You saw it with that blue and black/white and gold dress: inevitably someone on your Facebook feed posted an angry “STOP TALKING ABOUT THE DRESS” post. This kind of attention-policing, as pointed out by a columnist at The Atlantic, is destructive, not constructive. It serves no purpose but to stroke the ego of its poster, subtextually bragging about how cool they are for not caring about the mainstream discussion. This kind of thought policing, caring whether or not people discuss color theory and a dress, is pretty silly when you step back and look at it. Another kind of attention-policing, the kind that serves to disrupt conversations about serious social issues such as race and gender, serves a different purpose: to silence the minority.
Moff’s Law was first described and labeled by i09 contributor Josh Wimmer, and it says that during any critical discussion of a work of popular culture, someone will likely butt in and say something like “if you don’t like it, don’t read it” or “why can’t you just enjoy it as it is?” Wimmer’s comments on the issue are worth reading, but we’ll warn you: they are Not Safe For Work.
Now the entire point of Pop Culture Primer is to look at popular culture through a critical lens, so it should be no surprise that we agree with Wimmer’s post-modernist attitude that everything in our culture deserves be analyzed with the same kind of attention we give high art. After all, our culture influences us just as we influence our culture. Through popular culture, we perpetuate and enforce the things we believe and feel. We should be thinking about what is being piped into our brains 24/7 by TV, books, radio, film, games, and the internet.
Wimmer goes on to clarify in the next paragraph that we are not required, nor is it entirely healthy to analyze everything we encounter. The point being made is that Twilight can and should be criticized with the same toolkit we might use to look at Romeo and Juliet, though we may want to just sit back and enjoy it the first time through and leave the analysis for later.
The thesis of Wimmer’s rant is that “just enjoy it” is the default for human existence, and that you aren’t being unique or enlightened by haranguing people to passively enjoy media. But Wimmer’s rant about Moff’s Law still does not address a bigger issue: when said criticism of criticism is a thinly-veiled tactic to silence the opinions of minorities.
It never fails, when someone tries to analyze the representation of a specific group in media, that someone jumps in to divert the conversation with “STOP TALKING ABOUT IT,” “IT’S JUST FICTION,” or “YOU’RE MAKING PROBLEMS WHERE THERE ARE NONE!” This is annoying at best, but when the cries against discourse come from a position of privilege, they become incredibly problematic. Let me explain.
A NOTE OF PRIVILEGE:
First of all, it is to be noted that Pop Culture Primer will never use privilege to mean spoiled or rich. You can be disadvantaged in one way and privileged in another. A poor white man certainly has to struggle to get ahead, but he doesn’t have to worry about being assumed guilty because of the color of his skin like a poor black man. Privilege as I use it here merely means that because of your position in society, you do not have to struggle with or sometimes even see a certain struggle that someone else faces. If you’re about to leave me a comment about how you’re not privileged because you had a struggle in life, please read this comic first (once again, some NSFW language within.)
Edit to add (4/4/15): Since the publication of this article, an even better source has come along to explain privilege. Watch below.
Where Moff’s Law Meets Privilege
Moff’s Law becomes a problem when someone disrupts a conversation in an area where they experience privilege. Examples:
- A cisgendered (gender matches biological sex) person complaining that we’re complicating gender.
- A white person asking why people of color are stirring up race issues.
- A straight person saying that marriage equality isn’t important enough to take up the Supreme Court’s time.
- A man telling women to stop worrying about how they’re represented in comics and video games and just enjoy reading and playing.
A recent concrete example of Moff’s Law comes from the controversy over the Batgirl variant cover scheduled for this spring. The image that Abuquerque, the artist, first submitted to DC was very different, so they sent him back with notes to make a more provocative image. The resulting image invoked memories of The Killing Joke, a classic Joker story in which The Joker, in an attempt to drive Jim Gordon insane, shoots Barbara Gordon (paralyzing her) and strips her naked so he can send photos to her father. The debate around the cover centers on a few fascinating questions:
- Did Joker actually sexually assault Barbara in that issue? (the answer is yes as he tore off her clothes and photographed her naked—though whether he penetratively raped her is still up for interpretation)
- Should DC worry about upsetting and triggering fans with this cover? (Remember, the new Batgirl comic is targeted towards a younger female fanbase.)
- Is it detrimental to the goals of the comic to bring up a story they were actively trying to distance themselves from?
- Does a variant cover even matter in relation to the content of the comic?
- Are the people who are upset even readers of the comics? Would they have bought it anyway?
- Is it censorship for consumer outcry to lead the artist to pull the cover?
- Is the real problem the sexualized violence in Batgirl’s history, or the fact that she is petrified and stripped of all agency in this cover?
- Were it Superman in this position, would we be upset or would we find it silly?
These are all discussions worth having, but inevitably Moff’s law set in. In my own Facebook feed (yes, this is anecdotal) I saw at least four men say some variation of “If you don’t like it, don’t read it” or “Can we stop finding issues in everything?” in just one day. Many other men were willing to maturely engage in the debate about the issue, and some even agreed that the cover was problematic. Still, those four men became downright hostile about the fact that this was even a discussion. One person, in all caps, resorted to profanity to try and crush a conversation that he could have easily hidden or scrolled past.
And my experience isn’t unique. Batgirl co-writer Cameron Stewart came on Twitter to explain:
Something to clarify, because DCs statement was a little unclear. @rafaalbuquerque did not get threats. People OBJECTING to the cover did.
— Cameron Stewart (@cameronMstewart) March 17, 2015
Critics of the cover are receiving death threats. Death threats. Death. Threats. People are so upset that this discussion is even happening that they are taking Moff’s Law to an entirely unhealthy level.
Why So Serious?
And that brings me to the questions I would like to pose here for readers: why are people so upset that they are willing to threaten the health and safety of people who criticize this cover? Is it really the First Amendment? Because if it is, we all need to calm down and remember that The First Amendment guarantees you will not be thrown in jail for speech, not that a private company with money on the line will print a piece of art they commissioned despite the fact that it may upset their consumers.
And before you say that the critics aren’t the book’s readers, remember that Batgirl is targeted towards young women and that the comic market is growing for the first time in decades because of women and people of color. Over 47% of Marvel readers are women and the new female Thor is outselling the male Thor by 30%. Without these new readers, comics would die. You can stick your fingers in your ears and pretend they don’t exist, but the industry needs them. When DC launched The New 52, they cut themselves a smaller slice of a bigger pie by continuing to go after the same demographics that are going to read comics no matter what. Female readership has gone up by leaps and bounds over the past few years, and DC is smart to not want to alienate one of the few significantly growing markets in comics. It’s business.
So let’s get back to the question: why are fans getting this upset? Fans forget that criticism is good. It’s part of the process of academia and part of being considered real art. Analysis of the thing you love will not destroy it. It can make it stronger! You can disagree with the criticism and engage in constructive debate, but you’re not doing anyone favors, not even yourself, by trying to stifle the debate altogether.
When female readers hear male fans telling them to stop asking for better representation in comics, whether those fans mean it or not, the subtext becomes sinister. Let’s remember that less than a hundred years ago, women were jailed, force-fed, and kept in deplorable conditions because it was embarrassing to have them protesting outside the Whitehouse in a war time. There is a loaded history behind men telling women to stop complaining and stay out of men’s ways.
So the next time you think to post on Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else urging a group to stop discussing something, consider why you’re doing it. Are you in a position of privilege here? Are you being constructive or destructive? Are you adding to the discourse, or are you just standing up and asking a traditionally oppressed group to, once more, be quiet?