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Pop culture and the world of Jack Chick

And now, after another (couple of) sad weeks of blogging inactivity, I return. Since Ashley now has Internet, she’ll hopefully be inspired into a spate of blogging soon, but until that happens, this will have to suffice. It’s important, after all, to keep on writing, generating ideas, weaving this giant ball of digital ideas together. I’m really tired from two consecutive nights of very little sleep, but nonetheless I’ll try to write coherently. I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, and intend to discuss the Oscars soon, but first, I must discuss a vital topic very near and dear to my heart.

That’s right: the art of fundamentalist cuckoo Jack Chick. I’ve gone on at length about Chick’s extremely idiosyncratic style and his wackily illogical messages before, and I feel like it’s worth doing again. He’s one of those artists toward whom I have a strange yet powerful set of mixed reactions. He’s full of acidic hatred aimed at millions of people, but his art is so out there, so irrational, and so un-self-aware that it somehow becomes compelling. He has these immediately visible authorial trademarks, from his mediocre and often nonsensical drawing style to his attitude of seething, pervasive paranoia. His comics are so very easy to mock, but so intensely sincere that they couldn’t be an elaborate prank, although sometimes it feels like they can be nothing else.

So today I specifically want to address Chick’s relationship to the rest of the world – you know, the comparatively “normal” world you and I inhabit – and the language it speaks, namely pop culture. Unsurprisingly, considering that he’s an 85-year-old religious extremist who considers Bewitched sinful, Chick doesn’t really have his hand on the pulse of today’s youth. But knowing nothing about young people, to say nothing of how they think or behave, doesn’t stop Chick from making America’s youth one of the primary markets for his evangelism. Countless tracts feature “hip,” dissolute young folk on the road to hell, sinning freely until a tract-brandishing Christian shows them the way. Granted, a lot of tracts also appeal to little kids (easier to convince) or middle-aged men, but teenagers seem to be a special target for Chick.

And naturally, in trying to appeal to kids, Chick tries to speak to them in their own argot by referencing pop culture. But he makes a mistake common to uptight old people who want kids to do what they say: he tries too hard to come across as cool, and ends up sounding dated, desperate, and clueless (which, to be honest, he is). To make my point, I’ll make use of three similar tracts that each drive home a typical Chick argument – i.e., that Satan lures the youth into hell through witchcraft – Dark Dungeons (1984), The Poor Little Witch (1987), and The Nervous Witch (2002).

Dark Dungeons was and still is perhaps the most notorious of all Chick’s tracts. It’s far from the most morally extreme or artistically absurd, but it’s a perfect representation for a mainstream audience of the one-of-a-kind brand of crazy that is Jack Chick. Dungeons & Dragons was first released in 1974, but the big panic didn’t start until the ’80s, prompted by the 1979 disappearance of James Dallas Eggbert III, and the subsequent book and TV movie very loosely based on his case, Mazes and Monsters. (The latter of which starred Tom Hanks.) Not one to be left out of a moral panic, Chick jumped all over it, both by publishing two pieces by Bill Schnoebelen and, of course, by writing Dark Dungeons.

With Dark Dungeons, Chick tries to reach vulnerable teens in the most heavy-handed and poorly thought-out of ways, and as a result depicts a world which exists only in his paranoid, puritanical imagination. Admittedly, I’ve never played D&D or had any interest in it, but as someone who’s been generally a part of nerd communities since high school, I can easily debunk a few aspects of the tract. For example: D&D as something played obsessively by covens? As a gateway to actual magical powers? As a game played in equal numbers by boys and girls? Each of these representations are demonstrably untrue. (Besides, among other questions, if playing D&D gives you access to “mind bondage” spells, why the hell would you then sit in a grungy basement playing D&D?)

It’s not hard to see why Dark Dungeons is seen as the archetypal Chick tract,¬† serving as the model for many parody strips like Daniel Clowes’ “Devil Doll?” It follows the usual tract storyline to a T – sinner goes on the path to hell, gets saved, old friends go to hell – and, so early on and so memorably, it showed how out of touch Chick was with any part of youth culture. But he wasn’t about to let up. Oh, no. Only 3 years later he struck again with The Poor Little Witch. This time around, he dropped D&D as a gateway into satanism, and broadened his scope to the general high school experience.

Chick does have a definite cultural touchstone here; however, it’s presented pretty obliquely. He’s borrowing liberally from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), which had already been out for over a decade at the time this tract was written. But instead of the female outsider developing psychic powers and using them on her peers, her peers are the ones with the powers, which they’re willing to share with her. Chick uses some familiar names and images from Carrie – the volleyball scene that opens the film and tract, the last name White, even the biblical quote “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live…” – and repurposes them in his own incoherent, self-contradictory ways.

As usual in Chick’s visions of the world, the devil is everywhere (here he goes under the name “Bruth”). Whereas De Palma and Stephen King saw the cruelties of Carrie’s classmates as an evil of its own, Chick portrays it, along with their influence on his Carrie stand-in “Mandy,” their tendencies to drink the blood of infants, and the hypocrisies of the local church as all manifestations of the same big evil in the service of Satan. Chick starts out with a similar premise, but veers off in his own formulaic, counterintuitive directions, unwilling to stop until Mandy has been thoroughly converted by fundamentalists. No matter how convoluted and implausible the storyline becomes, Chick insists on each tract reaching this identical ending.

And just as he shoehorns his stories into these neat little finales, dictating who goes to heaven and hell, Chick has to shoehorn his worldview into his faith, no matter how far the end result may depart from what the world is actually like. Obviously pressures to drink baby blood weren’t the greatest form of evil confronting American girls, but to Chick it only makes sense that blood-guzzling satanists would be causing this decline in teenage morality. After all, it allows him to divide the world up into good and bad, “Christian” and “Satanist,” without having to face any kind of moral ambiguity.

So Chick isn’t just out of touch with the youth culture because he’s ignorant; it’s also because he’s too ethically and intellectually lazy to accept that anything other than Satan himself acts as an obstacle in teenagers’ everyday lives (or that anything other than loving Jesus could give them real satisfaction). The most recent of the tracts I’m discussing, The Nervous Witch, is pretty much a revamp of the other two, reworking the same themes of peer pressure and the occult.

Comparatively, though, it kind of falls flat, since Chick leaves behind the cultural specificity of D&D or the paranoid fantasy of a small town under Satan’s thumb that dominated The Poor Little Witch, and instead creates a mano-a-mano spiritual battle between Sam and Holly, two girls who think that “God… loves us witches!” and Sam’s saintly uncle Bob. (In retrospect, “Bob Williams, Demon Hunter” would have made for a far more compelling title.) The battle never really climaxes, though, since Holly just walks off (and presumably goes to hell), while Bob literally pulls the evil spirit out of Sam.

