Don’t F**k With Cats

This three-part documentary series on Netflix is really upsetting, and I mean really upsetting. It’s difficult to write a summary, but basically, a group of people on Facebook tries to track down a man who posts videos of himself killing animals, thus giving him the attention he craves and inspiring him to post a video of himself killing another human being. The documentary itself is well-made and doesn’t show the grisly bits of the actual videos, but it’s still not a pleasant experience to watch. Thankfully, there’s nothing particularly sensationalist about the project, and the “internet nerds” are presented as normal and intelligent adults.

The director has said that he created this documentary for the purpose of spreading awareness, which I appreciate. My experience with trying to get my anxiety treated over the course of the past year has been that a lot of people – especially people born before around 1980 or so – just don’t understand how violent and upsetting online engagement can be sometimes. Even people my age and younger haven’t responded well when I try to talk about this, and common responses include:

– Maybe the person attacking you has a mental illness. (That’s not a valid justification.)
– Maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time online. (That’s not the problem.)
– Maybe you deserve this. (No one “deserves” death and rape threats.)

What I think people who haven’t experienced extended episodes of online harassment aren’t getting is that sometimes it’s possible to encounter people on the internet who are genuinely scary. When you become the target of a person like this (as one of the primary “narrators” in Don’t F**k With Cats does), it has nothing to do with you specifically, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.

I also recently read the book Nobody’s Victim, which is written by Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer and advocate for the victims of internet stalking and harassment. This book is just as upsetting as Don’t F**k With Cats, especially since many of the people Goldberg represents (as well as Goldberg herself) have had to suffer through intense and pervasive victim blaming. No one they go to for help understands what happened to them, and everyone thinks the fact that they became the targets of scary people is somehow their fault. Very few people believe what they’re saying in the first place, and a lot of the evidence they produce to document what they’ve experienced is used against them.

I personally haven’t been the target of anything as severe as what appears in Don’t F**k With Cats and Nobody’s Victim (thank goodness), but it was still very easy for me to recognize the patterns of how popular online platforms enable abusive modes of behavior and the hate crimes of disturbed people. I’m finally starting to see people within fandom share resources (like this) discussing best practices regarding how to process and handle these types of encounters, and that’s wonderful, but I’m really looking forward to there being a greater awareness of these issues in mainstream society as well.

Disney Doesn’t Need Public Defense

The Marvel Juggernaut: With Great Power Comes Zero Responsibility
http://cinemalogue.com/2019/11/18/the-marvel-juggernaut-with-great-power-comes-zero-responsibility/

Due to the clout of its ubiquity, AVENGERS: ENDGAME merits a deeper look. Its fundamental ideology is libertarian-conservative. Superheroes fight, but only up until the point they want to quit. They’re rewarded with the domestic tranquility of the heterosexual nuclear family (at the expense of the less conventional concept of “found family”). Every female character receives sub-par treatment, especially Natasha Romanoff—a childhood abuse victim incapable of bearing children, sacrificed in favor of a “family man” who commits (racially selective) extra-judicial murder without consequence. Untold trillions of lives lost as collateral damage in the aftermath of Thanos’ cosmos-wide “snap” are forfeit for the sake of one five-year old child of one billionaire on one planet.

The story quashes the political nature of its chief protagonist, Steve Rogers—created by two Jewish men to combat the rise of pro-fascist sentiment in a pre-war, isolationist America. Favoring a bigoted past over a present more aligned with Steve’s values, Marvel takes a vocal political force—a tireless fighter against oppression—and reduces him to milquetoast, Pleasantville made manifest. Adding insult to injury, Peggy Carter spectates this regressive resolution to Steve’s arc. She’s wordless, existing only for Steve’s gaze, her independent life overwritten to be his prize and a means to an end: the complete neutralization of an anti-fascist.

People are free to enjoy whatever they like, of course, but the Disney Corporation is no one’s friend.

How to Make Classes Work, Step Two

Wear a suit to every class.

No exceptions.

Because of some weird harassment from [redacted], I had an intense panic attack at the beginning of the semester that left me so sick and weak that it was impossible to wear a suit for the first two weeks. Anxiety may be psychosomatic, but it’s still very much a physical illness.

