Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Comics and disability: XKCD and dyslexia, Natalie Dee and Tourette's syndrome

XKCD's humor is often tinged with messages endorsing social justice. But in today's installment, I was quite disappointed by their joke at the expense of folks with learning disabilities.

Image: A T-Shirt with the words "Dyslexics of the World, Unite!". The caption reads: "The dyslexic support group ran into difficulties when they tried to make a joke fundraiser t-shirt."

This joke is a reiterated version of a fairly old joke: "Dyslexics of the world, untie!" It's meant to make fun of the spelling difficulties some folks with dyslexia have. The joke above implies that folks with dyslexia have SO MUCH trouble getting letters of words in the right order that they cannot even manage to get this joke right!

I'm not sure what the joke is, exactly. Why is this funny? Dyslexic people...don't have spell check? Dyslexic people...can't double-check for spelling errors? Dyslexic people...are incompetent?

Oh, and look, here's some more casual ableism from a comic I usually love, making me type more furiously since I'm already on the topic rather than head to bed:

Image: A stick figure says "The KFC DoubleDown Star Wars Meal is full of win!". The caption reads: "What she means to say: I do not have an opinion on the KFC DoubleDown meal, but I read about it on the internet! I am going to disguise my lack of anything to add by just saying the first thing that comes to my mind. It's kind of like Tourette's, only the stuff I blurt out is totally boring and meaningless."

Sigh. Though disability is not the point of the joke here, it's an unfortunate reinforcement of common joke at the expense of folks with Tourette's: they are unable to control themselves, voiceless; their words are meaningless because of their tics.

In a post from Bitch week before last, I set up a condition for a kyriarchy-reinforcing joke:
IF a character on a television reflects or reinforces the kyriarchy through problematic/loaded language or actions.
AND the joke is ignored, applauded or otherwise validated by another character
THEN the joke constitutes a reinforcement of kyriarchy in society.
I believe both of these jokes fall under this category. The first reinforces stereotypes and tired tropes about dyslexic folks without doing anything to counter it or give any kind of social meaning or message. It's a lazy joke making fun of people who are already marginalized because of the thing that it marginalizes them for.

The second instance? It uses Tourette's to make a small joke, to make fun of someone else. It reappropriates without any kind of critique of the comparison.

I'm not an expert in either of these disabilities. But I know enough about ableist jokes to recognize it when I see it: jokes that appropriate experiences and conditions without thought, without care, without any kind of redeeming value beyond a short laugh from a likely mostly able-privileged audience. And that is what both of the above instances look like to me.

I like both of these comics, and I'll continue reading them. But this synchronicity of ableism was pretty disappointing.

What do you think? Where do you see casual ableism in comics?

Please check out the comments for a valuable counter-argument from Cessen!


  1. A friend linked me to this via GoogleReader.

    I have tourette's myself. As an adult the symptoms have lessened somewhat, but as a child it was quite severe.

    I preface myself with that because I disagree with your analysis of the second comic (I won't comment on the first, since I don't have dyslexia).

    I don't claim to speak for everyone with tourette's, since of course everyone's experience is different. I only speak for myself. But I actually feel more minimized/silenced than helped by people attacking tourette's humor.

    Having said that, there are cases of tourette's humor that offend and hurt me (generally portrayals of people with tourette's as being stupid and incapable). But it's not stuff like this.

    But I do appreciate your concern.

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your perspective! If you're interested in developing this a little further, I'd be very interested to learn what you do consider offensive with regard to portrayals of Tourette's, and why this example isn't offensive to you. :)

  3. Sure, I'd love to. :-)

    Again, I don't claim to speak for other sufferers. I only speak for myself.

    I don't have any rules for what I find offensive. It's more of a "I just know" thing. But the most predictive rule-of-thumb is to check if the humor makes fun of tourette's itself, or someone who has tourette's.

    Right off the bat my personal winner for the "most offensive tourette's 'humor' I've ever seen" award is "Tourette's Guy". You can see some of it here:
    Regardless of whether he actually has tourette's or not, it's shot in an exploitative and dehumanizing way. It is clearly set up to laugh at the person, not just the tourette's. It also portrays people with tourette's as completely incompitent at life (which is not to say that tourette's can't be dibilitating, but still).

    On the other end of the spectrum there are things like the South Park episode about tourette's. Clearly South Park has a lot of problematic stuff in it, and this episode is no exception. But the problematic things in this episode have nothing to do with how they treat tourette's. They portray people with tourette's as people with a disability. A funny disability, but a disability. They poke fun at the symptoms and especially make humor from the awkward social situations tourette's can create. But throughout the episode they clearly portray the sufferers as fully-fledged people, not as sacks of tourette's syndrome.
    They even dispel a few of the most common misconceptions about tourette's. Frankly, if it weren't for the other problematic stuff in the episode, I would gleefully use it to introduce people to tourette's.