The tract also suffers, as do so many of them, since the storyline is stopped dead for a heavily-anotated Bible story, immediately and sensibly decried by Sam as “lousy.” (Also, how mature is Bob’s retort to Holly’s “And we win!” with “No, you lose“?) But beyond this poor pacing and his apparent assumption that all pairs of young female friends are also God-hating witches, Chick manages to make even more outlandish, audience-alienating claims.

Bob: Tell me, Samantha… How did you and Holly get into the craft?

Sam: Through the Harry Potter books! We wanted his powers… so we called for spirit guides. Then they came into us… They led us into stuff we found in the Harry Potter* books – tarot cards, ouija boards, crystal balls…

That’s right: never one to be left off of a moralistic bandwagon, Chick takes this last-minute chance to hammer away at the Harry Potter series. By 2002, four books had already been released. The fundamentalist furor against them had already reached its peak, even resulting in an Onion parody in 2000. But Chick, of course, wants to remind everybody that he knows what’s new in the world of evil! Chick somehow even outdoes the Onion‘s coverage of the outrage, going so far as to mention magical phenomena – spirit guides, tarot cards, and Ouija boards – that are completely absent from the books.

The tract then concludes with a good old-fashioned bonfire of demonic paraphernalia, showing that Chick hasn’t really tuned in to pop culture since John Lennon said something about being bigger than Jesus. In the end, comparing these tracts does lead to a few revelations: Chick takes an extraordinarily reductionistic, one-size-fits-all view of morality. This probably helps explain why so many of his tracts follow these rigid narrative patterns. Whether the issue at stake is D&D, Harry Potter, or generic witchcraft, Chick can’t conceive of any cause that doesn’t involve satanic intervention, or any solution that doesn’t involve turning to Christ.

This also points the way to Chick’s greater understanding of humanity itself: basically, we’re all puppets. Even though Chick believes passionately that salvation comes from belief in Jesus Christ and that alone, he still thinks that bad behavior comes from demonic prodding, and good behavior from… well, that’s unclear. Chick demands to eat his cake and have it too in every situation, to the point that Uncle Bob can fail to convince Sam or Holly with his “lousy story,” yet still somehow “win” by the end of the tract.

Chick can also have his treacherous reverend quote the “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” line and give its biblical attribution, then undermine it with another Bible quote. This is one aspect of the tracts that makes them so compelling: their total lack of internal consistency. As long as the final outcome is the same (somebody goes up before God and is either accepted or condemned), it doesn’t matter what came before. And if the logical puzzle pieces don’t quite fit, Chick will nibble on the ends until they do. It doesn’t matter if Harry Potter doesn’t use tarot cards, or if D&D just doesn’t work that way at all. Truth or reality are always a distant second to Chick’s all-consuming faith. Don’t bother trying to figure out how his world works, because it’s not like ours. Jack Chick, you see, is a fundamentalist.

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My gripe with Avatar fandom

Fandom, at times, can be a little frightening. I like to think about the psychological effects of mass media and the Internet; I spent part of last night reading about “online disinhibition effect” – a consequence of virtual anonymity that we’ve all observed, whether we’ve seen flamewars or trolls or insulting posts in online forums. Today I’ve been reading into the sometimes terrifying world of the newly-born Avatar fandom.

Now, fandom isn’t always negative; as I wrote about Trekkies, sometimes fans can band together to create bold, new works out of the preexisting substance of the franchise. Ashley and I both wrote mediocre fanfiction when we were younger (her about Harry Potter, myself about Digimon), and it helped us start writing. However, I have some issues with the massive Avatar following that’s sprung up online.

Now, I grant that this is an enormously popular, successful, profitable movie. Not an especially good one, as I noted in my review, but somewhat imaginative and extremely well-loved. But I feel like the explosive interest in Avatar, which includes multiple wikis, forums, blogs, etc., reveals additional problems with the movie: namely, it’s contrived in order to create a huge base of fans, so that maybe Avatars 2 and 3 can join the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time, too.

I mean, the movie’s purpose is to launch a franchise, to sell peripheral merchandise, to spread Avatar brand awareness through lunch boxes and stickers and whatever else you can cram into middle school lockers. It’s a fucking blockbuster – that was its mission, which is now very well accomplished. Yet intriguingly, and disturbingly, some people see it as a worthy cultural object to base their life around.

Through two lovely blogs, Geekologie and Ramblings of a Film Snob, I’ve recently learned about the worst of the worst amongst Avatar fans: those who get depressed because “the dream of Pandora [is] intangible,” as a CNN article informs me. Against my better judgment, I visited a forum called Naviblue.com, and glanced over some of the more egregious topics:

Coping with Avatar/Pandora Withdrawals
Why are people claiming that Avatar has a racist message
If your Avatar were to die…
What do you think avatar hidden message is
Real Life Na’vi Tribe (NOT on the Internet!)

Now, I know this is just par for the course in the age of the Internet. If there is some phenomenon – especially within the realm of fiction-world-based sci-fi – somebody’s going to obsess over it. There have always been nerds. What were alchemists but a kind of proto-nerd? But I think that the CNN story linked to above isn’t just pointless hysteria along the lines of “Video games and Marilyn Manson make our kids violent” stories of the past; I think it’s symptomatic of something greater, which possibly connects to online disinhibition effect.

I’ve expressed before an interest in child psychology – how children are sometimes incapable of distinguishing between fiction and reality, and how they process media differently. I wonder if these reactions to Avatar have to do with this kind of childlike perception. Hell, when I was 11-12, I desperately wanted the Harry Potter world to be real. I actually mused about how I’d be able to cast spells in heaven. You know why? I was a stupid 12-year-old, that’s why.

However, Live Journal user tireanavi, who writes “We Are Na’vi [Na’vi Reborn],” doesn’t look 12. Glancing hesitantly through their entries, it betrays a slightly frightening level of devotion to Avatar, as well as a connection to “Otherkin” culture, which I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I have to wonder, are they being serious when they ask, “do you have any memories of your life on Pandora? How clear are they, how detailed?” It reminds me in a way of Jack Chick’s “Dark Dungeons,” and the total disconnect from reality that Chick perceives in D&D users.

