fandom had some serious issues that were symptomatic of the downfall of society as a whole. I was skeptical, and said as much. A couple of people- people I like and respect- suggested that I hadn’t researched it enough, that the issue was indeed real. I had, though. I’d seen the presented evidence and I found it lacking, for one very good reason. Every article I read pointing out this “problem” was citing evidence from Twitter. (The exception being a Daily Mail article, but if you haven’t figured out that the Daily Mail is filled with troll columnists whose only currency is stirring a pot full of shit yet, then you haven’t been reading the Daily Mail hard enough. Good. Don’t.)

Here’s what I hate about Twitter. It’s a platform where news and opinion is shared in a very limited amount of characters. By its very design it does not leave room for a nuanced discussion of events. It is ill equipped to make a fair point. My second problem with Twitter is that it is very much about transmitting rather than receiving, primed as it is for people to make snappy comments, and share comments they thought were snappy. Thirdly, Twitter has millions of users, and the law of averages tell us that a percentage of those users are irredeemable fuck-wads. My fourth problem is a theory not my own but widely suspected by many- the law of diminishing jerkiness. Someone who’s a super jerk on Twitter is probably only a standard jerk in real life and so on. You know, how we’d scream obscenities from the isolation of our car that we’d never dream of bellowing into someone’s face in real life (yesterday I wished an old lady to drive into lake full of shit and remain there for the rest of her days. I didn’t mean it, obviously. I just wanted her to move away from the junction a little quicker.)

I’d no more trust Twitter as an accurate gauge of public opinion than I’d trust the writing on a shit house wall.

So what’s this got to do with clickbait? Well, I’ll tell you. Twitter is super handy for the clickbait writer because you can find ‘real life’ comments to back up almost any position. And that is a door that swings both ways. You want me to write a think piece on why the feminist end game is the castration of male children? You think I can’t find five tweets to back that up? Of course I can. Feminists can be shit heads too. What if I wanted to write an inflammatory article about how Black Lives Matter think white people are born evil? Look me in the eye and tell me that any writer at any level with even an ounce of cunning could not find the ‘evidence’ he needs to validate that position. In my circles, writing an article denouncing Republicans- say I wanted to make a claim that Republicans are all inadequate lovers- would be very easy and probably get a lot shares. It’s tempting. I don’t for a second believe it, but it’s tempting.

And that temptation is a problem. I was recently approached by a perfectly innocuous culture and news feed service that wanted me to write articles for them. The pay? Well, lets just say I’d need 30,000 views to get what I consider to be a minimal article writing fee. 30,000 is quite a lot for a small timer with no platform of his own. Would I get that touting my usual brand of silly introspection? Probably not. Could I get that with a ‘LESBIANS MORE LIKELY TO BEAT WIVES’ headline? Yes. Absolutely. I’d be stoking outrage on one side, tickling dark prejudice on the other. Either way, I’d be taking something entirely out of context to get clicks. And that sucks.

It doesn’t just suck for me and my withered soul, or the readers I offend, it sucks because I am contributing to the ever building pile of outrage, and if you haven’t noticed, that is fucking things up for everyone on a massive scale. How many half-formed exaggerations based on contextless stats do you think it got to put Trump in office? Or to keep Bernie Sanders out of it? Humans just aren’t smart enough to take in the whole big picture, so there’s fertile ground for people who want to draw your attention to only part of it.

So, back to Doctor Who. Does it matter that I don’t really believe that the Doctor Who fan base has a problem any more than any other group in society has its inevitable share of arseholes? No. I’m not about to start with the #notalldoctorwhofans. But there’s another element to this process, and that’s backlash. When someone drops a firecracker into the crowd and gets everyone panicked, both sides respond to it. It unfolded with tedious inevitability, but the rabid outrage about the female Doctor Who did appear. It appeared with a bunch of people irritated that they were being labelled as woman haters over something so silly. But once the blood is up, and the medium dictates the message, the argument basically devolved to “get back in the kitchen and make a sandwich and also stop being Doctor Who.”

You could interpret that as scratching the surface and finding the dangerous hidden misogyny in people who like watching children’s television shows. Or, maybe, and I’m referencing my own experience of people here, if you kick someone they’ll kick back.