    In the comic in your OP, all I see is tourette's used as a flippant shorthand for "awkward involuntary thing". And I don't find that offensive. The only thing I might worry about is people thinking that tourette's isn't actually involuntary. But that didn't cross my mind, and I think isn't much of a danger. I think most people reading that comic understand that it's an exaggeration of sorts, even if only by context. If it weren't an exaggeration to say "this is like tourette's", then it wouldn't be a punchline.
    (It does seem like the comic I perpetuates the "air headed woman" stereotype, though, which is problematic. But since I'm a guy, you can likely provide better commentary on that.)

    I also heard a comedian say that George W Bush has "truthful tourette's", which I found amusing. Again, using tourette's as a short-hand for "socially awkward involuntary thing". I generally find jokes of that format acceptable.

    I fear people getting too uptight about tourette's, I guess. Which is perhaps why I feel a little silenced by posts like these. I'd rather people feel free to make jokes/humor about tourette's (and perhaps screw up and offend me every once in a while) than for everyone to be walking on eggshells. Because, frankly, I often appreciate the humor and jokes. The humor about tourette's in our culture actually makes me feel more accepted and normal, and less stigmatized. I don't see it as a net gain to me if people get too worried.

    Having said all this... I grew up around some pretty understanding people. I still faced a lot of issues due to my tourette's, of course, and I definitely had my share of people making fun of me. But by-and-large I felt supported. So my perspective may be quite priveleged compared to someone for whom that isn't true.

    My tourette's was pretty bad as a child, as an adult it has subsided quite a bit and is managable to a degree where most people generally don't quite realize I have it unless I tell them. They just think I'm a little quirky... which I am anyway, so it's okay. ;-)

  4. Thanks so much for your time in elaborating, and I apologize for the silencing. This is a really interesting comment - thanks for adding such valuable content. :)

  5. I will say about the first comic that I feel like Randall must have been having a tough day: ablism aside, that's just a totally terrible and uninteresting joke for xkcd. It's not even playing to their demographic, except that it's unnecessarily complex (eg, you have to know the original joke, and then follow through).

    I really hope the alt text was interesting.

    As a side note, I was introduced to this via a tote bag my dad has that says "bad spellers of the world, untie" which, while totally representative of my dad's bad punning, is a lot less assumptive and obnoxious than "dyslexics of the world".

  6. Humor is such a difficult subject to hold up to the critical lens. It's definitely something that needs to be done, but it raises all the issues of whether it's OK to laugh at something if it does genuinely affect you, etc. E.g. my boyfriend is dyslexic and he found the first comic really funny, mostly because, due to his dyslexia, he actually did initially read "unite" as "untie" and couldn't figure out what the joke was until he read it again. I'm bipolar and a recovering anorexic and I constantly make and laugh at (not completely patronizing, inaccurate or just plain gross) jokes about those. At the same time I can understand why other people with those disorders would find the jokes insulting rather than hilarious; I've had enough times when my mentally ill friends have made jokes right back, and an equal amount of friends have responded with horror at how I can trivialize tragedy like that. Personally it's a coping mechanism, but I know I need to at least be aware of the audience's feelings.

    Incoherent comment, I know. Ramped up on caffeine at the moment.

  7. Thanks so much for chiming in, Trina! I do want to mention that I think that anytime a person experiences oppression, it is totally and completely up to them how they negotiate it - whether that's laughing at jokes or making them yourself! I am not the authority on anything at all and other readings are completely legit - it's just how I see it. :)

  8. I have Tourette's too, and I winced at the NatalieDee comic when I first saw it. I didn't feel like she was using a person with Tourette's to make a joke, although unlike Cessen, I think it's often hard to separate a joke about Tourette's from a joke about a person with Tourette's.

    But two things bothered me about the comic. First, so much pop culture uses things like Tourette's, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc. as ways to name some kind of minor social awkwardness or peculiarity that doesn't at all match the severity or have the same social and personal consequences as actually living with one of those conditions. Getting caught up in meaningless internet slang does NOT have the same ramifications as living with Tourette's, and that's a lazy comparison.

    But what bothered me even more was the lazy understanding of Tourette's. It seemed to me - and maybe others read this differently, I can only speak for myself - that her understanding of Tourette's was "that condition where people swear all the time in inappropriate situations," and the joke was that she was replacing "fuck" with things like "full of win." I don't have a problem with Tourette's being ASSOCIATED with that, because obviously that is a tic that some people have, but I have a problem with Tourette's being SYNONYMOUS with that, since swearing is such a small fraction of tics that we all have and yet makes up nearly all of Tourette's pop culture associations.