Now, I’m not just a “hater.” I have a genuine interest in exploring what’s psychologically behind these actions and claims. At a certain point, fandom does start entering into cult territory; I’m reminded of the stories of violence against Twilight haters (granted, that’s from a virulently anti-Twilight website). You’re an unhappy or desperate person, you find something to latch onto, and you defend it against any who object to it. The quality of the cultural object doesn’t matter: it’s yours, and you need it. Scary? Yes, I’d say so. I think of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, searching for any purpose, or of this very dark Onion article about desperate fandom.

I’m not really able to draw any conclusive answers here about the hows and whys, but I do think that the mentality being fostered in Avatar fans who dream of living on Pandora or being a Na’vi – even to the extreme of, to quote a forum user named Mike, “contemplat[ing] suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora” – is on the verge of cultlike. And I don’t think that’s a total coincidence. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, Avatar is basically prefabricated fan material. It’s designed to acquire fans; its universe isn’t all that organic or lived-in, but it does have a sufficient number of tiny details for fans to obsess over.

I think a great example is the Na’vi language. I’m not saying a lot of work didn’t go into it. But I think back to before Avatar was released, when a news story about artificial languages discussed Na’vi, saying it’d be the new Klingon, which is notorious for being spoken fluently by diehard Trekkies. And sure enough, Avatar fans are talking and writing in Na’vi; I suspect that this is done so that 1) they can equate themselves with film’s blue, in-tune-with-nature noble savages and 2) they can have a way of speaking that normal, uninitiated folks don’t use. Having a special vernacular is common amongst most fandoms (“muggle”?); Cameron, whose already swollen ego must be close to imploding, just accelerated the process.

So my central complaint is that with Avatar, the following just feels so built-in. While talking to Ashley recently, I compared it to the political practice of “astroturfing” – i.e., artificial grassroots. It’s barely been in theaters a month and already people think they’re reincarnated Na’vi, really? Maybe Cameron tapped into a big 21st century zeitgeist. Maybe it has something to do with growing up with Internet access. Or maybe Avatar isn’t so much a movie as it is a giant, well-oiled fan-acquiring machine.

In any case, now I think I really want to stop talking about goddamn Avatar, but I just wanted to express why it really bugged me. Because this “I saw Avatar and now I’m depressed” story isn’t at all a completely isolated, wacky, extreme case. Our generation is all about losing ourselves in unreality. A few years ago it was Second Life. Or World of Warcraft. And by and large, I don’t believe these types of attractions are good. I believe that works of art can and should improve our real lives, not act as substitutes. That’s what aggravated me about Avatar. And now I want to get back to works of art and my real life.

I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora

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Following up: Jack Chick and PSAs

So, tomorrow my winter break begins. I’ll be in Mound (aka suburban hell) for a week, then back here to work as an office assistant for the Cinema & Media Studies department. Exciting! And just before I leave, I want to write a short post following up on some topics I’ve delved into recently, namely Jack Chick’s The Gay Blade and public service announcements.

So, speaking of Chick, I glanced around WordPress and learned that there are, in fact, several whole blogs devoted to analyzing/attacking his work. These include “Our Lady’s Blog: Why is Mary Crying?,” which mainly goes after Chick’s anti-Catholicism, as well as “Investigating Jack T. Chick,” which I consider a worthy cause. Chick’s reclusiveness, coupled with his wackiness, really makes him prime material for wondering, “Who is he really, anyway?”

Like me, “Investigating Jack T. Chick” saw fit to tear apart The Gay Blade; however, they did it more from a Christian, scriptural point of view, observing how Chick’s claims don’t even stick to actual Christian beliefs – and, for all his obsession with biblical fidelity, Chick doesn’t even really quote the Bible correctly (inserting, unsurprisingly, extra homophobia). I don’t agree with the entire article, but multiple points of view on evangelical comic book craziness are always better; also, they link to this great little humorous take on The Gay Blade. My favorite part: “In the drawing here, we can be sure that these men are not gay! NOBODY IS WEARING BIG TINTED GLASSES!”

So, if anyone out there is, in fact, interested in my perspectives on Jack Chick’s viewpoints and artistry, I’m sure there will be plenty more to come. And so, about PSAs: Ashley and I recently watched the Nostalgia Critic’s “Top 11 Drug PSAs,” and it got us thinking about all the exaggerations and insinuations that branches of the U.S. government tried to shove down our throats alongside mid-afternoon cartoons back in the 1990s. For a sample, we turned to the Nostalgia Critic’s source, and looked at Retrojunk.com’s list of ’90s PSAs.

This is by no means a comprehensive catalogue, but it’s a start, and I’d love to explore the content and storytelling of these ads in the future. Some are just surreal and disorienting; others are patronizing and laughable; and yet others are starkly nightmarish. I’d also like to learn more about how they came to be written and filmed – who determined which ideologies they’d be expressing? PSAs are especially interesting to me because they’re like a covert intrusion into children’s culture: amidst all the hyperkinetic cartoons and commercials for toys or sugary cereal, we’ve got these little government-sanctioned voices going, “Don’t do drugs!” or “Exercise!” in all kinds of creative, often unexpected ways.

I’ll probably post more on PSAs another time (I just have the oddest obsessions, don’t I?), but for now, here’s one of my favorites among those we uncovered. It’s not from the ’90s – rather, it was released in 1969 – but it’s so catchy and upbeat. It sounds like the kind of song they’d play in ’70s movies when they wanted to evoke the ’30s. It speaks to a younger, more innocent time in our nation’s history. A time when we all had VD.

That’s right! Kids practicing violin! Librarians, pregnant women, butchers! Ballerinas, old businessmen, babies, joggers! They all have VD! The PSA is one of the few art forms that could turn venereal disease into a loving ballad. The message is definitely a good one, and one which carries over to the present (even if the term “VD,” sadly, does not): e.g., not just gay men and junkies get AIDS. But the way it’s being communicated – it’s so whimsical, so fancy free, just makes you want to dance while carrying a parasol!

So that’s my two bits for the day, digging up some more information about my strange, strange hobbies. Finally, a little note: tonight, Ashley embroiled herself in what we might as well call Squirtgate. Basically, a sex blogger called the Kinky Jew posted this “sarcastic humorous post” about why female ejaculation is “EW.” It’s kind of bullshit. And commenters were not happy, and Ashley was one of them. Definitely go read it for yourself. And now I bid adieu to blogging from Northfield for the next week.

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Gay rights and the world of Jack Chick

This term is at last coming to an end, which means I will definitely now have more time for blogging. The only problem is that while my time is plentiful, my ideas are not. So at least in the immediate future, I’m grasping at straws as to what I should write about. You may point out the obvious solution and say, You’ve gone so long without blogging; why start now? Why does it matter? And I’d be hard-pressed to give you a convincing answer. But I think the salient part is that I must write as long as I have two hands and ten or so fingers in front of me, and that’s what I’m doing!

