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Struggling with Sexism in East Asian Dramas


When it comes to “problematic things I enjoy anyway,” my biggest guilty pleasure is East Asian dramas. Typically Japanese ones, as that’s the language that I (sort of) speak, but now I’ve started to study Chinese, I’ve added those to my viewing line-up too.

Most recently, I’ve been watching a very silly Taiwanese drama called Miss In Kiss, which is a remake of a remake of a Japanese manga called Itazura na Kiss, or Mischievous Kiss. The show’s tropey romcom set-up is pretty typical of these sorts of dramas — the girl (Xiang Yue, in this version) is in love with the smartest and most popular boy in school, but he dismisses her as too stupid to pay attention to. When her house is destroyed in an accident, she and her dad move in with her dad’s best friend and his family — including her crush. Misadventures ensue.

It can be a fun show to watch. The bright colors and zany adventures are definitely refreshing compared to a lot of western dramas. But the supposed love interest is consistently a cruel jerk to the protagonist, and any vague sign of decency on his part is treated as a Hint of True Love. Meanwhile, another guy decides that he has ownership over the protagonist, because he loves her, and so he calls her father “dad,” insists they’re basically married, and plans his life around “protecting” her and building comic schemes to kickstart their love.

If you’ve never seen East Asian drama, this sort of set-up is pretty par for the course. I’d love to argue that there’s some hidden feminism in watching these shows, but nope. Although not every drama is like this, many of them are, and whenever I watch them, it’s with the knowledge that I’m enjoying the lighthearted drama and practicing my language skills at the price of attempting to ignore pretty consistent narrative misogyny.

I’m not sure if it’s just because it’s been a while since I watched one of these dramas, but Miss in Kiss seems particularly bad. We’ve got the “they MUST be together” trope, despite the guy’s indifference and cruelty to her. We’ve got the forceful hand slamming into the wall beside her head (multiple times), the grabbing her by the wrist to pull her around (multiple times), the guy she’s not even interested in getting violent to protect her honor from the guy she likes (multiple times) and basically acting as a stalker (almost every episode). It’s a really messed up representation of romance. And sure, it’s a silly show. But it’s uncomfortable to dismiss those elements as “well, that’s just the genre,” even though, in many ways, that is the genre.

I hit my limit about 20 episodes in, when the “oh my god, are you kidding me??” elements overwhelmed any possible benefits, and I quit. I wouldn’t have even lasted that long if I didn’t desperately need the practice listening to fairly straightforward Chinese. But as I spent my days writing about feminism in media and spent my evenings watching this “lighthearted” but messed-up romance, it got me thinking, again, about what it means to watch something that you know is problematic. I don’t just watch these series for language practice. I enjoy them. I like the music, the bright colors, the often farcical plotlines, especially the epic melodramatic romantic moments. My favorite in college was Hana Yori Dango, which has such gems as “guy and girl get trapped in broken elevator” and “guy gets amnesia,” as well as the familiar arc of “guy is horrible to protagonist but actually they’re in love.” I watch for pure entertainment value, with bonus learning on the side. But I’ve watched many of them while studiously ignoring certain elements, and quit several when those elements got too much.

I think, for me, it depends how far the story takes these elements, and how integral they are to the plot. These dramas aren’t doing anything particular new with their sexist plots, and they’re not doing anything that feels like it was taken from the 19th century either. These are all very familiar tropes, in series full of familiar tropes. They fit comfortably in that context, so it’s much easier to ignore them and accept them as just part of that sort of show. And we are all experts at ignoring run-of-the-mill sexism in entertainment. It’s presented as normal, so we either take it as normal, or accept it as a price for watching whatever the most popular shows and movies of the day are.

And so, honestly, I’ve trained myself to accept a certain level of “weak girl, controlling guy” sexism in my East Asian dramas, just as I’ve trained myself to often watch American series with two brains — the “I’m enjoying this” brain, and the “critical thinking” brain. And the same divide comes into play here. If the sexism is emphasized too much, or plays too big a role, I may quit, but a certain level of it… well, if I was writing about the show, I’d analyze it to death, but if I’m just watching for light entertainment, I often accept it as an unfortunate price of admission. I don’t really think that’s a good thing, but perhaps it is a necessary one.

