Is This Cartoon Sexist?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 1, 2019

I told my wife I was going to put this cartoon on my Facebook page and she said I shouldn’t because it might be considered sexist. It’s a cartoon by Alex Gregory whose work appears exclusively in the New Yorker. You can read an interesting bio of Gregory and a description of his work methods at A Case of Pencils, a blog devoted to New Yorker cartoonists.

I didn’t post the cartoon on Facebook because I’m now worried it could be sexist, but I wasn’t sure either. I asked a few women friends and some said it was okay and some weren’t sure. None took offense. So I went looking for definitions to “sexist” online. I was surprised by how many different definitions I found.

  • referring to women’s bodies, behavior, or feelings in a negative way
  • a person who believes that particular jobs and activities are suitable only for women and others are suitable only for men
  • suggesting that the members of one sex are less able, intelligent, etc. than the members of the other sex
  • a person who believers their gender is superior and says unfair things about the other gender, or assumes that only one gender as a certain trait
  • relating to or characterized by prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex
  • a person with sexist views
  • if you describe people or their behavior as sexist, you mean that they are influenced by the beliefs that the members of one sex, usually women, are less intelligent or less capable than those of the other sex and need not be treated equally
  • relating to, involving, or fostering sexism, or attitudes and behavior toward someone based on the person’s gender
  • involving sexism and the belief that men and women should be treated in a different way

By studying these definitions I might need a Supreme Court ruling to know if this cartoon is sexist or not. Part of the humor of this cartoon is it plays around with all of these issues. It assumes the stereotype that men are usually in the car and women are looking in the window. Just reversing roles is funny. If the man wore hotpants and the woman a suit, it would be a different kind of funny even without a caption. The cartoon is making generalizations about men and women behaviors, but are those generalizations negative? Is it an absolute generalization? Few people are prostitutes or hire them, so maybe it’s making no absolute assessments about either gender. However, many people, including myself, see prostitutes as victims of a sexist society.

I think the first thing we should ask: Does it offend anyone? Now I can’t answer that because I don’t know how all seven-plus billion people on Earth think. The next question: Could it offend anyone? And this is my present quandary. I don’t want to offend anyone, nor do I want to be perceived as sexist. The prudent solution: never generalize about gender. I shouldn’t be writing this essay and I shouldn’t post anything on Facebook that could ever be construed as dealing with gender differences.

I feel sorry for comedians, humorists, and cartoonists. This morning I read “These 13 Jokes From ‘Seinfeld’ Are Super Offensive Now.” I have to admit I thought them funny back in the nineties. So much of humor is observational generalizations.

But here’s the thing, almost everyone along the gender spectrum likes to occasionally generalize about others on the spectrum. This cartoon is funny to some people because it makes observations that coincide with their personal observations. We have a natural ability for organizing patterns into behavioral traits. We see certain kinds of clouds and we think it’s going to rain. We see certain prices on a menu and decide a restaurant is expensive. We see a movie preview with a superhero and we assume it’s based on a comic book. All of these can be false assumptions, so this ability creates a lot of prejudices.

What is this cartoon assuming? Even here I can’t say for sure. Everyone will see something different. My assumption is women think men don’t listen and wouldn’t it be funny if some women are so horny to be heard that they will pay for a professional male listener. However, I know men who feel women don’t listen, and a reverse of this cartoon could work for them. There are stories about prostitutes with Johns who pay just for conversational companionship.

Cartoons about prostitution generally involve men who can’t get laid paying women for sex. Should men consider such cartoons as demeaning to them? I would never use a prostitute. Should I be offended by the possible suggestion that all men would? Or will some women be offended at the suggestion that some women would be willing to pay to be heard? And will psychiatrists feel offended if they think their profession is a kind of prostitution?