I have some vague desires, blog-wise: I want to write, for example, about visual arts (fim, comics, painting), sexuality, social norms, something along these lines. Yesterday, while conducting some desultory online searches, I found this abominable website, Defend the Family, which is basically nothing more or less than a hate site. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to websites so full of hate – I think it’s the same, unquenchable curiosity that drives a lot of people who investigate and write about radicals, maniacs, terrorists, cultists, and what have you. It’s this desire to find out just what drives these deranged, misguided passions.

What can lead someone to throw their life away on totally futile, objectively worthless pursuits, whether it involves hurting others, hurting themselves, or just harmlessly wasting time and money? They’re definitely relevant, important questions, since they speak to the darker sides of human nature, how easily people can be drawn into supporting malicious plots that cause unspeakable horror. (Nazi Germany is a tragic object lesson is this willingness to follow and believe no matter what the price.)

So it’s a desire to answer these questions – to figure out how and why people can do and think these things – that leads me to the atrocious, horrifying white supremacist website Stormfront (trigger warning of all kinds) and to, again, Defend the Family. Which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t really have anything to do with defending anyone’s family; a more appropriate name for the site would be “Persecute the Gay.” The question here is really, What isn’t wrong with this website? A banner ad along the side hawks books like Redeeming the Rainbow and The Pink Swastika, which the website claims to be “a thoroughly researched, eminently readable, demolition of the “gay” myth, symbolized by the pink triangle, that the Nazis were anti-homosexual.” I am not making this up. Somebody actually wrote this book, and this website is selling it at $16.95 a copy. The other side of the page has a big, bright, apparently family-friendy image:

Because it turns out that sunsets, smiles, beaches, and holding hands are to gays like garlic to vampires. Who knew? For you see, in a world where homosexuality is legal and publicly accepted, men and women won’t be able to embrace each other – brides won’t be able to wear veils! – children will be forbidden from sitting next to each other. Is that the kind of world you want to raise children in (except you won’t have children because the gays will illegalize it)?! Dear lord, how terrible.

You may notice that I revert to sarcasm a lot when dealing with this kind of idiocy. Possibly explanations may be that 1) I’m a pretty sarcastic person in the first place, or maybe 2) it’s so frustrating and ridiculous it’s hard to encounter with a straight face. And yes, I know that sexual identity isn’t the same thing as race or gender, but still, I’m so tempted to imagine. What if this were, say, the 1860s, the 1910s, the 1960s, or some other era when America/the world is poised on the brink of increased equality? Could you imagine a reactionary website from back then with an image like that?

A storm is coming. Do you want teachers telling your kids that black kids are just as good as they are?

If you don’t want to be obligated to acknowledge the equality of others, that’s too bad for you. It does not mean that everyone around you should be bent to your will. Yesterday I read a blurb on this inane website mentioning something called the “Riga Declaration.” It goes like this:

Whereas freedom of religion has been protected in human rights law from antiquity, including the Charter of Human Rights of King Cyrus the Great in 539 BC, the British Magna Carta in 1215 AD, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 and the American Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution in 1789…

[blah, blah, blah]

Whereas natural law recognizes a natural order in sexual and family matters…

[more bullshit]

Therefore, relying upon more than 4000 years of legal precedent and the moral and religious principles we share with the vast majority of the citizens of the world,

We Declare that the human rights of religious and moral people to protect family values is far superior to any claimed human right of those who practice homosexuality and other sexual deviance, and

We Call for the European Union and the international community to immediately abandon any campaign to create a human right for homosexual conduct, and to restore religious freedom and family values to their proper superior status.

Now, for one thing, this so-called “Declaration” isn’t actually anything real or significant in any way. Still, it’s pretty upsetting that some people think it is, or that it’s saying anything legitimate or intelligent. So what’s it really saying (not very coherently)? “We have a religion so your rights don’t matter.” This whole line of thinking is so obviously contradictory to the whole way democracy works; it’s impossible to reconcile wanting to live in a free society with wanting to deprive a group of their rights on such a shoddy basis – i.e., because we don’t like them.

And you know what’s even more sad about this? These claims and “declarations” and bullshit are all illogical and pointless, yet they hold sway over national law. (Just think about what happened in Maine a few weeks ago.) Recently, together with my school’s Gender and Sexuality Center and Cinema & Media Studies department, I helped out (very slightly) in bringing award-winning filmmaker Johnny Symons to campus, along with two of his films.

Daddy & Papa (2002) was very cute, based largely on Symons’ own experiences raising children and those of his friends; Ask Not (2008) was inspiring in its account of youth activism against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and thoughtfully presented numerous counterarguments – from data, from experience, etc. – against the failed policy. I highly recommend watching these movies if you can track them down.

In the end, people like these fuckers for “Defend the Family” are simply on the wrong side of history. Freedom of religion is very important. But so are other freedoms, and there’s no good reason why anyone’s prejudices should cause others to be penalized for private, consensual behavior. (Reality check: Lawrence v. Texas struck down anti-sodomy laws as unconstitutional in 2003.) Within a few decades (at most), I dearly hope that gay marriage will be legal in all 50 states, and this whole absurd debate will be a thing of the past. Till then, I suppose, it’s just a matter of keeping the activism going full force, and not getting discouraged.

(Before I continue: I saw this great website listed on a poster in a high school a few days ago; I plan to glance over it in more detail, because I think this is a fantastic idea. As long as homosexuality is equated with negative attributes on schoolyards across the nation, there is not tolerance. Besides, thinking b4 you speak is just a good idea in general, whether you’re going to spout homophobic shit or not.)

And so, along these lines, I thought I might continue my ongoing investigation into the life and work of Jack T. Chick. The last time I wrote about Chick, I received this very pleasant surprise; if you haven’t watched the documentary yet (it’s very short and informative), I highly recommend you do that now. Chick is endlessly appealing, yet endlessly repugnant, and it’s not unexpected that his stance on homosexuality follows this trend.

Being the wacky fundamentalist he is, Chick has consistently addressed “the gay agenda” in his tracts, using the same overblown, puritanical fury he uses for everything from Halloween to not preaching exactly the right type of Christianity. His most direct take on homosexuality was 1984’s The Gay Blade, where he proved that not only was he behind the times, but that he viewed gay culture with all the accuracy and understanding of a 16th century Spaniard documenting the West Indies. Which is to say, typical Jack Chick. I think I’ll spend the remainder of this post analyzing The Gay Blade; his other two tracts primarily on homosexuality, Doom Town and Birds and the Bees, are similar in structure and content. (Wounded Children is, sadly, hard to find online, but it’s a demented classic.)