Either way, if you’ve shared an article that takes very minor behaviour and attributes it to a whole, you are probably not handling that issue with the patience and care it needs. You’re probably just kicking someone, and then acting shocked when they kick back.

Twitter isn’t to blame for this, obviously. It’s just a useful tool. Newspapers have been doing it for years, the internet just does it faster. I have a special contempt for people who push others who were minding their own business into a fight, and then sit back smugly. I have even more contempt for people who do it for money. Look on YouTube, and you’ll find countless talking heads denouncing the same footage or article, and when you step back, you realise what they’re complaining about is very small indeed. That there are probably more people complaining than there are offending articles.

I try to be as fair minded as possible when writing articles, without attacking individuals or making scooping generalisations- even though that’s where the easy comedy is. It’s the reason I won’t ever get those sweet, sweet views. Not for me the rakes of comments gushing ‘THIS’. Not for me the rabid YouTube commenters ecstatic that someone has validated their views. Though, who knows. Maybe one day I’ll pick a side (any side, maybe both sides) and just run with it. It’s fucking easy after all. It’s like slinging burgers outside a weight watchers meeting. Even if they don’t want it, they’ll be tempted. They’ll get the stink of it.

Or maybe I’ll continue writing what I think is the truth, broad and simple as my thoughts may be. That people are people, mostly benign, and that fear makes us all susceptible to the whispers and shouts of those who seek power, however small and trivial that power may be. That people are people, doing the small good in from of them and avoiding the larger evils, and that they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

And it’s so easy to look at the facts and, with a sigh of relief, say;

Not all liberals are anarchists

Not all feminists are man haters

Not all republicans are nazis

Not all brexiters are racist

And then, with an even bigger sigh of relief, add the phrase “in fact, most of them aren’t.”

…But the tighter you push people against the fence, the more they will snarl, and none of us can be properly understood when we’re snarling. We are at our worst when the knives come out, so think carefully before drawing yours.

Or maybe I’m just a deluded hippy. Or maybe I’m a secret nazi apologist. Go through my Twitter. I’m sure, with enough spin, you could prove anything you wanted.

 And that’s the problem, see?

 

FOOTNOTE THOUGHTS:

So you can better understand where I’m coming from, I’ll take an extra moment to explain my stance. My more careful philosophy on judging people comes from my own experience growing up. I was a rich village kid who was educated and worked in a rough town. It was not uncommon to walk the streets and, as a long hair, attract the violent attentions of packs of youth. For a long time I thought everybody in my town was scum, and indeed it was not a nice town, especially back then in the recession years. It occurred to me later that there were many reasons my stance became arrogant. I won’t get into economics and stuff, but I will state the obvious point that took me far too long to realise; I was basing my assumptions of the town on a group of people who had specifically gone out looking for trouble, and not the thousands and thousands of unseen people who had better things to do with their lives. It doesn’t give you much comfort if you’ve just taken a kicking, but it’s the truth. A truth worth remembering.

 

 

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The Swearing Corner: The “C” Word

by Steve Wetherell

I was in Newfoundland once, for whatever reason, sitting in the smoking area in their seemingly eternal winter and talking to some locals. They were curious about my English heritage, and as a bit of fun, we got onto popular swear words. What, they wanted to know, was a common swear word unique to your neck of the woods.

“Bawbag,” I said, after some consideration. It’s essentially “Ball-bag” (or scrotum) filtered through the Scots-English heritage of my hometown. It’s a nice handy put down, often said with a half smile and a shake of the head when someone accidentally throws up on his own dog. My turn done, the locals turned their attention to my sister, a Londoner then of five years or so.

She squinted into the perennial snowstorm for a moment, before answering; “Cunt.”

Unexpectedly, the tone of the gathering changed almost instantly, and I was surprised to see genuine shock on the faces of our hosts.

It seemed that “Cunt” had a little more sting in its tail across the cold Atlantic than it did on our own side.

Since this worldly revelation, I’ve been more careful about using the word in company, particularly in front of Canadians, Americans, and other weirdos. Where I come from “Cunt” is a fairly genderless put down that can be used both casually and with venom. Someone leaves his wallet at home? He’s a silly cunt. Someone runs over your cat, deliberately? He’s a proper cunt.

However, whenever I see the word used in American media (and that’s rarely) it is always a man being venomous to a woman. it seems that, in a very popular sense, it is very much a word that hates women. That’s a shame, because it’s a create word. Think of it phonetically.

