What Are Dickwolves, And What Do They Have To Do With Rape Culture? A Cautionary Tale Of How NOT To Respond To Feminist Criticism

Apparently in this universe, responding supportively to rape survivors is a "mistake." Way to fail, Penny Arcade.
Publish date:
September 4, 2013
pax, video games, rape culture, m-rated

The first time I went to PAX was in March of 2010, for the first-ever east coast version of the event, which conveniently happened in my adopted home city of Boston.

PAX, for those of you who aren’t sufficiently nerdy to know, is short for the Penny Arcade Expo, and it’s a fan-centered gamer convention put on by the folks behind Penny Arcade, a widely-read game-themed webcomic.

PAX had originated back in 2004 and had been happening annually in the Seattle area since then, and while I’d often been curious about it, I’d never been curious enough to pony up for a cross-country plane ticket and to give up the vacation time to go check it out. I’m not really a fan convention sort of person, to be honest. Fan conventions always seemed so rife with drama (strike 1), not to mention crowds (strike 2), and germs (strike 3).

But then I went to that first-ever PAX East and my opinion changed. I had an amazing time. I met a bunch of amazing people. I played a bunch of amazing games. And overall, the vibe was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before -- I’d never been in a place with literal thousands of people who understood my obscure jokes and shared my strange obsessions.

I began to understand why people go to fan conventions; they go to feel accepted. They go because it is a place where they can feel they truly belong, even if it’s only for a few days.

The sense of acceptance was intoxicating. Sure, there was a perfectly abhorrent and insufferable panel about “GIRLZ WHO PLAY GAMEZ” that mostly consisted of victim-blaming women who suffer online harassment, but even THAT led to my meeting two incredibly smart and awesome people (HI KATE AND SAM!) whom I still know today, because we were all three livetweeing our criticism/rage (mostly rage, in my case).

So while it wasn’t perfect, there was room for us to be outspoken, space for people to call out troubling behavior when they saw it. This was OUR convention, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it about the fans, and given that the fans are pretty diverse, doesn’t it make sense that we might feel entitled to criticize the stuff that we found troubling? Weren’t we emboldened by this atmosphere of like-mindedness and acceptance? Wasn’t that how we were SUPPOSED to feel?

But then a few months later, dickwolves happened.

The story of dickwolves is astonishingly lengthy and involved, especially in this age of rapidly changing news cycles and short memories, but the basic gist is this: Penny Arcade published a comic that had a rape joke in it, involving made-up creatures called dickwolves. A few people spoke up to say they found this hurtful, initially on legendary feminist blog Shakesville. Penny Arcade shot back with a sarcastic strip about people becoming rapists because of their comic.

At this point, things started to completely unravel (a complete timeline of the dickwolves affair has been helpfully preserved on Tumblr, if you’re into all the gory details). For many people, myself included, the original comic was far less egregious than the way Penny Arcade was choosing to react to the controversy it spawned. More people spoke up, noting that the point of the original criticism was not that rape jokes turn people into real-life rapists, as the response comic suggests, but that they are often damaging and alienating to rape survivors.

Mike Krahulik, one half of the two guys at the top of the Penny Arcade food chain, answered this by announcing the creation of Team Dickwolves merch in the Penny Arcade webstore, including a t-shirt.

See, if you’re standing on the sidelines at this point, you might be thinking, “What the hell? Why would you antagonize people like that?” It’s a really good question. The boss Penny Arcade dudes (namely, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, with a side of Robert Khoo) have a wildly successful webcomic -- virtually a contradiction in terms -- and a major platform in video games, complete with millions of readers. They help to create gamer culture.

On the other hand, their critics had, well, a few words of disparagement, and ostensibly their dignity, although even that they had to fight for, when a sizable media outlet created t-shirts explicitly designed to make fun of them.

Penny Arcade could have just ignored the criticism. They also could have taken it all to heart and tried to do better. They didn’t have to say anything at all, and their bottom line wouldn’t have been affected.

Out of these options, they chose instead to pointedly provoke their critics, many of whom had actually been raped, and not by mythical pretend-dickwolves. Penny Arcade chose to create a t-shirt that would represent their brand as a stalwart supporter of rape culture, and by extension to make PAX an unsafe place for rape survivors, and moreover to do it all gleefully, laughingly, as a super hilarious joke.

Rape survivors are not an inconsequential group: almost 1 in 5 women (and 1 in 33 men) in the US has been sexually assaulted. It happens about every two minutes. In the time you’ll spend reading this post? At least a couple people will have been raped. And it's true, not all of them are uniformly offended or hurt by this sort of thing, but enough will be that I think erring on the side of caution is not an unreasonable expectation.

Even so, I was initially cautious in my criticism. Because I wouldn’t know half of what I know today if people hadn’t been patient with my offensive bullshit at one point. As a white, cisgender, currently-able-bodied individual with a whole bunch of intersecting privilege, I had to LEARN how to confront my own internalized racism, transphobia and ableism, among other things.

I’d love to pretend that I’ve never misgendered anybody, that I’ve never participated in racism, and that I shit nothing but glitter and rainbows. It’s not true. I’ve messed up lots of times. I still mess up even now. I try to learn from every experience, however, and I’m always trying to be better.

But as a result I often feel that I owe it to people like Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins to be sympathetic and patient. Because I’ve known a lot of individuals over the years who seemed utterly impossible to reach, who violently refused to reconsider their perspectives and assumptions, but who eventually did learn better, and who have become vocal and inspiring supporters of the very individuals they once hurt. So I wanted to believe that the dudes responsible for Penny Arcade, and their huge audience, could be educated, even if it took a long while. And if they changed their minds, then what a fantastic pair of supporters they would be.

