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Overreacting: AKA creating problems that don’t exist

A couple of posts at two of my favourite websites had me scratching my head this morning and wondering where the sanity went.

Both posts concerned this cartoon from webcomic xkcd.com. I read it and thought I knew what it was about: a young man tries to strike up a conversation with a young woman on the train by making an innocuous comment about her netbook. The girl responds by a) assuming he was coming on to her! and b) telling him off in a very strong and rude manner. He leaves her alone, as he imagines her continuing her attack. And in the final panel she blogs about how the “cute guy on the train” is still ignoring her (no indication whether the one who approached her is the guy she means). I thought it was a comment on those immature girls/women we all know and love – the ones who feel that everyone else, male and female, is inferior to them, while at the same time dreaming of a perfect romance (and friendship).

Apparently I was wrong. According to other bloggers, the young man in the comic was a latent rapist who was harrassing the poor girl.

Well, after all, he *did* speak to her  – in public, in passing, and with a throwaway comment on an item she was holding. Yeah, I’d be freaked out too (rolls eyes).

Lisa at Sociological Images feels that the strip gives nerdy men the idea that “given enough confidence and skills, all women are yours for the taking.” This is despite the fact that the comic does not show him making a move on her in any way, shape or form! He is *not* coming on to her; the closest it gets is his sudden daydream of her reaction to what she *thinks* is a come-on. In other words, the only ‘come-on’ here is in the head of the female character.

Lisa’s reaction is so much of an over reaction that one wonders whether she is talking about the same cartoon. But it’s mild compared to the post from the usually excellent Sweet Machine at Shapely Prose. If you read it you’ll see I made some comments but for the sake of sanity I had to retire early. 🙂 Honestly, it did feel like I had wandered into another world. First, she says the man is hitting on the woman, even though he is clearly not. Then she begins relating it to rape culture and violence, and… well, you can see why my head exploded.

Here’s the thing: speaking to a stranger in a public place is *not* a sign of dominance or male privilege. It is called ‘wanting to start a conversation’. Now the recipient is under no obligation to enter into that conversation (oddly enough both bloggers mention that if women object to being hit on in public they get a negative reaction from others. I find that hard to believe; but if they are acting like the woman in the comic strip then I can see it – even I, as another woman, would be unhappy with her assumptions and lack of manners). And if someone won’t back off  – *this* is the sign of dominance and male privilege) then yes, a sharp response is called for.

But – let me repeat this – It Is OK To Treat Strangers As Human Beings. This May Mean Talking To Them. It is not a crime.

And the final kicker? The heading of the Shapely Prose article: ‘Would it kill you to be civil?’

Apparently, she is not expected to be. He, however, may not interact with opposite-gender peers. And of those sexes were reversed would of course call it sexism.

PS: Just saw this blog post on the Fat-O-Sphere, which I agree with. I tried to post a comment in response to someone who said that people don’t meet on public transport. Hate to disappoint, but that’s exactly where I met my partner. We’ve been together for 14 years now, and have several kids, so yeah – people do meet in the oddest of places. 🙂


12 Responses

  1. I like that you’re pushing back on this, and I did a bit on SocImages too, but I think it is at least possible to read it badly, depending on how you “hear” the tone of the guy’s initial statement.

    I’m imagining, for instance, that it would be entirely possible to say “Hey, cute netbook” in the sort of vocal tone that makes it sound like, “Hey, baby.” I.e. the “nerd” is assuming the phrase “cute netbook” as a sort of weird pickup line that refers NOT to the computer but to the girl.

    I think it’s a stretch, but I think that it’s entirely possible someone might read the strip and HEAR it that way in their head, especially if they have had someone say a weird or off-base pickup line to them before.

    In other words, the answer to your implicit question — are we reading the same cartoon? — might actually be NO. We are all seeing the same cartoon, but the meaning and vocal inflection we give to the action might be widely disparate.

    Because, honestly, if the strip thinks it’s okay to say “Hey, cute netbook” like a creeper and have the only problem be your confidence issues, that IS a problem.