    With that said, I still like natalie dee, and I'll still read her other comics. I just didn't think this one was funny.

  9. I'm dyslexic. I love xkcd. That said, I'll try and no be too biased. I had no problem with the comic because it was more a sympathetic giggle of a joke to me(the alt txt really plays to that point... "And of course I had to redo do this like three times because I kept writing 'UNTIE'..."). I had a professor write a whole diatribe on a paper because he thought I meant to write Untied Nations instead of United Nations in a title.

    Also I know what you are getting at in your string of questions looking for what is being made fun of, but that actually would show more misunderstanding of Dyslexia to me. Spell check wouldn't pick up the difference between untie and unite. Re-reading to double check for spelling doesn't work for most dyslexics either (often our brains have coping mechanisms that automatically comprehend mistakes as if they are correct). And I don't think it is trying to say dyslexics are incompetent... more like dyslexics can have a d'oh moment and not realize it (which is true... for the life of me I couldn't figure out why I had a high school class rolling on the floor laughing when once asked to read allowed on the topic of Micro-organisms... it took my best friend at the time to say what I said before I began to laugh with them).

    I guess for me this comic is no big deal because I think it is a rather creative preservative. I love creating preservative because that is my coping mechanism.

  10. Thanks so much for offering a counter-point, Alexis!

    Spell check wouldn't pick up the difference between untie and unite. Re-reading to double check for spelling doesn't work for most dyslexics either (often our brains have coping mechanisms that automatically comprehend mistakes as if they are correct).

    Excellent point particularly about the spellcheck!

    I guess for me this comic is no big deal because I think it is a rather creative preservative. I love creating preservative because that is my coping mechanism.

    I'm not quite sure what you mean by preservative?

  11. Just a guess, correct me if I'm butting in, Alexis, but I'm guessing that it's actually "perspective" that's causing the confusion, RMJ.

    ...this comment is minute because I basically agree with everything/am interested in everyone's comments :D

  12. As a side note, I hadn't seen the alt text, which makes me think Randall Munroe must be dyslexic himself (it's in first person, and for that matter, most of the xkcd comics are somewhat personal or anecdotal - this one actually confused me because it wasn't) -- which makes it a little bit more funny and appropriate.

    Ie, I think it's totally offensive that my roommate's family all find the idea of someone having a seizure kind of weird and hilarious (this isn't "tattle tale" moment: she hates that about them too) ...but I definitely make jokes about being epileptic.

  13. I considered that, Faye, and while it's a fair interpretation I do not see it from that perspective - it took me a second to get the joke, and I could misspell, but I'm not dyslexic. Like Alexis, I read it instead as (trying to be) sympathetic.

    Since that it's a pretty recognizable riff on an internet meme, I'm not inclined to take it as a riff on his own experiences.

    Thanks for popping by, all! I hope it's clear at this point that I don't think my view on this is authoritative, and I'm really glad it's generated such discussion. I'll be directing readers to this later today.

  14. I have no direct experience with either dyslexia or Tourette syndrome, but I was badly asthmatic until high school (I missed months of school several years due to breathing problems). I never resented jokes about asthma; to me it was a fact of life that I happened to be afflicted with. My brother and sister both had cerebral palsy, and I lived in a city with a high handicapped population overall, so disorders didn't seem abnormal or alienating to me, only difficult. The only thing that frustrated me about jokes about asthma was that they tended to relate to the usual form of the condition, which was different from my experience (I never kept an inhaler, because my symptoms stemmed from severe allergic reactions to mold, dust, and pollutants, which could easily be predicted). I did understand that most persons with asthma experienced it the way the jokes presented it, though.

    So, despite not suffering from the conditions discussed in these jokes, I don't see them as particularly objectionable (unless they're inaccurate, which I can't judge). These difficulties happen, to us and to people around us. I don't see a problem with satirizing them - they, like many things, present incongruities, which are generally the source of humor.

    Making fun of persons who have the conditions is, of course, entirely unacceptable.

    "...jokes that appropriate experiences and conditions..."

    I'm somewhat concerned by the sentiment you express here. From my point of view, these difficulties are elements of the *human* experience and condition; their relevance isn't confined to those afflicted with them.

  15. Greg, let's be careful about derailing - I know you're going for metaphor here, but saying "I don't have tourette's but I do have asthma" does make this comment stray a bit from the intended subject.

    I think the issue here is that the jokes don't really address elements of the overall human condition. The first one is, while, I suppose relevant to people with spelling conditions, making fun of one of the most stereotypical difficulties of a particular minority.

    The second one is using a disorder as an way to easily categorize people with an obnoxious inability to control their speech, which isn't accurate about Tourette's.