So The Gay Blade begins with a scene that you’d think would be out of some futuristic nightmare, but no! It is, in fact (I guess), a current event: a man marrying a man. Chick dismisses the fact that same-sex marriage was recognized nowhere in the U.S. in 1984, and pretends that men getting married to each other, and then rushing into waiting vehicles framed against indistinct gray backgrounds, is the greatest threat to Christendom since whatever else has made mothers cover their children’s eyes while thinking, “Gulp!”

(Incidentally, I think Chick’s tendency of making his characters think onomatopoetic words instead of say them, like normal people do, is one of his most hilarious artistic quirks – he’s consistent about it, too!)

After expressing anxiety about guys with big hair holding hands, Chick puts the issue out there: “THE GAY REVOLUTION IS UNDERWAY. To most people, it’s a big joke… but is it really?” This is pretty symptomatic of Chick’s indecisiveness: he can’t quite pick whether gays are hated now and should keep being hated, or if they’ve got the full support of our sinful society and the government behind them. He flip-flops repeatedly over the next few panels.

Note the proud lesbian – apparently being leered at by guys with crooked heads? – wearing her requisite shiny black dyke uniform. So what is it, Jack? Are homosexuals “in a display of defiance against society… suffer[ing] the agony of rejection, the despair of unsatisfied longing – desiring – endless lusting” (yes, it really says that)? Or are they basically in control, as page 6 would indicate? He seems to want it both ways. They’re oppressed (good), but they’re oppressing (bad). If you’re confused… welcome to Chickworld.

The scene then changes, as Chick takes on a trip into the past, to the last time gays were given free reign to be their bad gay selves: SODOM. We see some valiant archaeologists uncovering millennia-old carvings and immediately covering their faces. One of them cries, “Good Lord, I can’t believe my eyes, we can’t publish this. It’s filthy!” The discovery of this ancient gay porn lets Chick segue into one of his usual long Bible stories, one he’d later recount in far more graphic detail in Doom Town. Lot lives in Sodom, gets visited by angels, the Sodomites get pissed, demand that he send the angels out “that we might know them (sexually),” and in the end, everyone dies.

Chick underpins this section, which is not all that artistically interesting, with a lot of Bible citations (Genesis 19:10, Genesis 19:11, Genesis 19:24, etc., etc.) and bullshit archaeological evidence. Then, mercifully, we return to the present day, where “new laws” are encouraging gays to take the offensive by grabbing people’s arms and refusing to let go, while simultaneously resisting Christ’s power. It also leads into one of my very favorite pages from this tract.

Is it just me, or did Chick somehow make his condemnation of the gay lifestyle unintentionally sexy? I’ve heard of unintentionally funny before, but – I mean, look at her, an attractive young lesbian, defying the idiocy of the very comic she’s in! Sure, she’s got a confusingly-worded biblical passage beneath her, but your eyes wander away from “…did change the natural use…” and you start thinking, Wow! She cannot change, and she doesn’t want to! I’m convinced. Gay lifestyle it is.

After this page, the tract mentions some old canards – gay men die young because they’re violent and get AIDS (and remember, it’s just because they’re gay men, has nothing to do with centuries of systematic oppression) – quotes some more paragraph-long Bible verses, and kind of gives up and goes home. “Homosexuality is one of many sins,” explains the second-to-last page. “There are also murder, lying, adultery, drunkenness, etc.” A scathing indictment of homosexuality, to be sure: It’s in the same ballpark as murder, lying, and stuff.

So what can we learn from Jack Chick’s outdated rampage of silliness and illogic? I see it as a glance into this madly homophobic thought process that helps drive shit like what happened in California and Maine. Men holding hands are different. They’re icky. They’re the Other, and we – being good normal straight white Christians – just don’t like ’em. Besides, they’re all proud and angry and God hates them and eww, they sleep with others of the same sex.

Ultimately, what evidence does Chick really have other than pages of gay caricatures far removed from reality, and reams of vague, randomly-applied Bible quotes? His main line of argument amounts to “Gays scare me, and that makes them bad.” Unfortunately, this isn’t limited to one crazy-but-massively-influential cartoonist. If you glance over some of these help-defend-marriage websites, as I sadly have, or even just look at the one I linked to above, that’s their argument. “My religion says gay people are bad. So take away their rights.”

It’s a pretty depressing viewpoint to think about. Hatred is all over the place. Thankfully, the tide is turning, and equality is going to win the day. We just have to keep fighting, keep arguing against this hateful bullshit, and soon the day will come when kids will call each other “gay” about as often as they call each other “straight.”

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The world of Jack Chick, cont’d

So, a few matters to talk about: first of all, sorry (to some imaginary, hypothetically blog-hungry audience) for not posting in forever. Classes, quiz bowl, film society, writing articles/screenplay/stories, etc. have conspired to make me very busy, with more busyness to come. So blogging will probably remain infrequent for the next few weeks. However, I’ll still try to write whenever possible, like today.

Today, at last, I am going to tackle a topic I’ve touched on in the past, but never given the attention it deserves: Jack T. Chick, the fundamentalist artist behind a series of remarkable, poorly-thought-0ut, and widely distributed “tracts” on everything from evolution to Halloween, from rock music to Catholics. So where to start when addressing the style and content of Chick’s work? I think I’ll try to use a specific tract to highlight some of his tendencies – Chick’s Bad Bob!, from 1983.

Chick trademarks: impossible facial expressions and random Bible quotes

Chick tracts walk a difficult line: they’re compelling, yet godawful. The “compelling” aspect relies heavily on my ironic enjoyment of their various stylistic quirks and overstated messages, but it can’t be denied that Chick knows what he’s doing with the broad, simplistic storylines filled with stereotypes and cliches. It’s definitely populist storytelling, and I could imagine it appealing to someone who doesn’t think too deeply about what they read (although it’s almost a struggle to read them superficially enough that they make direct sense). Bad Bob! is no exception. Let’s see what we can get out of this page:

1) Looking at the artwork, we get some of the usual Chick craziness. He can clearly draw the human form well enough, but when it comes to, oh, faces or motion, watch out. From the motion lines here, it appears that the baby is twirling his arms 360 degrees, forcing air upward as the word “WAAAAAAA!!” emerges from his head. And when it comes to faces, Chick characters tend to either have their jaw quivering in explosive anger, contorted in mid-speech, or staring blithely into space with a vapid smile. Or in little Bobby’s case, metamorphosing into some as-yet-unknown species of bird.