    • I agree, especially with your last sentence. I guess where I felt the disconnect was that there was no indication in the comic that the comment was meant to be ‘creepy’. And I was gobsmacked that so many otherwise level headed people were jumping to the conclusion that it was.

      I want to be clear: I believe there is no excuse for someone to harass someone else, be creepy to someone else, or object to the (polite) rejection of an attempt at conversation. But I do object to the automatic reading of anyone male as having ulterior, sinister motives, based solely on his sex. Because he can’t possibly have been just striking up a conversation; no, he *had* to be coming on to her. Surely feminism is about rejecting such gender based assumptions.

      I was jumped on for saying that my experience differed from the majority of posters, but it’s true. I have been approached by weirdos in the past and had to get sharp with them; the reactions I got from others was anything but negative. I do not believe these people who are saying that rejection will bring down the ire of other passengers upon them. Honestly, where do they live?? I have also had wonderful conversations with strangers (men) who weren’t trying to pick me up, just chat. And on behalf of the men in my life whom I know and love I am angry that the judgement of ‘latent rapist’ will be applied to them if they dare to speak to a woman in public. It’s just so archaic it makes my mind explode.

      • It’s worth keeping in mind that this couldn’t be a problem without a culture in which women have a reason to be fearful of men.
        A woman viewing a man as a potential rapist is problematic for the man, but the problem doesn’t start with the woman or her views, it starts with the few men who rape and the culture and fear their actions create.
        Like you, I hate to see blame misplaced, and women don’t create their perceptions of men out of the blue, so blaming them is all around counter productive to the problem of gender inequality.

      • Oh I agree, but I wasn’t blaming anyone here. I was just disappointed that a) so many people were reading so much into the cartoon (implications which, in my opinion, just weren’t there) and b) then equating what could be considered mildly offensive to some pretty horrible situations. Reading the comments, and some of the things that have happened to those women, it was heartbreaking but also overkill.

      • I have been approached by weirdos in the past and had to get sharp with them; the reactions <I got from others was anything but negative.”
        (emphasis mine)

        Perhaps it’s worth looking at the assumption that YOUR experience generalizes to EVERYONE ELSE’S experience.

        I would submit that it does not always.

      • I agree it doesn’t: and by the same token, the experiences of the other posters does not generalise to mine either. I doubt I am the only person with my experience, and if we are the minority I doubt it is by a large margin.

  2. I may be wrong, but I think Americans are rather unlikely to meet on public transport. American dating culture does differ from other countries’.

  3. The hollering at each other got started up pretty quick, and while it might seem like it, I don’t think any one is accusing the character in the comic of wrong doing.
    The problem is in the implication that things would be better for him if he were more assertive or commanding of the women around him. Even if it’s in a very minor way, that’s reproducing some unsavory sentiments.
    A lot of the problem also goes a ways beyond the comic itself, nerds can have wicked entitlement issues, and I can imagine most of the male readers will find themselves in similar situations, where the girl is definitely not blogging about how cute they are. You can probably see how a comic that (intentionally or otherwise) implies a guy should maybe try invading her space and asking for her attention (in a relatively isolated place that is hard to leave, no less). might be considered a bad thing by some.
    Also worth noting is that, especially on Sociological Images, it’s about having the discussion, not about grabbing torches and pitchforks.

    • See, I just don’t see that implication in the cartoon, and I was a little surprised that others *did*. I do agree about conversation; one of the reasons I was so taken aback is that Shapely Prose has always been so good with discussion; instead, hysteria reigned.

      • The comic ends in a place where the male character is lonely, and even missing out on a girl who thinks he’s cute, because he hasn’t bothered someone who isn’t communicating an interest in his attention. While in many ways it isn’t an overt message, and I doubt it was intentional, an element of the comic is that his life would be better if he were in the habit of bothering women on trains.

  4. This is so old news already, i admit, but i just found your blog. I so agree with you tanz, that whole blow up over at SP, for this one comic strip, had me exhausted. I couldn’t even bring myself to comment “sigh*

    Good on you.

    • Thanks for reading! Yeah, I was a little taken aback by the whole thing; it seemed real ‘mountain out of molehill’ territory.

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