But if anyone has any recommendations for any cute but non-sexist dramas in Japanese or Chinese, I’m eager to hear about them! Especially if they’re on Netflix. :)

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The Legends of Catherine Howard


It’s almost impossible to find fiction (or even non-fiction) about Catherine Howard that doesn’t paint her in an extremely negative light.

The historical facts, in brief, are like this: the teenage Catherine came to Henry VIII’s court as a maid in waiting to the new queen, Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Henry married Catherine very soon after annulling his marriage to Anne, who he considered dull and ugly, and was apparently besotted with Catherine. However, Catherine had an affair with a courtier called Thomas Culpepper, as well as an apparent prior engagement from before she came to court with a man called Francis Dereham. When Henry found out, she was locked up, stripped of her title of queen, and ultimately beheaded. And, for flavor, one of the most famous stories about Catherine tells us that she asked for the execution block the night before her beheading, so that she could practice how she would lay her head on the block.

I’ve read multiple novels set during her rise and fall now, including The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory, Gilt by Katherine Longshore, and the newly released Maid at the King’s Court by Lucy Worsley, which inspired this post. These books frequently tell the story from another character’s perspective — Gilt is about Catherine’s best friend, Kitty Tilney, while Maid at the King’s Court is about Catherine’s invented cousin, Elizabeth — and, inevitably, they all portray Catherine as incredibly vain and overambitious. She’s an idiot, overconfident, cruel to other characters, and full of her own self-importance. Manipulative, simpering, positively evil. Most importantly, she is completely responsible for her own rise and for her own ensuing downfall.

It’s a compelling narrative for both fiction and history to fall into. Catherine was a teenage girl who stepped above her station, acted recklessly and foolishly, and was punished for it. It’s easy to portray this as a cautionary tale, a story of a girl getting her just desserts, or, at its most sympathetic, a tale of Icarus, flying too close to the sun.

But this is also a narrative provided by people’s biases, not necessarily by history. It’s people looking at the facts in the most unsympathetic light, expecting Catherine, as the beheaded teen wife, to be somehow responsible for what happened. Catherine may have been charismatic and somewhat vain, but she was also only either 15 or 16 when she married the old and incredibly dangerous Henry. In the couple of years before this marriage, he had killed Anne Boleyn and many of his close courtiers, including his closest advisor, Thomas Cromwell. His fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, narrowly escaped a similar fate. The message in court was more than clear — don’t disagree with the king, don’t fail to give him what he wants, and don’t make any mistakes.

Meanwhile, Catherine Howard was the niece of Thomas Howard, Anne Boleyn’s uncle, the man who pursued Anne’s rise to facilitate his own rise to power, and then threw her to the wolves when she was no longer useful. He was partly responsible for bringing down Cromwell after Henry’s failed married to Anne of Cleves, with Catherine marrying Henry on the same day as Cromwell’s execution. And although many of Catherine’s relatives were locked up in the Tower during her downfall, Thomas Howard somehow managed to escape punishment. He used young female relatives for his own ambitions, and both of them ended up dead as a result, while he continued on.

So Catherine is about 15, in a family fighting for the power that they lost after Anne’s downfall. The king no one should ever disagree with likes her, she’s catapulted to a position of great influence, but one with certain caveats — keep the king happy at all costs and make sure you have a son. Is her rise and fall any surprise, in that context?

By all accounts, Catherine Howard was not a particularly nice person, but then, neither was Anne Boleyn. She was clearly charismatic, and perhaps vain and frivolous, but that doesn’t mean she deserved her own execution at 17. Yet people always suggest she married Henry because she was conniving and manipulative, and she fell because she was an idiot who got too confident in herself. Add in some historical slut-shaming, and you’ve got yourself a legend.

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Tangled: Before Ever After


Disclaimer: Tangled is my favorite movie. Not just my favorite Disney movie. My favorite movie. So when Disney announced they were making an animated TV show, I was very excited and very skeptical. I couldn’t wait to watch it.

So, was it good? The short answer is yes. If you like Disney and cuteness and badass female characters, it is definitely worth a watch.