2) In terms of the story, I really don’t understand how this page fits in. Chick throws around his stereotypes so freely that sometimes they just make no bloody sense in context. Does this mean that Bob was born to be a rowdy, drug-dealing psychopath, and his baby self was just exhibiting the same satanic impulses? If so, what does that have to do with the rest of the tract in any way? The barely relevant biblical verses Chick sprinkles on every page don’t really help – do “the sparks [which] fly upward” in the book of Job relate somehow to the anguished cries emanating from the baby’s head? If only we could know.

The next couple pages deal with more of Bob’s youthful indiscretions: he floods a house (while his mother insists, “in his heart, he’s such a good boy.”), then gets off easy with a psychiatrist despite saying “GRRR” in his office (no pussy involved) – since in Chick’s world, psychiatry exists only to encourage homosexuality, satanism, etc., and enforce the government’s edict against corporal punishment. Apparently all Chick thinks you need for mental or emotional problems is a good whiff of the holy book, and professionals be damned (literally). Then we fast-forward to “years later,” when all this psychiatry and lax parenting has turned Bob into the kind of bearded, jacket-wearing hooligan who dumps liquids out of orbs onto waitress’s heads.

And Bob just goes on grimacing.

In Chick’s world, there are only a few types of people: there’s A) the saved, who are, well, saved, and evangelize to other people nonstop. They’re gracious, impossibly polite, and will tolerate being spat on without fighting back. They live to distribute Chick tracts. Then there are B) total raving psychos who hate hate hate Jesus with all the fiber of their being, and will murder freely at the very mention of his name. Another damned soul, not quite so aggressively damned, is C) the poor, misled fool who’s never heard of this strange “Jesus” person and thinks he’ll be OK if he goes on being a good person. Oh, how wrong is he. Then, finally, we have D) the false prophets, authority figures, psychiatrists, teachers, and all the other pawns who act out Satan’s decrees on earth. Whether or not they know it, every middle school principal, Catholic clergyman, developmental psychologist, and Obama campaign worker are secretly in league with each other, and probably attend some kind of meetings presided over by Mr. I.M. De Ville.

So on this page, every character seems to be either (B) or (C). Chick was born in 1924 and started doing comics in 1960, but his knowledge of hippies or drug culture is anything but first-hand. The two drug addicts on display here are really par for the course in terms of Chick characterizations: whether good or bad, everyone repeats cliched dialogue, obvious exposition, and straw man opinions. While she tilts her head uncomfortably, the woman declares that everyone loves Bob, despite him being “socially unacceptable.” Lost already? You’re not alone. The man happily lists off half a dozen street names of drugs, and Bob stands around gruffly in the background, holding a bottle, being gruff, and impressing everyone (who “just love him”) by being a head taller than them.

Well, believe it or not, Bob ends up getting arrested by a narc (or “narcotics officer,” as a footnote helpfully informs us) while trying to score with his cousin outside Tooties Bar. He goes to prison, where he continues to wear shades and be gruff, but when a jittery young evangelist walks in with a Bible, you better believe that Bob gets pissed, going so far as to use the word “[spiral] !!! * * !!”, and adding his old childhood favorite, “GRRRR!!!” The poor innocent’s eyes recede into the back of his head and he thinks “Gulp!” as a guard notifies him that the “party’s over.” As the prison walls evaporate into nothingness, the guard begins lecturing Bob and his cousin, mentioning that “[the kid] might be a little off base,” to which a footnote adds, “Love gospel – no repentance.” Does Chick mean that the “love gospel” follows a different, repentance-free theology from the guard (and, implicitly, Chick himself)? Is this a command to love the gospel? Why do the footnotes raise more questions than they answer?*

The tract, in any case, plugs right ahead after the guard’s tedious, heavy-handed lecture with a melodramatic, predictable plot twist (a prison fire) that pretty much spells out “The guard was right, now listen to him.” Chick’s stories tend to be about damnation and redemption. In a damnation story, some dumb schmuck – whether a happy-go-lucky sinner, a devout satanist/Catholic/Jew, or a pathetic 6-year-old unaware of Jesus – goes on with their wicked ways despite the overbearing advice of a Chick-loving Christian, and is usually shown in the last panel burning in the flames of hell. One example is the ridiculous Flight 144, where it’s missionaries who spent decades in Africa who end up damned; another is Fairy Tales. Some tracts lean toward either damnation (the main character[s] end up stewing in hell) or redemption (everybody converts, yay!), but most have a mix of the two: some characters get damned as an example to the rest, who hurry up and pledge themselves to Jesus. So I think we can sketch out pretty easily an archetypal tract plot structure:

Protagonist is sinful –> Fundamentalist tries to convert them –> Protagonist is unreceptive –> Some crisis occurs –> Protagonist falls right into the fundamentalist’s hands –> Protagonist ends up on their knees begging for forgiveness.

Bad Bob! follows this structure meticulously. After the prison fire, do you think Bob retains even the slightest bit of his earlier antipathy toward Christianity? If so, you haven’t been paying attention. These characters aren’t remotely realistic; they’re poorly-motivated caricatures who exist solely to propel Chick’s morality tales along.

A Chick mainstay: the former sinner repenting.

You may ask, why is Bob still wearing his burnt, tattered clothes? Why is the wall inconsistently and incompletely drawn? Why does Chick give his speech bubbles such strange, jagged shapes? I don’t know why, but all of these artistic tics contribute to the ultimate impression the tracts make. Another note: Chick loves his establishing shots, but is terrible at them. We have a few in Bad Bob!, including one of the prison and another of the hospital, but his attempts to incorporate dialogue into them just lead to confusion and inexpressiveness.

So, Bad Bob! ends up with Bob’s conversion, followed by his old druggie friends laughing about his changed behavior and concluding, “we’ll just hafta go find a new dealer” (although the question of how effective a dealer he was while in prison is itself never considered). The final page, as with all tracts, has a list of Chick’s basic pointers for being¬† Christian, including how to be saved, what prayers to pray, and even other tracts you should read. Now, having glanced over a tract and identified some common features, let’s consider why tracts are worth reading (outside of being a gullible, homophobic, anti-everything, fundamentalist loony).

First, as I’ve pointed out here and there, Chick’s visual style is so distinctively and defiantly odd. He doesn’t care if the backgrounds don’t make sense, if characters’ faces are eerily twisted, or if the speech bubbles and sound effects interfere with the rest of the panel. It all exists in the service of his evangelism anyway. So do the characters, dialogue, and story, which means that if these make no sense or conflict with each other, that doesn’t matter either. As long as one character represents Chick’s beliefs and someone else represents the opposing viewpoint / Satan (since his worldview is so fiercely Manichaean), every other element of the comic is secondary.

