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Monday, December 18, 2017

The Morality of Abortion as Portrayed in IWS



Greetings, ZNN readers. I’m Dr. Trevor Hedberg, also known as WildeCard. If you follow this site carefully, you might remember me as the philosopher who was using Zootopia in some of his applied ethics courses. A while back, I accepted an invitation from Andy to share some further thoughts on the film in future posts. But that was before borba’s I Will Survive made the rounds on the internet. Now I find myself in the strange position of commenting on the morality of abortion as portrayed in a Zootopia fan comic. Philosophers are no strangers to weird topics of conversation – whether it be brains in vats or life-imperiling scenarios involving runaway trolleys – but even by our standards, this is pretty unusual.

Now this isn’t a post defending any particular view on abortion. Rather, I want to look at how the two views in the debate were presented and why their presentation was so apt to make people angry. I also say a little bit about how we ought to discuss controversial issues of this sort, whether it be in unorthodox fan creations or elsewhere.

So if you want a breakdown of the comic’s portrayal of abortion or just want a little more insight into what made the comic so controversial, read on past the break.

For those who follow this site closely, you probably recall this post that drew attention to borba’s comic, I Will Survive (IWS). In this comic, Judy has, against all biological probability, gotten pregnant after being intimate with Nick, and the two of them disagree about the fate of their offspring. Judy wants to get an abortion, and Nick wants her to keep the child. Needless to say, it wasn’t your typical Zootopia content, and the reaction to it was highly polarized.

Now typically something unusual and obscure like this makes a splash in its own fandom and then gradually fades to memory, but in a surprising turn of events, the internet at large discovered the comic and turned it into a series of absurd memes. So the comic was suddenly relevant again and drew the ire of many more readers. So why does this comic seem to get so many people upset?

Well, for some, it’s just the fact that they don’t think animated characters from a Disney film should be talking about abortion. To them, that’s just too weird, and admittedly, it’s not hard to see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Then again, the original film contains three jokes about the rabbit libido, a canon-confirmed gay couple, a clear allusion to drug manufacturing, a plot focused upon a government conspiracy to dehumanize and imprison a minority population, and a central theme about the pervasiveness and perpetuation of prejudice. It’s not a film devoid of mature subject matter, and most fans of the film recognize this fact. So people’s dislike of IWS doesn’t just boil down to its focus on a mature subject. Rather, it’s the way that subject is presented and discussed.

I’ve been teaching about the ethics of abortion in undergraduate ethics courses for eight years, and I have engaged with a lot of thoughtful students on both ends of the spectrum on this subject. (It is an especially popular topic for term papers.) Two consistent themes emerge from seriously discussing this issue. First, it’s just very tough to figure out. After all, it is one of the most persistent and challenging disagreements in both the academic field of applied ethics and society more generally. Second, for many students, abortion is a deeply personal subject and one they often feel uncomfortable talking about in ordinary contexts. They may see content related to sex and procreation frequently in the media, but there’s a strong social taboo in many parts of the U.S. about discussing such things candidly in conversation. Given these facts, serious discussion of abortion has to be done carefully and respectfully, or else it risks oversimplifying the issue and alienating many of the participants in the conversation. This is where IWS runs into some problems in its presentation.

First, it’s worth noting that a comic is just not a great format for discussing a complex moral issue. Comics are a dominantly visual medium and do not lend themselves well to dialogue-heavy exchanges. Yet complex moral issues generally don’t have simple solutions and require a lot of discussion for any resolution to be possible. With abortion, this problem is even more pronounced because there are so many different positions on the subject, a fact that is sometimes obscured by the common usage of the pro-choice and pro-life labels. Certainly, there are those who believe abortion is always wrong and those who think women should have unrestricted access to abortion, but a lot of intermediary positions exist between these extremes. For instance, many who believe abortion is generally wrong still acknowledge certain circumstances where they think it is permissible. Additionally, some who would never get an abortion themselves still believe that women should have the right to get one, and some people see no problem with early-term abortions but are greatly disturbed by late-term abortions. For many people, the details matter a lot to whether abortion is a morally acceptable option in a given case.

Part of the problem is that the comic doesn’t delve too far into those details. Nick and Judy seem to represent the extreme ends of each side of the spectrum, and likely in part because of the medium of the presentation, there’s not a ton of depth to their discussion about what ought to be done.

Judy offers four reasons in support of her pro-choice stance. First, she claims that the fetus does not yet have the moral status of a baby because she is only in the first month of pregnancy. Second, she worries that their offspring might have genetic defects of some sort. Third, she fears that their offspring might pose a risk to her health by being too big for her to carry to term. Fourth, she worries about the way that the pregnancy could affect her career. Judy spends by far the most time defending this fourth reason.