You may be thinking that I must be some sort of crazy person, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but I’m actually one of the most normal people I know. If you sat next to me on an airplane or met me at a wedding reception, you’d think I was normal too. I like to talk about normal adult things like pets and vacations and real estate and other people’s children. I’m even a little boring, but in a totally normal and average way.

So how does a normcore person like me with no history of health issues turn into a nervous wreck? Stewing in a toxic environment for a few years will do that to you, and at this point I’m having trouble imagining a more toxic environment than academia.

That’s by design – the university system is structured to consume so much of your life (see my essay about how tenure works) that you stop being able to imagine what the world outside looks like. This isn’t healthy, obviously. If I get tenure, one of the first things I’d like to do is to figure out a set of concrete actions that will help to enable the promotion of a culture of kindness, tolerance, and diversity. I genuinely believe that both professors and university administrators (myself included) would be much better at our jobs if we weren’t so stressed out all the time.

Anyway, I think the combination of my casual clothes at the beginning of the semester and the fact that I’m not a cisgender man may have led some of the students to arrive at the conclusion that I am fun.* I actually am fairly easygoing, but I’m always 115% serious in the classroom, and the suit helps convey that message with less room for misinterpretation concerning the level of effort and engagement I expect from my students.

 

* This conclusion is erroneous. I haven’t had fun since 2008.

Writers Have to Be Supported to Survive


I’ve recently seen several posts with tens of thousands of notes circulating around Tumblr that are extremely critical of the idea of fanfic writers accepting donations to support their activities. Many of them, such as the one excerpted above, refer to the guidelines of AO3, which are meant to defend the right of the site to exist on the basis that the content it hosts is purely transformative and not intended for profit. The undertone of these posts, however, is a strong pushback against the idea that fanfic writers might aspire to the same levels of professional success and support as other creators in fandom.

I would like to argue that the idea that fan writers deserve to have a choice whether to receive compensation for their work is reasonable, especially since many highly visible fan artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars every month through donation sites like Patreon and Ko-fi.

Yes, intellectual property is protected by law and legal precedent, and it’s important to understand fandom history and to respect the ongoing battle AO3 has to fight. And yes, fan writers use copyright-protected names and scenarios. At the same time, fan artists use protected names, scenarios, and images, while YouTubers and streamers use protected sound and video – and sometimes the entirety of the protected work. If the “transformative work” and “added value” and “critical commentary” and “performance” arguments of fair use laws apply to visual artists, video creators, and streamers, why don’t they work for writers?

There are three things going on here.

The first is that AO3 is an independent NPO, not a giant media conglomerate. Even if YouTube is forced to take down certain videos that violate intellectual property laws, YouTube itself is not in danger of being taken offline. AO3 is in a much more precarious situation and therefore has to be extra cautious. This is an issue specific to AO3, however, and it’s not universally applicable to other hosting and sharing sites.

The second is that many media corporations in the United States consider digital images to be ephemeral, meaning that they have a short shelf life in the popular consciousness. Fan art and video streams shared on social media will help to promote a piece of media while it’s still trendy, but they also tend to be quickly consumed and discarded and thus aren’t perceived as being in danger of becoming long-term competition for the original media property. Because it used to be published in the form of physical books and magazines, fanfic was considered to be competition, but this perception has changed, partially due to the support fanfic has received from commercially successful writers like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

The third is sexism. This is complicated; but, to make a long story short, fanfic has been treated differently because, unlike illustration and video editing, it is primarily associated with communities of women.

Media industries overwhelmingly dominated by men, such as comics and movies, have always provided ways for younger male fans to enter the industry as professionals. There is a long history of commercial studios actively scouting emerging talent from popular fan artists and amateur video producers, so media corporations have a vested interest in not completely shutting down spaces in which these creators can develop and exhibit their talents. For example, an aspiring comic artist can take his portfolio of X-Men character illustrations to a comics convention to show to an industry representative, and Marvel will hire him if they like his fan art. Because these industries have traditionally been male-dominated, however, the work of women was seen as derivative and embarrassing. A male artist who drew a fan comic would get a job, and a woman who wrote fanfic of the same media property would get a cease and desist letter.