But instead of just making the comics really bad and incompetent (which they are), the extremely low emphasis placed on quality, accuracy, or logic in the visual depictions or storylines grant the comics a strange appeal. As the saying goes, it could be compared to an artistic car crash – you’re unable to look away, and so, for example, Ashley and I become fixated and spend hours reading tract after maddening tract. It’s a desperate search for the depths which Chick’s art can reach; you’re compelled to keep reading to find out how bizarre and divorced from reality his reasoning and portrayals human behavior can become.

So Chick’s work has an Ed Wood-like appeal on one level: it’s so bad, but also So Bad It’s Good, and almost so bad it’s avant-garde, also like Wood. Then there’s also his inexplicable, wide-reaching exposure and recognizability. Whether or not he’s untalented or insane, Chick is an artistic pioneer. His work has reached and, God forbid, probably converted a lot of people. It’s been found sitting around in public places or handed out by strangers on street corners. Despite all of its aesthetic and rational shortcomings, Chick’s technique works and, if nothing else, it gets its message (“Think like me!”) across to people with all the subtlety of the Tsar Bomba. And besides, the tracts are handed out for free. That can help a lot, I think, when you’re entirely ideologically driven with no visible profit motive.

I think I’ll cut this discussion short for now, but hopefully in the (much later) future, I can return to it and examine some more of Chick’s method and madness. This is some fertile ground for analysis and I still consider Chick one of my many artistic influences. He’s got some interesting stuff going on. So I’ll leave that for whatever point in the next few weeks I get a chance to write more.

* See Bible for explanation.

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Creative droughts and the world of Jack Chick

It’s one of those days. Little ideas flit in and out, but on the whole, my mind is empty. The human mind is a strange, strange place; whole worlds can exist, then be demolished an instant later. Works of extraordinary genius can be dreamed up, then fall apart as if they never were. And it can be swarming with one thought after another yesterday, feel bone-dry today, and tomorrow be just as fertile as it ever was. But I wanted to write a short blog post, and here I am doing it. There must be something to say, after all. I think that’s a vital part of life: having something to say. Otherwise, if I didn’t believe I had that, I might as well sew up my mouth, pack up, and drift into oblivion.

I read a quote in the Sandman Companion that I really liked. It was from Steve Martin: “I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.” I think this applies to the act of creation in general. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to start with nothing but empty line after line and gradually fill in the blanks. It’s like solving an impossibly difficult puzzle with a lot of possible answers, only a few of which really work. It’s like giving birth, except you can scrap your baby, usually without much remorse, and you have free rein with genetic engineering. So that’s being creative. And I like to do that myself, and I also like to take a peek into the evidence that other people have been creative, as well. Like, say, reading poetry. Someone began with nothing and, using the resources of language in and outside their head, produced, for example, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments ,

Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

Or start with nothing but empty celluloid and produce Roy Andersson’s You, the Living, a dark Swedish comedy about coping with emptiness and solitude, told in a strictly stylized manner. I had the good fortune to see it last year at an illicit Film Society screening; one of our members had downloaded it because, naturally, it was unavailable to view anywhere in the country. Only three of us attended the screening on a Sunday afternoon (I had just returned, I think, from Dallas), and now I give thanks to illegal torrenting that I was able to see it. It’s poignant, it’s weird, and I very much recommend that you violate international law by downloading and watching it, unless you can go either to Sweden or to the one theater where it’s being shown in New York City. Creativity is beautiful, but works of art being unavailable for financial reasons is like taking that genetically-engineered baby and chaining them to a post.

Then, on the other side of artistic creation, I want to touch on the subject of Jack T. Chick, someone whose work I find myself returning to again and again. Chick can’t draw well, his dialogue is nonsensical, and his storylines are, well, also nonsensical. Yet he’s one of the most visible comics artists in pretty much the whole world. Why? Because his (sincere) fans are very devoted and willing to go to extreme lengths to make his work seen, like passing them out during Halloween, putting them in public places, etc. Some stand on street corners handing out his comic pamphlets. And all this contributes to Chick being easily seen by those who wouldn’t seek his work out normally (i.e., most sane/intelligent people).

Chick, you see, is a fundamentalist Christian – one who not only alienates, but actively insults most of his prospective audience. The words “raving,” “lunatic,” and “frothing at the mouth” seem like understatements. Chick is, as some would say, a Grade-A, certified loony. Although I’ve heard that in person, he’s actually a pretty nice guy. If you’ve read any of his comics before, you know what I speak of; if not, a good sample of his unique brand of extremist incoherence is Fairy Tales?, the story of a young boy who turns into a serial killer because he’s told Santa doesn’t exist, or something.

The start of Harry's descent into sin, from "Fairy Tales?"

I’m afraid I have very little time today, so I’ll have to cut this particular post short. However, in the future, I’d like to delve a little more into why, exactly, I keep reading Chick’s bizarre, inept comics. Their value, after all, is almost entirely ironic; even if you agree with Chick’s self-contradictory dogmas and conspiracy theories, the comics are still poorly drawn and written. But they just have so much ironic value, and they’re so poorly thought out, that they gain a quality similar to the films of Ed Wood and enable you to read them over and over again. They take place in a Chick-created world incredibly far removed from this one where satanists roam free across the landscape, poisoning children’s bodies and minds, and where the most committed practicer of witchcraft will turn his/her life around with the slightest prodding from a Jack Chick enthusiast. (If the status and influence of Chick’s comics within the world of the comics is any indication of Chick’s ego… wow.) In some confusing, twisted way, I feel we have a lot to learn from Jack Chick. Just so long as we never, ever try to take him seriously.

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Gender roles and bullshit

I’ve been thinking recently about gender differences, roles, and how they affect our lives. There is, after all, a lesson I’ve tried to communicate to children a number of times: Different men behave differently; different women behave differently; there are no absolute, gendered behavioral norms. And there are no inherent bounds saying that only men or women can do some particular activity. I mean, okay, I grant that there are some little biological and psychological differences caused by, oh, the XX or XY chromosomal difference leading to outpourings of certain quantities of certain hormones, causing a few changes in neural structures and, yeah, the genitals, too. But other than that, who’s to say that shopping is for girls and fighting is for boys?

There are all these ridiculous assumptions that are so widely accepted; that have dictated laws and standards of behavior for much of history. When, well, what’s the basis, really? “This is how it’s always been”? Girls have weak nerves and are all fickle, while guys are steadfast and direct? It’s all bullshit, more or less, and I for one am sick of it. It constrains so many lives, restricts so much behavior, puts a damper on so many dreams.