“Kk”

“UUUnn”

“Tt”

There’s so many hard, visceral sounds in that word its practically pornographic. It’s a word that can be growled, spit or screamed with utter confidence. It’s a word that carries.

Is it anymore offensive to women than, say, ‘prick’ is to men? Yes, I think so, simply because of the strength of the word. The soft ‘Puh’ or prick doesn’t sand up to the hard ‘Cuh’, and while Cock has a Cuh’ sound going for it ‘ock’ lacks the deep undulating ‘uh’ and the final disapproving ‘tttt’.

You can see why we Brits adopted it as punctuation.

Still, knowing its power, and because my audience is mostly American, its a word I try to use sparingly.

Other than in this article, of course.

You cunt.

The Swearing Corner: Dicks

by Steve Wetherell

 

When Stephen Colbert suggested that Trump’s mouth was only useful as a holster for Vladimir Putin’s dick, there was a backlash suggesting this comment was homophobic. I am here to argue that it wasn’t.

For a start, I have a feeling this accusation is disingenuous. There’s a culture war going on right now that exist whether you acknowledge it or not, and this backlash whiffs of “Oh the left think they’re so progressive, but here they are making gay jokes!” Sadly, though, political correctness is at present such hot territory that a lot of leftists (most of them likely straight) are considering that perhaps there’s some truth to it. This is because, in this culture war, either side is united by the theory that tactics are irrelevant and targets are all that matter.

So, is telling someone to go eat a big hot dick homophobic? I’m going to say no.

To put it in context, there once was an Irish king who, when subjects swore fealty to him, would demand they suck his nipples. Now, this wasn’t because the King happened to be in a loving consensual relationship with his subjects, it was about power. He was subjugating them. When Colbert says Trump sucks Putin’s dick he isn’t implying they are two men engaging in a  completely normal sex act for their mutual pleasure, he is implying that Trump is willingly subjugating himself to Putin in a graphic and obvious way.

There’s a similar backstory to fag. In English private school history there was a tradition of older boys forcing younger boys to be their dogs bodies. This was called fagging for someone, or being their fag. No sex involved (although, being an English private school, there was bound to be at least some sodomy). It’s all about power.

Now, this theory doesn’t give carte blanche to start dishing out the gay insults, of course. There’s a distinctive difference between demanding someone choke on a dick salad, and merely showing disgust in the fact they like sucking cock. Statistically, a great deal of people must at least be tolerable of sucking cock, or agree with the act on principle, so merely saying “I bet you like sucking dick!” is a lot different from saying “I’m not surprised all you can talk is bollocks considering so and so’s dick is so far down your throat.”

It’s all about context.

But what about the casual “Eat a dick dumb shit!”? It would seem to suggest that the act of dick sucking is indeed bad, so let me try and grasp it another way (as the nun said to the vicar.) Like so much in life, it’s all about give and take, and there’s something emasculating about taking it. The process of emasculation comes with its own baggage (“Oh, so being anything other than a man is BAD somehow?”) but for the sake of practicality, I’ll focus on what is actually being said, rather than the uncharitable ocean of implication. Emasculation is a big part of social leveling in men- you can’t have someone getting too big for their boots, or taking themselves too seriously. Every bully and thug is a guy who was too big and tough to be mocked, who let all that raw testosterone go unchecked, so the process of “busting someone’s balls” is, metaphorically, exactly that. It’s a process of humiliation, and going down on someone else, whether you are gay or straight, is an act of humility and subservience. So, that’s the mechanics sorted, but down to the nitty gritty. Is it homophobic? Nah. Conversely, if I tell another guy to suck my dick, it’s not about being gay, it’s not even about sex. It’s just a gorilla thumping its chest. It’s about power.

However, you don’t get to choose who takes offence, so do I force a future where telling someone to go and eat a dick is a progressive no no? Yeah, it’s possible. So what I intend to do is what I do in most situations- destroy any serious implication with ridiculous hyperbole. With this in mind, here’s a few examples that can’t possibly be interpreted as homophobic by anyone who actually understands what a gay is. Enjoy!

“Drown in a tsunami of dicks.”

“I hope you are slapped a million times in a hurricane of dicks.”

