Saturday, August 29, 2015

How DARE the Weekly Standard Employ Journalistic Principles and Tradition!

As much as I might want to keep this blog about the art and business of caricature, like it or not this is an art form that has grown up hand-in-hand with politics. And so this morning I awoke to see an interesting spat going on involving a caricature of a politician (and yes, I mean that both ways: it's a painted, rendered caricature of Donald Trump, whom many regard as a living, walking caricature of a politician).

The Weekly Standard commissioned award-winning Jason Seiler to paint the Donald, which he did with incredible detail and form.



Then the Weekly Standard released it to their fan base, which (from the Facebook responses) seems to have lost all sense of what caricature is or (GASP!) that it's been used to depict politicians since politics was invented. 

Now, caricature artists who belong to ISCA are already aware of this and several of us have had a run at the comments, soaking in all the looney and digesting it. (The tide is turning, actually, as I see more and more comments explaining or defending the artwork pop up in the last several hours.)

But this isn't just for artists. Please, you non-artist folks who simply appreciate art, history, caricature, and journalism . . . please have a look.

https://www.facebook.com/weeklystandard/photos/a.440049318298.230913.11643473298/10153194456133299/?type=1&theater

If you can parse your way through the misspellings, typos, confederate flag profile pictures, and occasional misogynistic spitwad, you'll notice that very few of the folks commenting seem to have any realization that Weekly Standard has a history of using caricatures on their cover--or, even, that caricature is a thing that exists. The number-one "liked" comment excoriates the editors at Weekly Standard for daring to "present the front runner in a cartoonish way."

Others are fuming that they are singling out Trump with this illustration while they would never treat Jeb Bush or other candidates in such a "disrespectful" way. (Just a peek at the Weekly Standard subscription page shows me caricatures of the editors, and in the 4 sample covers we have 2 caricatures--one of Jeb Bush and another of Republican hopeful Scott Walker).

A few commenters point out that the Standard in fact has caricatures on a pretty regular basis (and they sure have had a field day with Obama's ears and Hillary's mug) . . . but I also wondered how many folks taking this sensible stance are actually caricature artists who found the link via the ISCA Facebook post. Jason Seiler himself can be found reverse-trolling on there, politely asking folks what is shameful or awful about the caricature. I don't think any one of the rabidly angry Trump supporters has any idea Seiler is, in fact, the creator of that monstrosity they are fuming over.

Don't anybody out him, either! I suspect he's enjoying this.









I'm no Jason Seiler, not by a long shot, but I had a slightly similar feeling recently at a fundraiser for one of my favorite podcasts. I had donated a caricature sculpture of James "The Amazing" Randi for an auction to benefit the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. At the dinner, as the items were walked around the room, one woman at my table (who had no idea that I was the artist) scowled and said "Oh my goodness, how awful! It's so grotesque!" as she examined the miniature James Randi. A fellow sitting across from her said "What, are you crazy? That's awesome--looks just like him!" The woman continued sneering, the guy chuckled and tried to explain caricature to her (and art for that matter), and I simply sat back quietly, enjoying it all secretly.

One of the things caricature shares with "high art" is that it can have the power to divide a room. (The sculpture fetched just over $700, by the way. The woman at my table frowned and made disgusted noises each time the price went higher.)

What I'm seeing on the comment thread for Weekly Standard, though, seems a bit more than dividing a room. I'm not sure what's going on with the Trump supporters as a whole (or if what we see there is even a good representative sample), but the thin-skinned inability to take a visual joke is apparent. As is a really blinding non-awareness of the history of caricature in political publications--hell, I'm not even talking about the roots of the art form in Colonial America or eighteenth-century France here: these readers seem unaware of what caricature even is, unaware that the President and all politicians are regularly caricatured, and that the publication they subscribe to has used caricatures regularly for its entire existence--yes, even on Democrats. 

Ouch. Just, ouch. 

Many of them could not recognize it as a painting and assumed it was some kind of photo manipulation. Though it was painted digitally, it's clearly got the brush-strokes and markings of a highly rendered painting. Have these folks ever seen a real painting, I wondered? Did no one take them to a museum as a kid? Was it just the gun range and Sizzler for every family outing?

Just check out some choice comments I culled (copied & pasted, so consider all typos below to have [sic] next to them):

"If you can't portray a presidential candidate in a serious manner, don't bother at all !!!"
 "Sticks and Stones May Break His Bones...but your lousy satirical cover photos will not hard him. Trump for President 2016."
"Insulting distortion." 
 "When do we see the press do this to Hillary or Sanders or any other person in the top 5"
 "This photoshopping is just plain old mean! Shame on you!"
 "Weekly Standard would you do the same distortion on a picture of Obama? I"m thinking if you did you would be accused of being a racist but you think it's ok to make fun of a white guy..... That racist thing works both ways!"
"What an unflattering picture... On purpose?"
"Can't they stop photo shopping pics?" 
"just cancelled my subscription.....no more serious than a cartoon?" 
"Didn't expect this kind of cover photo from the Standard. I suppose manipulation is the flavor of the day." 
"Whys they use such an unbecoming picture" 
"Geez....terrible artwork designed to insult."
"Your BS unflattering photo can NOT alter the greatest of this man."  
"Ohhhh did they make trump look like a mungoloid?" 
"Why the distorted picture?" 
 
And my favorite unwitting typo (I believe she meant "disgusting") was: "U are discussing, Weekly Standard" . . . why yes, ma'am, yes I am discussing Weekly Standard. I thought that was kind of obvious. 


Yeah, Seiler would NEVER make fun of Obama...

The scientific illiteracy of the general American public--something that seems more noticeable in those who identify as "far right" or ultra-conservative--has often depressed me. But today the art illiteracy of that same demographic is what's been getting my goat.

It's a caricature. Look it up, people! (Actually, do look it up, because oh my good lord it was hilarious reading the attempts at spelling that word--if you spot a correct spelling of the word there, it's likely because the one commenting IS a caricature artist). 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Drawing Married Couples, Regardless of Their Genitalia

Rainbows for Everyone! 

I've spent some time today and yesterday looking at my ever-increasingly-rainbow-colored Facebook feed and reading all the posts about the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage.

What does this have to do with caricature? Well, a couple of things. Number one, we work weddings. And weddings (or, specifically, wedding vendors who refuse service to gay couples) have been a hot topic in the news this year. No doubt you've heard of the bakers, florists, pizza makers, and even a mechanic weighing in on the national stage to proclaim that they would refuse services to openly gay people as a way to exercise their religious rights. Businesses at the center of news stories like this were sent donations by people on one side of the debate and boycotted by people on the other. The coverage angered me on two fronts: it ticks me off that gays who want to marry are being discriminated against, and it ticks me off that wedding vendors are being represented on national TV by these few jerkwads.

One artist posting on the ISCA forum a few months ago mentioned that he had been asked discreetly when getting hired, "This is for a gay wedding, do you have any problem working it?" To his credit, he did not have any problems, and he lamented the fact that the organizer felt a need to issue such a trigger warning to him. I know a lot of artists (gay, straight, religious, not religious, conservative, and liberal), and I can't think of any who would have any problems working such an event. There might be a few in my Facebook list, but if so they've certainly never told me they are prejudiced in this way and would turn down a gig in protest.