Moreover, women have historically been expected to be the keepers of public morality. For instance, a male professor who writes mediocre novels about cheating on his wife with underage female students can easily be promoted to the head of a prestigious creative writing program, while a woman in any profession can be in danger of losing her job for writing any novel at all. Because of this, many female writers have had to hide their creative careers in a way that male artists and video producers have not. Even though these prejudices are fading, many fic writers are still very serious about protecting their real names and identities. At the same time, many fan artists and other creators use their fanwork to promote themselves while using their professional names – and, thanks to social media, we can now see that not all of these creators are male.

Because a new generation of female and nonbinary fan artists, animators, video producers, and streamers are now comfortable pursuing their creative careers while using their professional names and accepting donations while they establish themselves, it only makes sense that fan writers would want to do the same thing. After all, if people like Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson can go from posting popular fan art and fan comics on Tumblr to becoming mainstream showrunners, why couldn’t a female or nonbinary fanfic writer go on to become an actual scriptwriter for the next, say, Star Wars or Pokémon movie? If illustrators, comic artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive donations to support their fanwork while they establish their careers, what arbitrary rule says that writers can’t do the same thing while still respecting AO3’s legal guidelines?

There is an entire generation of younger writers who have come into fandom with ambitions of professional success and no understanding of why they should feel pressured to separate their fandom identity from their professional identity or why they shouldn’t have the choice to receive the same support as creators working in other mediums. Instead of mocking younger writers for not knowing fandom history – and instead of shaming older writers for resisting outdated prejudices – I think it’s worth it to support them and hopefully change the culture.

Most people don’t want donations and only think of fandom as a fun escapist hobby, but writers should still be able to access the same choices as other creatives. I’ve already shared my thoughts about the issues I personally have with Patreon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want other people to explore that option for themselves. After all, writers have to be supported for fanfic to survive.

I feel like I could write an entire book about this – and I have! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the publisher can stick to the May 2020 release date, because I’d really like to talk more about fandom and cultural change, as well as what the achievements of artists might suggest about the future of fiction.

How Tenure Works (and Doesn’t Work)

There are three broad types of teaching faculty in an American university: tenured, tenure-track, and everyone else. Tenured and tenure-track professors are essentially white-collar workers on multi-year contracts who receive full benefits and are eligible for paid research leave.

“Everyone else” varies from university to university, but the majority of people who aren’t tenured or on the tenure track have short-term contracts and receive no benefits. Although “everyone else” used to be the exception, they now make up roughly 75% of all teaching faculty in higher education in the United States. This is obviously a huge problem, and I’ll return to it later.

Tenured faculty enjoy the full privileges of employment at a university, including the ability to participate in the committees that decide department and university policy. They are also eligible to rise to high-level administrative positions. Tenured faculty also have a bit more power when it comes to “quality of life” issues like being able to schedule their classes at their preferred times and not having to teach large first-year classes. Their salaries are higher, the length of research leave they can take is longer, and they’re more likely to receive institutional funding. Tenured faculty can also teach graduate-level seminars – sometimes exclusively – and take on grad students.

The main privilege that tenured professors enjoy is that, short of sexually assaulting someone, it’s very difficult for the university to fire them (or to force them to retire, which is actually a major issue right now). This means that they can take longer to complete more ambitious projects, and they can start publishing with commercial presses and become public intellectuals if they like. There’s also no need for them to receive high student course evaluations, which gives them the freedom to develop more experimental classes and teaching methods while not having to put up with stupid undergraduate bullshit (like worrying about whether a kid will give your course a low score if you have a class session about race or LGBTQ+ material, for instance). Because they don’t have to worry about teaching and publishing so much anymore, tenured professors also have more time to become active in university service and administration.