“I hope that when you die the ghosts of every dick you thought about sucking but didn’t because you’re a fucking coward is waiting for you with your mom.”

“Dine out on a dick salad. An over priced, low-calorie dick salad.”

“I hope they throw you out of the all you can eat dick buffet before you’re even full.”

The Hermione Factor: Why I’m Bored of Strong Female Characters

by Steve Wetherell

I stopped looking for myself in Hollywood movies a long time ago. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I entertained the leading man fantasy. I recall as a boy watching Young Guns and trying to jut out my jaw like Emilio Estevez, hoping that with enough stretching my ball-like face might become a little narrower. I trained myself as a teen to raise a single eyebrow like Bruce Campbell, as though the rest of my body might get its act together and follow suit.

It didn’t, of course. There is no Hollywood representation of me, because even Paul Blart had a full head of hair.

But it’s undeniable there’s no shortage of straight white men on screen, in far more variations than their non-straight, non-white and (least forgivably perhaps, seeing as they’re half the world,) non-male counterparts. This is not to say that men aren’t dumbed down into boxes by Hollywood. Of course. That is what Hollywood does. But there are far less boxes for women, it seems. Maybe only three, in fact. Love interest, Mother and Unflappable Bad Ass who Knows Everything and is Always Right Bar A Few Instances of Watery Eyed Vulnerability. Otherwise known as The Strong Female Character.

These three boxes, to me, are each exactly as boring and predictable as the other. The Strong Female Character is a damned yawn fest and I’m sick of it. I have been for a long time, and I’ll set the scene for when I first noticed;

Years ago I was working on a self-financed short film and talking to my assistant producer about casting. I needed a guy to play the lead; a soldier in a post-apocalyptic zombie infested wasteland. I can’t remember why I wrote the soldier as a guy, I just did. I get the impression it was a mixture of pragmatism (I knew more guys than girls who might be interested in running around in a field for no pay while I shouted at them,) and unconscious wish fulfilment (like many young men, I secretly believed that I could only truly be happy when everyone else was dead.)

Anyway, as it turned out, my assistant producer didn’t know any men, but did know an interested woman. “Why don’t we turn the stereotype on its head?” she suggested. I agreed. But the phrase bothered me.

At this point, wasn’t a badass, undead-fighting woman already the stereotype? Had she not heard of Buffy? Underworld? Resident Evil? Countless B-movies where slight blonde women used the power of kung-fu to beat down men and monsters twice their size? Had she, by all that’s holy, forgotten about Xena?

Anyway, as the years went by the ‘turned on its head’ stereotype became the plain old mainstream stereotype. Was I surprised when watching Shrek that Princess Fiona, for no real reason, had an entire scene dedicated to her exceptional kung-fu skills, which are then never mentioned again? Nah. That’s just girl power. Just another trope, a shortcut to remind you that, while she may not be the leading man, she can kick his ass anytime she wants. She just doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

Flash forward to present day and I’m watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2. There’s an opening scene where the Guardians are all getting their asses handed to them by a giant space beast. Well, almost all of them. While every male Guardian takes his lumps, Gamora, the Unflappable Bad Ass who Knows Everything and is Always Right Bar A Few Instances of Watery Eyed Vulnerability, never has a shot landed on her.

Why not? Why can’t she be part of the fun? Peter Quill, the leading man, endures all kinds of physical and emotional humiliation, and we love him for it. Gamora’s entire emotional journey apexes with her admitting she might have emotions. Do I have a problem with that? No, not really. Differing characters make for a fun movie, and GoTG2 is all about very different personalities finding a sense of family with one another.

But here’s the thing- more and more people are starting to realise “Hey, wait, if Gamora is stronger, smarter, more capable and more mature than Peter Quill, why isn’t she the leading character?”

It’s a fair point, and to answer it I’d like to introduce you to a trope I call The Hermione Factor.

Harry Potter is a story about a young orphan boy destined to be the saviour of the wizarding world. He has two key allies- Ron Weasley, who is good hearted but bad everything else, and Hermione, a girl so smart her teachers force her to break the laws of physics just so she can over-achieve to her full potential. Hermione’s only weakness is that she’s so much smarter than everybody else that she finds it difficult to make friends, and this weakness is all but obliterated as soon as she grows tits. (She may have developed as a character beyond this. I’ll confess- I couldn’t force myself to read beyond Goblet of Fire. Still, if it’s true for four books, please do indulge me.)

