Robot 6

Wrong on the internet, part 1: The Penny Arcade kerfuffle

What do you see in this comic strip?

What does the above Penny Arcade comic mean to you? Ten points if you spot it as a World of Warcraft reference, making fun of the twisted morality of the game (where if you only need to rescue five slaves, the sixth is out of luck). Beyond that, a chunk of the internet has been twisting itself into a knot over the rape reference.

The kerfuffle was summed up neatly by a commenter at the blog Pandagon:

Blogger: I will completely miss the point and be insulting about it.
Everyone Else: Goddamnit.
Blogosphere: *moves on after another 2 minute hate, with no one’s views or opinions changing on anything, and no one actually learning anything*

Read on for the juicy details.

The initial objection, the one everybody seems to be reacting to, came from this post at Shakesville, where the poster proclaimed

The problem is, I just don’t find rape funny. Because rape survivors exist among us, and after being victimized by rapists, they are revictimized by a society that treats even real rape like a joke, forced to live in a culture that actually has a lot of rape jokes, including those about rape victims being actively denied justice for no other reason than because people don’t take rape seriously. I don’t find rape funny because rape victims are often doubted, mocked, and insulted openly.

While the poster has a legitimate point, my take would be that she is overreacting in this particular case, where rape was simply mentioned in passing, and where it was presented as a terrible thing. Just because rape is bad doesn’t mean no one should ever talk about it. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has a much more articulate response:

I found the blog post an annoying rationalization for disliking humor in general, which the blogger admits she does. I find the “but rape is real!” argument against jokes of this nature to be a disingenuous one. Slavery is also real, as is murder and general violence. But there’s no way that the blogger would have gotten mad about jokes in those veins, but a joke about a form of torture that is supposed to sound over the top and mystical got her into offended mode.

At this point I, like Amanda, would have just brushed off the Shakesville poster and gotten on with my life. But the PA guys seem to have been getting a lot of pushback, and they posted a most unfortunate response:

Internet fail

Yes, they did: Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, for whom I normally have nothing but love, actually went and did the thing they were wrongly accused of—they made a joke minimizing rape. While the comic was clearly aimed at the oversensitivity of the commenters, the sneering, patronizing tone put it over the line (at least in my opinion) into offensive territory.

Their blog post on the topic (scroll down) actually made more sense:

Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?

For the most part I think that people are perfectly happy to laugh at offensive jokes until the joke offends them. Then it’s not funny anymore.

As is often the case, the whole debate reveals more about the people reading the comics than the people making them. Amanda’s post at Pandagon has spawned an epic comments thread, and Larry Cruz has a nice summary at The Webcomic Overlook followed by a shorter, more manageable discussion in comments. Reading through them, I realize that the issue is multilayered. Is rape taken seriously in our society? Some say yes, it’s obvious that we all agree that rape is bad, but others protest that some forms of rape, and some rape victims, aren’t taken seriously. Well, is it OK to mention rape in passing? Some say it minimizes rape, while others say that’s an excessive response; mentioning it is not the same as condoning it. Do we all have to stop mentioning it because it would offend rape survivors? Are rape survivors all offended by the mention of rape? Does protecting rape survivors from rape jokes actually reinforce their victimhood? (Incidentally, the poster at Shakesville did not claim to be a rape survivor, although she did cop to not having a sense of humor, which I think should disqualify her from commenting on comics at all.)

While many of the people posting were pretty firm in their opinions and unlikely to be swayed by others, I, as a fairly agnostic reader, found it fascinating to sit back and follow the arguments. Unlike a lot of internet debates, this one was fairly intelligent and civil, despite strong feelings on all sides, and it was an interesting example of how people with the best of intentions can view the same thing in so many different ways.

Oh, and also an object lesson in how not to respond to controversy. Fortunately, everyone will forget about it in a month or so and life can continue as usual.



That woman doesn’t like humor because she doesn’t understand humor. Humorless people exist. We shouldn’t make light of them, they walk around us all the time, and I’m sure they are pained by their inability to discern the difference between a punchline and a set up and what is being mocked. It’s not their fault they were struck humorless by this sick sad world.

