Another Mess

I love me some Achewood. I mean, I love this comic. I even have four panels blown up and hanging in my living room, thanks to Sig Fig being the most amazing woman ever.

So you can imagine my dismay when I discovered this strip this morning.

Now, I should point out that Achewood is frequently rude, raunchy, and occasionally downright offensive. But I like to think that it usually qualifies as satire, and any truly wrong remark is paired with a foil (usually thanks to Roast Beef). But this? This is not okay.

Here’s my e-mail to Onstad, and I hope you’ll follow suit:

Hi Chris.

First, let me thank you. You helped my girlfriend give me the greatest Valentine’s Day present of all time–four blown up Achewood panels, which are currently in our living room begging to be framed. You’ve also given me ample gift ideas for her, which is awesome.

But I was uncomfortable with today’s strip. And because I love Achewood so much, I thought I should let you know why. Actually, uncomfortable would be putting it too mildly. I’m offended, and I’m upset.

I’m upset because you took a perfectly good concept–aww, look at Philippe being all precocious!–and used a really offensive slur to get your point across.

Now, I know that often part of the hilarity of Achewood is having cats with their junk out talkin’ all hell of trashy. And I usually really enjoy that. Really, I do. I like to think I’m not one of those uptight people who Needs To Just Get A Damn Sense Of Humor.

I know that a lot of people seem to think “hot tranny mess” is an okay thing to say after that idiot Christian Siriano popularized it on Project Runway. But it’s really not. We could talk about language reclamation til we’re blue in the face, but the bottom line is that it’s not okay for a cisgendered man to use a term that is still primarily used as a slur (including on transphobic TV shows and in newspaper headlines) to create a cute new trendy phrase.

Try to think of it this way: would you have written that same strip with Philippe using the n word? (I really, Really hope the answer is no, and I assume it is.) For many trans folks and their loving allies, “hot tranny mess” is just as big a slap in the face.

Please. I love Achewood, and I know you’ve been going through a tough time with the move, but please return to your high standards. Don’t stoop to material that’s just plain wrong.

We have to hold the people we support to higher standards. I can’t let this go just because I love Achewood.

20 Responses to Another Mess

  1. raicalyffe says:

    I’m afraid I just don’t get that Achwood comic, or why its supposed to be funny. I’m clearly missing something, because I have no idea what this ‘hot tranny mess’ thing is supposed to mean.

  2. pandanose says:

    You could google the phrase, were you so inclined. The short story is that it was popularized by one Christian Siriano, who used the phrase repeatedly while he was a contestant on Project Runway. (It’s sort of like saying “That outfit is a total trainwreck,” only in a really offensive, transphobic way.)

    As for the strip–the part not obvious to casual readers is that Philippe (the otter) is supposed to be a child, whereas the other characters are adults. He’s saying something precocious. It’s a little like the people who filmed their daughter saying “glitter” in such a way that it sounded like the n-word–horribly offensive, and meant to get a laugh.

  3. Lorelei Erisis says:

    I came acroos your blog from comments on Gunner Scott’s note about the word “Tranny”. I googled the strip. And I have to say, I didn’t find it especially funny. I even had to read it several times to figure out what the joke was supposed to be.
    But I’m going to defend it. Sort of.
    First of all, I should tell you who I am.
    I am a Second City trained actor and improviser. I have also worked in comedy for years. Additionally, I was the Showroom Manager at The Hollywood Improv for a number of years.
    I am also a TransWoman and damned proud of it.
    While this phrase “Hot Tranny Mess” sounds like it came from a pretty offensive context. And as a heavily overtrained actor, I find Reality Television offensive simply on principle. It is, like it or not, a pop culture reference point. And as such, the fair and open domain of comedians, comic strip artists, satirists, columnists etc.. Anyone whose job it is to comment on the culture in which we live.
    When I was working at The Improv I noticed a lot of things about how the public processes potentially offensive comedy. And it boils down to a single maxim.
    “If you are going to be ‘offensive’, you had better be damned funny!!!”
    I have seen very, very good comics get away with stuff a Nazi would be uncomfortable saying. Because it was damned funny.
    And I have seen incredibly bad comics be infuriatingly offensive just talking about the weather.
    Specifically. I have seen Michael Richards perform a number of times. He is a very nice man, if a little weird, and a VERY good comic ACTOR. But as a standup? Eh. Not so much.
    I’ve seen him do and say much more offensive things to a group of born-again christians (had ME rolling, but they weren’t very happy…). And I’ve seen other comics, even white comics, say much the same things he did and have the crowd Rocking! But, unfortunately he wasn’t very funny and there was a camera there to catch, what I happen to know was a “set-in-progress”. So people were offended.
    Getting back to my original point. I think, comedically, the strip in question was kind of a dud. I finally figured out the point and it didn’t seem to be about the phrase as much as the situation and the parroting of children. Unfortunately, a joke explained, is almost never funny. The timing is gone.
    I’ll take your word that Achewood is a funny strip, I haven’t yet had time to really explore. But we all have our unfunny days!
    Even and especially long-winded, Tranny Improvisers….