There’s a lot of joking (and serious) memes that Hermione should have been the one to take on Voldemort, as she is vastly, vastly more capable than Harry, and so far ahead of Ron that he may as well be a sentient ginger turd. Remember, in the wizarding world, knowledge is power. Literal shooting-lightning-at-a-motherfucker power. And Hermione is more knowledgeable than everyone else. And so we have the Hermione Factor- a supporting character, almost certainly female, who is best qualified to be the hero but somehow isn’t.

Think about it- Harry Potter as a hero character is pure, balls-out wish fulfilment. Sure his parents are dead, but their love of him echoes through the ages. He’s a fish out of water, but he garners instant wealth, celebrity, sporting heroism, an enigmatic benefactor and the favouritism of the most beloved teacher. The guy’s made. But still, Hermione consistently one-ups him. And yet she’s not the hero.

Is this patriarchal injustice? Or is it bad story telling?

Neither, it’s just an over correction. Women have been denied a fair share of leading roles, so to make up for it we subconsciously make them invincible, the same way movies will make up for the lack of black leads by making the police chief/president/wisest character black. We forget to treat them like fallible human beings, so they become just another box. A positive one, sure, but boxed in none-the-less.

This, to me, becomes very boring. I don’t want an invincible character in the lead. That’s dull. I want a John McClane. Sure, he’s technically invincible (all action heroes are,) but he does a very good job of convincing you he’s not. Remember when action heroes used to sweat? Used to get beat down? Rebuffed? Remember when they used to show fear? Genuine comical fear? Indiana Jones was the ultimate macho leading man, but he spent a good portion of his screen time being a sweaty, beat-down, desperate punchline.

When’s the last time you saw a female action star do any of that? We’re so busy putting the ‘strong’ In Strong Female Character we forget to make them fun.

And that’s the ultimate flaw of the Hermione factor. For all her strengths, she’s just not that interesting a character. If we read the adventures of Hermione, it’d be a very short book about how there was a problem and how she instantly solved it because she’s never wrong. Gamora’s the least popular character in GOTG2 precisely because she is the least fun. When you’re far more sensible than everyone else, you almost always default to wet-blanket.

The danger of the Hermione factor is that it has stifled the way Hollywood writes women, and so further boxed our expectations as an audience. To site Guardians 2 again (yeah, I really enjoyed that movie) a new female character they introduced was Mantis. I was speaking on a marvel movie panel at a convention recently, and a fellow panellist could not disguise his contempt for the movie character. She wasn’t the badass she was in the comics. She was submissive. She was weak. She perpetuated negative Asian woman stereotypes. All of those things are true, from a certain perspective, but here’s the thing; she was fun. She was a funny, likeable, warm character. And you know what? She took her lumps! She was made fun of! She was physically hurt in amusing ways! Just like the guys! She was by no means a Strong Female Character, she wasn’t icy and no-nonsense, but she made me laugh more in one scene than Gamora and Nebula had over two movies. She endeared me to her in the same way that Rocket, Groot, Drax and Quill had. She was flawed, and silly, but still brave and capable and true when it counted.

As of writing, I’ve yet to see Wonder Woman. I will, I’m just waiting for my daughter to pester me about it (she hasn’t, yet. Much like me at that age, her idea of a strong character is based on how many anvils they can take to the face.) But I have to say, I’m genuinely surprised by the emotion surrounding the release of the movie. I read a lot of posts about people genuinely crying to see a woman triumphing in an action scene (I read similar about Holtzmann’s action scene in the Ghostbusters remake*.) And if the posts are anything to go by, seeing a female lead directed by a woman director is literally going to explode my head.

Am I little cynical? Yeah, probably. I am, after all, a prick, and to be fair I did watch the Ghostbuster’s remake. But I’m also a little hopeful, because maybe Wonder Woman is what I’ve been waiting for- maybe she’s not just another Strong Female Character. Maybe she’s just a great heroine.

 

(*As an aside, I recognise that the Ghostbuster’s remake was cast with character that were silly, funny and non-sexualised, yet also capable and brave. It just goes to show that good female characters aren’t in and of themselves enough to save a bad movie.)