The series opens with an hour-long special set six months after the end of the movie. It’s finally time for Rapunzel’s coronation, but she’s feeling stifled by her “happily ever after.” She dreamed of being able to go and see the world once she left Mother Gothel’s tower, but instead, she’s locked up behind another wall for her protection, learning all the rules on how to be a good princess. After spending eighteen years with very little social interaction, she struggles to interact with strangers, as well to adapt to strange inventions like shoes, and clearly misses the one single day of adventure she had in the movie. She wants her escape from Mother Gothel to mean freedom, while her father sees it as a second chance to keep her safe.

Which leads to an interesting setup, because although the show does provide a more traditional villain, the real enemy is still Mother Gothel and the after-effects of her cruelty. Rapunzel’s father is terrified that something is going to happen to her again. Rapunzel is terrified of what happens when someone gets too much control over you and walls you off from the world. And the conflict between these two fears, and between Rapunzel’s dreams and the reality of “happily ever after,” appears to be the driving force of the series.

That said, the TV movie is a lot of fun as well. The writing is sharp and funny, and the animation is gorgeous, although the change in style takes some getting used to. Obviously, there’s a shift in feel as the story moves from the context of a feature length Disney movie to a TV cartoon, and so, despite what I mentioned above, it does often have the light tone similar to Disney’s mini-sequels like Frozen Fever. I’ve never really enjoyed those that much, but there are enough clever jokes and thoughtful emotional arcs here to make it work.

Not to mention the show’s great cast of female characters. I already love Cassandra, Rapunzel’s “lady in waiting” who has picked up a trick or two as the daughter of the captain of the guard. Rapunzel’s mother also gets her own backstory and important role to play, and even the one-off villain is the incredibly cool-looking Lady Caine.

The shippiness between Rapunzel and Eugene is also A+. No spoilers here, but… it’s so good, y’all. I especially like the contrasting perspectives of Rapunzel and Eugene. Eugene wants to stay in the palace forever, because he’s been out and seen the world, and struggled in it, and so this luxury and permanence is appealing. For Rapunzel, who has only ever been in one “safe” and comfortable place, the same set-up is stifling.

Oh, and did I mention Alan Menken is back to write songs for the show? I am obsessed with them already.

If you want a fun cartoon, I really recommend it. It’s clearly a kids’ show — we’re not talking Adventure Time here — but it’s really enjoyable to watch, at least so far. I could definitely see myself binge watching the first season after it all comes out, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m not going to be able to wait. It’s fun, it’s true to the movie, and it has songs by Alan Menken. I can’t wait for more.

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Twenty Years of Buffy


Today is the twentieth anniversary of the start of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It is not the twentieth anniversary of me watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because I was a wimpy eight year old at the time, and when my parents watched the show, I would run through the living room with my hands clamped over my ears in case I heard anything too scary. My time with Buffy started with the launch of Season 6 in the UK, and I only started watching then because it aired at the same time as the new season of Friends, and my parents insisted that the family TV would show Buffy first, and Friends later. Two hours of sulky Buffy watching later, and I was in love.

I haven’t watched Buffy in years, and I’m almost scared to rewatch it now, because it meant so much to me as a teenager, and I don’t know how well it would hold up. A lot of things that felt progressive at the time feel outdated now, and I’m sure I could fill this site with musings on how terrible all the romances are, cringing at my past self’s shipping choices.

But it feels unfair to tear apart a favorite from 20 years ago without considering the hugely positive impact that it once had. I don’t know much about the TV landscape that Buffy launched into, because I was too young at the time, and, after FriendsBuffy was the first “grown up” TV show I watched. And fell in love with. And obsessed over.

But it was a genre show that put a powerful female character front and center. Thirteen-year-old me didn’t even realise how revolutionary that was, because Buffy just handed it to me. It gave me a protagonist who was a leader and a fighter, but who also felt like a real person, with a bunch of female friends who had different and complex relationships with one another, who had different strengths and powers, and who worked together to save the world.

I’m almost 100% sure I didn’t always get it. But in those years, the Scooby Gang were my greatest inspiration and comfort. They let me grow up in a TV landscape where female genre protagonists felt normal. Where magic and adventure and fighting bad guys and saving the world belonged to girls first, in my understanding of the fictional world. Of course, I eventually realised that wasn’t generally true, but the strength and the wit of these characters created a fictional “normal” for me that had a huge influence on me as a person and as a writer.