The only group we all seem to discriminate against is broke Americans. You are too broke to pay us? Well then we won't be working your event. (And actually, that comes with an asterisk too, since plenty of us do work for charity gigs on a regular basis).

Discrimination and Stereotypes

I'm tempted to say "having more gay weddings is going to be FABULOUS, they are such party people!" but the truth is I know a couple of gay folk who are kind of sticks in the mud. Stereotypes aren't ever across-the-board true, even the positive ones.

While every bar in America hangs up a sign that says they reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, I'd always assumed that was the "in case of A-hole" emergency lever. If someone is being a terrible human being, you can point to the sign and eject them. But assuming all persons in a particular group are terrible, and preemptively refusing to do business with them? That's discrimination--not to mention a really awful business plan.

Like it or not, we all discriminate in some ways--big, little, often unnoticed even by us, so it's valuable to self-examine on a regular basis. Our nervous systems are practically DESIGNED to discriminate and form stereotypes, it's a means of self-preservation. Poisonous red berries made your ancestors sick once or twice and BAM, they avoided all red foods after that. Fast-forward a few hundred thousand years and I know caricature artists who cringe whenever they get approached by certain demographics of the public because of previous awful experiences. It doesn't even have to be your experience, you can just hear about how awful something (or someone) is from your peer group and it will have an effect.

Caricaturists (I like to think) are especially good at noticing patterns, so we certainly fall prey to this primal drive to stereotype. Plus cartoonists have historically made a living poking fun at stereotypes or relying on them for gags. As one coworker said recently at a fair, "I'd like to learn more about your culture, so that I can more accurately make fun of it, please." But it's not all fun and games: being reluctant to draw an Indian couple that walks up to the booth because they "just don't get caricature" (unless it's Indians with an accent from the UK, then hell yeah, sit them down!) or jockeying to get the Japanese couple because "they so get caricature" and usually tip well . . . those are both examples of stereotyping/discrimination on the caricature circuit. Artists are human, and so what they believe about those groups is based on experience or what's repeated in our peer group. But, very importantly, I must point out that I've never seen an artist flat-out refuse to draw someone based on their ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. They'll complain, sure: one fellow I worked with rattled off song titles he wanted to write about stereotypical customer groups that rankled him. There was a country ballad called "Black Women with Yellow Hair Scare Me," and a punk number called "Screaming Mexican Baby." Yet every bleached-blonde African American woman and every screaming Latino toddler got good service from this guy, he never once refused their business.

See, I'm all for acknowledging that we have a lizard part of our brain, and it wants to hate people (or at least categorize them). But part of being an adult citizen of this great country of ours is realizing one must act in such a way that overcomes that lizard-brain tendency. In fact, it's kind of fun to rack up a count of how many people at the average fair (or mall, or party) completely defy the stereotype associated with their demographic. People surprise you, that's a constant you can bank on. 

Events That Go against Your Morals

Yes, I will happily take a slice of that gay wedding business!
Many of the gay-partay-nay-sayers explain that it's not the people they hate, it's the event. Hate the sin, love the sinner; so, hate the wedding, love the guests? In light of the Supreme Court's ruling, some fellow artists have taken this opportunity to happily announce (or re-announce) on social media that they are available to work gay weddings, just as they always have been. I honestly cannot recall working one of those in recent memory, but within the past month I've drawn a lesbian proposal commission and an anniversary picture of two boyfriends. I've also been hired for fundraisers, private parties, and corporate events by members of the LGBTQ community, just as I've worked alongside gay artists and hung out with my gay friends. So working a gay wedding would be no problem at all. Of course, that's easy for me to say--I have nothing against gays or the idea of them getting married to each other.

Nevertheless, it's hard for me to sympathize with those who say they discriminate because getting hired for a gay wedding goes against their core beliefs. Because I do have core beliefs. Some of those beliefs are even "deeply held" as the catchphrase goes. When you hang out a shingle and decide you're going to offer a service to the public, the one overriding "deeply held belief" that matters is your work ethic. Do the work. Plenty of people manage to do their jobs. A Muslim ER doctor will treat you even if the Koran defines you as a heretic. An Amish roadside stand will still sell you apple butter even if they see that you were driving a car, not a buggy. 

I have worked so many events that don't align with my core belief structure and morals. That's why it's called working an event and not "attending an event voluntarily because I think it's awesome." I have sat quietly with my head bowed during prayers I disagree with. I have smiled through corporate speeches that are diametrically opposed to my philosophy. I've drawn for associations and clubs that center around stuff I believe is total bunk. I drew at one wedding for out-of-towners that included a long, angry-sounding speech by the father of the bride detailing how marriage is between a man and a woman, as God intended, and nothing would ever change that, etc. etc. (I felt a twinge of embarrassment for the bride, wondering if she shared his views completely or was rolling her eyes as she watched her old man unravel at what was supposed to be her special day.) I have drawn at events held by some of the biggest donors to the Republican Party. I have drawn for Jews, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and Wiccans. I've drawn at Temples and Churches and Strip Clubs. I drew a woman once who asked me to go into the restroom with her to see her hair because she couldn't remove her hijab in public (I did, and she had lovely hair by the way).

I was a paid performer, there to do my job, not take a stand or try to belittle or change the minds of the people who hired me. And you know what? None of those events turned me gay, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Wiccan, or Republican. But it did give me a lot of face-time with people who grew up differently than I did. People in other communities suddenly seem surprisingly similar to you when you sit down and have a chat. They worry about their double-chins and laugh at a good joke. Having some face-time with people different from you is valuable, and I advise everyone to seek it out. It's one of the best ways to combat that lizard-brain tendency we humans have of categorizing and stigmatizing.

My Own Past Bigotry & Gay Marriage


A year or two ago I realized something (darn that self-reflection--sometimes it makes you realize you've been going about something the wrong way!). As gay marriage started getting legalized in more and more states, I examined my typical patter and how I interact with couples who sit for caricatures. And, without realizing it, the marriage question had sort of formed a flow chart in my brain. "So, you two married or dating or cousins or what?" was a typical icebreaker . . . and one I never really used with same-sex couples. And depending on the answer I got, I formed certain notions in my head and asked other questions. "Have any kids?" and so on and so forth.

I mean, I'm no provincial sheltered artist--I've drawn hundreds if not thousands of same-sex couples. Some, who had kids with them, I did just assume were married (or domestically partnered) and I asked them the typical "married life" type questions and made small talk. But for so many other gay couples, I realized, I was just interacting with them as if they were casually dating. And no doubt many of them were . . . but my internal assumption had no basis in fact. Or if it did, it was just the fact that both partners had the same kind of genitalia. With a straight couple, it was just a natural progression . . . "Oh, how long you two been married then?" "Wow, any kids? You leave them at home with grandma & grandpa?" "Oh wow, are you planning a big trip or anything for your 20th anniversary!" And so on and so forth. With gay couples I kind of skirted all that and talked about the weather or their jobs or something else. I can't say why, it wasn't ever a conscious decision.