  4. pandanose says:

    Yeah, as an improviser myself, I’m going to go ahead and let you in on my philosophy about comedy and being offensive: it is exponentially more difficult to be funny without being offensive or putting down someone else. It’s very easy to go for a cheap laugh, and it’s very hard–and thus something I respect considerably more–to go for the laugh that doesn’t leave anyone out.

    The problem in this situation is that Onstad didn’t actually use the phrase to comment on anything. He (like Philippe) parroted an offensive catchphrase, without any critical analysis, and got rewarded (Philippe with affection and $6, Onstad with completely uncritical response from fans in the strip forums).

  5. Lorelei Erisis says:

    Fair enough. And a very good point.
    I agree with you about offensive comedy generally being a cheap got to. I much prefer the laughter that comes from making good connections and finding “truth” that an audience can recognize and react to.
    I know from my own experience that when I’m TRYING to be funny onstage it usually falls flat. It’s when I’m not trying, simply playing, that I got the best laughs.

    I’m glad to “meet” another improviser! Slainte!

  6. Lauren O says:

    When I clicked this link from Feministe, I was like, “Transphobia? Favorite webcomic? This is going to be Achewood.” And, indeed, it was. I didn’t find this particular strip offensive because I saw it as Philippe saying something that was obviously supposed to be offensive, and that the humor comes from the fact that he’s too young to know it’s offensive. There was one a long while back where Lyle was looking at a personal ad for post-op transfolks, and it was…not cool.

    I used to be one of the big commenters in the forum/commenting system there (if you’ve ever hung out in the comments, you might recognize me as loneal). I eventually had to leave because there was too much misogyny and homophobia going on. If it were easy to search through that system, I’d find you the time from about a year ago when I got in a huge fight about transfolks. I literally got called “the feminist thought police” for saying that there’s no reason to be disgusted by transpeople. Saying that transpeople are actual human beings was apparently infringing on many straight white men’s freedom of thought. (For other of my adventures in the hate-filled world of Achewood comments, see here, here, and here.)

  7. pandanose says:

    Mmm… yeah, I don’t think the way the strip is set up makes it clear that Philippe is saying something “obviously offensive” at all. In the real world, when a kid parrots something offensive, yes, there might be a moment where the adults all laugh–in a “Holy crap, my kid just said &%$!” kind of way–but very soon after one of them (hopefully a parent) pulls the kid aside and explains why that’s not an okay thing to say. That’s what’s missing here–we only get adults smiling, and rewarding Philippe for being “cute.”

    I’m not surprised to hear that the forums might be gross–I don’t generally read them, but clicked this time around in the vain hope that someone there might be speaking up on this particular strip.

  8. Lauren O says:

    Well, Lyle and Roast Beef certainly look shocked, so we get the idea that something is offensive about it. And Achewood is pretty far away from the real world, especially in terms of kids/parenting. I mean, one of Philippe’s birthday presents was Todd pretending to do cocaine and then revealing he wasn’t actually addicted to cocaine…hurray!

    I completely see your point about finding this offensive; I’m just reading it a slightly different way where it’s only, you know, borderline offensive.

  9. pandanose says:

    Yeah, Lauren, I think we’re reading those facial expressions differently, and admittedly reading the smiles of cartoon animals is a bit of a subjective art. To me they look more amused than shocked (although Beef is so awkward I can totally picture him just kind of smile-cringing and not saying something).