A tenure-track professor, usually referred to as an “assistant professor,” has been hired by the university at an entry-level position. In order to be promoted through tenure, an assistant professor has to jump through burning hoops of fire. I know that’s an abstract description, but I don’t how else to put it. Because of the extremely competitive academic job market, the only people who are hired for tenure-track positions tend to be already functioning at the level of a tenured professor when they walk in the door. Regardless, receiving tenure isn’t a foregone conclusion, even at second- and third-tier schools with very few institutional resources and a nonexistent level of faculty support.

Unless a tenure-track professor is a serial molester or a complete academic fuck-up (or both at the same time), it’s actually in a university’s best interests to grant them tenure, usually after they’ve spent four or five years in the position. During this time, this person will have published research with the university’s name on it and otherwise promoted the university’s brand through their work, and they will have established a set of classes they can reliably teach. They will also have grown accustomed to the university’s culture while making connections with other faculty and staff members. In other words, the university has already put a lot of investment into someone by the time they go up for tenure, and that person has already become associated with their university in their broader field. Both as an institution and as a brand, a university wants to show that they have a lot of tenured faculty members, as faculty retention demonstrates not only the university’s wealth but also its prestige.

Still, assistant professors are required to demonstrate professional excellence in order to be granted tenure. The details of how this works differ from school to school; but, generally speaking, applicants are required to submit a portfolio of various materials that often runs more than a thousand pages in length. This portfolio will not only contain letters of support from people within the university but also from leading members of the applicant’s field – none of whom the applicant can choose or otherwise designate.

A tenure-track professor therefore has to publish as much as they can while establishing a strong professional reputation within four years, all while developing new classes, teaching a full course load, and getting high scores on student course evaluations. Although their service to their own university is limited by their rank, tenure-track professors need to “serve the field” by doing things like editing, translation, peer review, public lectures, media appearances, and so on. It’s a lot of work, obviously, but we wouldn’t be in the profession in the first place if this sort of thing didn’t give us a sense of satisfaction. This is one of the main reasons why the attrition rate for PhD programs is so high – at some point a lot of people realize that this isn’t what they want to spend their lives doing, which is valid.

In any case, someone going up for tenure first submits their portfolio to a special committee made up of members of their department, as well as one or more members of other departments who are qualified to judge their competence. The committee then makes a recommendation to the applicant’s home department, which takes a vote. The department chair will write a letter of support (or caution) based on that vote, and the applicant’s tenure case will be assigned to a nonpartial liaison who will present the case to the university.

In the end, it’s the university that decides whether or not to grant tenure. Even if the department votes against someone’s case, and even if their department chair hates them, the university can still decide to give them tenure. Because professors have a well-known tendency to be petty and resentful toward each other, it’s often the case that the university will grant tenure to someone a department has voted against. The reverse is also true – a person can be admired and respected by everyone they work with, but the university can still decide not to grant tenure for whatever reason it chooses. A decision against tenure may have nothing to do with the applicant at all; the university may have decided to discontinue funding for that particular tenure line in order to open a tenure line in another department, for example.

It goes without saying – and there is a towering tsunami of evidence that supports this – that the tenure process is biased against women, people of color, and other minorities. Women especially are held to higher standards, and any other minority identity that might apply to them only makes them more vulnerable to being perceived as inadequate and expendable. During the past ten years, I have seen one female colleague after another fail to get tenure, and it’s terrifying. In fact, the person who held my position before I did, a woman of color, apparently felt so alienated by the inherent prejudice of this system that she didn’t even submit her tenure portfolio even though (in my personal opinion) she would have had a strong case and benefited my department immensely in the long run.

If you don’t get tenure, you have one year to make an appeal. After that, if the appeal isn’t granted, you have to leave when your contract ends. The appeal process is a nightmare and requires the complete revision and re-submission of a tenure portfolio. Most appeals aren’t granted (even if lawyers get involved), so many people don’t even try. After all, if you’re going to go through all that trouble, it makes more sense to apply to other jobs than to stay at a school that has already made it clear that it doesn’t value the work you’ve done.

Unfortunately, as the number of tenure-track positions that open every year continues to shrink, it’s highly unlikely that someone who is denied tenure will find another tenure-track job. In addition, tenured professors in their seventies and eighties will not retire, thereby denying opportunities for younger people to enter their departments.