Someone once argued with me against gay marriage by saying that homosexuals had more partners, more casual relationships than straight people. Therefore they were more likely to cheat and so marriage would be a bad idea for them anyway. (I countered by asking him if we should gather data about the races and, if members of a particular race had more casual relationships / sex partners / adultery than the other races, we should ban members of that race from marrying?) But that question started me thinking, what would my adult love life be like if I were prohibited from marrying? Would I be less likely to form a deep attachment with a partner? Maybe. I'd hope I wouldn't be so stuck on a piece of paper and the legal and tax status it confers . . . but the true answer is maybe. What if, in addition to the government not allowing me to marry, most of the conversations I had with people were framed in such a way that they assumed I would always be single, a casual dater, never have kids, and so on? Well, again, I hope I'd be strong enough to define my own life and love the way I want . . . but again the answer is maybe. Conversations can open up a person's potential, but they can also help close it down. Have enough conversations with a teenager about how worthless they are, and they'll start believing it. Treat someone like marriage or commitment isn't even a possibility with them, and maybe it will have an effect. And if marriage isn't your thing (gay or straight), fine, it's perfectly okay to never settle down, be a casual dater until your dying day. But freedom is about choice.

Conservatives who value the family unit and commitments like marriage should, I think, be celebrating. With this week's ruling, the realm of official, state-sanctioned committed relationships has widened. If you hold up marriage as a good thing, then more citizens being allowed to marry is a good thing. More citizens being treated equally, and being told they can marry someday if they decide to, is a very good thing. 

So, it's just a little change, I suppose, but nowadays I'm asking gay couples if they are "married, dating, cousins, what?" And so on and so forth with the typical married-person banter. Yep, gays and lesbians, you are no longer safe from my corny married-person jokes. Consider yourself warned.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Comic Cons, Interactive Art, and the Thought Police

I'm in Washington DC at the moment, visiting siblings and niblings that live up in these parts. [And because I'm traveling, and writing this on my mobile devices, I won't be able to throw links onto the post--but if you are curious to read about any of the things mentioned, they are all pretty easily googled.]

As it happens, a comic con was taking place this same weekend and my brother-in-law kindly gifted me his pass for the final day. So I tagged along with my 16-year-old niece and her friend, then twelve feet into the convention center we promptly parted ways--to save them the indignity of being seen with a middle-aged aunt and save me the indignity of being seen with two teenagers.

Now, I'll first admit fully that I'm spoiled. The first Comic Con I attended was the huge San Diego Comic Con, and I've been to that one several times now. A small one popped up in Vegas, which I attended last year, and I've got a few Sci-Fi cons under my belt too. So Awesome Con sounded like fun, another con in another region to add to my collection of experiences.

The staff was friendly, the vendor tables were plentiful, and there was a nifty kid area on the exhibit floor where artists had volunteered to do variations of art fights and similar activities, like the "Drawbstacle Course" where kids came up and drew random squiggles on large paper that the artists then had to turn into a cartoon character within 90 seconds. Attendees were made up of the same general mix one sees at other cons: excited nerds, whole geek families, and costumes ranging all along the spectrum from ironically awful to pristine and professional. 

One thing I really love about SDCC (the main thing I love, actually) is the array of seminars, panels, and presentations that offer some pointers to professional artists or enlighten the more scholarly nerds and geeks on a philosophical or cultural aspect of comic culture or fandom. Awesome Con had a few (a very few) such talks listed in the schedule, though they were only noted by title and lacked any sort of explanatory paragraph or even names of authors/presenters (in the hard copy program or online, that I could find). But the seminar title "How ComicCons Have Changed How We Interact with Art" sounded promising. I imagined it would be a mix of scholarly and whimsical, and right up my alley--since I consider live caricature to be one of the first and most prolific forms of interactive art there is. 

So I bypassed the Jason Mewes Q&A and headed to room 143B, where I loitered with a few other folks waiting to get in. An older woman in an electric scooter wearing a red AwesomeCon shirt of authority guarded the door, and she asked me if I was the moderator or one of the folks on the panel. I'm not sure if I should be tickled or offended at her assumption, but maybe I should have just answered yes and taken my place at the podium. I think I might have been able to pull it off.

And we would have gotten started on time. Because the actual presenter and panel members were missing for quite a while. At about twenty past, I considered hopping over to hear the rest of Jason Mewes, but another red shirt of authority walked in and explained to us (all twelve of us) that the speaker was on their way. I asked if he knew who the speaker was, hoping that maybe--just maybe--Scott McCloud, Neil Cohn, and Trina Robbins were on their way. The red shirt had no idea. After a few more minutes, in burst a young bearded fellow in a white tee shirt and jean shorts, with a bike messenger bag flopping behind him as he hurried to the microphone. He apologized for keeping us waiting and said his phone had changed the time to 3pm instead of 2pm, so he'd run all the way from his RV, and then spent several more minutes talking about RV life as a bearded young hippie-looking guy travelling the country with his wife and young children. He was particularly keen on sharing stories of police officers who just assumed he was on drugs . . . an opinion which, honestly, I was beginning to share as he talked quickly, sweat rolling down his face, on a topic not at all related to the one he had been scheduled to start half an hour prior. 

Then he (I'll not mention his name) moved on to plugging a Kickstarter project (I'll not mention the project either) that he and his wife were doing, a "reimagining" of a Marvel character--making me wonder how legal it was to raise funds on Kickstarter to publish a story on a lisenced character you don't have the rights to use (or if he got Marvel's permission, I wondered how on earth he did so). After that, he spoke about "living openly and authentically" and how once he accidentally called some short-haired females at a con "guys" then realized his mistake and ran to catch up to them and apologize. He asked the women in the audience, wouldn't they feel offended and sidelined if someone referred to them as "guys"? The two gals he gestured to for an answer both shrugged and said "No, not really." I was staying silent and just seeing where this would go. (For the record, I refer to gals as guys quite often in the chair--it has become a very safe, accepted neutral word: everyone responds well to "How are you guys doing tonight?" But, oddly enough, I have found that saying "How are you tonight, ladies?" to two women can ruffle feathers if one or both are lesbians dressed in a butch, masculine way! I learned that in Tampa).

He continued on this train of thought, talking about the masculine and feminine articles in the French language and railing against the ingrained sexism he detected in a language I'd bet only one or two in the audience spoke, and then about women who attend comic cons, and whether we feel safe and accepted, etc. He then praised what he called "the consent movement" and said that he firmly believed no one should even think a thought about someone else without obtaining that person's consent first. He added for good measure that cons are (or should be) a "judgment-free" zone where everyone can live their fantasies without fear or shame. Oh for crying out loud. 

He seemed to be changing his topic and instead basing his talk on the signs posted outside and around the convention area. 

Because none of this had anything to do with interactive art! And it was painfully clear that this speaker's credentials consisted of an RV, a semester of French, and an as-yet-unfunded kickstarter about a character that was not his intellectual property in the first place. Living authentically, my ass.

