Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It End?
Updated 02/04/09


Artist's Statement

Awhile ago I had a conversation with Ruben Bolling, author of “Tom the Dancing Bug,” about the politics and propriety of using racial or sexual epithets in one’s work, even if it is in vox personæ (that is, in the mouth of a character from whom such language would be appropriate and expected). Ruben, after humbling experience, has come around to the conclusion that it’s never okay to use such words—they’re just too fraught with hatred and a history of inflicting harm. Whereas I, perhaps less wisely, continue to follow John Waters’ challenge to the next generation of humorists to find a way to be un-p.c. without being a jerk about it. This cartoon representsnot only my formal coming-out as a big fag but my effort to reclaim the word fag from the homophobic bigots, dissociate it from any overt reference to sexual orientation, and reappropriate it as a puerile, middle-school insult. Of course homosexuals are allowed to call each other faggot harmlessly, just as blacks get to say nigger with a kind of defiant casualness which bothers no one except for everybody around them and maybe each other deep inside. But I'd like to rehabilitate faggy to designate things that are not literally homosexual but are nonetheless undeniably faggy, things like V-neck sweaters and Yanni and Dr. Smith on Lost in Space. (Okay maybe Dr. Smith is a borderline case but come on, it's a kids' show, nobody has any real sexuality, except for that little minx Penny.) Maybe it would help to desaturate the word of its vicious power to broaden and dilute its meaning this way--just as the word jerk now just means someone insensitive, obnoxious, and stupid and no longer specifically refers to compulsive masturbators. Alas, there just don’t seem to be any epithets with any real juice at all that don’t have their etymological origins in some cruel and wounding term that targets a very specific group: even the now fairly bland idiot once had a very specific medical meaning and was used, in less enlightened times, to mock the mentally disabled or ill.

I realize people are touchy about this sort of thing, and not without just cause. I once permanently alienated someone, a gay friend of a friend, merely by mentioning the existence of the playground game “Smear the Queer,” (a.k.a., in some regional variants, the more self-explanatory “Kill the Guy With the Ball”). It’s not like I personally invented this game or named it myself. But by simply repeating its name I earned his undying antipathy. And yet, as a pale skinny kid who read books and didn’t play sports or go out with girls in high school, and, later, a guy who hung out in dive bars in Cecil County but talked like a college boy, I got called gay and faggot growing up as much as any bona fide homosexual. One thing I like about living in New York City is that nobody ever calls you faggot, maybe because people are too grown-up and cosmopolitan here, or because this is the place where all the people who got called faggot in their hometowns fled to, or maybe just because there are so many authentic faggots here for contrast that nobody mistakes you for one just because you’re wearing a blazer.

One of the very few bits of dumb gender bullshit that, as far as I know, women don’t have to contend with that men do is this question of being a “real” man. I don't know--do women ever worry about being a "real" woman? Perhaps there is some whatever's-the-female-equivalent-of-machismo surrounding issues of childbirth and motherhood, but I don’t think the whole issue of your gender identity feels as tenuously insecure for women as it does for men. I remember when I was a kid a (not very bright) friend of mine told me not to sit with my legs crossed, because men didn’t sit like that. I remember thinking, my dad sits like that, but I also uncrossed my legs. (This was the same kid who instructed me that toilet was pronounced terlet.) This kind of unspoken but harshly enforced code continued through adolescence: the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, etc., all were subject to this constant thhreat of being deemed girly or gay. And of course this sort of anxiety is a useful marketing tool among adolescents, so the culture tends to cultivate it. Some of these rules verged on superstitions of the Babylonian dog-on-the-bed variety. Boys, you'll remember, could not carry their books clasped to their chests--they had to lug them all under one arm, no matter how large or unweildy a stack they had. (But then why would a real guy have so many books, anyway?) If you wore an earring in your right ear it meant you were gay. If you wore green on a certain day of the week (was it Friday?) you were gay.

This fearful cringing bullshit doesn’t even end in adulthood. Until a year or two ago I had a friend who was always presuming to mentor me in what “a real man” wears (fitted shit, sportscoats), owns (expensive cell phones), and does (feels girls up in the street instead of timidly asking them out). On especially frigid days I wear a raccoon coat around town, one that would’ve been the cat’s meow in fashion eighty years ago, and is fucking awesome, but now, in 2009, because I am neither a.) female or b.) black, often gets laughed at. (You watch: two years from now they’ll be in fashion again, thanks to me, and the same douchebags who made snarky ironic remarks about my coat will be paying $3000 for them in vintage stores.) A lot of grown men seem to experience an almost hysterical fear of ever being perceived as anything other than a 100% normal, straight, red-blooded American male, a condition which is imaginary and therefore impossible to wholly achieve, which doubtless leaves a lot of them feeling anxious and fraudulent and in constant danger of being found out as only 87% manly. Hence homphobia.

And anything we feel anxiety about is a going to be a focus of humor. (I love the “You know how I know you’re gay?” routine in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) So it’s handy to have a word so overtly puerile and middle-schoolish to mock a.) your friends’ habits and affectations and also, on a more self-conscious “meta-” level, b.) your own obnoxious presumption in judging them and c.) the whole notion of some rigid, objective standard of what is manly and normal vs. what is unacceptably faggy or gay.

I don’t know--maybe, my years of being called gay on the playground and general fagginess notwithstanding, I still lack what David Foster Wallace called the “rhetorical authority” to make this argument, since I am after all a pretty flamboyant, even flaming, heterosexual. I am certainly way more hesitant to reappropriate and comedically deploy epithets to which I have no conceivable claim. My late friend John always forbade his friends from using the word retard in his presence, because John had had a sister with Down’s Syndrome. And because John was the kind of thoroughly gentle and decent guy who, if you made him angry, you knew it was not because he was being touchy and oversensitive but because you must be an asshole, we knocked it off. Even though retard also has some of the overtly stupid, vulgar whiff of middle-school that makes fag so embarassingly fun to say. I have seen it used to humorous effect (most recently in the legend to The Onion’s “Our Dumb World” atlas, in which the symbol of a ship was accompanied by the explanation: “It’s a ship, you fucking retard”), but I still avoid it myself. I’m currently reading Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, set in Knoxville in 1951 among the very lowest substratum of society, and it would be a blatant bowdlerization or distractingly anachronistic, like some weird parallel-universe child’s version of that time and place, if no one in it were to use the word nigger. So they do, pretty often, which is only naturalistic in that book, just as it is in Huck Finn. But this doesn’t stop me from worrying that some black person might notice it on the page over my shoulder on the subway.

So, yes, it is possible that I have failed here and am just a jerk (in the broad generic sense) after all. I await the angry letters-to-the-editor.

Thanks to my friends Tom and Jesse for the inspiration RE Sharks vs. Jets. (I actually did have to ask some strangers in the café where I was drawing who was playing in the Superbowl this year.) And thanks to Jesse for suggesting that the final damning proof of my faggotry should be liking girls, a la The Simpsons’ line: "You’re kissing a girl—that’s so gay!” As Jules Feiffer points out in his essay on comic book heroes, “In our society it is not only homosexuals who don’t like women. Almost no one does.” The same friend who used to tell me what real men did and did not do also used to berate me for wasting my time hanging around with women he didn’t think were attractive. Life was pretty much binary for him: every event that did not conclude with fucking a hot girl was, to him, just another disappointing failure. He was no idiot, and he certainly wasn’t faggy; he was just a jerk.


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