Gal or Fella

There’s a lot of discussion going on lately about LGBT diversity in books and other forms of media. Even with all the ways we’ve made things better over the last few years, there is still a long way to go. It’s important for people, from children to adults, to have strong role models they can relate to, no matter if they are straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or anything else in between. But there are a lot of barriers to achieving that level of diversity, and those barriers exist even in independent works.

It’s one thing when big companies, such as Disney, fail to include LGBT representation in their works. While it would be a huge victory if a company like Disney were to include a nonbinary protagonist in one of their family-friendly animated movies, the fact is that there are tons of producers, corporate managers, and other “gatekeepers” we need to get past in order to make it happen. These gatekeepers continue to operate under the flawed assumption that non-heternormative characters are too “risky” or not “appropriate.” Whatever excuses they make (potential backlash from conservative audiences, reduced sales, etc), the fact is that they refuse to allow greater diversity into the works their companies produce. This means that even if an individual writer were to create a script that included more diversity, there are far too many people at the corporate level who can either force the writer to change the script to be more “traditional,” or simply refuse to produce the script all together.

Independent works don’t have these types of gatekeepers. Whether it be an independently produced film, a self-published novel, or an online comic strip, independent works can be made however the creator wants to make them. However, that doesn’t mean these independent creators won’t face other obstacles along the way.

An example I’ve seen dealing with this issue over and over again recently is The Order of the Stick, written and drawn by Rich Burlew. Rich has been writing The Order of the Stick for over ten years and has published eight graphic novels based on his online work. Recently, he’s been working towards greater inclusion and diversity in his comic, such as by creating a new character who is a lesbian airship captain. He is on the record stating that he feels it is his personal responsibility as an artist to be more inclusive, and that he regrets not showing greater diversity when his comic first started. For example, when the comic first began, there was only one female main character out of a cast of six, and she was often portrayed in an over-sexualized manner. According to posts he has made on the site’s forums (which are indexed here), he is now doing what he can to correct mistakes from his earlier writings and to use his comic to deliver a positive social message. One of his more noteworthy posts on the matter states:

I have the social privilege that allows me to be heard and now I have the commercial success to weather the consequences thereof, so therefore I have a responsibility to say something. To do otherwise would be self-serving cowardice.

Unfortunately, Rich suffers a great deal of backlash from people who seem more closed-minded and resistant to the idea of diversity in the comic. Many of these people veil their protests as complaints about the “quality of the writing” or what they feel is “hamfistedly shoving a message at us.” Yet either way, these people are saying that they believe Rich should not be including as much diversity in his writing, regardless of the reasons they give for their protests.

The most recent example of these protests came after The Order of the Stick #983, “A Healer’s Reason.” In this comic, one of the main characters, Durkon Thundershield, is going through an internal struggle between his real self and an evil vampiric spirit that has taken over his body (vampires in The Order of the Stick are similar to those in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in that when a vampire is formed, a new spirit takes over the “shell” of the victim’s dead body). The vampiric spirit is searching through Durkon’s memories, and comes across a memory of Durkon talking to his mother before he decided to become a priest. At one point in the dialogue, his mother says, “All I really want is fer ye ta grow up an’ find a nice gal or fella ta settle down with.”

To me, this is a sweet line that shows us that Durkon’s mother is someone who is supportive and loves him no matter what his sexual orientation might be. I think it sets a good example of how parents should be with their children, and that we need to see this kind of message more often. Personally, I applaud Rich for writing it this way.

Protests against this line of dialogue started on the forums, with people saying things like,:

“That felt really kinda forced. I mean is there any mother who would actually say that to their own little-kid son? In casual conversation?”

“. . . it didn’t feel REAL because it was too directly connected to what’s going on in our own world.”

“What sucks about this gal/fella thing is that it feels like Giant was intimidated by the SJW community enough to put an out of character remark, just in case someone takes offence from a sentence that they shouldn’t. “

“This was definitely an awkward word choice that clumsily promoted a social agenda on Rich’s part.”

“I disapprove of the [author] teaching things to my face, if he really wanna do it he’d better do it subtly. The subject doesn’t matter. “

You’ll notice a lot of lines on the posts I linked that have been {scrubbed}. This means that the person in question said something particularly offensive or in some way violating the forum’s code of conduct, such as bringing real-world politics into the debate about the fictional comic world. I also picked out what I felt were some of the more directly offensive and/or argumentative lines from the discussion, so it’s worth noting that a lot of the forumgoers had much more supportive, open-minded, or neutral viewpoints than those expressed above. But enough people were against the idea of a mother suggesting her son find “a nice gal or fella” that it led to a debate which spanned approximately 1000 posts before the comic’s author locked it down and put a stop to it.