So I'm going to do it for him. In a completely opposite way from his line of thinking. 

First, asking for consent before you "think a thought" or take any photo at all stifles artistic expression, appreciation, and documentation, while undermining the experience of interactive art that takes place at a comic con. Sure, use your goddamned common sense and ask permission before you grab Thor's junk through his spandex or shove your GoPro up on Hawkgirl for video of her cleavage. But let's take this guy (or gal--or fuck that shit, I'm calling this person a guy regardless of their gender). 

How fucking cool is that? That, my friend, is the very definition of INTERACTIVE, MOMENTARY ART AT A COMIC CON. The costume is homemade but respectably done, and this person just quietly stood up there for a long while as convention attendees filed through the main hallway below, staring menacingly at them. My niece noticed first, let out a startled "Bwhaaah!" and tugged my shoulder, pointing up. I let out a "Bwhaah!" and grabbed my phone--and I did not ask fucking permission to take a fucking photo because that would have fucking ruined the moment and experience. Sorry, I get potty-mouthed when shared artistic moments are on the line. Right then, for a second, I shared a moment with my niece, her friend, and a silent stranger on the floor above us, a moment that communicated a feeling and drew upon a shared visual language and common admiration for a truly memorable sci-fi monster in a truly memorable sci-fi show (the silent, stone angels in Dr. Who, in case anyone is wondering). 

The notion of getting consent before "thinking thoughts" was even more nutty--and while I hope he was being hyperbolic, he really had sounded completely sincere about that. Can you imagine? Thought police are an Orwellian trope that we will hopefully never have to deal with, ever, except in dystopian sci-fi. Jimmy Carter once admitted in a Playboy interview that he had "looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times." He of course caught a lot of flack for that "gaffe," but he was expressing a deeply American sentiment that should have been applauded. He, and you, and I, enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the pursuit of happiness, and so on--but the freedom of thought is really the most basic. It takes place in your head and bothers no one (except the owner of the thoughts, which is you and only you). Every person in the world has the right to lust after anyone they want, any time they want. Thoughts are 100% your own and should be UNBOUNDED, UNBRIDLED, and UNPOLICED. Art results from unrestricted thoughts--creativity dies in an Orwellian landscape. 

If someone acts on a thought, that's where you run into trouble. As grownups (or really, kids beyong the age of reason, whatever age that may be), we need to learn how to think thoughts--or face people expressing their thoughts--and deal with it. There seems an ever-growing effort at shielding people (mostly females, seems like) from offensive thoughts and actions. I'm talking about potentially offensive but not illegal actions here. If you are in a public place, anyone can snap a photo of you, it's legal to do so. If someone wants to compliment your revealing superhero outfit, and your smokin hot superhero body, it's perfectly legal (and often appreciated if done nonthreateningly, with common sense and charm). 

I have been irked of late by examples of overdoing the effort to "protect" women. Protection at one level is good--let's punish rapists, not blame victims, and toss guys out of cons when they put hands on people. Good, yes. But let's not infantilize women as fragile beings who will be traumatized if we are referred to as "guys," or cannot handle someone verbally expressing how hot they find us, or heaven forbid someone thinks thoughts about us without our consent. 

What's this got to do with art? A surprising amount. Just in the past couple of weeks there have been news stories that show how this creeping mindset narrows peoples' ability to tolerate, much less appreciate, some very rich veins of art. In May, a handful of Columbia undergrads claimed that various stories from Greek mythology should contain trigger warnings as they may be difficult to read for "survivors, persons of color, or students from low-income backgrounds." WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. FUCK. Greek mythology? To shy away from that art form as "too difficult to process" is to deny vast landscapes of human nature, history, and expression. I was a student from a low-income background, and it offends me to be lumped into this category. If Greek Mythology is too rapey to handle, just wait till you read the Bible. Or any of the classics of literature that comprise Western thought. Or heaven forbid you set foot in an art museum. Bernini's "Rape of Persephone" takes my breath away and moves me deeply, and if the fact that it depicts a fictional aggressive sex act between two mythological figures shuts down the viewer's cognition and ability to appreciate the piece, then I weep for the narrowing of that person's artistic world.

In Connecticut earlier this week, a well-loved AP English teacher with 19 years experience lost his job because he read and discussed an Allen Ginsberg poem that a student had brought to class (these are college-level kids aged 17 and 18). One of the students begged off a test in another class the next day, claiming they could not concentrate because of being exposed to the poem. The teacher's termination letter excoriated him for "placing the emotional health of some students at risk." It made me wonder if the school board members who wrote that termination letter had ever set foot in a high school. If poetry mentioning blow jobs places your emotional health at risk, well, you'd have to avoid every bathroom stall in my old high school. At least Ginsberg's poetry was good enough to start a literary movement, not just kill time while you try to have a movement.

In a piece for Vox published just today (June 3, 2015), Edward Schlosser talks about the fear college professors have of committing "some simple act of indelicacy that's tantamount to physical assault." He quotes a Northwestern University professor about the current atmosphere: "Emotional discomfort is regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated." The simplistic knee-jerk notion of social justice has compounded with an academic climate where professors are far more easily dismissed (or simply not rehired): Schlosser mentions one adjunct whose contract was not renewed because students complained he exposed them to "offensive" texts by Edward Said and Mark Twain. As a result, material that might emotionally harm sensitive students is being preemptively pruned from course reading, and those in higher education are backing away from the longstanding mission of challenging students' preconceptions, "rocking the boat," shoving young adults out of their comfort zone in order to help them expand their minds. Instead, we have "a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience." Important issues are ignored, discussions are curtailed, and enlightenment takes a back seat to sensitivity. As Schlosser concludes, "No one can rebut feelings, and so the only thing left to do is shut down the things that cause distress—no argument, no discussion, just hit the mute button and pretend eliminating discomfort is the same as effecting actual change."

One of the reasons I love the little art history and theory discussions at comic cons is that they are little flashbacks to college for me. And that day, I felt like that nostalgic intellectual exercise was being taken away from me because this creeping mentality--one that can paralyze actual discourse and thwart our perception of actual art--had seeped into room 143B of Awesome Con, where the white male at the presenter table was wasting all our time apologizing for his white maleness instead of presenting some real scholarly material for discussion. 

Instead of gorging on a mentally satisfying panel discussion, I left hungry and spent time subsequently contemplating what sort of interactive art experiences I've had at cons, and which ones worked and which didn't. The  necessary vein of commerce runs through every comic con, and so all of the "professionally created" interactive artistic experiences there are designed to hook you as a consumer; these can range on a spectrum from annoyingly pedestrian to masterfully manipulative. The annoying interactions aren't worth writing about, as you can experience something similar by walking past any time-share sales booth. The more creative ones stick with you though. At SDCC 2013, I came upon a "Machine of Death" promotion offering to accurately predict my cause of death--for free!
The kitschy box-like device was an accessory brought by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki to draw attention to their anthology of short stories, titled "Machine of Death." The machine was manned by a bearded gentleman who explained that the machine needed a drop of blood to predict your death. He took a "blood sample" by "stabbing" your finger with a red sharpie pen, then daubed your ersatz wound with a slip of paper and fed that into the machine. He then
 not-so-subtly made beeping and whirring noises as he slid a card from behind the facade through the machine's front slot to answer your fatal query. My card said "from working too hard" which was surprisingly believeable. My companion, Becky, got a card that said "monkeys." Also probably quite likely. And quite memorable, obviously--here I am writing about it some two years later!