I would guess that many women would say they know plenty of men who are poor listeners so the idea of paying a man to be attentive to their conservation all night long could be funny. Is that an insult to men? I know plenty of men who complain about having to listen to their wives and girlfriends, so this cartoon should be funny to them, but will it offend women in general? The reason why I even have this cartoon is one of my male friends thought it insightful because he feels his girlfriends talk too much. I thought it funny because so many women I know seem to like me because I’m willing to listen. I thought I could be that guy in the cartoon.

Maybe the humor is even simpler. Maybe its saying men want sex and women want conversation. Many married couples might agree, but does a portion of the population seeing humorous validity mean its not offensive to couples where the woman wants sex and the man conversation?

And where’s the inequality? Is it offensive to desire talk more than sex?

But you never know what words will do. For example, when I wanted a copy of this cartoon I searched on Google for “Male Prostitute” and selected the Images tab. I got copies of the cartoon but I also got mug shots of male prostitutes. It didn’t even occur to me what those words could also bring up. That’s the thing about worrying about offending, we never know the full consequences of words.

(Now I worry about what kind of ads I’ll be seeing in the next few days.)

JWH

 

The Robert Sheckley Tontine

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Mindswap by Robert SheckleyMonday, my buddy Mike and I were going up and down the isles of the science fiction section at Barnes & Noble looking to see if our old favorites were on the shelves. There were a few books each for Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, the Big Three SF writers of our childhood. But for many of the classic SF authors that we fondly remembered, none of their books were available. The last writer I looked up was Robert Sheckley. No luck. It’s sad to think modern readers won’t be discovering Mindswap or Untouched by Human Hands.

Generally, when science fiction fans today think of comedy SF they think Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But before Douglas Adams, there was Robert Sheckley. I worry that the number of Robert Sheckley fans is growing quite small.  Sure, a few new readers discover him, but that’s offset by older fans dying at a much quicker pace. The memory of his stories are like a tontine, and one day his last reader will be the only person on Earth to remember Marvin Flynn and The Theory of Searches, or any of the other wonderfully weird tales Sheckley wrote.

Much of Sheckley’s work has been reprinted in ebook editions and some of them have even gotten the audiobook treatment. Here’s the thing about books in general – most will be forgotten. Very few books are remembered over the long haul of time. I hate that. Of course, if we spent all our time cherishing old writers we’d have no time for new writers. Who are the new absurd comedy writers of SF today? Who follows in the footsteps of Robert Sheckley and Douglas Adams? I’d like to read them. I’m all for progress and time marching on, but I hate to see books I loved being forgotten. So I’ll just mention a few Sheckley titles to try.

My favorite Sheckley novels are Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. Even though these works are still in copyright, you can hear them on YouTube. I recommend you buy them from Audible or if you prefer reading with your eyes get the Kindle editions at Amazon. But for now you can give them a test spin via YouTube:

Actually describing Sheckley is hard, so I’m glad these audiobooks are on YouTube to do that work for me.

And here’s The Dimension of Miracles with a wonderful introduction by Neil Gaiman. It’s well worth listening to his introduction – I might not convince you to read Sheckley but Gaiman might.

Sheckley was a very prolific short story writer, and reading his collections captures the essence of science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. Sheckley explored every science fictional concept through an absurd lens of humor, often giving insights into human nature that serious science fiction failed to find. Only one of his collection, Untouched by Human Hands is available on audio. Listen to the first story, “The Monsters” on YouTube and if you like it go buy the whole collection at Audible. The story is about first-contact from an alien’s POV. There are 13 unique tales here that should tickle your funny bone and impress your intellect. Sheckley constantly reminds us we see reality with a too narrow perspective.

Like I said, many of Sheckley’s novels and collections are available as ebooks, and they are reasonably priced. Just for my own fun, I’m going to include covers I first saw half a century ago that make me feel nostalgic for his books today.