What’s interesting, if you take the time to read through the entire discussion, is how the people protesting the inclusive line go a long way to say they’re (supposedly) not protesting inclusiveness itself. Instead, they claim they’re defending art and story and good writing, and claiming that when the author “forces” his message on them, he’s hurting his work. But after reading through all of these arguments, I’ve come to a conclusion: the people protesting the inclusive lines are trying to normalize their prejudiced behavior. In other words, they don’t want to admit that they have biases, so they hide behind arguments that “the wording felt awkward” or that “a good story is more important than a moral lesson” and so on.

Which means that an indie creator faces two different obstacles: One, dealing with the backlash they’ll get from people who don’t approve of their attempts to show greater diversity; and Two, the way some people will try to separate the art itself from the politics, moral messages, and values that the art portrays. Quite a few people in that message thread stated that they feel a “good story” should be one that is entertaining and appealing to the audience and that anything that detracts from that is a bad thing. Yet these people, aside from any biases and bigotry they might show, fail to realize that art has always existed as a form of social commentary and a way to spread important political and moral messages.

Painters like Pablo Picasso have used their art to protest against wars and violence. Singers and musicians have done the same thing with their music. And even comic books have been used to spread political messages. I think that many people would agree that the most memorable and significant works of art, books, songs, movies, and so on have always been those that have some deeper meaning and teach us something about the world around us. And yes, you can show that deeper meaning even if you’re telling a story about magic and wizards and dragons and vampires.

And if people try to tell you it seems forced . . . well, maybe they’re the ones who need to rethink the meaning of the stories they read.

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3 thoughts on “Gal or Fella”

  1. I dunno, even being gay myself, that line sounds forced to me. It’s one thing to have a genuine and artistic addition- I’m thinking Mortal Instruments, for example- and what essentially boils down to a morality play. Yeah, ‘art’ has been doing this for time out of mind. The problem is that art that’s memorable resonates with people as they are, not as the artist wishes them to be. Picasso arose in a generation that was experiencing the horrors of war like never before. Paul Laurence Dunbar was in a period where slavery was in living memory and everyone was grappling with what to do about it. Both were broadly successful because they took those themes and used them.

    For Rich… I don’t know. Anyone who works for a decade on building a platform and then calls it ‘social privilege’ leaves me cold. Likewise with the idea that not engaging in social engineering is cowardice. Well… no, that’s not true. Nor is it necessarily true that those who felt it ham-fisted or forced are trying to normalize prejudice. It may simply not resonate with them, or they might feel as I do and feel like it’s, well, forced and ham-fisted.

    An illustration. When I was younger, I read a lot of Christian books. There was always, somewhere in there, some Bible verse that had to be put in. Sometimes it was artfully done. Sometimes a character quotes it for no reason other than it’s the Right Thing To Say. Generally speaking, even those in the proverbial camp could tell which one was which. Does that mean that they were normalizing their anti-Christian bias? No, naturally not. The same principle applies here.

    One thing I am firmly convinced of, and that I will always argue for- the use of art to change people is a very real thing. But it only works when the art resonates with the person. When the artist uses their art as a bludgeon, you end with the current state of affairs in the art world, where it has become insular and has practically no impact on the outside world. Therefore, if we’re to not just get people to listen to our stories, but to open them to new possibilities, then we must always reach them where they are, and be open to the idea, in turn, that we can overreach and moralize at them. Above all, we must not overgeneralize, or impugn, or silence. To do that is to not just become guilty of that which we ourselves protest, but to lead to increasing stretches of cultural no-mans-lands, which can only be a bad thing for everyone.

  2. I very much appreciate and agree with Benjamin’s points. I felt the line was forced.

    But, I would like to say that if Durkon’s mother’s out-of-place (for a dwarf) progressiveness and openness toward homosexuality is reused and rehashed later for the plot or for world-building, then the forced-ness is gone and the use of the phrase “gal or fella” is completely justified. To reiterate, If this is a “Chekhov’s Gun” and it will come back as important later on, or if it shows itself as an important part of the mother’s character, then I don’t think it was ham-fisted.

    Unfortunately, until that happens, I have to assume the author said to himself something like, “Yes, I know it’s a dwarf, and yes, I know that she’s talking to her dwarf son, but I just can’t write ‘gal’, I have to put in ‘or fella’ or it will just be wrong of me.”

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