This is where we return to the problem of “everyone else” that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Although there are both abstract and tangible benefits to having tenured faculty, many universities have begun to privilege their short-term interests. According to this mindset, why would you pay a tenured professor an actual salary when it’s much more cost-effective to pay an average of $3,000 per class to a short-term worker who often has the exact same (or even better) educational qualifications?

Because of the state of the American economy since around 2008 or so, more people have been completing graduate degrees. Meanwhile, universities are relying more on short-term contracts, which means that there is a horrifying scarcity of tenure-track jobs. My field is one of the fastest growing fields in higher education, yet it’s a very good year when fifteen tenure-track jobs open in English-speaking countries. University departments tend not to hire across fields – for example, someone who wrote a dissertation about queer literature for a Gender Studies department will probably not be considered as a viable applicant to an English department – which places additional limits on the number of jobs that even highly qualified people can apply to.

Competition is fierce, even for temporary positions that don’t provide benefits or a remotely livable wage, so why should a university have to settle for a tenure-track professor who isn’t perfect? It doesn’t help that both tenure-track job searches and the process of reviewing a tenure case necessitate a staggering amount of unpaid labor from everyone involved. And what department would want to hire someone who already has a tenure-track job but didn’t appreciate it enough to go through the tenure process? I mean, given how much institutional investment goes into an assistant professor, why would a university want to hire someone who’s clearly interested in job hopping? And, if someone went up for tenure but didn’t get it, why would a university want to hire someone they see as another university’s discarded trash?

What I’m saying is that, because of the tenure system, there is either too much mobility as early-career academics are uprooted from their communities and forced to move to a different university every year (and sometimes every semester) as they apply to tenure-track jobs, or zero mobility for people who actually get a tenure-track job and but can’t leave without effectively ending their career.

I’m not yet sure what suggestions I would offer to help restructure the tenure system in American universities, but I think acknowledging that it looks good on paper but has major disadvantages in practice is probably a good start.

Decontextualizing Harry Potter

From the beginning of the 2016 American election cycle, a popular way to signal social belonging on Tumblr has been to reblog angry posts about J.K. Rowling like the one above.

J.K. Rowling isn’t perfect. No human being on this earth is perfect, and Rowling is no exception. Rowling’s books are far from perfect, and I have to admit that I personally don’t particularly like or enjoy them. It’s important to critique popular media, and it’s reasonable to hold public figures to basic standards of decency. Still, I’m concerned about posts like this, which promote decontextualization as a performance of progressive political ideology.

It’s difficult to make generalizations, so I want to refer to the post above to demonstrate what I mean.

To begin with, most of these posts about the Harry Potter books are coming from an American perspective that doesn’t attempt to address the cultural context of the original books. For example, while Americans tend to think everything is about race, British people tend to be much more sensitive about class. Class intersects with race, because of course it does, but class is widely perceived to be the basic framework of social hierarchy in the United Kingdom, and it’s coded in complicated ways that may be unfamiliar to many Americans.

What’s going on with the “house elves” in the Harry Potter books is that the author is taking the well-known figure of the brownie from Celtic folklore and using it to make a statement about class, specifically the class of people whose labor has always enabled the “great institutions” of the United Kingdom to function properly. Without bothering to talk to them or to listen to what they have to say, Hermione sees this class of people as “slaves,” which the house elves themselves find extremely insulting.

This plot line is resolved as Hermione gradually learns that it’s offensive and counterproductive to claim to speak for an entire group of people whom she believes, as an outsider to that group, to be marginalized. Meanwhile, actual members of the group take up activist work based on their own experiences and achieve real change; but, in the end, the “group” is a collection of diverse individuals who have different opinions regarding their “oppression,” and many of them subtly or actively challenge the notion that a privileged group should be allowed to ahistorically define their entire existence as “oppressed.”

Ron tells Hermione that she’s crazy for caring and that nothing should change because this is the way things have always been, but his traditionalism and intellectual laziness are shown to be just as misguided as Hermione’s naive activism. Harry (who is still a teenager, after all) admits that he can see both sides but doesn’t care about the discourse. Nevertheless, when someone close to him is clearly a victim of discrimination, Harry will stand up to protect them, even if he doesn’t like that person.