And it causes a lot of other bullshit, too: for example, in my Japanese Cinema class last term, a girl responded to a guy’s dislike of a certain movie (maybe Hula Girls) by describing it as a “chick flick.” And I, naturally, retorted, “I don’t think that good or bad movies have any gender boundaries.” And I don’t. I think that a good movie is good and a bad movie is bad, regardless of whether you’re male, female, or a hermaphrodite. I remember reading in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movies as Politics an essay about Sleepless in Seattle where he talks about how characters constantly refer to An Affair to Remember (1957) as a chick flick; Rosenbaum then points out that he and a number of other male friends love the latter film and that he can never get through it without crying. So basically, these artificial boxes of gender appeal are less than worthless when trying to accurately talk about a movie. They also tend to bring about worsening extremes of trends dreamed up to appeal more to specific genders: e.g., guys like car chases, guns, and scantily clad women; women like hot guys, steamy romance, and sappy bullshit. So why not make movies focusing solely on one set of characteristics, in order to get plenty of business from the target demographic, dismissing such concerns as an intelligent script or a point to get across? And so we hear tell of girlfriends being “dragged along” to action movies and boyfriends being forced to go to chick flicks.

As a random example of these trends, let’s take the two top-grossing movies in the nation, neither of which I’ve seen, and broadly apply these criteria. G.I. Joe: the Rise of the Cobra: action? Guns? Loud noises? Check. Julie & Julia: cooking? Emotions? Meryl Streep? Check. I think it’s pretty clear which genders these movies are for. (The third-most-popular, G-Force, must be for those sexless little subhumans called “children”.) I’d go so far as to say that these pointless gender divisions serve the interests of those faceless corporate giants I was talking about the other day. Why else have TV channels “for men” and “for women”? So they can pander their gender-specific products to the right markets, of course.

Billy Tipton, gender fugitive of the musical worldJames Barry, Victorian surgeon (and lifelong transvestite)

Of course this brings up lots of difficult little questions about what gender differences mean or what they’re worth, if they shouldn’t restrict behavior or opportunities. How can we turn these borderlines into advantages for all involved instead of walls that cordon off our lives? Instead of answering these really hard questions, I’ll veer off into another, related topic that’s fascinated me for a long time: gender ambiguity. Take, for example, two fairly notorious cases of women masquerading as men: Billy Tipton and James Barry. Both of them dressed as men both for professional advancement and in their private lives, keeping their secrets from almost the entire worlds until their deaths. Tipton dressed as a man in order to work as a jazz musician, and ended up carrying on “heterosexual” relationships with a number of women, even going on to adopt 3 children. Barry crossdressed so as to become a surgeon in 19th century Scotland and ended up travelling the world receiving many medical accolades. In both cases, their “true” gender was only discovered when they died.

So, the questions are many: how do cases like these fit into this dichotomized world we’ve constructed, where we have the pronouns “him” and “her,” where we align the word “masculine” with a collection of attributes and behaviors, and its opposite, “feminine,” with a totally distinct set? A fascinating book called Vested Interests by Marjorie Garber has directed me to a 1620 pamphlet called “Hic Mulier” (Latin for “This Woman,” but using the masculine word for “this,” hic), which condemns women who behave or dress in a masculine manner as base deformities, and worse. It’s just amusing to see how shocked and offended people get when the frameworks, however inaccurate, they have set up for perceiving the world get violated by a real-life example. Hell, I’ve personally been attacked, jokingly or otherwise, a number of times throughout my life for not fitting well enough into the established ideas about how a man should look, think, and act. I’m reminded of the comics masterpiece Fun Home when Alison Bechdel talks about Proust’s theories of homosexuals as gender “inverts” – basically, that gay men are actually women in male bodies and vice versa. It’s a belief that, in less sophisticated or meaningful manifestations, is pretty wide-spread, even turning up in the particularly insane Jack Chick tract “Wounded Children.”

Jack Chick's bizarre take on homosexuality

Earlier in the same tract, the inconsistent, self-defeating devil tells David, “You are really a little girl inside a boy.” Man, Chick has an ear for dialogue. But this inane association and confusion of homosexuality, transgender, and just behavior outside of gender norms is pretty pervasive. Hence, kids in high school who don’t like sports are gay, or sissies, or maybe even “girly,” “like a girl,” feminine, etc. You know. And they’re probably accused of having boyfriends, and insist that no, no, they’re not gay, they’d never want to be saddled with a label like that. Incidentally, if you want to see a very funny interrogation of gender roles and sexuality in high school, check out But I’m a Cheerleader from queer filmmaker Jamie Babbit. It’s a flawed movie, as Ashley and I discussed while watching it, but it does a great job of taking on issues like homophobia and the very real insanity of conversion therapy, and it has a great cast including John Waters regular Mink Stole and RuPaul dressed as a man.

Speaking of movies and gender roles, I also just wanted to mention Young Man with a Horn (1950) starring Kirk Douglas. I watched it last night, largely because I was curious to see Lauren Bacall being noticeably bisexual. And she was (having a pretty obvious dalliance with a pretty female painter), though interestingly Doris Day’s character constantly refers to her as sick, mixed-up, disturbed, etc., etc., and warns Douglas, the young trumpeter, away from her. This is pretty consistent with the tendency, at the time, to regard homosexuality as a problem, a sign of a very confused mind, and bisexuality? Well, there’s a trope for that (and one given new life by Sharon Stone in the early ’90s). It just seems interesting, odd, and illogical to me to associate attraction to a certain gender (or both) with corruption and sinfulness. I mean, heterosexual males commit a vast majority of the world’s rapes, so why isn’t there a “violent, disturbed heterosexual” stereotype?

These are a lot of difficult questions, but they’re ones we need to keep in mind. They affect us everyday, and we often don’t even realize it because these norms and expectations are so deeply ingrained into the way we think. Gender differences exist, but it’s about time we stopped plowing ahead with all our assumptions and stereotypes, and instead stopped to reconsider: is it really a “guy” or “girl” thing? Is this really something only girls have to deal with, and guys should have no interest in? Men are not from Mars; women are not from Venus (fuck you, John Gray). We’re all pretty clearly from the planet earth, we’re all the same species, and maybe some of us love the same sex, or like wearing nightgowns or having long hair or playing with dolls, dammit. Or wearing trousers, or driving trucks, or doing other stereotypically masculine shit. Each of us lives a different life and the options are not black and white, or pink and blue. I think it’s about time we’re allowed to live whatever shade we want to.

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