I rewatched it constantly. I bought the magazines. I had the script books. I read the junky companion novels and played the not-so-quality video games and went to the Buffy conventions, like the full-on nerd that I am. It taught me things about narrative and compelling storytelling, but it also taught me to love genre fiction, as my first obsession that was actually about female characters. Not Harry Potter, not Pokemon, not Lord of the Rings. Even if I wasn’t familiar with all the tropes that Buffy subverted, that subversion still provided me with a world to get lost in and a choice of capable and powerful female characters to look up to.

If it launched now, I’m sure I’d have lots to say about Buffy’s “faux feminism.” I’d be in fits of rage about how Charisma Carpenter was treated on Angel. The series doesn’t feel that progressive any more. But it did, and it was, at least to a 13 year old looking for a story to connect to. And Buffy is, in many ways, the impetus behind its own outdatedness. It inspired other female-led teen genre shows, a certain blend of wit and serious drama seen in series like Veronica Mars and the more recent iZombie. So many creators grew up on or were seriously influenced by Buffy. Writers and networks saw that female genre protagonists can lead successful series, that genre shows can be serious and thought-provoking, that the concerns of female teen viewers are worth exploring. The landscape has progressed over the past twenty years, becoming more progressive and more inclusive (although, obviously, still with many missteps), and that’s because of the work that Buffy started twenty years ago. It may not appear to be the revolutionary show that people promise to anyone stumbling across it now, but it has always been important to television, and it’s always been important to me.

Of course, now I’ve written this, I’m itching to rewatch and dig into the good, the bad, and the ugly of the show. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. But whatever I decide, I think it’s important to remember not just what Buffy is now, but what it was then. And that is a groundbreaking, inspiring, and influential series of female strength.

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The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco


The Bone Witch wasn’t at all what I expected. Although the cover is gorgeous, I wonder if it does a disservice to the book, because it implies a very different story from the one it contains. It may be the tone of the series as a whole, but it’s not the tone of this particular volume.

The Bone Witch has a Memoirs of a Geisha-esque set-up. The story is framed by a narrator, with a bard meeting our protagonist, Tea, in the future, but most of the action takes place in a sort of fantasy Kyoto, where asha — powerful female magic users who are also entertainers — live, train and perform. When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother and is discovered to be a Bone Witch, she’s quickly swept away from her village before the mob can kill her, and brought to this new world, where she must work her way up from servant to asha, while learning her magic, fighting people’s fear of her, and discovering the darker costs of her power.

While I picked up the book expecting epic fantasy and drama, it’s the quieter moments that work the best. The lessons, the training, the dresses, the friendships. Tea’s trials and successes. The book is far more world and character-based than I think the packaging implies, as that seems to reflect the ‘bone witch’ met by the bard, and not the one we spend most of the story with, but Tea has a great voice, and the setting means the story is packed with interesting and varied female characters.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot unsaid that needs more explanation, like why these female warriors are also entertainers at all. They use their magic for many things other than dancing, so why do they act like geisha? Or the fact that bone witches are persecuted, yet everyone is fascinated with Tea, to the point that she also seems genuinely popular. The book is full of interesting ideas that are not necessarily followed through or explored, either in the world building or in their impact on the plot. At least, not yet. As this is the first in a series, and the book’s ending implies a lot of drama in the future, perhaps this stuff will all be explored eventually.

But for now, I enjoyed the low-key nature of much of the book. If you’re looking for a book all about action and dark magic, this one might not satisfy, although it does have both. But if you’re looking for female-focussed fantasy that’s more focussed on life and character than on action, then it’s a promising, absorbing read, with a lot of potential for the future of the series.

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Unlikeable Rory Gilmore


When I was a teen, I loved Rory Gilmore. She was one of my biggest fictional role models, along with Hermione Granger and Veronica Mars, a smart, driven, ambitious bookworm who wanted to learn everything there was to learn and then go out and change the world.

So it’s weird to rewatch the show’s later seasons as a 28 year old and wonder: how did Rory become to unlikeable to me?

