Night in the Woods, Part Three

Night in the Woods contains universal themes, but it’s also specific to its cultural and political moment. If you ignore the context, you run the risk of misinterpreting the story (as I would argue that the person who wrote the Polygon review did). I’ve seen numerous reviewers and theorists label Night in the Woods as “cosmic horror,” but that’s not really what the game is about.

The protagonist, Mae, encounters two monstrous entities during the story. The first is an unseen creature that lives deep in the abandoned mine tunnels under the town of Possum Springs. A cult of older residents of the town have kidnapped and sacrificed at least two young people and one of their own members to this creature in return for a vague promise that the creature will somehow prevent the town’s slow economic decline from advancing. The members of this cult tell Mae and her friends that they’re getting older and would like a younger generation to take over, and the creature itself tells Mae that it’s been sending her strange dreams so that she would be more receptive to the fact of its existence (and thus presumably more willing to join the cult). The second monstrous entity is a giant cat that Mae encounters during one of these dreams, which tells her that, although it’s a “god,” it has no interest in the welfare of lesser beings.

Mae and her friends don’t join the creepy death cult, of course. At the end of the game, Mae explains that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in an absurd and hostile universe, then she and her friends will just have to help and protect each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.

I’ve read a few interesting theories about the relationship between the mine monster, the space cat, and several mysterious incidents in history of the town of Possum Springs, but I don’t think any of that is really the point. What’s more compelling than any of the elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods is the fact that the game is filled with commentary on large, impersonal systems that exploit hardworking but vulnerable people.

Mae feeling forced to drop out of college while her brilliant friend Bea can’t go to college is an example of this. Mae’s parents being afraid of losing their house to the bank because of a usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s tuition is another example, as is the fact that entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs consist of little more than similarly repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. Mae’s friend Angus was abused as a child, which was observed but ignored by his isolated religious community. Meanwhile, the pastor at the church where Mae’s mom works wants to open a shelter for the railroad drifters, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council, which is afraid that lowering the property values in that neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.

In other words, Night in the Woods suggests that it’s not individual activities such as “going to college” or “owning a home” or “participating in a religious community” or “being engaged in civic service” that’s the problem; the problem is but larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the people Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them aren’t given any real choices. For example, Mae’s aunt, who is a local police officer, is doing the best she can, as is Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job and now works at the new large supermarket that forced the local grocery store to be shut down.

There’s an ongoing side story (largely told through optional sidequests) about the historical tension between the mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the mine owners were evil while the labor unions were brave and valiant. At the end of the game, Mae’s father is seriously considering starting a chapter of a labor union at the grocery store chain where he works, but the game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive. The unions are male-dominated, for one thing, and there’s a scene in which Bea explains to Mae, from her own experience, that homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. In addition, Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry as part of the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills at her job as a pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.

What I’m trying to say is that the “horror of an absurd and uncaring universe” in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the mine monster or the star cat. Meanwhile, the death cult of older people who will literally sacrifice the lives of younger people for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living is about as clear of an allegory of the months leading to the 2016 U.S. presidential election as you can get.

According to Scott Benson, the game’s writer and artist, Night in the Woods is supposed to be set in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, but Possum Springs could be anywhere, really. The first time I played the game, I thought it was set in an area of rural north Georgia around Athens, but it could be anywhere – upstate Michigan, rural Kentucky, eastern Washington State, Baltimore, St. Louis, Portland, San Jose, Fairbanks, Cleveland, Buffalo.

The game is so well-written, and it’s so relevant and important. The scariest thing about Night in the Woods is the sheer number of reviews I’ve read that brush it off as a boring platformer with unexplained cosmic horror and an unlikeable protagonist. I’m strongly considering writing about the game for a professional venue, but I need to figure out how to do so without referencing (and thus reinforcing the validity of) these reviews.