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley

Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley

The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley

Journey Beyond Tomorrow by Robert Sheckley

Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley

Notions Unlimited by Robert Sheckley

Shards of Space

Probably one old guy’s nostalgia isn’t enough to inspire new readers. I love that Philip K. Dick’s short stories are being produced as Electric Dreams, a video anthology for Amazon Prime. Sheckley’s short stories deserve that same kind of treatment, and that might resurrect his work. When Mike and I were checking the shelves at Barnes & Noble we found quite a lot of PKD titles. Back in the 1960s, I loved PKD but I never would have imagined he would be the science fiction writer of our generation to be remembered.

Young people who have discovered old reruns of The Twilight Zone or love the new anthology show Black Mirror should try reading science fiction short stories from the 1950s and 1960s. Back then science fiction stories had a lighter touch than they do today, more focused on far-out ideas and less on being literary.

Here is one example of a Sheckley story that’s always stuck with me. Sunday I tracked it down. It’s called “The Language of Love” and is in the collection Notions: Unlimited, about a young man, Jeffrey Toms, who meets a girl, Doris, and falls in love. She wants him to tell her he loves her. He wants to tell her. But he wants to express his feelings precisely, and fears using the word love is imprecise. He says people say they love pork chops, how can he use the same word for his feelings for her? So he learns about a dead race of aliens across the galaxy that had specialized in the language of love. Jeff travels to their world and finds an old scientist there, George Varis, who had studied this alien culture and Jeff spends months learning the language of love. Here’s what happens when he returns to Doris:

“Oh, Jeff,” she said, very softly. “Oh, Jeff.”

Toms simply stared, unable to say a word.

“It’s been so long, Jeff, and I kept wondering if it was all worth it. Now I know.”

“You—know?”

“Yes, my darling! I waited for you! I’d wait a hundred years, or a thousand! I love you, Jeff!”

She was in his arms.

“Now tell me, Jeff,” she said. “Tell me!”

And Toms looked at her, and felt, and sensed, searched his classifications, selected his modifiers, checked and double-checked. And after much searching, and careful selection, and absolute certainty, and allowing for his present state of mind, and not forgetting to take into account climatic conditions, phases of the Moon, wind speed and direction, Sunspots, and other phenomena which have their due effect upon love, he said:

“My dear, I am rather fond of you.”

“Jeff! Surely you can say more than that! The Language of Love—”

“The Language is damnably precise,” Toms said wretchedly. “I’m sorry, but the phrase, ‘I am rather fond of you’ expresses precisely what I feel.”

“Oh, Jeff!”

“Yes,” he mumbled.

“Oh damn you, Jeff!”

There was, of course, a painful scene and a very painful separation. Toms took to traveling.

He held jobs here and there, working as a riveter at Saturn-Lockheed, a wiper on the Helg-Vinosce Trader, a farmer for a while on a kibbutz on Israel IV. He bummed around the Inner Dalmian System for several years, living mostly on handouts. Then, at Novilocessile, he met a pleasant brown-haired girl, courted her and, in due course, married her and set up housekeeping.

Their friends say that the Tomses are tolerably happy, although their home makes most people uncomfortable. It is a pleasant enough place, but the rushing red river nearby makes people edgy. And who can get used to vermilion trees, and orange-and-blue grass, and moaning flowers, and three wrinkled moons playing tag in the alien sky?

Toms likes it, though, and Mrs. Toms is, if nothing else, a flexible young lady.

Toms wrote a letter to his philosophy professor on Earth, saying that he had solved the problem of the demise of the Tyanian race, at least to his own satisfaction. The trouble with scholarly research, he wrote, is the inhibiting effect it has upon action. The Tyanians, he was convinced, had been so preoccupied with the science of love, after a while they just didn’t get around to making any.

And eventually he sent a short postcard to George Varris. He simply said that he was married, having succeeded in finding a girl for whom he felt “quite a substantial liking.”

“Lucky devil,” Varris growled, after reading the card. “‘Vaguely enjoyable’ was the best I could ever find.”

I hope whoever will be Robert Sheckley’s last reader hasn’t been born yet. We need to keep the Robert Sheckley Tontine going.