At least, why did she become temporarily unlikeable. I made some notes for this post while watching Season 4, and I was so irritated by Rory that I almost quit the rewatch. Now I’m in late Season 6, and my feelings about Rory have changed again, back to far more positive ones, despite her privileged behavior.

And I think the difference is all about perspective. When her grievances seem legitimate (at least, for her age) and her efforts seem genuine, it’s easy to root for her. At Chilton, Rory was the outsider studying hard to achieve her dream. But the moment she steps into Yale, she loses that outsider status. She moves into a privileged position and yet acts like the things that were handed to her still aren’t enough, and it’s this, rather than the ambition and privilege itself, that makes her suddenly hard to like.


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Crazy Ex Girlfriend, the Non-Romantic Comedy

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Crazy Ex Girlfriend is not here for your Rom Com nonsense.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend is the best show you’re not watching, but to fully get into why, we have to dig deeper into spoiler territory. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is hilarious, heartbreaking and groundbreakingly feminist because of its attitude towards romance tropes and RomCom narratives — mainly, that they’re complete harmful BS, and need subverting as often as possible.


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Revolutions, Revelations and Angelica Schuyler


It’s hard to talk about Hamilton’s Angelica without thinking about Eponine, that other figure of unrequited love in a smash hit musical. But once you’ve noted that they both sing a song about the guy they don’t end up with, the similarities pretty much end. Eponine, for all her iconicness, is the prototypical waif. She sadly wanders the streets, dreaming of love from the guy who doesn’t love her back, before dying tragically in a futile attempt to help him.

Angelica is not having any of that nonsense. Her story isn’t so much one of unrequited love than one of regret. She chooses to step aside and introduce Alexander to Eliza, partly because she overthinks the situation and judges things wrong, and partly because she values her sister’s happiness over her own. Her song is one of agency, of decision making and complex emotions, rather than just wistful sadness.

Even the song titles show how different they are. Eponine is on her own, lamenting her helplessness. Angelica has created this situation herself, because of ambition and overthinking, because she can never be satisfied.

And, of course, there’s Angelica’s moment in The Reynolds Pamphlet: “I’m not here for you.” Yes, Eliza has a connection to Alexander, and yes, he’s important to her, but her priority is Eliza. She’s a Schuyler sister first and always.

But although Angelica is a fantastic reinvention of the Eponine trope, is this the best thing that Hamilton could have done with her character? The musical clearly presents Angelica as a strongminded badass with political opinions and a lot to say, but (understandably) her actions in the musical are mostly focussed around Alexander. But Angelica was also close to Jefferson and was a fabulous urbane influencer for most of her life. Like she hopes in The Schuyler Sisters, she befriended Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette while in France, and even introduced Jefferson to the Federalist Papers. She was so politically-minded that she took the dangerous journey back to the US in 1789 to see Washington’s inauguration, and she took many political actions herself, including helping victims of the French Revolution, and writing to Washington for help when Lafayette was sent to an Austrian prison. Her letters to and from various revolutionary leaders are important documents about the period.

She was also something of a rebel, eloping with John Church in 1777 because her father didn’t approve of the marriage. This isn’t all to say that she was some modern-day feminist, misplanted in time, not least because there’s evidence that her husband was a slave-owner himself. But she is a fascinating figure, with a much bigger role to play in the story of the founding of America than as the sister in love with Alexander Hamilton.

To be honest, I kind of want a musical about her. A Hamilton sequel, maybe? Please, Lin-Manuel Miranda?

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Long May She Reign is out now!


My new fantasy novel, Long May She Reign, is out in the world!

Here’s the official summary:

The Girl of Fire and Thorns meets The Queen of the Tearling in this thrilling fantasy standalone about one girl’s unexpected rise to power.

Freya was never meant to be queen. Twenty-third in line to the throne, she never dreamed of a life in the palace, and would much rather research in her laboratory than participate in the intrigues of the court. However, when an extravagant banquet turns deadly and the king and those closest to him are poisoned, Freya suddenly finds herself on the throne.

She may have escaped the massacre, but she is far from safe. The nobles don’t respect her, her councillors want to control her, and with the mystery of who killed the king still unsolved, she knows that a single mistake could cost her the kingdom—and her life.