We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy

In the spring of 2014, back when people still used Facebook, I came across a post from a male friend who was a grad student at a West Coast school known for its progressive social climate. He had put together a proposal for an event with a female grad student in his department. She sent the proposal to their department chair, who returned it with a brief comment saying that it was unprofessional of her to submit such a shoddy piece of work. My friend and his colleague therefore sat down together and rewrote the proposal. This time he submitted the papaerwork, and the department chair congratulated him and told him that their administrative assistant would be in touch soon to help set up the funding.

When my friend forwarded this response to the female grad student, she pointed out that, lo and behold, he had made a mistake and attached the first draft – the very same one that she had submitted the first time around.

My friend was upset, as he rightly should have been, that such an obvious display of sexism could happen at his Progressive Liberal™ institution. I replied with “I blame the patriarchy” as a comment on his Facebook post and then thanked him via DM for being a good ally and talking about this in a semi-public space.

I didn’t think too much about this exchange until I got a notification that someone had replied to my comment on his post. A white woman around our age, who was a grad student herself, wanted to let me know that she objected to my use of the term “patriarchy.” She threw the Merriam-Webster dictionary at me, saying that, if “patriarchy” is defined as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the family,” then we haven’t lived in a patriarchal society for a long time.

I literally saw red when I read that.

Within the space of ten minutes, I had posted more than a dozen responses to her comment, each of which cited and linked to accredited sources of statistics strongly suggesting the male dominance of various political, economic, social, religious, and cultural fields in the United States.

When I came to my senses, I sent a DM to apologize to my friend. He got back to me right away, saying that my responses were important and asking me not to delete anything. I thanked him again and then took a nice long break from the internet.

I was still upset a week later, though, so I copied all of the text from my responses to that comment on Facebook and made a zine that I called “We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy.” Several dozen of my friends (and friends of friends) wrote to ask me for a copy. I also took copies from three print runs to Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago within the span of two months, and I sold out of all the remaining copies almost immediately after I put them on Etsy. I think I probably ended up giving away or selling more than a hundred copies of this zine, which I found surprising, especially given how quickly put together and cheaply made it was.

The world has changed since the spring of 2014, but not as much as you’d expect, and not always in a sane and reasonable way. I’ve considered updating this zine several times, but I always decide against it. The truth is that I dislike being angry. I feel like anger is a tool that no one person can hold for an extended period of time, so it gets passed from one feminist to the next like a baton. I made my angry feminist zine back in spring 2014, and now it’s time for me to step back so that the next group of young people can speak and be heard.

#MeToo Ethics

Not everyone can be Anita Hill.

We all know who Anita Hill is because she is a smart and brave woman who tried to make the world a better place and succeeded. We do not know the names of the smart and brave women who tried to make the world a better place and failed. If you try and fail, your career will be ruined while the creepy douchebag who’s harassing people will gain extra immunity from future accusations. Anita Hill succeeded because she is smart and brave, but also because she is mediagenic and had a lot of legal support – and it still wasn’t easy for her. Maybe you can’t be Anita Hill, but you can keep triplicate copies of all your records of harassment on hand so that you can stand behind a future Anita Hill when she steps up.

They may not be telling the whole story, but you should believe them anyway.

When a person in a precarious position provides testimony against someone in a position of relative power, it’s important to treat their testimony seriously but also with a sympathetic understanding of the broader context. Most people just want to do their jobs and go home without getting lawyers involved, and most people aren’t going to risk ruining their professional reputation unless something truly upsetting is going on. The chances are that the bad behavior being reported has been going on for a long time and includes far more microaggressions than outright harassment, but it can be extremely difficult to get other people to take microaggressions seriously. If someone makes an accusation, it’s fair to assume that what they’ve chosen to highlight in their testimony is only the tip of the iceberg. Even if they accidentally misrepresent the shape of the iceberg, that giant island of ship-destroying ice is still there.

There are no neutral parties once an accusation has been made.

You cannot simultaneously be friends with a rapist or harasser and the person they raped or harassed. Once a formal accusation has been made, you have to pick a side. This isn’t always easy, but do you really want to be friends with someone who harasses and assaults other people? Or, in rare cases, with someone who has made a false accusation of harassment and assault?