JWH

 

Three Lessons I Learned About Writing From Going To See David Sedaris

Thursday night I got to hear David Sedaris enchant a nearly sold-out theater. One that holds a thousand people. That’s a lot of readers in one place for a writer. It’s a good thing we all loved him. I wonder if James Patterson or George R. R. Martin could get a horde of fans to shuck out $50 to hear them read? I was amazed by so many people coming to hear a guy read a couple New Yorker essays and banter for a couple hours. I considered it $50 well spent of my wife’s money—thanks Susan. But, is David Sedaris a standup comedian that publishes his routines, or a humorist that’s constantly on tour?

david sedaris

Sedaris is the funniest guy I know, and his skill with words is impressive, but I can’t just read his essays. I have to hear Sedaris speak his words, otherwise those words aren’t nearly as funny. I’ve always bought David Sedaris’ books on audio. Seeing him on stage was exactly like listening to his audiobooks, but with an extra sensory dimension. Strangely, the 3D visuals didn’t add much to his jokes—he’s kind of ordinary looking. He did wear a white shirt and tie, but with culottes, and even that outfit looked conservative on him. No, what makes you love the dude is his voice—and words.

Because Sedaris is so successful, I have to consider him as a role model for writing. I wish I could write blog essays that are as entertaining and funny as those I’ve discovered in the six books of his I’ve listened to so far. Even though I have to hear Sedaris, I’ve bought a number of his books in hardback to study. If I was a young person hoping to make it big putting words together for sale, I’d deconstruct David Sedaris’ career carefully. Strangely though, Sedaris reminds me of two 19th century authors who made piles of dough touring and telling funny stories based on their printed work: Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

The number one Sedaris lesson, is write funny stuff, a hard task, but also write funny stuff that matches your voice. Woody Allen was always great at doing this too. And thinking back, I can remember a lifetime of standup comedians that did just that too. As a kid I can remember reading Bob Hope books, and it was impossible to read them without hearing Hope’s voice and delivery in my head. Which makes me wonder, did P. G. Wodehouse or James Thurber ever go around entertaining people live? This makes me wonder all the more if Sedaris is a comic or humorist. It’s probably easier to break in through print than performing. Jenny Lawson has done a wonderful job as The Bloggess, but will we ever see her on stage like Sedaris? Do all funny writers eventually go live? But I could also ask, do all comedians eventually publish humor books?

As much as I’d love having the skill of writing funny essays, I’d never want the task of reading them in public.  Of course, lesson number two for becoming a successful writer like David Sedaris, is learning to speak in public, a scary concept for me. Evidently, Sedaris has spent countless nights in hotels, interacting with thousands of strange people personally before and after going on stage in front of millions. Sedaris seemed extremely at ease hanging out with us, even though we outnumbered him 1,000 to 1. Sedaris is so engaging, it’s hard not to feel like you know the guy, and even want to hang out with him. What kind of mental abilities are required to talk to people for two hours and not bore them? Does he have an overwhelming need to be liked, or has he learned that with selling books he must sell himself? Is this a requirement for all would-be writers? I assume most would-be writers are like me, introverts. Does a successful literary career require extroversion?

The third writing lesson I took away from seeing David Sedaris the other night is: Pay attention to other people. Sedaris read from his diary, making it obvious he’s a keen observer and collector good anecdotes. Funny stuff is everywhere. I’m surprised by how many jokes he just picked up off the ground. Having long lines of people queue up to get their book signed is a great resource of story ideas. Just be patient and let them talk. Sedaris’ early books were all about his family and himself, but as time passed more of his material came from observations of strangers he met in his travels. This is why Dickens and Twain were so popular. They were great people observers. Just look at the list of named characters Dickens created. Often they were based on real people. Dickens and Twain ended up their lives by touring the world enthralling audiences acting out their most famous characters and scenes. How much of great writing is witnessing those scenes and how much is imagining them? Did David Sedaris really feed his tumor to an old snapping turtle?

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