Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns
There is a kind of dichotomy inherent in any civil rights movement. On the one hand, it's generally felt that the minority should be given every opportunity to succeed in competition with the majority. On the other hand, it only seems fair that the minority should be given compensatory advantage to level the playing field with the majority.
Both philosophies are absolutely necessary. On the one side, our minority -- let's call them Quiznos -- must be given the chance to prove their sandwiches are just as tasty as Subway's sandwiches. They have to be allowed to advertise. They have to be allowed to enter submarine sandwich competitions and be rated by noted sub sandwich experts. Subway -- who want to retain their advantage, of course -- can't be allowed to prevent Quiznos from full access to the field. On the other side, Quiznos (being in the minority) toasts their sandwiches to give them that extra "oomph." They advertise heavily that their sandwiches are toasted, and they make the point that toasted sandwiches are better. They use toasting to set themselves apart from Subway, build their brand identity around toasting, and in general seek to use the toasted sandwich to compensate for Subway's greater brand recognition and market position.
(Please note the "creepy Quiznos talking baby who wants to eat sub sandwiches despite not having teeth and barely being able to tolerate mashed food" commercials versus the "how exactly did Jared manage to remain in the public consciousness this long -- all I did was eat some sandwiches as part of a weight loss plan that happened to work" commercials debate is beyond the scope of this essay.)
Now, in recent weeks Subway has also started offering toasted sandwiches. This proves that Quiznos was on to something. However, some feel that Subway should be keeping their nose out of the toasted sub business. They're already the vast majority -- both in terms of the public consciousness and in terms of number of stores -- and they're positioned to crush competitors simply by adopting their business methods and special hooks. Let Quiznos have their toasted subs, already.
The issue becomes contentious at this point. Subway acknowledges (at least publicly) that their competitors have every right to compete in the marketplace. However, they don't have a patent on putting food into an oven and Subway has to have the right to adapt to the times and serve their customers. Quiznos acknowledges (at least publicly) that their competitors have traditionally innovated and adapted to changing times However, toasting Subway's subs infringes on the unique trade dress that Quiznos has built and unfairly stacks competition against them.* At this stage, the debate becomes ugly, and extremists on either side start saying things that the sandwich-eating public really wishes they wouldn't.
On the other side of things, some well-minded communities begin setting things up to "prop up" Quiznos in their neighborhoods. They get zoning boards and Chambers of Commerce in small towns to approve a Quiznos franchise coming in, but block other national fast food chains. They give Quiznos a wide open field in their towns, without Subway to interfere, and therefore give them every possible chance to succeed. So, if you get a hankering for a submarine sandwich, you go to Quiznos. And hey, that's fair, right? I mean, sure, Subway isn't around, but there are still sandwiches to be eaten and Subway will hardly miss this one small town?
Of course, to people outside the sandwich business, this seems somehow... wrong. It looks less like it's giving Quiznos a chance to succeed and more like it's saying Quiznos can't succeed. Creating an island where Quiznos is allowed to flourish free of the majority is perfectly good for that one Quiznos, but perhaps not as good for Quiznos's overall business plan; it implies Subway is so dominant that they have to be intentionally blocked from competition lest they overwhelm Quiznos.
And of course, there are those customers who, when they learn that Subway was blocked, refuse to step foot in any Quiznos ever again. Some of them are pissed off in general. Some like Subway and they're mad it was blocked from coming into their town. Some figure that if Quiznos needs that kind of leg up, it's probably not all that good in the first place. And some feel guilty over Subway's dominance and avoid the whole thing.
In other words, the dichotomy becomes subverted. Rather than allowing Quiznos to succeed, the system restricts Subway instead. Subway adopts the advantages Quiznos used, and are hampered as a result. And in the end, Quiznos gets more business, but loses ground to Subway. And nothing actually changes.
Which is probably why I have some problem with Girlamatic.