    The point here isn't whether these jokes are funny, or whether they happen, or if they're incongruous, or if you personally have a problem with them.

    It's that the people who are making the jokes have the privilege of not having that difficulty/incongruity/etc. They're able to categorize an entire group of people - some of whom may be okay with the joke and others of whom may not - as sources of humor.

    Similarly, someone with asthma is not the same as someone with Tourette's, so be careful about saying "I wouldn't mind this". I've had jokes made about my asthma: I find them way less objectionable than the jokes made about my seizures, and I still can't speak for someone with dyslexia or Tourette's. Obviously opinions differ on that front.

  16. I actually passed this comment around to some people because I thought it was funny. I'm dyslexic, and I've been frustrated by the "dyslexics of the world untie!" joke, because I did read it as "unite" the first time and then felt stupid for not getting the joke.

    This joke was kind of cathartic, in part I think because of the first-person alt text. For me, it took it from being about how dyslexics are bad spellers, har har har, to being about how having dyslexia means that you read things, especially humor about dyslexia, differently than most people.

    I suppose I could have seen it the same way I saw the original joke, and it may be that the only reason I didn't was the alt text (which is problematic in its own way for accessibility, but that's a whole different discussion.)

  17. "It's that the people who are making the jokes have the privilege of not having that difficulty/incongruity/etc."

    If this is the point then what if they don't have that privilege? What does it change, if anything, when the person making the joke suffers from the difficulty/incongruity/etc? Does it make it an acceptable joke only when coming from that person? I saw that you suggested that based on the alt-text you thought that Randall Munroe might have dyslexia (if he does or doesn't I have no idea) so I'm curious as to what that would contribute to the context of the comic.

    As for being offended by either of the comics I'm not, perhaps because I don't suffer from either of those conditions (though like Greg I've made fun of due to other disadvantages and still found jokes about those disadvantages funny) but also for another reason: I personally don't believe in being offended for the sake of others, especially those which I think are capable of being offended just fine on their own. In the same way an oppressor can't tell the oppressed what's oppressive I don't feel I have much right to tell the offended what's offensive. That's up to them to decide.

  18. Becky: All oppressions are interlinking - the kyriarchy does not just target one oppression and leave the rest alone. Ableism is ableism, and ableism affects me.

    I certainly do not make fun of others based on their oppression.

  19. Is all humour based on disadvantages/disabilities making fun of the person though? Humour can be used to cope with one's disadvantage/disability/condition, making it seem less severe or looking for a silver lining. To me the dyslexia joke falls more in this category, I'm not completely sure where I stand on the Tourettes one.

    I'm not saying this is always the case, and obviously if a joke about a disability hurts a person it's not acceptable, but I still think it's up to the group targeted to decide. If someone decides a joke targeted at them is offensive I can support that, which to me is where our oppressions start interlinking, but I'm not going to draw their attention to the fact they could find it offensive. There have been 5 people who have commented on this post that talked about finding jokes about their disadvantages amusing, including the disadvantages targeted in the two jokes, more than those who have expressed offence at these jokes. To me that's a sign that there's not much offence being taken.

  20. Becky, yeah, that's an indication that I probably overreached to a certain extent in this instance. Probably, I should have consulted or quoted someone who actually has the disabilities at hand in writing this post. Wouldn't have been that hard, since one of my brothers is dyslexic.

    However, I'm not only going to write about oppressions I experience - that's a form of silencing and erasure in and of itself. Feminism, as I say constantly, is not just about privileged women like me - ablebodied, white, cis, rich, straight, etc. It's bigger than that, and I think as an activist I have an obligation to address other axes of oppression. However, I should (and usually do) try to quote/talk to people who actually have the oppression at hand before posting.

  21. I don't like XKCD and your post here outlines why. I find its casual ism fail tedious, but what I find more tedious is the way its fans (many whom consider themselves clued in) tend to give it a pass. I find the comic to erase race and class (based on the premise of the comic and the perspective it seeks to unversalize) alone, yet that's not really touched upon. So I'm not sure why it would surprise anyone they would also engage in "casual" ableism. Particularly, when their other ism fails are rarely called out or critiqued.

  22. I'd like to add my 2 cents on this if I may.

    I can't comment for those with Tourette's, but as quite a severe dyslexic and admitedly a fan of XKCD i found the joke underivative and quite funny. All those people I know who have dyslexia have learned to cope to such an extent that we can see the humor in a meta-joke such as this. I agree that it is not one of XKCD's finest, but it is a touch hysterical to state that is is derivative of dyslexics. Of course it is, almost all humor comes from being derivative of something, whether you are sensitive to the object being derided is your choice. One last point, how do you know that the creator of XKCD is not himself dyslexic? If I wrote a comic such as this then I would make as many jokes as I could about dyslexia.


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