When in doubt, the person who makes death threats is wrong.

Sometimes it’s not clear what’s going on or who the aggrieved party actually is. If you find yourself in a situation in which you have to pick a side but don’t know all the details or who’s telling the truth, you should side with the person who isn’t sending death threats, rape threats, or suicide bait to the other person – or asking or encouraging other people to do it for them.

The accused party does not get to dictate the terms of the relationship.

Someone who has behaved badly does not automatically deserve a second chance, or a chance to explain themselves, or a chance to apologize, or any amount of time and emotional energy of the person they’ve harassed or assaulted. If the person who has suffered because of their actions eventually wants to repair the relationship, that’s up to them, not the person who ruined their life. It’s important that mutual acquaintances not try to act as intermediaries, especially not if there’s a court order in place.

I know it may seem as though I’m speaking in broad generalizations, but each of these observations is based on my own experiences. I thought about giving concrete examples to illustrate these points, but I ultimately decided against it. Like I said, most people (including myself) just want to do their jobs and go home without getting lawyers involved. If someone is willing to risk their career to stand up to harassment and abuse, however, it’s important to support them, even if that “support” is as simple as saving a copy of an incriminating email or unfollowing someone who asks other people to send rape threats on social media.

Deep Water

The problem is that Disney has the brand recognition and the deep pockets to freeze out anyone else who tries.
https://earlgraytay.tumblr.com/post/186522860758/moral-autism-earlgraytay-okay-there-are

Any other time anyone does anything with fairy tales (or princesses, or talking cars, or talking fish, or pirates, or…) Disney can make their own version and sell it at a loss, driving their competitors out of business. They have more money than God. They can afford to lose money on one theme park, let alone one toyline or one movie.

The problem with Disney is that it’s a monopoly. And like any other monopoly, Disney can freeze out anyone who tries to compete with them. I think if you trustbusted Disney – left them with their animation studio and maybe their theme park division, but took away Pixar and Marvel and ESPN and all their television outlets and all the other crap they own – they’d have a harder time undercutting everyone else. You’d see more stuff based on folklore and fairy tales, and it’d have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of being successful.

One of the reasons I love Tumblr is because it gives me so many windows into subcultures I had no idea existed. Members of these subcultures often have unique insider information about things that most people probably take for granted, and it’s interesting to view the world from these perspectives.

I take everything I read on Tumblr with a grain of salt, but it’s still fascinating to learn about, for instance, how groups of people devoted to doll collecting see Disney as using its enormous amounts of capital to monopolize and then destroy the market for toys targeted at young girls. Whether Disney is actually doing this (as they most certainly are) is immaterial; what’s worth paying attention to is that resistance is coming from a subculture that most people would probably assume would be supportive of Disney.

I routinely encounter posts like this that help me remember that the culture I’m familiar with is just the tip of the iceberg. Once you start looking deeper into subcultures, you begin to realize that there are powerful currents underneath the water that shape global mediascapes in ways that aren’t immediately recognizable.

Going onto Tumblr sometimes feels like climbing into a submarine and exploring by the narrow beam of a headlight, and there are any number of odd and unexpected things swimming around below the surface.

How I Got Kicked Out of High School for Being Queer

I got kicked out of high school for being queer. True story!

Content warning for institutionalized homophobia. I landed on my feet and turned out okay, but nothing about this story is pleasant or uplifting.

Because I am a smart and special snowflake, I got accepted as a scholarship student to an elite private high school, Woodward Academy. Woodward Academy is located just south of Atlanta, and it’s one of the three big private schools in the area. Unlike the other two, Woodward Academy has historically accepted students who aren’t white, so it’s relatively diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and national origin. In other areas, however, Woodward Academy was extremely conservative, and it had a “zero tolerance” policy for just about everything you can imagine. People got kicked out all the time for what basically amounted to doing normal stupid things that normal stupid kids tend to do.