Girlamatic is one of the various Joey Manley-owned and operated, subscriber based websites. You know, the ones we used to call the "Modern Tales Family of Websites" and which now I think we're supposed to... um... well, something or other to do with WebComicsNation, or... um... well, yeah. Anyway, Girlamatic has a great reputation and some of the absolute best webcartoonists on the web today writing and drawing for it.
And yet, I find myself... well... not reading those webcomics. I don't have a policy against it. I actually subscribe to Girlamatic. I have tremendous respect for Girlamatic's editor, Lea Hernandez. And some of the webcartoonists I like the most are associated with Girlamatic. Hell, Shaenon Garrity, whose strip Narbonic got my highest award for humor comics last year, writes Li'l Mell, which is about one of my favorite Narbonic characters. I should be all over this thing.
But I'm not, because... well, because I'm a man.
Before the Great Modern Tales Family Crash of 2005, Girlamatic had the following on their front page:
Girlamatic.com features webcomics (mostly) by women, (mostly) for women. It's not about busting anybody's, um, balls, though. It's about good webcomics. If you like good webcomics, you'll like girlamatic.com. And girlamatic.com will like you!
It's worth noting I take the above at its word. Girlamatic really didn't want to exclude men, either from writing or drawing comics or from coming and reading the comics on the site. They weren't zoning to keep Subway out, so much as they were celebrating what Quiznos was. And they were seeking to provide a place on the web where women might find comics that appeal to them -- and it would be cool if guys did too.
And yet, I always felt like... well... like Girlamatic's comics weren't for me. Like I'd be caught out and forced to march out of town if I read them. It's not that I've ever been told I can't... it's like I feel like I'd be intruding if I did.
It's not the fault of Hernandez or anyone at Girlamatic. It's endemic to the nature of a specific group's entertainment site. I also don't watch Black Entertainment Television or Lifetime. It's not because there's nothing on those channels I might like -- I honestly don't know if there is or not, because I never look at them in the first place. I'm a WASP male, through and through, and spending time in the places set up for minorities to express themselves for themselves and others in their minority group by their definitions seem to exclude me.
There's a little liberal guilt thrown in as well, which honestly is screwed up six ways from Sunday. Because I'm a liberal, and honestly believe in feminism, in giving women every chance to succeed, and in creating advantageous positions to level a playing field too long canted towards men, a site like Girlamatic makes me feel guilty. It's not that I wouldn't love Quiznos's delicious sandwiches -- it's that as a Subway customer I feel somehow responsible for creating the conditions that led to Quiznos needing to keep Subway out of town. Perhaps I don't deserve to eat at Quiznos. It's not for me.
Does this all sound ridiculous? Perhaps. But we're not discussing logical responses. We're discussing the emotional reactions of a guy solidly in the majority when confronted with something (mostly) by a minority (mostly) for a minority. A ton of baggage gets unearthed by the mere existence of Girlamatic, and I have subconscious reactions that gets in the way of my just enjoying Girlamatic.
So I don't. When I go looking for something new to read, I check out PVComics, or Keenspot, or Graphic Smash, or Modern Tales. It's not a conscious decision. I just never think to go to Girlamatic. And as a result, Girlamatic strips don't end up on my part of Websnark or in my Comixpedia column -- which is a disservice to Girlamatic, I know this. I acknowledge this. But it's just the way things are.
I don't offer a solution, or even a suggestion, here. The fault is in me, not in Girlamatic. And yet, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only (male) webcomics reader out there who feels this way. Ping Teo, in her recent Comixpedia Soapbox, says she thinks Women in Webcomics shouldn't be an issue in the first place. I can't speak to that. However, I think that a collective like Girlamatic makes it an issue... without necessarily doing any favors either for the people involved, or for women as a whole.
* Please note -- this is just an example. I have no clue how Quiznos has reacted to toasted Subway subs. Seriously, though. That talking baby is creepy.