Nick is not as explicit about his reasoning. He dismisses Judy’s second and third reasons for favoring abortion as mere speculation and accuses her prioritization of her career as selfish, going so far as to say she would be willing to kill their baby to advance her career. (This seems to imply that he rejects Judy’s claim that the fetus is not yet a baby.) The best gloss I can give to his main argument against abortion (which comes near the end of the comic) is that he thinks, regardless of whether Judy has a right to abort the child, that someone committed to making a positive difference in the world would not get an abortion in these circumstances. Just as Judy was able to make a big difference in the world around her, she should be willing to grant their offspring the same opportunity. Whether Judy’s own personal values are really consistent with her getting an abortion could be an interesting argument to consider, but this idea is overshadowed by language and symbolism that suggests Nick’s views are primarily rooted in religious commitments. The most telling of these are his description of abortion as a “premeditated sin” and various visual allusions to Christianity.

Now, given that the comic is glossing over a lot of thorny philosophical territory in a very short time, it’s bound to rub some people the wrong way, but the problem runs much deeper than that. Nick and Judy are just profoundly unfair to one another in the context of the conversation. After fearfully taking a home pregnancy test, Judy shares the news with Nick that she is pregnant, then immediately shares her plans to get an abortion, and shortly thereafter makes clear that she is not open to reconsidering her position. This dialectical progression makes Judy seem thoroughly insensitive to Nick’s feelings. Similarly, Nick dismisses Judy’s concerns about genetic disease and her own health far too quickly and misrepresents her position as that of a person willing to commit murder for the sake of her career – a rather cold-blooded remark, to say the least. This prompts Judy to strike Nick, and in the aftermath, he packs up and departs.

For people who have gone through this decision-making process or know someone who has, the dialogue between Nick and Judy can be downright painful to read. A decision this significant is usually not made hastily or unilaterally. What would typically happen, assuming that a couple disagreed about whether to keep a child in similar circumstances, is that they would have a series of conversations spanning several days (perhaps even week) trying to make a collective decision about the matter. It’s possible that they could not reach a resolution, but there would be a genuine effort to do so and to understand the perspective of the other person in the exchange. In this comic, Judy and Nick are not making that effort, and so both of them come across as callous and unreasonable. In comments elsewhere, borba has indicated that some of this is intentional – many features of the conversation and situation were exaggerated to enhance the drama – but with this particular issue, it’s not surprising that a lot of people do not view that as a good narrative choice.

A further source of people’s ire is that the comic does not come across as even-handed in its treatment of each side. It reads as being much more favorable to Nick’s pro-life position. Notably, borba has denied that the comic was meant to promote a pro-life viewpoint, and the final page does suggest that the intended focus is on how differences in personal values can fracture even very strong relationships. The problem is that the comic as a whole just doesn’t generate the same message.
Judy springs the information on Nick rather abruptly and gives him little time to process it before declaring that she has made up her mind. In other words, Judy decides what to do before she and Nick exchange even a single word on the subject. Additionally, Judy assaults Nick during their exchange, but Nick does not retaliate. This combination of events makes Nick appear to be the victim of the encounter. Moreover, Nick’s reason for leaving boils down to a matter of personal integrity – staying with someone who would abort his child is too fundamentally incompatible with his moral values. As presented, his reason for severing his relationship with Judy appears more noble than Judy’s main reason for favoring abortion – a desire not to jeopardize her career prospects. Finally, Nick is the one who utters the line “I will survive.” Since that’s the title of the comic, it creates the impression that this is primarily Nick’s story – a story about him enduring the cruelty of his former love and moving on with his life. All these considerations in tandem produce a simple result: the comic reads like it promotes the pro-life position on abortion. Naturally, that impression isn’t going to sit too well with pro-choice readers, particularly when they feel that their viewpoint was not presented all that fairly.

So with all this in mind, does IWS deserve the criticism it has received? Given its content, it’s certainly fair for readers to voice their disagreements with the comic’s perceived message and the ways in which the abortion issue is discussed. Unfortunately, a lot of that criticism soon escalates personal attacks and deliberately incendiary remarks. Such responses aren’t universal, of course, but they are common. Too common.

Disagreements about matters in ethics, politics, and religion are an enduring feature of our world, but we still have to find ways to coexist with one another. At a minimum, this requires treating those around us with respect and making an effort to understand their points of view. That’s not always easy to do, but it’s something we should all aspire to. As Judy remarks in her speech at the end of the film, “The more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try.”

The problem is that when it comes to discussing abortion, many people don’t try. They don’t make an effort to understand alternative points of view on the subject. This frequently causes civil discussion to degenerate into personal attacks, name-calling, and other exchanges of insults.

No matter how much you may have disliked IWS, that kind of conduct must be avoided. You will virtually never change someone’s mind by insulting them, and you won’t learn anything about the issue under discussion either. Instead, such exchanges just waste time and make people angry or upset. So the next time you discuss IWS (or abortion more generally), keep it civil, and give your opposition a fair hearing. You might not change your mind on the issue, but you may learn something new and will probably feel better after the conversation ends than you otherwise would.