Thanks for this post. It sums up the situation very accurately and I agree with the analysis. The comic that started the controversy didn’t offend me at all, but Penny Arcade’s tactless, juvenile response shows that they’re kind of clueless and completely missing the point. It might be because the first instance was a completely fictional situation that nobody could have possibly mistaken for real life, whereas in the second one they are casting themselves in a real people responding to a real situation. There’s no humour in it, and they come across as insensitive douchebags.

I for one found both their original comic and response completely hilarious on all counts. What strikes me as bewildering is how Mike clearly points out in his post all of the other horrible instances found in their comics that no one seemed to care about, yet this one in particular did for whatever reason. And I can’t help but point out the above slave is raped by “dickwolves”, which I imagine no one in the world has actually been raped by considering they’re purely fictional. Just several weeks before they posted this comic about Tycho supposedly sodomizing people in his sleep, which can easily refer to cases of people committing acts of rape and murder while sleepwalking. Did no one find that distasteful?

Penny-Arcade always has and probably always will be a webcomic filled with obscene language and grotesque humor of every possible sort. If it ever offends you, and I can perfectly understand why, by all means don’t read it. Just don’t cry foul when people like myself do.

I can understand the venom in the reaction without endorsing it. The level of vitriol I’ve seen in “public” comments about the first strip is intense, sometimes going as far as to use the phrase “tacit endorsement of rape” and basically calling them just as bad as rapists for using the word “raped” in a joke and/or not devoting the punchline entirely to making their stance on anti-rape brutally explicit. One can only imagine what they received via email…

Rape shouldn’t be treated snidely or callously but the idea that they should curtsy and beg amnesty for their vile, vile transgression, for a joke which remember is about the strange line of logic one encounters when trying to reconcile MMORPG NPC behavior with real life, where the punchline was about player indifference rather than how awesome rape is….I can’t imagine anybody expecting anything but condescension to that from professional comedy people. Not because they feel that being offended by a rape joke is stupid in itself, but because of the idea that they should have tried ahead of time to avoid stepping beyond the invisible boundaries that change from person to person, boundaries which they can’t foresee crossing by any reliable measure unless they simply treat anything potentially offensive as taboo. And because they didn’t, goddamn them, they’re part of the problem. They raped the victims all over again with their World of Warcraft comic.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in their corner on this re-controversy.

I think Mike and Jerry mishandled it in making it into a comic, because then they have to try and make the controversy funny, and it isn’t. Their own blog reactions were much more sensible and measured, and to the extent that they addressed it at all that should have been the end of it. Do another strip about the insensitivity of that same WOW player character in some other instance, build on the theme, minimize the offending aspect by making it one feature of a tapestry (I am giving them way too much credit here, I know). But don’t joke about it. You won’t win over anybody who was offended in the first place, and you may piss off some people who weren’t offended with the first strip. Like me and everyone here, it seems.

The interesting wrinkle in this, to me, is that one of the strips gearing up to SDCC concerned the Tycho character basically bluffing his friends to get his own room by effectively threatening to rape them in his sleep, implying that he has raped before. That’s a strip where rape was the punchline, not part of the setup. And that didn’t seem to garner much of a response. I suppose a lot of the difference in people’s reactions stems from the fact that, in the WOW strip, we’re being addressed by a victim, one who has already been raped, and will be raped again, so people connect to it more.

Even there, though, I have to wonder, after all the fantasy stories I’ve read (assuming people who play WOW read fantasy stories isn’t too large a reach, is it?), if these same people who were offended fired off letters about all the abducted concubines and savaged slave girls that are so much window dressing to color the hero’s adventures.

i think the response is tasteless, not to mention just generally not funny. i think the originally strip could go either way… but i think the biggest problem is that there are way funnier alternatives to the “raped to sleep” line that got used, and the strip would have been stronger AND less objectionable in the process. just cause it seems funny and edgy in the brainstorming process doesn’t mean that the execution will end up successful.

I don’t get how the second one is tasteless. It makes clear the point that the original in no way minimizes rape. It makes fun of how sensitive people were with the original and I agree with them. It is ridiculous to complain about that specific joke.

I actually thought the second one was even funnier. I don’t understand how anyone can be offended by a comic that’s so obviously stretching the situation to an over the top degree, like they do in EVERY SINGLE COMIC THEY MAKE.