It should be said, however, that officials could be bribed to look the other way by means of “donations” to the school. To give an example, there was a kid in high school whom everyone referred to as “[Name Redacted] the Date Rapist” because, well, he had a habit of inviting girls on dates after school, trapping them in his car, and raping them. His family was very wealthy, so it was the girls who came forward who were punished, not him. It’s not as if it were just him doing this, either; the environment at Woodward Academy at the time was very Brett Kavanaugh.

Anyway, I got kicked out of Woodward Academy during my junior year, a few months after I turned sixteen.

What happened is that a friend of mine had a stressful home life and smoked pot to help deal with her depression and anxiety. She was also in all Honors and AP classes, so she had to deal with that pressure as well. If you happen to be under the false impression that marijuana turns kids into academic burnouts, I want to assure you that this girl was doing very well academically. My friend was also openly bisexual and something of a leader and mentor in the fledgling LGBTQ+ community at Woodward. Under the pretense of cracking down on illegal drug use, the administration decided to force her to leave school. Again, she was doing very well academically, and it’s telling that it was her who got kicked out and not any of the kids who openly sold prescription stimulants and painkillers in the student center, openly advertised their raves, or openly did cocaine in one of the third-floor bathrooms, which we called “the cocaine bathroom” because it had a weird raised shelf above the sinks that honestly felt like it was installed for no other purpose than to make it easy to do lines of coke.

Because I was friends with this girl – and yes, because I once bought pot from her – I also got kicked out after being randomly summoned to the Dean’s Office in the middle of class in order to be subjected to a weird kangaroo court intended to induce panic and thereby pressure me into outing other students. There were a number of students in my grade whom everyone knew sold drugs; and, even though I never interacted with any of them, they were so notorious that I can still remember their full names. All of these kids came from money, and some of them are doing very well for themselves these days. It’s almost as if it’s not drug use that’s the problem, but the stigmatization of certain types of people associated with drugs in the popular imagination, right? Anyway, the dean only asked me about students who were, to put it in the language of 2019, queer or questioning. I didn’t handle this interview as well as I could have; but, to give myself credit, I quickly figured out what was happening and refused to say anything.

You may be thinking that I probably had other problems, because it’s not feasible that someone would be kicked out of school just for being suspected of being gay. It’s true that I had a difficult first year of high school, which was directly related to my own stressful home life, but I got my act together and, like my friend, was in all Honors and AP classes during my junior year. Despite enduring a ridiculously long commute, working several part-time jobs, and also managing a dysfunctional household more or less single-handedly, I got good grades and even managed to participate in a few extracurriculars and do volunteer work. Also, after my one teenage experiment with marijuana, I was obnoxiously straightedge until college. I had a wide circle of friends and was generally liked, but I didn’t hang out after school or go to parties. Instead, I would sit in the gorgeous school library and study foreign languages. In fact, it’s because I was doing so well academically that I was able to enter a top-ten school as a freshman during what should have been my senior year of high school.

In other words, I’m not the sort of person who would have been kicked out of an elite prep school for not getting good grades. What I was, however, was friendly with a lot of gay kids. We had actually started to come out and identify ourselves as LGBTQ+, which several of my friends’ parents later told me was a major topic of discussion in PTA meetings at the time. Apparently this was a problem.

I didn’t understand that I had “a gay identity” in high school, but I always knew that I was romantically attracted to people of all genders and that my sense of myself didn’t align with “male” or “female.” Romantic attraction and gender presentation wasn’t the entirety of my identity, however, and I wasn’t particularly interested in either of those issues at the time. I loved science and reading and visual art, and I really just wanted to study and do well in my classes. If you can think of a stereotype of the sort of high school student who becomes college professor, I would have been exactly what you’re envisioning. Still, even if I wasn’t aware of it, there was something about me that was “queer,” and it was apparently visible enough to become a problem for school administrators who didn’t want even one person like that in the student body.