Freya is determined to survive, and that means uncovering the murderers herself. Until then, she can’t trust anyone. Not her advisers. Not the king’s dashing and enigmatic illegitimate son. Not even her own father, who always wanted the best for her but also wanted more power for himself.

As Freya’s enemies close in and her loyalties are tested, she must decide if she is ready to rule and, if so, how far she is willing to go to keep the crown.

And here’s my less official summary. Long May She Reign is a murder mystery set in a fantasy world with a science nerd for a protagonist. It’s full of court drama and schemes, with Freya using her science skills and experiments to help her figure out how to survive this strange and dangerous new world. It’s also a story of best friends, of discovering the value of all different kinds of strength, of social anxiety and depression, of the flaws of thinking “not like other girls,” and, most importantly, of really cute fluffy cats.

If you’re interested in learning more about the book, I wrote a post on HarperStacks about the science of Long May She Reign, and I have a post going up on my personal blog later today about the weird mishmash of things that inspired the book, from phantasmagoria to The Great British Bakeoff.

If you’d like to check it out, you can find all the links here. And if you do pick it up, I hope you enjoy it. <3

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But it’s just a joke!


Okay. Let’s talk about Pewdiepie and the “it’s just a joke” defense.

Quick intro, for the unaware. Pewdiepie is a gamer and the most popular creator on Youtube, with over 50 million subscribers. In recent years, he’s been curating a persona of Youtube’s Biggest Troll, and has been increasingly making “shock” jokes that are racist, sexist or otherwise offensive. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he made a video where he paid two men $5 on the freelance site Fiverr to film themselves holding up an incredibly anti-semitic sign (the link, like all the links in this post, is not to the video, but to a website unaffiliated with Pewdiepie). This was just one of a string of recent videos with anti-semitic language and Nazi imagery, which, of course, he claims were jokes. But it’s not been so funny to Disney, who cancelled their creative partnership with Pewdiepie in response on Monday night. Or, apparently, to Youtube themselves, who have now cancelled the second season of his premium Youtube Red show, Scare Pewdiepie, and revoked his place in their elite advertising program, Google Preferred.

Pewdiepie, of course, said that the Fiverr video was a statement on society — to show “that people on Fiverr would say anything for 5 dollars” — and that he does not support “any kind of hateful attitudes.” “I make videos for my audience. I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not as a place for any serious political commentary. I know my audience understand that.”

But the most important part of his denial and apology, to me, was this final statement:

“As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don’t support these people in any way.”

I, at least, believe him. Or I believe that he believes everything he’s saying, to the point that he never considered he would get serious backlash for this. Although Pewdiepie makes racist, sexist and anti-semitic jokes, I doubt they represent the beliefs of Felix Kjellberg, the real Swedish guy behind the channel. Everyone knows that Youtubers create personas, and although I’ve never liked Pewdiepie’s gaming content, I’ve seen Felix appear plenty of times in the daily vlogs of his girlfriend Marzia, and he comes off as a completely likeable, caring, normal guy. Obviously, that could be fake almost as easily as his Pewdiepie character, but it at least gives the impression that he’s a very different individual in real life from the one who plays games in front of a camera.

But even if that’s true, even if Felix Kjellberg is one of the nicest and kindest people you’re ever likely to meet, even if he means absolutely no harm… that doesn’t matter. His jokes are still harmful.

Felix claims that it is “laughable” that he could mean any of the hateful jokes he makes, and I think this disconnect in perspective is one of the main reasons that people use “but it’s a joke” as a defense. “It’s a joke” memesters see the world as a much nicer place than it is, where these jokes are counter-cultural, rather than maintaining systems of oppression. In their view, these hateful things are so extreme that no real person would actually believe them. The entire joke is based on that extremeness. And you have to be really oversensitive to take offense, because who in their right mind would actually mean these things? Clearly it’s a joke. It’s like an extreme form of deadpan sarcasm, relying on the mutual understanding that whatever is being said is shockingly outrageous and that the joker believes precisely the opposite.

And it falls apart because that mutually understanding does not exist when broadcasting to an audience of millions around the world.


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