I don’t agree with the position that ideology doesn’t matter as long as you treat other people decently, which I think is simplistic and reductive, but I can understand how it works as a thematic element in a series of books written for ten-year-olds.

Rowling herself doesn’t entirely agree with this position either, and she addresses the very real and practical problems of the “I see people as individuals” mentality directly in her work for adult readers, including the book she wrote immediately after concluding the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy. The people writing and reblogging posts like the one above don’t acknowledge this, however, perhaps because their only encounter with contemporary British fiction is a series of kid’s books about teenage wizards written during a decade in which a lot of the conversations we’re currently having about social justice were still evolving.

I should add that these books only got as popular as they did because of their cinematic adaptations. These movies are gorgeous and artistically well-crafted, but they tend to flatten and even erase the nuances of the novels. The posts on Tumblr that are critical of Rowling don’t hold the directors and producers accountable for failing to emphasize the progressive themes of the books in order to achieve a broader commercial appeal, nor do they challenge the systems of privilege that have limited the contributions of minority voices to the cinema industry. Instead, these posts pin all faults of the franchise, both real and imagined, on an individual female writer who was very poor for most of her life (thus her various explorations of the theme of class) while decontextualizing what she wrote decades ago in fantasy novels meant for young readers.

Again, it’s vitally important to think critically about popular culture, and I strongly believe that public figures should be held to basic standards of decency. I am all for critiquing the Harry Potter series and Rowling’s creative decisions. That being said, the trend of posts on Tumblr that hold one progressive female artist or activist responsible for everything that’s wrong in the world by means of aggressive decontextualizations of what she’s actually doing and saying are frightening, especially since they’re starting to recirculate within left-leaning spaces in advance of another election cycle.

In the end, who does it benefit to say that books about respecting difference and resisting authoritarian violence even when not everyone on your side is perfect are “problematic” and are only read by bad and stupid people? Moreover, given that the Harry Potter series is the primary gateway a lot of younger kids have into enjoying books, who does it benefit to say that reading itself is something that’s only done by bad and stupid people?

Night in the Woods, Part Two

I started playing Night in the Woods again recently, and I have a lot of feelings about the game. When I get interested in something, my first instinct is to read what other people have written about it. Although I knew it was a mistake, I made a bad decision and clicked on the Polygon review.

This specific line jumped out at me:

Mae also does some platforming in her sleep, and these dream sequences in particular are dull, especially late in the game when the story starts to pick up momentum.

First of all, this game is not a platformer, and evaluating a story-driven exploration game as a platformer because the main character can jump is not useful or interesting.

Second, the dream sequences are amazing. One of my favorite conceits in gaming is a piece of music that has more instruments added as the player makes progress (like the Hateno Village theme in Breath of the Wild), and every single one of the dream sequences handles this conceit perfectly. The songs themselves are weird and fun and creepy – my favorite is Astral Alley.

The fact that a professional game reviewer could look at Night in the Woods and criticize its “platforming” as “dull” boggles my mind to such an extent that I feel like a Lovecraft narrator who can’t describe what he’s seeing and resorts to frenzied and nonsensical muttering.

Here’s another bit of the review that caused me physical pain:

[Mae] is often selfish, cruel, self-absorbed and destructive in ways that may be believable and relatable but rarely ever pleasant. Mae is somewhat redeemed by a childlike joy in simple pleasures, a streak of loyalty to her friends and some late-game realizations about her own failings, but only somewhat.

Mae is a good protagonist because she’s flawed, and she’s a good person because she’s genuinely trying to be sensitive and understanding for the sake of her friends and family. She’s not perfect, but she’s doing her best, and the same can be said of the way most of the other characters in the game treat her. Some people lose their tempers with Mae when she accidentally says something stupid, and some people are mean to her for no reason, but she’s good-natured about it and doesn’t get into fights or try to hurt people to get back at them. She goes out of her way to speak to everyone without prejudice, and she’s extremely generous with her time. She’s good-natured and, yes, she’s loyal and cares about other people, even when she’s hurt. This is why people want to be friends with her.

