Gawking At Rape Culture
We Are Not Your Clickbait.
Trigger Warning: The following article discusses rape and sexual slavery.
On March 4, 2014, Gawker’s tech-focused subsidiary Valleywag published “Startup Flying Dateable Women to San Francisco Like It’s Imperial Japan,” stating, “A startup called The Dating Ring has taken its inspiration from an unlikely source: the ‘comfort women’ of World War II.”
Comfort Women were a group of up to 200,000 women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army. Though comprised of women from Korea, China, Philippines, Taiwan, Burma, Indonesia, Netherlands, and Australia, this article focuses particularly on the Korean Comfort Women and their protest. The remaining Comfort Women are now in their 80s and 90s and are still awaiting a formal apology from the government of Japan, which has downplayed the horror of this episode in their military history. The backlash to Valleywag’s article was immediate, with a predominantly Asian-American group of “Hashtag Activists” flooding the author, Nitasha Tiku, as well as editors Sam Biddle and Max Read, with tweets demanding a retraction and apology.
Nitasha was the first to respond, tweeting, “Twitter seems like an unproductive forum for this kind of debate. Feel free to email,” neatly re-routing the conversation into the private forum in an attempt to shield herself and her employers from public scrutiny. One Bay Area resident, Kiriko Kikuchi, noting the hypocrisy of a company self-promoting in a public space yet deflecting criticism from that same space, accepted Nitasha’s invitation and sent her the following email:
Nitasha, Sam, and Valleywag,
As you may have seen in your Twitter mentions, I am very upset by your use of “Comfort Women” as a metaphor to describe dating startup The Dating Ring. Since you seem to lack the awareness of what the Japanese Imperial military did to 200,000 Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Filipino, and Dutch women, I’ve included a couple links below. To summarize, these women were raped and beaten by 50-100 soldiers a day. If you’re interested to know more, a quick Google search should provide further context:
Your article is extremely offensive and emotionally triggering to Asian and Asian American Valleywag readers, particularly those of us who have in our own families women who were subjected to this horrific trauma. The survivors of these events are still among us, though their generation is dying – without a substantial, sincere apology from Japan. And in fact, Japanese leadership is now attempting to brush this history under the rug.
By reducing this history to a metaphor and thereby minimizing its reality, you are aiding in Japan’s attempt to move forward without addressing and atoning for these crimes against, I repeat, 200,000 women from all over Asia, particularly Korea and China. Is this truly the position Valleywag wishes to take?
If not, please retract your article and issue a formal, public apology immediately.
Comfort Women who survived. September 3, 1945. The US National Archives via the Asian Women's Fund
Nitasha replied to Kiriko, saying, “Thank you for reaching out. I have promoted every critical comment of the analogy on the post, so have other readers who were offended. I apologized and I meant it sincerely.” The apology she refers to is in the comments section of the original article: “I was aiming for satire. I’m very sorry that it was offensive. I will try my best to do better in the future.”
I’m sorry it was offensive. This inadequate apology shirks personal responsibility and fails to demonstrate any understanding of why the original statement was problematic. This underwhelming response is further compounded by the fact that the article remains posted on the Valleywag website with its original title and content intact. “I’m sorry that it was offensive” is not a productive apology. A productive apology would entail an in-depth statement, included above the original content, so as not to similarly upset and traumatize potential Korean and Korean American Valleywag readers and other supporters of the Comfort Women.
Furthermore, attempting to funnel traffic into their comments system is a transparent, capitalist ploy, one which further exploits by monetizing our protest.
We reject the tired defense of “satire.” But the debate of what counts as acceptable satire and what is unacceptable or destructive has been a polarizing one, as demonstrated in the online protest known as #CancelColbert. The hashtag trended for 36 hours after social justice activist Suey Park called for a protest against a racist joke made by comedian news pundit Stephen Colbert. His defense? “Satire.”
