Sunday, June 1, 2014

Why is this funny?

Today's strip of the popular newspaper comic FoxTrot, written by Bill Amend since 1988, is, as usual, supposed to be a joke, particularly one appealing to tech-aware/geek crowd. I've written up the script below:
[Jason, the quintessential geek, and his friend Marcus, are watching TV on a couch]  
TV announcer: In Washington, the FCC finds itself knee-deep in public reaction to reports it may loosen, if not fully abandon, its stated commitment to preserve net neutrality and an open internet. 
TV announcer: Thousands and thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls have poured in on a near-daily basis from aghast citizens, technologists, academics, and business owners, asking commission members to keep the internet's level playing field and non-discriminatory data practices intact. 
TV announcer: We are told, however, that the FCC has received a near-equal number of e-mails demanding an end to net neutrality, all from the same 14-year-old girl. "Making it so people can only wear neutral colors and taupe in their Instagram selfies is downright unamerican," reads one. 
Marcus: You probably shouldn't have told your sister that's what it meant. 
Jason: I was kidding Paige! I was kidding! 
Paige [off-panel, from upstairs]: (click) Send. (click) Send. (click) Send.
It's safe to assume that Bill Amend thought this would be funny, for reasons that are based in rational thought, rather than out of a random bout of writer's block or temporary insanity; he has been writing this comic for over two decades, and major newspapers continue to carry it. FoxTrot is popular among the geek crowd and has been printed in over forty books. It's also well-received among young children, if the note to parents in the Contact Info section of Amend's website is any indication. So if we can say that there are logical justifications for why he thought such a situation would be funny, what are they?

I want to start with the question: why does Amend make Jason's older sister Paige send a comically impossible amount of emails to the FCC, under the impression that the term "net neutrality" meant a government-enforced social media dress code? Why wasn't it Jason's older brother Peter, who often shows his gullibility as well when it comes to the latest technology? Could the script be rewritten with "Peter" and "brother" swapped in, and still make sense as something Bill Amend would come up with?

No, and we know why. Paige is the caricature of a 14-year-old girl, and, in this particular instance, she is taking the ubiquitously understood phenomenon of young women's interest in "fashion" to the logical extreme. We know this trope. Young girl obsessed with social media photography and the entailing fashion concerns, to the point of hilarity. *rimshot*

Obsession with physical appearances is also a supposedly widely shared characteristic in women that men like the UCSB shooter would outwardly admit to as a symptom of women's believed inferiority and/or stupidity. Men assert that women are vain and trivial for spending so much time, money, and energy on the visual presentation of their bodies and the bodies of others. Interest in fashion is widely understood to be a "womanly" quality. When gay men are "into women's fashion", the mainstream understands it as partaking in realm of femininity that straight men would never be caught in. Meanwhile, internet articles on "millennials" are littered with stock photos of young women using smartphones and cameras, and shopping for clothes.

Many women, on the other hand, understand female teen concern with fashion as the product of childhood socialization, as facilitated by parents, older peers, and the media. Laura Bates writes on how the (pre-)teen fashion industry and culture of "telling girls to make themselves sexy" has flourished on the internet, examining specific websites in the UK:
Over on the website of Top Model Magazine, another big hit with the tween age range, girls learn that "Mascara alone is not enough! You need more to achieve a radiant look!" There are even tips to get rid of cellulite by "pinching yourself with a twisting hand movement". Because they might as well learn young that inflicting pain on oneself in the name of beauty is a woman's lot.
It is for this reason I don't see how caricaturing of this facet of girlhood is amusing at all. It is only in a context of sex-based oppression that men could make a joke of the sort of the terrorism young girls face daily. Emma M. Woolley writes:
We don’t talk honestly enough about what it’s like being a teen girl. If we did talk about it, what it was like for us, perhaps we wouldn't be so harsh on them. Perhaps we wouldn't throw our hands up in the air and exclaim “oh, teen girls, they’re so difficult!” Perhaps they wouldn't be so scary. Perhaps we’d see their lives for the small and large violations they’re often made up of; and what those violations do. 
Maybe if more of us men were willing to listen to women talk about girlhood, the dangerous emptiness of socialized concern with appearances in the context of the male gaze would not be appropriated by men for fun and profit as Amend has done; or at least such scripts and tropes would not be considered funny or acceptable to depict in a medium usually meant to entertain children. In a 2010 interview, Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Girls on the Edge, said (emphasis added):
Girls spend a lot of time photoshopping their pictures, making themselves look a little bit thinner than they are and getting rid of the pimples, because they know boys are interested in the photos on these sites. So you’ve got 14-year-old girls essentially presenting themselves as a brand, trying to create a public persona, polishing an image of themselves that’s all surface: how you look and what you did yesterday, not who you are and what you want to be. And that leads to a sense of disconnection from themselves, because in most cases, these girls don’t even realize that their persona is not who they are. They’re just focused on striving to please their market and presenting the brand they think will sell. It’s one thing for Angelina Jolie to be doing this—she’s an adult—but it’s really toxic for a 14-year-old. It gets in the way of the real job of adolescence, which is figuring out who you are, what you want, what is your heart’s desire. [ed. note: "heart's desire"? "real job of adolescence"? What? I think the doctor should stick to talking about gender socialization...]
In 2012, New York Times columnist Randye Hoder wrote in her article "For Teenage Girls, Facebook Means Always Being Camera-Ready" (emphasis added):
Trying on 10 outfits and staring critically at the mirror before leaving the house is practically a teenage rite of passage. But these days, girls know precisely how their peers are judging them, thanks to the “Like” button on Facebook. “When I choose my profile picture, I want people to ‘Like,’ it,” said Grace. In fact, she and her friends are keenly aware of how to goose the numbers. “You get more ‘Likes’ if it’s a model shot and not a goofy picture with your friends,” she explained.
The formula is simple: The more “Likes” you get, the more popular you appear. “Girls don’t just want to get ‘Likes’ from their close friends,” said 14-year-old Lily. “They want to get them from boys, or older kids or kids from other schools who are popular.”

14 years old -- hey, that's how old Paige is. Is any of this funny?

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