“(Incidentally, the poster at Shakesville did not claim to be a rape survivor, although she did cop to not having a sense of humor, which I think should disqualify her from commenting on comics at all.)”

She’s not saying that she doesn’t have a sense of humor. She’s saying that she doesn’t find the strip’s sort of humor acceptable:

“This is why I avoid comedy. I don’t go to comedy movies, I rarely watch comedians, I avoid sitcoms like the plague. I’ve started to develop a Pavlovian response, cringing preemptively, to things I do find funny, because if somebody makes a dark joke, I’ve learned it won’t be long until the rape jokes show up.” [emphasis added]

The response is just like all their other work – mostly funny BECAUSE it’s entirely wrong and tasteless. That’s the joke. The joke is that making a joke about rape is wrong, and making a joke about apologizing about making a joke about rape is just as wrong.. and can be funny.

I just personally don’t think there should be any forbidden zones in humor. If we can’t laugh, the dark side of life wins.

Wow. What a sad existence that must be.

Damn. That was in response to the depressing comment JRB quoted.

I didn’t think twice about PA’s response to this. I didn’t even realize it was in response to actual uproar over the dickwolves comic. I didn’t really interpret the tone as defensive or “YOU JUST DON’T GET IT” at all.

I’ll say it. I thought their response was funny. Reminded me of ol’ Dr. Werthem. Of course reading about violence in comics makes kids violent. Makes perfect sense.

Eh, I don’t read PA precisely because I know this is the kind of humor they go for. I don’t go on crusades after them for it either (though I will tell anyone who asks that no, I don’t think their jokes are good.) On the other hand I can see how some casual readers seeing the word rape used so casually would be miffed. That’s true of our society at large this days. As someone else pointed out, why do we talk openly about other, even more heinous crimes but not about rape? It’s the bogeyman du jour these days I guess. If the PA guys are as smart as they think they are, they would have realized it, but I guess they aren’t.

Jesus Fuck it must be hard for people to deal with Penny Arcade hacking into their computers and forcing them to read shit that they don’t want to have to face. It’s even harder when they call them up and force their humour upon them. If only there were a way to not go to their website and read the jokes that offend these people so much.

Nobody called them out on making fun of slavery… :)

Stealthwise, the problem has nothing to do with her having to read the comic or anything like that. The problem is that PA is putting the jokes out there, so their readers will read them and the comic will (supposedly) color their perception of rape and desensitize them to humor about rape that appears in all forms of media.

I don’t agree with the post, but I am annoyed by the people on Penny Arcade’s side who make no attempt to understand the issue or try and see things from the other side. Besides, responses like that are so weak and misguided that they hurt the PA defenders’ case.

One thing about the WoW slang is the etymology seeps to descend from the Latin “rapio” which means to abduct or seize by force, which seems applicable to treasure-hunting war games.

The original punchline was that someone was going to continue enduring brutal rapes on a nightly basis. Call me a humorless feminist, but I just don’t see how that’s very funny.

I appreciate the measured response here, and I agree that where PA *really* failed was in their response to the criticism, but I also think the initial criticism was well-founded. And (hint hint) it’s not because I don’t know how to take a joke. It’s because the idea of sexual assault is never hilarious. Especially in a world where 1/6 women and 1/10 men (minimally!) is the victim of sexual assault.

I can appreciate the original poster’s overview of the events above.

as for the PA comic, it was in regards to how absurd a quest is to “rescue” X number of people, when there are Y more that are in need of rescue. even if there are horrible, HORRIBLE things being done to these people, the fact that you were only asked to rescue 5, not 15 keeps your character from doing more.

the response, was a satire on the backlash of people who focused solely on the one example of horrible acts (there was rape/murder/slavery/violence) and made that the focus of the entire 3 panel comic.

I thought the first was hilarious because of the absurdness of some quests in online RPGs, and i thought the response was sad. not because of what they said, but because it further illustrates that everyone seems to call out for censorship on what they personally find offensive.

if you find something offensive, don’t read it. But if you start a “movement” to get others to see the world through your eyes, don’t get pissy when you find out that not everyone thinks the way you do.

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