As Suey Park and Eunsong Kim have written, “Satire is not making props and metaphors of the history (is it history?) of oppression.” Productive satire punches up, not down; it does not exploit the terrible history and aftermath of the sexual slavery of Korean women. Valleywag’s white, heteropatriarchal, tech-hipster ethos is, in fact, yet another thread of privilege in the white-dominated fabric of Silicon Valley. As Bay Area resident Noah Cho puts it, the Comfort Woman joke “reflects the ethos of Silicon Valley and gentrification of San Francisco that Valleywag claims to be mocking and satirizing.”
“You’re in a tough spot as a Woman of Color in tech, well known for its misogynystic treatment of women employees,” Kiriko wrote in her final email to Nitasha, “-- especially since your editors refuse to back you up with their own apology. In fact, they’re inflaming the situation by refusing to apologize, drawing further attention to you, despite your [attempted] apology. This is why I’ve ceased to publicly address you despite escalating my critique of your company as a whole.” And so we redirected our protests to the piece’s editors, Sam Biddle and Max Read.
Anatomy of a Joke
While Kiriko spoke to Nitasha, another Bay Area resident, Eva Chan, published a blog post in which she recounted her email exchange with Max Read regarding his employees’ journalistic practices. Eva asked if he would publish a similar “joke” regarding the Joy Division, victims of the Holocaust who were used as sex slaves by the Nazis. He responded, “We would have been just as likely to run a ‘Joy Division’ joke.” In the following excerpt from a comment on Eva’s post, “Greg” joins Max and Sam in embodying the typical white, male, and privileged reaction to our outrage at Valleywag’s exploitative “joke”:
Can’t a joke just be a joke? So what if the joke is about some horrible event in the past? If something is funny, it’s funny, and even if you don’t personally find it funny, shouldn’t others be allowed to do so? Why must the joke-teller apologize?
Making a joke comparison like the one in the article doesn’t mean anyone telling or laughing at the joke in any way believes the joked-about event itself was funny or justified or good. It’s simply acknowledging that while we can’t un-do the past, it’s okay to laugh about it in the present. Caren, whose family comes from Korea, thought the joke was funny and inoffensive, as did another Korean friend of mine.
After we take a moment to laugh at the earnestness with which Greg shares his textbook 'my two Korean friends think it's okay' argument, we must seriously consider: when isn’t a joke “just” a joke? For insight we turn to Alan Dundes, who taught for several decades at UC Berkeley and discussed the power of a joke in his “Introduction to Folklore” classes. He wrote several books about the power of jokes. In particular, Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes (1987) has an entire chapter on Auschwitz jokes told in Western Germany in the 80s that chillingly explains what these jokes say about the state of racism, antisemitism, and the rise of nationalism during the 80s.
In a chapter on “Auschwitz Jokes,” Dundes points out a distinction between “gallows humor” and “executioner’s humor.” “Gallows humor” is told “about and by the victims of oppression.” It helps to relieve tension, and also serves as a way to express fears and address terror through humor. “Executioner’s humor” is a way in which members outside of the gender, ability, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, or religious group being joked about use the popular form in order to express aggression towards that group.
Dundes writes that one should record all types of jokes because “jokes are always an important barometer of the attitudes of a group.” Publishing a joke about Comfort Women, or to say you would completely sanction a joke about the WWII Jewish Joy Division, does in fact give us a barometer of the attitudes prevalent at Gawker’s editorial and journalistic culture. Rape jokes attempt to make light of trauma by belittling and normalizing sexual violence against women. Gawker’s replies reflect precisely how Silicon Valley’s unabashedly aggressive, racist, misogynystic rape culture has become normalized in the tech industry. When virulent sexism is systematized in social institutions, the corresponding jokes indicate how we protect white patriarchy over the bodies, minds, and lives of women -- especially women marked as minorities.
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something,
when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
- Upton Sinclair
Comfort Women have been the focal point of a festering controversy in intra-Asian relations for decades. Some of these women are still alive. Their fight to gain recognition has recently resulted in a memorial statue in Glendale that is currently being protested by the Japanese government and its apologists, both in Japan and Stateside. While American and colonized Asian history books are clear about the war crimes committed against Asian women during WWII, the Japanese have opted to completely omit this atrocity from their history books, exerting a concerted effort on all mainstream media platforms to suppress, deny, and erase the voices of these women.