Another interaction that stuck with me happened on Artist's Alley at SDCC that same year or the year before. A young lady sat at her table, the familiar collection of small prints, buttons, and other such marketing detrius scattered in front of her as she scanned the crowds walking by. I lingered for a moment and got a closer look. Her name was E. Guine Thompson, I saw from the display. A small sign next to her button collection said "Free button if you tell me about your scar." I asked her what that was about, and she asked if I had any scars. I showed her the mark in my arm, where a cut had been stitched up back in my childhood. She took out a legal notepad and put a notch under "arm" then asked what had happened. A knife had slipped as I tried to cut a slice of cheese from the top of a block--the most wrong way to cut anything, as I learned. She turned to a different page, scanned over words like "bike," "gun," "swimming pool," and put a notch under "knife." Well, this got me curious.
She was working on a project called "Beautiful Scars," she explained, and had decided to use SDCC as a research opportunity. The book was structured as an old man telling his granddaughter about how he got his scars. Each scar on the old man's body told a story. Thompson said that so far, from the responses she'd gathered, she'd learned trees were far more dangerous than she had thought. I then told her about a friend whose uncle had been killed by a tree: chopping down a large tree can be very dangerous if done the wrong way. Pressures can cause the trunk to explode into deadly splinters and shards unexpectedly. We talked of the lurking evil of trees for a moment, she gave me a button, and we parted ways. I considered it an interactive--even a participatory--artistic experience. And if it was clever grassroots marketing too, it worked. I recall the book title, I feel a tiny bit invested in it, and though I've not yet purchased it, it's on my wish list. 

The non-professional interactive artistic experiences at a convention are of near-infinite variety (see the stone angel photo above); and these experiences can be accidental, momentary, ironic, original, or simply an impressive show of skill. Art begs judgment. Art asks for a reaction, it exists to elicit a reaction. One can even argue that a creation can be judged as "art" on the basis of whether it evokes judgment and commentary. So forbidding judgment and commentary at what is a walking art show seems asenine to me. The notion of a con being some "judgment-free zone" is nonsense. I mean come on, there's costume contests with formalized judging in place! I would have been less irritated if the aforementioned speaker had just said that people at cons tend to be nice, like-minded nerds and won't poke fun at you (to your face anyway) if your costume sucks. But when I stop someone and say "Wow, did you buy that or knit it yourself? Oh that's so nice, great job, I love it!" that's judging. Just, I judge it to be exemplary work. When you stop someone in a homemade costume and ask them if you can get a photo of them (or with them), that's judging too. And people put effort and thought and money into their comic con outfits just for that very reason. If you go to the trouble of making a costume, finding a photo of yourself on an online compilation feels like a gold star, a little bit of recognition from the world. If you are the type of person to get incensed at that and say "But I never gave that person consent to photograph me!" then just stay home, the con is not a place for you.
A trio from "Bob's Burgers" and a Captain America knit vest worn by the maker, both from Awesome Con, and Deadpool being his typical self at SDCC. 

The knitted superhero tributes, the genderbent character costumes, the dumpy guy who has squeezed into a storebought kid's Spiderman costume for comedic effect, the well-planned group effort ensemble costumes, the intricate creations of foam and cardboard: all can be looked at as art, and the moment you interact with the people behind the cosplay, it's interactive art. Deadpool has become the clich├ęd Comic Con jester, with multiple Deadpools populating every con these days, some altered, some genderbent, some with a particular slant or crossover--but most are acting like the jerky clown Deadpool has come to represent, jumping uninvited into other peoples' photos, using sarcastic word bubbles, and quite often acting in a sexualized way that might really traumatize those students who were rattled by Ginsberg's poem or the more agressive stories from Greek mythology. The only time at SDCC you won't see a bunch of roving, pesky Deadpools is during the scheduled Deadpool group photo. 


As this clip from a popular viral gif shows, cosplayers sometimes come together and can create some impromptu art. At Awesome Con, I was admiring a band of heavy-set, punked out Disney princesses when a prim and proper group of very elegant, hoop-skirted Disney princesses walked by. The two groups waved and said hello to each other, which was cute. As I passed the punked princess group, I said "awww, I kinda wanted to see you guys fight them," and the punk Snow White said "Oh my god, we totally should have!" I could tell her gears were turning. There would be a mock princess battle later that day, I was pretty sure. 

And if heavy-set punk Disney princesses fighting elegant ladylike Disney princesses isn't Art with a capital A, then I guess I don't know what art is, ladies and gentlemen. And if I'm lucky to be anywhere nearby when something like that happens, I'm taking photos--WITHOUT getting consent from each and every princess there. Hell, I might just BE one of the princesses. And that, my dears, is how you do interactive art at a Comic Con. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

On Being a Girl Carny Artist

Warning: this post contains descriptions of adult situations. I did not pretty things up for mass consumption. If you are easily offended, clickey thyself elsewhere. It was inspired by Ali Thome's recent podcast episode "Girlcast," about adventures she and her cohorts have had on the road, as females in this peculiar trade of ours. If you haven't yet, check out "It's Supposed to Be Funny" and give a listen. Tip of the hat, Ali, you gave me pause to think and as a result I regurgitated all this stuff below.

Okay, I may get some flack for admitting this. Sometimes I read accounts of sexual harassment online and it's very hard for me to take the complaint seriously. It's not cool to bash women who have been victimized--but I'm not talking about rape victims, or those who have faced serious bullying, or been held back at a job unfairly, or groped/fondled/kissed against their will. That shit is serious, I do not smirk at that. I also have sympathy for women (I know a few) who get exposed to the not-so-gentlemanly side of the male gender on a regular basis, and for them it can become like a constantly irritated wound, with salt getting rubbed in over and over and over again. There are go-go dancers, strippers, and hostesses out there who are one more leer or "Hey baby, smile!" away from just snapping. I understand that.

But in my experience, unless you have lived a very sheltered life, it is not crippling to be around someone who makes a dirty joke or says the hair on your drink looks like a short-n-curly. (And if you are that sheltered, you best unshelter yourself as quick as possible.) Nor is it going to scar you if someone invites you to a threesome. And if you object, have the lady balls to say "Hey, you are grossing me out, go away!" before feeling victimized and harassed.

And maybe I developed this not-very-sensitive attitude because of my job. This job involves a massive amount of close interaction with the public. And the public contains a massive amount of douchebags, creeps, and horny guys. And as a girl caricature artist, you run into them. As a GUY caricature artist you run into them! Not only do you run into them, you have to stare at them for five or ten minutes, like directly at them, and make small talk while you study their features.

Eye Contact, EEEEEEEK!