A little less than two months after it was first revealed, and after a growing chorus of criticism, the Team Dickwolves merchandise was pulled from the Penny Arcade webstore (which also had the side effect of making the shirts highly sought-after collectibles). Mike Krahulik’s explanation for the decision was directly related to PAX:

We want PAX to be a place were everyone feels welcome and we’ve worked really hard to make that happen. From not allowing booth babes to making sure we have panels that represent all our attendees. When I heard from a few people that the shirt would make them uncomfortable at PAX, that gave me pause.

It seemed like a thoughtful and appropriate response, if one that was a little long in coming. You might think that would be the end of the whole affair, but it wasn’t.

A few fans of Penny Arcade, most of them dudes, couldn't let it go. They were enraged at what they saw as a capitulation to a handful of hysterical females whose sole purpose was to cause said dudes deep deep pain by removing their ability to buy a certain t-shirt from a certain store. Many of the original critics of the comic started receiving elaborate rape and even death threats from creepy strangers; twitter accounts were created for the sole purpose of slandering and harassing various women, and mocking rape survivors in general.

Because nothing is so offensive as not being able to buy a t-shirt and wear it to a fan convention.

By the time PAX East 2011 rolled around, even I was feeling defensive and uncomfortable about it, in spite of my sense that it was important for me to go and carve out that space for those of us who disagreed with the handling of the dickwolves ordeal. Some of the more shit-stirring weirdos even organized Team Dickwolves t-shirt flash mobs, which I fortunately never saw and I heard were not well-attended anyway.

But the shine had come off the experience. Where once walking into PAX was like being embraced by old friends, I now felt like an outsider -- and I wasn’t even one of the more vocal critics of Penny Arcade. I couldn't stop thinking about the people who weren't there. With a few awesome exceptions, instead of seeing like-minded potential friends everywhere I looked, I looked at other con attendees with deep suspicion, and was far more withdrawn than I had been before.

I went to other PAXs. But every year I struggled with it. Because Penny Arcade -- or more specifically, Mike Krahulik -- kept coming up with new and inventive ways to be alienating and offensive (ranging from the erasure of a rape accusation, to some very recent blatant transphobia -- much of this is laid out here by the mad brilliant Elizabeth Sampat, along with several reasons not to go to PAX again).

For awhile I rationalized my attendance because I could get a press badge, but earlier this year I didn’t bother to request one, and only went to PAX East 2013 for one day, using a pass I bought off Craigslist on a whim, and even that I immediately regretted. I am an insufferable optimist who always wants to believe the best of people, it's true, but even I was losing hope. I realized with considerable sadness that I probably wouldn’t attend PAX again.

That “probably” became “certainly” just yesterday, when on the last day of PAX Prime in Seattle, Krahulik was on a panel in the convention's largest theater, and announced that the decision to pull the Team Dickwolves merchandise from their store was “a mistake,” a characterization that was met with cheers from the crowd, and which his Penny Arcade colleagues agreed with, suggesting that doing so meant “engaging” with the criticism, something they now try to avoid.

Now let’s keep in mind that this t-shirt-based decision was made two and a half years ago, and the controversy raged on for a year after, so there is literally no clear-thinking reason to revive it, EVEN IF the whole Penny Arcade organization uniformly agrees they should have continued to sell the shirts. Why even go there? Unless it's just to provoke controversy?

I guess none of that stuff about wanting PAX to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone matters anymore -- or else it was all lip service to begin with.

More than that, the idea that pulling the shirts from the store was a form of “engagement” with the criticism makes no rational sense. The engagement happened not when they stopped selling the t-shirts, but when they created the t-shirts in the first place, because they did so in direct response to the criticism -- as a means of essentially telling rape survivors (and people who want rape survivors to feel safe at PAX) to go fuck themselves. Penny Arcade made the bed they're so reluctant to lie in now.

Since hearing about this panel, I’ve been wondering where else this could happen without there being consequences. I mean, even Chick-fil-A, when faced with a backlash after their president’s troubling comments about same-sex marriage and their history of donating money to anti-equal-marriage organizations, recanted and changed their policies (publicly, at least) as a result of the criticism. Paula Deen lost her job as a result of accusations of racism. Lots of far more famous and far more powerful people have seen their brands and careers harmed or even devastated for making similarly bigoted comments.

To be fair, a recent Financial Post piece has asked pointed questions about the effects Mike Krahulik’s recent anti-trans comments might have on Penny Arcade as a brand, and just yesterday, New Statesman wondered along the same lines. But for the most part, Krahulik’s behavior is quickly forgiven, if not overlooked entirely, by both the niche games media and the mainstream press. He gets to shrug and call himself a lovable asshole, and everybody moves on.

Why? Is it because Penny Arcade’s audience is mostly comprised of so-called gamers, a cultural identity mostly adopted by men, and one that is so wrapped up in misogyny and low social standards that we shouldn’t expect better? And that anyone who does expect better -- who speaks up and DEMANDS better -- deserves the abuse they receive? Because those critics should have known that they were turning over a nest of self-interested comprehension-impaired perspective-refusing hornets, and that the reason only a small group of people speaks up against Penny Arcade is because they really do represent gamer culture. What’s amazing is that most of the folks who continue to vocally support Penny Arcade don’t even realize how bad it makes them look by association.

But they’ve won. As of today, I give up. I give up believing that Mike Krahulik or any of the Penny Arcade leadership will learn better. I gave them three years, but I hereby yield PAX to those individuals who refuse to acknowledge that what might be funny to them could be harmful to someone else. I’m handing it over to the people who think their ability to wear a shirt or laugh at a joke is always more important than the comfort or safety of people who are marginalized for reasons beyond just liking to play games.

The vision of PAX as “a place where everyone feels welcome” is dead. Long live the dickwolves.