So that’s how I got kicked out of high school for being queer.

After that, I was ostracized by my family, who refused to support me emotionally or financially. It was tough, and I had to make some awful decisions that I’m not proud of.

I want to say “it got better,” but it didn’t, not really. In order to survive, I had to pass as cisgender and straight, and I still don’t make a point of disclosing my gender and sexuality if it’s not necessary, especially within a professional context. What this has led to, unfortunately, is LGBTQ+ gatekeeping and the assumption that I’m unqualified to talk about queer identity. I’m still in a weird liminal space between presenting as straight and being openly gay, and feeling unwelcome has become my default. Having a disability doesn’t help, of course.

There’s no moral to this story, but I still think it’s important to share. If nothing else, it’s good to remember that progress is gradual, as is healing and acceptance. I may not be in a place where I can be comfortable with myself yet, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never get there.

I still love books, and now I’m a tenure-track professor in the modern languages department at a large international research university. My friend also turned out okay, and she’s now living with her wife in a beautiful part of the world and operating a legal marijuana dispensary. We’re mutuals on Instagram, and she is living her best life, which is lovely and super wholesome and filled with outdoors adventures.

In any case, I’d like to add that the issues raised in this personal anecdote have implications beyond my own life. Kids shouldn’t be kicked out of school just for being queer, and it’s important to say that the same goes for straight kids, as a lot of straight kids also have to leave high school because of their harmless sexual activity. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I’m such a strong supporter of collaboration between intersectional feminists and LGBTQ+ activism. No one should be denied the right to an education for expressing their gender or a healthy teenage sexuality!

Constant Vigilance

One month after controversial adult-content purge, far-right pages are thriving on Tumblr
https://thinkprogress.org/far-right-content-survived-tumblr-purge-36635e6aba4b/

This subtle far-right creep echoes a 2017 study by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue which warned that the far-right had become extremely adapt at using internet platforms to normalize their ideas. “The weaponisation of internet culture is deliberately used by extreme-right influencers to bring about attitude and behavioural change, in particular among the younger generations,” the report warned.

This sort of normalization of white nationalist talking points was what tech companies were supposedly shocked by – and promised to stop – in the wake of Charlottesville, as they provided an easy way of “red-pilling,” or radicalizing and recruiting, new members, most of whom are young, white, disaffected men.

White Supremacist Propaganda
https://closet-keys.tumblr.com/post/160047478578/white-supremacist-propaganda-while-a-lot-of-klan

The intent is to convince racist white people (who don’t think of themselves as racist, but who clearly are, and clearly feel angry when their entitlement isn’t immediately gratified) that the hate group in question is just ‘misunderstood’ and is really about pride and celebrating your own culture, etc.

The intent is that once someone falls for that bait and hook, they can play up on their underlying resentment and entitlement. If you already believe that you should be able to celebrate being white, and they can bring you from that belief to the belief that people of color are preventing you from your right to have pride in that, then they can foster anger against people of color. From there, any time there is a collective societal reaction of disgust towards the hate group or towards the notion of white pride, the recruited whites can be relied upon to feel victimized by society collectively.

Both of these essays accurately reflect my social media experience with mainstream white supremacy and white supremacist messaging, which is worded and coded in such a way that it seems plausible that a decent, reasonable person would agree with it if they didn’t know where it was coming from. “Loving your heritage doesn’t mean being a racist” is representative of this type of entry-level messaging, which is intended to target people who feel socially alienated and are searching for positivity and affirmation.

At the beginning of 2019, I expressed concern about people on Twitter getting upset over chunky otters and Marie Kondo. I understood why people were getting upset, of course, and there were some important discussions on the subject of Marie Kondo in particular. Still, there needs to be a serious and public conversation about covert white supremacist messaging, and I’m not sure that we took advantage of the opportunity to have it.