It's become a rare and weird and intimate thing, eye contact. In fact, a couple of psychologists ran a study and concluded that four minutes of eye contact (plus 36 questions) is a "recipe for falling in love." Oh, the tragedy! I must have made so many unsuspecting people fall in love with me over the years! I'm sorry, guys and gals! I really am!

Yeah, he looks kinda like the last guy that hit on me at the fair.
But it's more intimate than just mindlessly looking at someone. If you're a good caricature artist, or even just hoping to be a good caricature artist, you study your model. And if they have half a brain, they can tell you are studying them. As writer Mandy Len Catron summed up, during her staring-leads-to-love experiment: "The real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me." Human beings yearn to be understood, to be really seen by another person. There is a long and storied history of painters making mistresses of their models, and it's become a tired, hackneyed trope to see a romance develop because some fellow who decides to draw a beautiful girl. As the cliche goes, she is flattered and touched at being a "muse" for the high purpose of art. Cue music and we see Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio . . . 

Anyway, I can assure you this is not a trait possessed by only female models. Eye contact and the type of involved, studious gaze that develops when you draw someone can entice, beguile, or just frighten male models too. One fellow, after I drew his caricature, asked if there was any way I would consider drawing him a nude--I told him I could certainly draw something like that, and he said, "Great, how do you want to do this, shall I get a motel, would that work?" Huh what? Oh no, I explained that I was just thinking he meant he wanted a silly little naked body on his big-head-little-body cartoon. Turned out he wanted the full "Draw me like one of your French girls experience" (which I don't offer!). At the last trade show I worked, I drew a middle-aged Indian man who looked terribly uncomfortable then finally blurted out, embarrassed: "I'm sorry! I just have never stared at any other woman this long except my wife!" I assured him I was a professional, and his wife would not mind, and the poor guy made it through the drawing. Still, I felt sort of guilty! At another event, a couple years ago, a West African man stared back at me just as intently as I was staring at him, and announced to me, in his exotic accent: "I have never been looked at like this, stared at in this way. It feels very sensual." The unnerving part was we were in a "gentleman's club" (I had been hired as part of their anniversary bash) . . . so, while two topless ladies danced nearby, this fellow was actually getting his jollies just be having me--overweight, fully clothed, so not sexy me--stare at him! The power of eye contact, I tell you what, it's intense.

We are looking at features, but where does the face end and the soul begin? Eyes are called the windows to the soul for a reason. It can be an immediate, intense connection drawing someone. Or it can be a moment made awkward if you are just going through the motions but your subject is feeling an emotional connection that seems natural in such a situation. One friend of mine said the job often reminded him of a scene in the Robin Williams-Al Pacino movie "Insomnia": The creepy self-obsessed serial killer, played by Williams, is reveling in the attention he gets as he is questioned by the haggard, worn-down detective played by Pacino. The killer suggests that Pacino's character must be fascinated by the cat-and-mouse game, the intricacies of how a killer's mind works, the dark soul beneath it all, the complexity . . . and Pacino shrugs and simply explains that it's a job. "You are about as complicated as a blocked toilet is to a plumber," he mumbles to a very disappointed Williams. 

Unintended Intimacy

So what happens sometimes when we lady artists stare at guys, again, in the general public, and some of them get the wrong idea? Well, just like bartenders, waitresses, and female concierges, if you are skillful you might parlay that experience into a nice generous tip--JUST a tip. But more often it's not just a tip (make your own jokes here folks). I've never been handed a $100 tip and a room key, but I know girls who have had that happen. Smart, practical chicks in this town tend to pocket both with a smile but only use one. Nevertheless I have been propositioned, asked if I want to "come party" after my shift, discreetly asked out, and sometimes offered sex rudely, crudely, and with no social grace. Maybe it's just the allure of Vegas, but the volume got turned up on that shit once I started working here. People think they get a pass on acting like sex-crazed drunken fools once they step off the plane.

The most egregious example happened at the Venetian Casino and Resort, where I drew a guy and his wife, made some small chit-chat as I do, and he interrupts with "Do you think my wife is attractive?" I answered neutrally, trying to sway things to the artistic sense of appreciation: "Oh, she has great features, I'm having fun drawing you both!" He took that as some kind of go-ahead sign and then started asking if I was into anal sex. And his wife sat there nonchalantly smiling at me the whole time, like he was talking about the weather or something. I think he eloquently put it something like this: "Hey, you're cute. And I bet you take it up the ass, right? You into that? We are. We're staying here at this hotel, you know." Now, I'll admit his (attempted) launch into my colo-rectal region flustered me a little at first. The look on my face was probably WHAT THE FUCK mixed with a little blushing. But I was mostly done with the drawing, and my goal quickly shifted to getting their money as quickly as possible and avoiding any sort of scene or complaint or report involving paperwork. Sure, I could have ejected them from the booth, or threatened to call security. But this guy was just asking questions so far, and it's legal to do that, and I'm a grownup. So I smiled, said "Wow, you guys get personal quick! I've only known you for ten minutes!" I forget the details, but he continued trying to fluster (or seduce) me, failing at both, and in record time I got their fucking $35 and away they went. It was a small victory, but it sure made for an interesting story when I got home from work.

Small Talk and Using Your Intuition

I have heard many colleagues admit that our jobs consist of drawing and flirting. The art of small talk is (or at least can be) very flirtatious. Especially if you work just a little blue, as I sometimes do if it's an adult crowd. It's a harmless sort of charged banter, I like to think, and we all get pretty comfortable doing it after a few years--or decades--interacting with our models and the crowd that watches. Being observant visually is stock and trade for any artist; and, I notice, many of us that make this our career are not just visually observant but psychologically observant too. (Or at least, I like to think I am, on a good day anyway.) That makes us very good at the small talk aspect of things. Asking the typical questions ("Where ya from? What do you do?") can sometimes snowball into deep conversations--and it's surprising what I've been party too over the years! Miniature therapy sessions sometimes result, where I end up consoling someone on a loss, or offering life advice, or pep talks, or just impressing someone with what seems like amazing insight but is actually just observation. I'm not saying "wow look at how amazing I am because when I talk to people this happens" . . . I'm quite sure many, even most, artists that work with the public have this happen if they are chatty and talk to their models. Observation plus conversation are a potent combination, they unlock many defenses. 

I'll also admit to consciously using some of the same techniques phony psychics (a redundant phrase) use in their parlor tricks. "Cold reading" is when someone fishes around for information and the mark gives out clues without realizing it--or even blurts out stuff that they completely forget they said later. I don't try to pretend I'm psychic, that would be immoral and wrong (though maybe profitable), but I've been accused of it. I have astounded some with my "woman's intuition" merely because I remembered some tidbit the person mentioned seven or eight minutes prior. And--another cold reading technique--I've also played the statistics. Just like in any given room of a hundred people you're likely to have a few that have deceased loved ones that "start with the letter M," you are also pretty likely to get a "hit" if you guess that the gentleman in front of you with a crew cut, muscular physique, and conservative style of dress is a vacationing police officer.

