Attempted Suicide Blurs the Line Between Criticism and Harassment

Kenneth Ward | alumnus

Trigger Warning: Suicide

“Steven Universe” is a show on Cartoon Network with a passionate, progressive fan base. The show prominently features strong female characters, racial diversity, sexual diversity, gender diversity, physical diversity and includes many voice actresses of color. This is what makes up the core of “Steven Universe,” and naturally its older fanbase wants to protect what makes “Steven Universe” so special. For instance, when a French translation changed the lyrics of a song from the original, “[we] are made of love,” to “[we] are made of friendship,” (thus toning down the romance in a lesbian relationship), the “Steven Universe” fandom fought and won for an appropriate retranslation. Cartoon Network France re-released the songs with new lyrics, and if you can read French you can read a comment left by the original translator on Mirion Malle, explaining her decision to “tone it down.”

A more common correction the fandom makes relates to a character’s pronoun choice. Stevonnie is a fusion between the male protagonist Steven and his best friend Connie, and has been confirmed by the show’s writer, Matt Burnett, to use they/them.

It is not unusual to see members of the fandom correct people who refer to Stevonnie with female pronouns, or take umbridge with less than perfect descriptions of Stevonnie. In an article titled “Steven Universe and the Importance of All-Ages Queer Representation” on Autostraddle, the author called Stevonnie “somewhat androgynous, [but] fairly clearly coded and read by the other characters as female.” By putting an asterisk on Stevonnie’s presentation, the author raised some ire for “disregarding” their pronoun choice.

However, the line between understandable factual critiques and harassment was recently blurred by members of the “Steven Universe” Tumblr fandom. Paige Paz, 19, is a Mexican-American Tumblr artist who goes by Zamii online. She attempted suicide after months of harassment. On Oct. 20, 2015, she left a suicide note on her Tumblr and allegedly attempted to take her life. She reappeared on Tumblr three days later with a video from the hospital bed. Her story brings to light an uncomfortable topic for social progressives: Where does legitimate and necessary criticism end and harassment begin? Where does a movement stop being just and begin to act like an angry mob?

Paz first drew the attention of the “Steven Universe” fandom in July 2015 when she released a drawing of Sardonyx, a character coded as a person of color and voiced by Alexia Khadime, a black actress from England. People accused Paz of white-washing Sardonyx by making her hair blonde and wavy and removing the afro of the show’s character.

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Paz’s version of Sardonyx. | Photo from Zamii070.deviantart.com.

Paz received similar criticisms from the fandom for drawing canonically fat characters as skinny, and for shrinking the nose of an Indian character on the show. Objectively determining where the criticism stopped and the harassment began may be hard, though one could argue that entire Tumblr blogs dedicated to calling Paz’s work “trash” and “garbage” are harassment by nature. The difference between “your art is problematic, here’s why” and “you’re a bad artist” can also be described as an objective difference between criticism and harassment. Racist and fatphobic fan art is a bad thing, and there are cases where Paz without question produced art that was racist and fatphobic, regardless of whether that was her intention or just a side effect of her art style. Unintentional racism is still racism, and it is important to try and quell these types of problems, and the first course of action should always be an intellectual dialogue and explanation of why something is problematic. Calling someone or their artwork garbage is a method used to reach the same end as intellectual criticism, i.e. putting an end to the problematic output. Make no mistake though, that is harassment, not criticism. Just because criticism and harassment can be used to reach the same goal, doesn’t mean they should be, and as we see in the case of Paige Paz, harassment has consequences.

Zamii Is Garbage was a Tumblr entirely dedicated to the problematic aspects of Paige Paz’s life and artwork. The blog placed Paz’s art under an incredible amount of scrutiny, from an Indian character’s nose being “too small” to a Native American’s skin being “too red.” Criticisms that could stem from understandable concern, but often delivered in insulting tones — like this breakdown of Paz’s Sardonyx fan art not having an afro texture:

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Screenshot from Tumblr archive.

Over 40 blogs with the same intent as Zamii Is Garbage existed on Tumblr at some point or another, though you’d be hard pressed to find them now. Screen captures are all that remain of most of the blogs: some closed by choice while others were forcefully shut down after Paz’s attempted suicide, likely for violating the promotion or glorification of self-harm stipulation in Tumblr’s community terms.

When faced with the reality that they may have contributed to a fellow user’s attempted suicide, some former Zamii harassers have reconsidered their tone and message. One once-critical blog renamed itself to “Not A Zamii Hate Blog” and shared Tweets from the makers of “Steven Universe” in the aftermath of Paz’s suicide attempt, as shown below.

In the wake of Paz’s attempted suicide, members of Tumblr fandoms and Tumblr’s social justice community are left questioning how to proceed. One user has a few ideas on how to maintain an environment that is critical of problematic art, without causing the artist personal harm.

Despite zamiis mistakes in the past, this behavior is disgusting and almost unforgivable. Calling out is a good thing. We all make mistakes and do insensitive things, intentionally or unintentionally, and we need to be taught these things are wrong because if we are not aware of our wrongdoings we cannot change or grow and will continue to do those things. You are a teacher, not a bank robber. Do not threaten, use capslock, or harsh language ever. You need to firmly and concisely tell them exactly why and how they are in the wrong. Steer clear of sarcasm or passive-aggressive emoticons. Stay away from excess emotion at all costs, especially anger. (From beetcat.tumblr.com.)

One way to consider moving forward is to take everything in a context-sensitive matter. If criticism and harassment are tools in our social justice toolkit, lets use them wisely. For the Donald Trumps of the world, harassment or counter-harassment can be a valid tool that allows for social justice to be as loud as the opposition, and drown it out. But on the internet where so often everyone is just an anonymous name with no face or identity, and you don’t know the state of the person on the other end, peaceful criticism should come first.

*The author attempted to get in contact with Paige Paz, though she appears to be in “radio silence” mode, disabling her Tumblr Ask button and going on a Deviant Art hiatus.

 

Kenneth was an English and Communications double-major who graduated in April 2015 and refuses to stop participating in progressive student organizations.

 

Check out more from December 2015 issue here.