    It just hurts to see language like that in a strip that used to feel like a safe space to me. I mean, if random Prop 8 supporters are going to pop up on my blog to politely tell me to find a new word because “marriage” is taken, it would be nice to be able to just read a relaxing comic, you know?

  10. MG says:

    This wasn’t just a cheap laugh, it was a cheap, unfunny, pointless laugh. An email was sent to the author in protest.

  11. Lauren O says:

    It’s interesting that you’ve ever seen Achewood as a safe space. I find sexism and homophobia in it often. Granted, they’re usually pretty mild, but Onstad doesn’t seem particularly educated about social justice issues and certainly isn’t focusing on them (not that he’s not a super nice guy, and he’s obviously brilliantly funny most of the time).

    Think about the “park like a bitch” strip, or Pat’s/Rod’s portrayal in general. Remember the one strip from years ago where it was implied that Chucklebot was going to molest Philippe? Until recently, Molly was completely two-dimensional and without personality. And other female characters are minor, and they’re, like, Ray’s mom, or Ultra Peanut, the borderline racist caricature.

    The recent storyline where Cornelius was dating a stripper was pretty progressive, though. My last Achewood comment ever was about how Onstad deserved a feminist gold star for portraying a stripper as an intelligent, unique person (I got 4 “lames” or thumbs down on that particular comment).

    I don’t know, Achewood is hands down my favorite webcomic, because it’s fucking hilarious, but plenty of jokes in it are pretty indefensible.

  12. pandanose says:

    You know, now that you mention it, I’m not really sure why this one hit so close to home and other equally offensive jokes haven’t. Maybe just because it sort of collided with a few other transphobic moments for me.

    I guess, then, the question becomes what we do when things we love don’t live up to our principles. I’m not about to pay for subscriber-only comment, but I’ve bought Achewood merchandise (and probably still will), and I still read the strip. Does that make me a hypocrite?

  13. Lauren O says:

    I’m not about to pay for subscriber-only comment, but I’ve bought Achewood merchandise (and probably still will), and I still read the strip. Does that make me a hypocrite?

    I wonder the same thing all the time! And I came really close to paying for the subscriber-only comment. Glad I didn’t, as I ended up having to give the place up a few months later. And, I mean, I’ve met Onstad, he’s a nice guy with a lovely wife and a young daughter. I’m happy to buy merchandise from him; there are much worse places my money could go, even if he does make a sexist joke now and again. I guess if something is extremely funny and only a little offensive, I’m willing to overlook it. I imagine this is true of most humans, and without it, there would probably be less humor in my life, but it still probably makes me a hypocrite to some degree.

    Anyway, it’s totally sweet to find another feminist Achewood reader! You have no idea how much shit I got from virtually all the other fans in the comments section (minus a few really awesome folks of course).

  14. pandanose says:

    Yeah, I guess it’s better to be someone who at least looks critically at the things one enjoys, rather than never calling them out on being offensive. (Or, which seems all too common, defending them without question when other people call them out.)

    Indeed, hooray for feminist Achewood fans! If you ever need to delve back into comments, let me know. I got yer back.

  15. […] Two days ago, Sig Fig tweeted that she’d found the t-word in yet another site she frequents–namely, this one. I’ve never read Mighty Girl, but I thought I would […]

  16. RMJ says:

    Hi there, feminist Achewood reader popping in here months later.

    I’m not about to pay for subscriber-only comment, but I’ve bought Achewood merchandise (and probably still will), and I still read the strip. Does that make me a hypocrite?

    It’s offensive not infrequently, but I generally don’t have a huge issue with reading/listening to/watching things that are offensive. Avoiding everything I find offensive would mean rescinding from the media world. Not that I don’t make an effort to consume feminist art/media, but I’m generally not too hard on myself as long as I read critically.

    Do you still read Achewood, or have you given it up?

  17. pandanose says:

    As an improviser myself, I have to agree with something a very funny improviser once said: “As long as it’s funny.” Offensive things can, occasionally, be wicked funny. I probably think they’re funny way less often than your average Jane, though, because I have very high standards for comedy.

    I do still read Achewood. I’ve given up on Savage Love, though.

  18. RMJ says:

    Yeah, Michael Savage has gotten increasingly bitter and defensive. Too bad.

  19. RMJ says:

    Oops. Dan Savage.

  20. paul says:

    another feminist achewood reader here.
    someone i know got a tattoo of beef in his teenage years

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