Most of the psychics working today are females, which some take as evidence that "women are more likely to embrace their intuition as a fact of nature and they communicate more easily” with other realms (per the California Psychics). As a female who draws people and works at carnivals, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this gender disparity in psychics is maybe due to differences in the sexes when it comes to our brains, not our auras. Women, as a whole, might just be a smidge better at reading people and getting folks to open up. That's just a hunch based on my experiences in the chair and what I see happen with other female artists versus our male counterparts. I have no empirical data but I'd bet I could mine some . . . another day, another blog post.

"Excuse Me Miss, When Will the Artist Be Back?"

One of the drawbacks to being a female in the caricature booth is that aggravating tendency some folks have of assuming that you are not the artist. Granted, there are more men than women in this business, so people are making that guess based on real numbers. I suppose it's similar to what female doctors had to deal with back when most of the graduates coming out of med school had penises. I'd bet many ladies in the medical ranks had to spend time explaining to confused patients that they were not, in fact, the nurse or secretary. And I'd bet male manicurists are often asked if the lady who does nails is on break (I have seen that happen, actually, last time I got my nails done--they assumed he was a repairman, not a nail technician).

Likewise, I've had to explain that I am not, in fact, the cashier or the booth helper girl who sweeps up. I'm not just minding the stand while "the artist" is on break. It might just be the fact that I'm aging, and no longer look like a wide-eyed teenaged girl who must be an unskilled booth monkey, but it seems to (thankfully) happen way less often than it used to. And, from the demographics at ISCA, it does appear that more females are taking up the caricature business, so yay for that! But it does still happen sometimes, and it can be irksome. Particularly when I suspect is has lost me money (losing money is VERY irksome!). I remember folks telling me they'd walked by a few times and wondered when the artist would be back, when all the while I'd been there, sitting at the bloody easel, waiting for customers! They had looked right at me and had only seen a cashier. How many people, I then wonder, walked by a few times then gave up, assuming this mysterious male caricature artist would never come back? This worry drove me to doodle as much as I could while I sat idle, so as to visually demonstrate I'm the frigging artist, and I even own aprons now that say "CARICATURE ARTIST" on the front.

Better yet, if there are two of you, people seem to assume that the female artist must be the wife or girlfriend of the male artist. They ask, while chatting, if we are together, etc., and it can be hilariously awkward depending on who I'm working with. Maybe they sense the easy-going rapport we co-artists usually have (especially when you're on the road with people and sharing a camper for a long stretch of time). Sometimes this has come in handy . . . one late night at a fair I was closing up and told a couple there was no time for any more (and frankly, I thought I was being quite nice and businesslike, not rude at all). They waited around after I'd packed up and then approached my coworker--who happened to be a large, imposing Slovak who has the male version of resting bitch face. They complained to him that the woman in the chair next to him had said she was all done, no more drawings, and they added (for extra points) that I'd been a real bitch about it and they didn't like the way I drew anyway, they wanted him. My fellow carny had my back: without flinching a muscle on his face, he glared at them and boomed, "You mean my wife?" He said they scurried for the hills without another word.

Of course, about ten years ago I went and made all those aggravating assumptions true by marrying a coworker. Shows what I know. And, to his credit, Rob is always quick to point out that he's learned from me and we both had been doing caricatures for ten years prior to even meeting--see, because another assumption you run into as a girl caricature artist is that you've been trained by your husband. And, well, I have learned a lot from Robert, but I did not arrive to him a blank feminine slate ready to be filled with his masculine art knowledge, thankyouverymuch.

"I Want the Girl to Draw Me."

The flip side of this assumption occurs when you're NOT the only artist in the booth. Something different happens when you're working alongside a dude, or a few dudes, and you get people walking up and figuring out which artist they want (an annoying thing in itself, makes you feel like you're in an Amsterdam red light district window waiting to be chosen). Male artists all seem to agree on this, and I'll admit they have it right: folks often prefer the lady. For dumb reasons.

Moms think you'll be better able to command their kids' attention; young (and old) women think you'll be "nicer" to their features because you're a woman too; guys would rather stare at you than at another guy. It doesn't happen all the time every time, but it occurs. Enough to be an annoyance. And yeah, it annoys me too: I don't want to have someone insist on sitting for me just because of my gender.

And there have been times that a male artist has just assumed that someone sat for me because "Oh they just wanted the girl," when in actuality the person watched, asked about samples, and seemed to honestly like my work better. A lousy male artist who does not realize he is lousy will sometimes blame his shift of low sales on your gender--which is not cool. None of my respected peers or friends have done this, and I'd be safe guessing that no one reading this blog has done it (because if you seek out caricature blogs you probably care about the craft). But I've worked with a LOT of artists over the years and quite a handful of them were shitty and didn't last in the business. Funny though, shitty artists are good at finding every conceivable excuse as to why people don't like their artwork, and whenever the "Oh it's just because you're a girl" card came up it made me roll my eyes in frustration. If I'm working next to Tom Richmond and someone walks up and chooses me, damn right it's because I'm the girl. But if I'm working next to Joey Thinks-He's-Great-But-Can't-Draw-Fer-Shit, guess what Joe? People preferring me has nothing to do with my tits. 

No Touchy!

One other part of working at the average state fair or local youth fair is that you become part of the interactive exhibits, or at least some people THINK you are. I'm not into being touched unexpectedly by strangers. Few people are. Yet it's amazing how many people don't even think twice about running their hand along your back, or patting you in a congratulatory way, or tugging on your shoulder while you are drawing someone. The typical "booth heckler" will come by and gently tease you as you work, sometimes, then say "awwww I'm just funnin' with ya!" as they close in for the dreaded conciliatory back rub and shoulder squeeze. And it's quite often a creepy older dude. And he rubs a little too long. And it's creepy. And if you go to a fair please don't do this. To any carnies. You have no idea what you might catch. My only defense during this type of thing has been to flash my customers a "ew-gross-help-me-please-make-him-stop-I-don't-want-to-embarrass-the-guy-but-are-you-seeing-this?!?" look, which often cracks them up a bit. So yeah, this little tidbit of sexual harassment can actually enhance my patter with the people I'm drawing. Call me a traitor to the feminist cause, but I say make use of what you can. It's a trade-off.

A secondary type of this touchy touchy stuff is older ladies. They sometimes mistake the artists (not just women artists, the guys too) for cats. They wander over and coo about how wonderful it is that we are talented, and they pet us. The old lady variety of backrub is less creepy, but it tends to last longer and still has an uncomfortable tinge to it. And the smell of menthol and Estee Lauder really lingers.

Some Stories on Being Female in the Carnival (and Elsewhere)

A group of carnies (or, as we prefer, carnival-Americans) is just like any other social group. Relationships do form, dating happens, people hook up, unhook, attempt to hook up, and so on. When I first started working the fair circuit, I wasn't sure what to expect. You stay in a trailer park area where tons of transient workers gather for a couple of weeks and hunker down in a very small space. A friend in the business once referred to the rougher side of the carny park (where the ride operators camped) as "The World's Largest Traveling Prison." Sometimes you have to walk across this trailer park in your bathrobe and jammies to get to the communal shower area/laundry room. Sometimes you get complimented on how you fold laundry by a shirtless guy who's staring a bit too long at your undergarments. Diminutive flowers of femininity need not apply. So, in other words, I've seen some stuff. Thankfully not stuff that ever seriously frightened or harmed me. Just stuff that makes for good stories.

