Geek As Citizen: Paul Dini, Marketing Bias, And Cultural Creation

For those of you just tuning into this, Paul Dini appeared on Kevin Smith’s podcast, the self-depreciatingly named “Fatman on Batman.”What got a lot of attention and appeared on io9, Boing Boing and other sites was Dini’s experiences with execs who didn’t want female fans of the show since “girls don’t buy toys” and some other objectionable choices.

Some of the most disturbing parts are transcribed here.

The highlights from Dini (who’s experiences seemed to shock Smith):

  • Executives actually don’t want girls watching some of their shows since they don’t buy toys.
  • There’s not a lot of innovation to make stuff girls want.  It’s easier to do the same thing with toys.
  • This includes decreasing the roles of female characters to make them less interesting (this happened to Tower Prep, apparently).
  • There’s a talk by cartoon execs of “boy” action and “goofy boy humor” that sound a bit insulting.

This is ironic when you look at Cartoon Network that had run the somewhat-butchered Sailor Moon and female-popular Full Metal Alchemist, but there you go. The focus is on the merch, a female audience is worth warding off, and there’s a focus of “what boys want” by people who may not have talked to them.

Previously I’d discussed how marketing affected geek culture, in this case in the area of gaming and how we’d better own our own culture and be aware of how we were marketing influenced. This is perhaps an even more infuriating example of why this is than the Polygon article that inspired me to write about it.  Certainly it’s another confirmer that we geeks don’t own our culture as much as we’d hope.

Now I’d like to say there’s one coherent though here, but instead there’s three (that are reasonably coherent). Three things I want us to consider in how marketing affects we geeks – and why again we need to own our culture not just be sold too.

Risk Aversion Poisons Us All

Risk aversion in industries is not unusual. It’s not unusual in individuals either because it’s a good survival trait. On the other hand there’s stupid risk aversion where people/groups/companies don’t evolve and grow, and the worst risk is not taking a risk.  It’s extremely common in modern media, and many of us here and elsewhere have talked about it at length.

Marvel’s entire movie plan is very calculated. Video games churn out sequels of the same game over and over. We just saw how some animation exects are stunningly risk adverse. We’ve all watched certain technology companies start playing it very safe – and loose out.

All the things we love are not immune to the mentality that churns out another cheap reality show because of the numbers and the money. We are not immune to the effects of marketing, as we saw in the previous discussion on the game industry’s marketing choices.  We are, in short, affected personally and culturally by the risk aversion of others in influential industries.

In the case of these cartoon execs, this is amazingly bad risk aversion that serves only to benefit a highly limited view of what they want. They won’t even innovate to get a broader audience or produce better work, and are willing to degrade characters based on their gender to provoke disinterest. As Dini notes, they’re literally not doing their jobs.

All these people are doing is managing risk to a pathological level.  They are paralyzed from innovating.

As noted we’re not immune to it in our very commercialized geek culture. So how much stagnation are we facing right now because of industry risk aversion?  How much have we intertalized in our lives, careers, and assumptions?

Gender Bias By The Dollars

The gender bias in the writing of cartoons (and I’m sure other media) really stunned me. I can understand not having or developing some characters, but actively working to set back interesting characters and ideas is rather foul. It’s all about the risk-adverse bottom line and not making good stuff in a way that’s casually insulting.

And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you figure a marketing demographic is what you want, and you warn people off by making sure the characters outside that demographic are unappealing, you’ve guaranteed disinterest. I’m starting to wonder myself how many “poorly written” female characters I’ve seen in media were now deliberate in that writers were actually trying not to draw interest or even drive people away.

This is incredibly insulting, and is another factor that makes me think that some gender bias in geek culture is the result of larger market forces. Yes, we’re used to pandering and fan service that’s degrading, but is there a level of calculation? How much of this can some of us not see because of our experiences?

(I ask this wondering how much I’ve missed being a white male tech geek).

People see money in making bad female characters. Think about that for a moment.  How much gets internalized?  What other biases are people writing and coding into work?

Degrading Your Audience

The final element that sticks in my virtual craw is the talk of boy’s action and goofy boy humor. Maybe it’s just me, but that sounded rather degrading as well.

How many execs think boys basically want action and goofy humor and that’s it? If these cartoon big-wigs are willing to downgrade female characters, ho much ill may they think of the male audience? I can’t say the interview gives me much hope that they’re thinking “we truly need to reach and enrich our male audience.”

Come to think of it, the state of a lot of media doesn’t give me much hope that I’m wrong.

Now after seeing a discussion of gender bias in game marketing pitched at boys (with the usual faux macho stuff we complain about) and hearing these execs talk about what boys want, I’m willing to advance the theory that stuff targeting a male audience is also dumbed down. How much of “male-oriented” stuff in media is basically designed under the “men are idiots” theories of marketing?

As a man, needless to say, I’m rather annoyed about that as well.  Yes I know people are trying to get me with breasts and bombs, but how stupid do they think I and other men area?  I think I may know the answer . . .

I’d even go far enough to wonder if the sexism we’ve seen coming up in the “Fake Geek Girl” harassment comes from people who got literally sold a very false image of what geek is. Maybe the annoying “dudebros” people complain about in geekery are a product of marketing drawing them in and/or making them.

So What’s Next?

I’d like to say I have some great plan or bought, but these two incidents really more leave me thinking. Perhaps in time I’ll have some deeper thoughts of action. However I can say this

  • I understand more than ever the importance of fan culture because it’s about love and taking ownership. I get why people call fanwork “Transformative works” a lot more now.
  • To this end I think we need to encourage more fans to publish, write, create, and enter the media industries. We need to own the culture space that creates our culture.
  • It appears caution about various media companies is quite understandable, and we need a lot more exposes and exploration on what the hell is going on.
  • If anyone figures there’s not really any sexism in geek culture or that it’s normal, they need to be pointed to this to see how it’s been cultivated deliberately.  Oh I find geek culture amazingly tolerant, but we have our issues.

I’d like to hear other people’s insights. As citizens of our societies and subculture, this is not something for us to take casually.

– Steven Savage