To give an example of what I mean by “covert white supremacist messaging,” back in 2016 or so I followed a few people who occasionally reblogged lovely nature photography. Tumblr’s algorithm then began to recommend all manner of weird gender essentialist and white supremacist posts. What I was eventually able to figure out is that the nature photography was of scenery in Germany specifically, and that the blogs posting it had tagged these posts as “featherwood,” a term that may have once been associated with female prison gangs but has since spread to people who have embraced a Quiverfull-style ideology concerning race and gender (namely, that it is the duty of white Christian women to have as many white Christian children as possible). As soon as I blocked the word “featherwood” on Tumblr, the problem was mostly fixed. I also had to unfollow three or four people who reblogged these posts, often alongside Steven Universe photosets and radical leftist “are the cishets okay” memes.

What I’m trying to demonstrate with this example is that there are in fact codewords and ideological patterns that are strong indicators of veiled white supremacist leanings. Because it’s entirely possible for intelligent people in progressive communities to spread alt-right memes without understanding what they are, I wish the huge public conversations about race and representation happening on social media would touch on this sort of thing.

Another example is the expression “the coastal elites,” which has been a white supremacist codeword for “the Jewish global conspiracy” since I was in college (and long before that, I’m sure). When people associated with the American left wing started talking about “coastal elites” during the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, that was a huge red flag for me. There were people on Tumblr reblogging all sorts of authoritarian craziness in the name of social justice, and I had no idea how to tell them that the ideological purity they were advocating was using the language of hardcore white supremacy. When I tried to explain my understanding of what was going on to a few people close to me, the response was inevitably something along the lines of “well you’re a racist for not understanding that Hillary is just as evil as Trump.”

It’s 2019, and you’d think we’d have figured this mess out by now, but that’s not the case. To give yet another example, I’ve recently seen a few of my friends and professional contacts on Twitter retweet things coming from people who advocate #humanscience and #humanbiodiversity. What the people who use these hashtags are specifically referring to is “race science” (here’s an archived webcapture of a widely circulated “human biodiversity reading list” for reference), whose main guiding principle seems to be the “scientifically proven” assertion that melanin is a chemical that causes violent and antisocial behavior. The message that these people (many of whom are writers whose work has been published in respected tech journals) are advocating is that, if we accept that science tells us that climate change is real and that we need to vaccinate our children, then we must also accept it when science tells us [insert whatever racist bullshit is currently trending here].

During the past month or so, when I’ve messaged a few people whom I know personally and have been friends with for years with a gentle note of caution, the responses have been along the lines of “So you’re an antivaxxer then” or “I wouldn’t have pegged you for a climate change denier.” It’s like, “Hang on there friend, I was just trying to give you a heads-up that the person you’ve been retweeting constantly for the past week is a secret white supremacist!” Except it’s not even a secret, because all the codewords are right there in their Twitter profiles.

What I’m trying to explain with these examples is that some people are indeed “secret racists,” and the reason that most decent people don’t see them for what they are is because most of us (thankfully) don’t have much exposure to white supremacist vocabulary or alt-right online spaces. The only reason I know a tiny fraction of what’s going on is because I grew up in the rural Deep South (where people tend to feel more comfortable with being openly racist) and now spend time on gaming forums where MRA-style misogyny can often serve as a gateway to more radical belief systems. My first instinct is to block and avoid this sort of thing when I encounter it, so I’m not an expert, and I still experience the occasional unpleasant surprise when I realize that something I thought was silly and harmless is, in fact, deeply disturbing. (I actually just reblogged something that turned out to be propaganda for the Church of Scientology, and I was mortified when someone told me what it was.)

This is why I wish the conversations people engage in on Twitter and other social media platforms about covert white supremacist messaging would focus more on identifying and explaining codewords and exposing and calling out creepy individuals. If we had more of a collective awareness that this sort of hidden messaging exists and is carefully designed to spread throughout mainstream social networks, it might be easier to identify and quarantine it. After all, the reason that cult-like belief systems are so fringe is because most people find them uncomfortable and strange and don’t want anything to do with them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t real danger in inadvertently spreading this type of messaging.