The fact that an adult man would look at this twenty-year-old female character and say that he doesn’t like her because she’s not performing enough emotional labor is really scary to me, to be honest.

It’s also troubling that Polygon wanted someone to review a story game about a twenty-year-old queer woman and couldn’t find anyone except an older man with children. They didn’t know any women? Any queer people? Not even any younger people? This writer openly admits that he didn’t want to review this game. Could the editors at Polygon really not find anyone in even a slightly different demographic? Perhaps someone who had been following the development blog attached to the game’s massively successful Kickstarter campaign?

I wouldn’t usually include the name of the reviewer in a critical response like this, but I think it would be weird not to mention that this review was written by Justin McElroy. I know a lot of people love The Adventure Zone, but I have to admit that I’ve never understood the charm of the McElroy brothers. The fact this writer is something of a celebrity in queer-identified youth cultures is even more troubling in light of his attitude regarding Mae’s mental illness.

In that regard, this part of the review is genuinely frightening:

After a scene where Mae belittles her parents for working for years so they could afford to send her to the college that she had just bailed on, I found it pretty difficult to re-engage with her. But I’m also a parent and feel a lot further from Mae’s side of the kitchen table than I used to. It’s a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character, and it’s an effective way of highlighting the virtues of the supporting cast.

Before anything, it’s important to point out that Night in the Woods is a dialogue-driven game. Except for a handful of very specific instances, the player is always given a choice of what Mae can say and how she can respond to the direction the conversation is taking.

For an adult man who identifies as a parent to choose the dialogue option that belittles Mae’s parents and then blame his own choice on the personality of a twenty-something female character in a video game is hypocritical and unfair.

It’s also important to provide the specific context. What has happened is that Mae’s mom, who is stressed out about money but doesn’t want to talk about it, tries to be “helpful” about her daughter’s illness in an unhelpful way. Mae interprets her mother’s genuine but off-the-mark concern as condescending, and she makes a shitty comment about how she doesn’t want advice from someone who stayed in town and never went to college. Mae’s mom snaps and says she worked hard so that Mae could go to the college that Mae has dropped out for reasons that, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, she’s either not willing or not yet ready to explain.

Mae knows this, of course, and Mae’s mother knows she knows this. They both realize they’ve gone too far. Again, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, Mae can either apologize or be a brat and walk away. Regardless, Mae and her mother offer each other more meaningful apologies later, and Mae’s father provides a different perspective on the situation when Mae mentions that she wants to start looking for a job. Essentially, he tells her that it’s the responsibility of parents to care for their child; and that, as parents, he and Mae’s mother take that responsibility seriously.

What the player learns toward the end of the game is that Mae was suffering from severe depression, which was co-morbid with executive function disorder (which refers to the state of knowing what you need to do and wanting to do it but being unable to get started) and extreme dissociative episodes. This specific diagnosis is never provided, but I’ve seen it often enough to know what it is. The way college is structured is not healthy for people who are prone to mental illness, which the game has established is true of Mae. It’s not that there’s anything “wrong” with Mae as a person, but being forced to live in a dorm while taking large general education classes that she wasn’t interested in triggered a crisis with a condition that she had previously been able to manage.

Mae was failing all of her classes, sleeping for most of the day, and thinking about death while feeling that she was slipping in and out of reality. No one helped her – which is normal in American universities – so she came home. Mae’s parents are sympathetic, and Mae is, for the most part, grateful.

Mae is in a difficult situation, but she made the right choice.

What exactly did Justin McElroy expect Mae to do? Stay at school until she successfully killed herself? So that she wouldn’t cause trouble for her parents?

A major theme of Night in the Woods is its critique of this specific attitude, namely, that it is the individual who is to blame for the failings of a large and impersonal system. It’s terrifying to me that Justin McElroy could play this game from start to finish and write about it as a staff reviewer for a major gaming news outlet and completely misread this theme, saying instead that it’s “a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character.” What I’m afraid of is the fact that this is the sort of person who’s driving the culture – an older straight man who doesn’t see any problem with condemning a young queer woman for making difficult but healthy choices about her own life.