Valleywag’s cynical, flippant clickbaiting only adds to this silencing; by reducing Comfort Women to a punchline, they erase the history and struggles of hundreds of thousands of women who have fought so long and hard to bring their painful realities to light and their abusers to justice. Valleywag’s joke, and Gawker’s refusal to apologize fully on behalf of its authors and editors and change their editorial policies, are salt in the wounds inflicted upon Comfort Women. Gawker and Valleywag are profiteers and collaborators; they convert suffering into gold in a cynical alchemy; they create revenue off the backs of the women whose physical and now digital bodies are continually abused and violated. They are a travesty.
Or as Kiriko wrote, in response to Greg’s comment above:
Greg, I agree with EC.
The reason I find jokes in this vein (containing rape; racism; other types of abuse) problematic enough to speak out against is because it creates fear in the subject of the jokes while perpetuating a cultural atmosphere that ranges from dismissive to silently tolerant to openly appreciative of rapey, racist, abusive culture. While I can imagine why a mere “joke” could appear innocuous to someone who has the privilege of not being subject to constant threat of rape, racism, and abuse due to their gender, race, political beliefs, etc, those of us who are perceived as “lesser” by dominant (ie male, white, elite, protected, etc) society do not have the same privilege of casually brushing these jokes aside.
In my experience, a carefree/dismissive/jovial/accepting attitude toward abuse (“What’s the big deal? Can’t a joke just be a joke?”) is frequently used either as an anesthetic or a stimulant: either the person considers themselves liberal/progressive and uses humor to numb themselves to the trauma that they are trying to pretend isn’t happening/that they are possibly complicit in, or they are conservative/openly racist/sexist/abusive and use humor to stimulate themselves to aggressive action. A good example is in American Hustle, when the leading men snort coke as preparation for violence. Another good example can be seen in the documentary The Act of Killing, which portrays the men who were responsible for slaughtering thousands of Communists in Indonesia in 1965. In one scene, [TW: rape] a man laughs about how much he enjoyed raping 14 year old girls during massacres. [end TW]. This is a prime demonstration of how humor can be used as a social/psychological lubricant en route to/in the aftermath of overt physical violence.
So while I agree that a joke is relatively harmless compared to the physical violence it evokes, please keep in mind that the people who protest the use of such humor tend to be those who either have experienced trauma or can empathize with the trauma of those victimized. “Jokes” are not harmless; they cause blood pressure to rise, they trigger painful, overwhelming memories and emotions, they create very real fear in the “subjects” of the joke as they are reminded of the broader sociopolitical context of violence in which they live. Even if the joke does not cause a negative emotional response in the listener, the very act of “downplaying” a horrifying historical event into an easily-digested (for some) “joke” is violent because it minimizes the suffering of those who were actually affected, effectively erasing their history from broader consciousness – paving the way for such horrors to be re-created again in the future.
The memorial statue at Glendale Public Libary, shown in a post by flomation covering the protests of the statue's suggested removal.
We supporters of the Comfort Women have been incredibly frustrated by the response of Gawker’s representatives, which has been to stonewall, dismiss, and ridicule us. However, our experience is nothing compared to the Comfort Women’s own experienced pain and frustration, many of whom were ostracized by their own communities and had the Japanese government lead their communities to believe that these women had volunteered themselves into prostitution. The remaining Comfort Women have been protesting outside of the Japanese Embassy in Korea every week for nearly a decade, as documented in the deeply-heartbreaking, beautifully-made film, Within Every Woman. We stand in solidarity and fight for justice with these women, our grandmothers and elders, as they struggle for justice in their final years of life.
We ask you to join us in digital protest at #GawkingAtRapeCulture.