Walking back from the laundry room one evening I passed one of the housing trucks--these semi trailers are basically motels on wheels: they have several extremely tiny cubbyholes that serve as living quarters, each scarcely wider than the door that leads into it. That night, one of the doors was open and a young man inside was dancing to loud salsa music, by himself, shirtless. He saw me walk by and motioned me in to join him. I shook my head, and kept walking, wishing he hadn't noticed me looking (kinda hard not to look, he was dancing energetically and it drew the eye over). Not one to accept defeat, he grabbed a can of Pringles off his dresser and shook it at me, invitingly, trying to lure me into his sardine tin of love. I shook my head again with a smile and kept walking back to my trailer. After telling my roommates about the little interaction, they laughed hard. "He shook it at you? Like a can of cat treats???" "Heeere pussy pussy pussy, ha ha ha!" "And that didn't work?" "Well, no, luckily they weren't the Cheez-Ums, just regular Pringles, so I was able to resist his oily charms."

Another fellow surprised me with his patience--and he was not a carny but a fairgoer. We'd had a short conversation the year before, and he ended up mentioning something about caramel bugles and I was like "Whaaat? I've never seen those, I don't think they have them where I live." Well, a YEAR goes by, and he shows up at the booth with a bag that contained two boxes of caramel bugles, asking if I remembered having that conversation with him. He hands them to me and says "My phone number is also in there too, if you care to use it." I gotta say, it was actually pretty smooth--I told him that was a very sweet gesture (literally) but I was a married gal. He politely still insisted I take the bugles to share with my campermates. And yes, my coworkers did get even more enjoyment out of the new installment of "Guys at the Fair Attempting to Woo Celestia with Snack Foods."

At the other carnival I work at, the one that's operating 24-7-365, I did have a much bolder and ruder interaction. While leaving a shift at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, I ended up on a parking garage escalator near a young man (maybe early to mid 20s). A larger fellow, and African-American, he seemed the typical friendly tourist type. With each floor he got a little closer, but not in a menacing way. He flashed a flirty smile and asked my name. I said "I'm Celeste, I work here," and it was in a tired, disinterested tone that should have indicated that I wasn't a tourist cougar, I was just a local getting off work, move along, these aren't the droids you're looking for. Instead, he got off on the same floor as I did and walked next to me, and next thing I knew there was a hand on my ass.

I'm trying to remember exactly what I said to him at that moment . . . oh yeah it was super loud and something along the lines of "GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF ME WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?" He shrank back and said "But, I thought, I mean, I thought we were friends," to which I said "TELLING YOU MY NAME DOES NOT GIVE YOU THE RIGHT TO PUT HANDS ON MY ASS, WHO THE HELL RAISED YOU? YOU DON'T TOUCH A WOMAN YOU JUST FUCKING MET!"And he shrank back, cringing at my volley and scurrying away. In his face, I saw a confused, hurt look that made me think maybe this young man was on the spectrum. He may very well have had Asberger's or something that made him unaware of social cues; or he may have been a presumptuous asshole who fondled women on escalators. I'll never know. Hopefully, either way, I left some kind of impression on him so that he won't freely do the same thing to a younger, less mouthy woman.

Guys Don't Have to Deal with This Shit . . . Except They DO

So far, from what I observe (and what Rob tells me), guys are certainly not immune to the unwanted backrubs or the trapped feeling you get from having to stay at the booth while a booth groupie chats you up. But is that all? I asked around, and sure enough, guys I work with have also been asked to threesomes, playfully propositioned by cougars, an flirted with on a regular basis while in the chair. Nothing to ever take seriously, though, and certainly nothing that made them feel threatened.

I heard about an incident at the last fair I worked, a story from coworkers, that made me start seeing this whole aspect of sexual harassment and awkward interactions from a different perspective. A male caricature artist I work with got his junk grabbed. This was not at the fair I was working, and I did not witness it, but I heard about it from others who work the circuit with him (and they were giggling as they recounted the story). Now, having your privates grabbed is straight-up assault. If someone did that to a woman there would be yelling and shoving and righteous anger, and possibly charges filed. But instead there were giggles. This artist, who I'm not going to name, is a small, diminutive fellow, who was standing on the rig to undo some canvas bungees. His hands were busy and his crotch was sitting there unprotected as he balanced. Some teenaged girl (or early twenties maybe, no one was sure) ran by and grabbed his unit, yelling "Ha ha! Got yer dick!" and then ran off laughing like she had just playfully honked a clown nose.

Now, this artist who got man-handled at the fair was a 50-year-old married fellow who was not exactly "asking for it." I wondered how much unreported stuff like this went on with other guys I worked with. The very next person I asked was a younger (30-ish) handsome fellow who works with crowds along the Las Vegas Strip. He's only been in town for a month or so. As nonchalantly as I could manage, I asked him if he'd ever had his gonads groped while on the job. "Oh yeah, twice," he answered, like it was no big deal. That was a surprise. In his short time here, he's had two instances of other people, uninvited, grabbing his bait and tackle. He shrugged it off: "Well my job is practically to flirt, and I approach people like this," (here he opened up his arms as a typical carnival barker would, a move that did indeed leave his groin unprotected). "Of course," I agreed, "and look at how you're dressed, you're practically asking for it!" He caught the sarcasm, he's no dummy. The first instance, he continued, was a group of party girls who surrounded him and got grabby. The second instance, which he seemed much less comfortable about, was a creepy homeless guy who frequents the area. "I physically had to shove him off me, and he still wanders around here from time to time."

So, clearly, we ladies who work with the public don't have the market cornered when it comes to being victimized in a way that involves their privates . . . but the difference in how the instances were looked at was interesting. Can you imagine a woman giggling or acting like it's no big deal when talking about some strange guy grabbing their (or their friend's) vagina at work one day? I'm not saying it's impossible to sexually assault a man--it most certainly is. Go to the internet and you can find scores of stories about men raped by other men, by women, by spouses, by bosses, who rightly feel humiliated and violated. The very fact that society tends to look at dick-grabbing as a thing to giggle about rather than prosecute adds to humiliation felt by male victims.

Of course, the context matters, and how uncomfortable something makes you depends on the power relationship and how threatened one party feels. As a loud woman who is nearly 5'10" and outweighs most typical guys, I very rarely feel physically threatened. And after decades of hearing all the stuff you hear when working in a tourist area or carnival, there isn't much that can verbally throw me off my mojo either.

Maybe, just maybe, in addition to self-defense classes, all women could benefit from working at a carnival or two. It helps you grow some lady balls if you don't already have them. And if we really want equality in sexual relations, in addition to teaching our sons about respect, boundaries, and date rape, we also need to teach our daughters that it's not cool to grab some guy's cock and yell "Got yer dick!" then run away.