Not Your Clickbait
Given mainstream media’s missteps in regards to reporting about violence against women -- see Tina Vasquez’s great BitchMedia article -- and particularly violating women’s digital bodies on Twitter, we demand accountability from New Media. Gawker and other New Media companies must adapt to new ethical and journalistic standards, as Eunsong Kim and Dorothy Kim will discuss in Part II of this article, “The #TwitterEthics Manifesto.” Until then, New Media has been warned: Women of Color are #NotYourClickbait.
Privilege is widely considered a gain. We argue, however, it is truthfully a rapacious denial. It is an aggressive denial of one’s actual perception and judgment. It is virulent denial of human empathy to another’s struggle, to another’s oppression, to another’s suffering. Sam Biddle and his ilk have exposed through this incident the tech world’s violence, callow flippancy, and ingrained white male privilege. Of course patriarchy exists in the digital sphere -- you can see it in the demographics of tech, in the digital humanities, in how coding is discussed as a masculine pursuit. In this particular white heteropatriarchal strain, Valleywag’s capitalistic pursuit of clicks and dollars manifests as insidious violence against women of color and profit from their bodies.
Biddle saw the violence of comfort women’s bodies and saw a resource, not an episode of past and ongoing human suffering. Patriarchy compels the male to devour female bodies in order to assert dominance. Male privilege provides a broken lens where even gendered language and its symbolic meaning is violently consumed for profit. Therefore, Biddle saw it and sought to devour that meaning, co-opting its inherent power into a consumable form—he calls it a provocative ‘joke’—in order to sell it to the digital masses while exercising virulent, violent digital misogyny.
Feminist scholar bell hooks identified the hierarchical structures which comprise our society as “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalistic Patriarchy.” These interlocking forms of oppression play out digitally in behavior like Sam Biddle’s. Clickbait journalism is New Media’s expression of capitalist violence. He saw the racialized sexual violence of Asian comfort women and consumed its meaning through his imperialistic male gaze, which he then digested and excreted as a headline for monetized web traffic — but we will protest his consumption.
We are not your CLICKBAIT.
Silicon Valley’s white patriarchal tech culture has created the ideal environment for predatory men like Valleywag’s Sam Biddle. As he gains monetary profit, his failings are evident. His loss of empathy for others' suffering. His loss of editorial leadership guided by any sense of moral values. His absolute lack of journalistic ethics. Though, these days as Tina Vasquez’s article points out, journalistic ethics is a laughable enterprise at best.
Though not the first or only time, as this article attests, the intersecting sentiments of aggressive sexual violence coupled with an overt stereotyped orientalism continue to resurface in tech’s misogynist culture. It allows the article’s anonymous male writer to proclaim that the men of Silicon Valley are the ones who are victimized and being hunted because “If you look at Secret, 95 percent of it is Asian bitches wanting Drew Houston.”
Though just one specific incident, the Valleywag article speaks again to a New Media and a Silicon Valley tech culture that has systematically harassed, abused, and ostracized women. Julie Horvath’s experience at GitHub was widely covered by the mainstream media press, as well as in her own public tweets. “Companies are not protecting you, they’re protecting their worth. Don’t be tricked. Protect yourself,” she writes in a tweet specifically for all “marginalized people everywhere.” This same viciousness, manifesting in the now familiar blend of sexual violence and orientalism, was directed at Suey Park for calling out Asian racial stereotypes during #CancelColbert. A presumably male Twitter user, @OStapBender16, said in a now-deleted tweet: “Suey Park would make a cracking good comfort girl.”
With #GawkingatRapeCulture, we aim to center and protect the histories - the very humanity - of those women who do not work in the buildings of Silicon Valley. We are quite chilled at how tech culture has treated the digital bodies of women forced into sexual slavery, Comfort Women and Joy Division, during WWII; many of the physical bodies of these women have passed. How can we better serve those women who are still with us? Furthermore, if tech culture openly exploits historical and digital women’s bodies, what are they willing to do to living, breathing women’s bodies behind the sleek, closed doors of offices in Silicon Valley?