All that said, it’s probably time to move on from IWS. If you’re on this site, you’re probably here to get the latest news about Zootopia and about fan-created content tied to the film. If some of that content helps us learn a little more about complex moral issues, that’s great, but this particular comic has run its course – in fact, for those who frequent this site, it’s now run its course twice. I hope this post provides a summary of why the comic proved so divisive, but I also hope that things around here will now get back to normal.

15 comments:

  1. A detailed analysis with just the right length and depth. Good job!

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  2. Never in a million years would I have guessed. Dr. Hedberg! It's great to hear from you again. I still remember and quote your analysis on the movie.

    Anyway, this was a good read, and an accurate summary of the situation. If I might add, the reason why people disagree with the use of Nick and Judy to talk about abortion is because of how out of character (OOC) they are. This was a universal agreement in the fandom. Simply put, Nick and Judy were completely different characters here than they are in the movie, and there are contradictions to what they were shown to be in the movie. Only their physical appearance is the same, and both of them are made thoroughly unlikeable.

    I recommend reading Kittah4's review on it, where he explains this much better than I could: https://www.reddit.com/r/zootopia/comments/6es3wv/i_will_survive_the_kittah_review/


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    1. Thanks, howieeiwoh. It's good to be back. I have actually been working on a revision of that old material. Expect that to show up sometime in early 2018.

      As for that review, I think I'd agree with the author on most points, and certainly, Nick and Judy don't seem like their canonical selves in the comic. I'm not sure that was the main deal-breaker with the comic, though, except insofar as it contributes to their general bitterness toward one another (which I did mention). But maybe that's just me. I like to give authors and artists wide lenience with respect to OOC interpretations and see if they can pull them off. Not everyone probably feels that way. In any case, it's probably fair to say the OOC portrayal here did not work.

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  3. Cimar: I think the main thing for me was seeing how Borba would rip into people who actually were defending him, but also being critical of a few points as well. He took everything as negative criticism and would lash out against people.

    You did get it right that both characters in this are totally unlikable with their portrayals, so it felt more like an OC comic using the skins of Nick and Judy to share a message, rather than an actual Zootopia comic.

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    2. Exactly this. And that's why I really dislike him now. He just used the faces of likeable characters to get attention without thinking whenever they would act the way he wanted them to act. And when people pointed out that he presented them out of character and dislikeable he banned people and made an untrue argument how fan-fiction guidelines about characterization make no sense and cannot be applied to his work. He turns his nose up on anything anybody says about the flaws in his writing and lost a GREAT deal of respect from me because of that.

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  4. Never saw Borba lash out at anyone (not in the comment section of the English pages anyway), but I did see plenty of people treating him like he'd committed murder and needed to be punished for what he'd done. And even if he did lash out a few times, I can't really say I blame him, after so many people treated him even worse; it probably built up a lot of stress in him and made him lose his composure at certain times. People need to cut him some slack. All he did was write a fictional comic, he didn't kill your mother or anything.

    Also, fanfiction rules and guidelines don't exist. There's no official set of rules for how someone can and can't write fanfiction. Let people write what they want and ignore it if you don't like it.

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    1. THANK YOU. Exactly! I mean, I definitely saw Borba lash out a little, but nothing that warranted the hate he got. I saw him make a lot of the points you just made about fanfiction rules in significantly harsher words (sometimes passive aggressive or insultingly blunt), but like you said... I could forgive him for being a little "testy", or for having poor word choice in the intense heat of the moment! I mean, you spend gobs of hours of your life creating a fan-work about cartoon animals solely for the free consumption of others, and this is the response you get?
      I, personally, am practically bi-polar with my story. I've repeatedly gone back and forth between pure excitement at every step of progress and thinking to myself "This is where my readers turn against me...". The slightest praise can make my day, and seeing readers confused, dissatisfied, and/or leaving can crush my enthusiasm (despite the praise). I can't imagine how Borba feels, having his comic become infamous.

      Further, he has repeatedly stated he wasn't taking a side in the debate. That means many people are hating Borba not because of his views, but actually because his execution of his idea was faulty (as explained in this article). Give him a break. To quote the film "We all make mistakes... We all have something in common!" God knows my work has its mistakes... xD

      And to bring it back to there being "no official set of rules": I can think of some very popular stories (and deservedly popular) where Nick is routinely a total badass. I'm sorry, but despite his sass Nick is REPEATEDLY shown to be a bit of an adorkable coward in the movie. What makes people love those stories is the execution of them, not because they are 100% faithful to the source material. Again, Borba's mistakes were in his execution, NOT in his idea or in himself.
      As you implied (and as I've previously mentioned regarding this topic): The point of any fandom is to just enjoy the fandom. Don't take anything too seriously, and just have fun!

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    2. While Borba has repeatedly stated he wasn't taking a side on the issue, if you look at his visual storytelling, he tends to undermine Judy's position with his artwork. Judy is portrayed in an overly sexualized manner. Look at how they're dressed... Nick looks straight out of the movie, while Judy is wearing a skin tight t-shirt and tight "daisy duke" shorts. Through out the comic, Judy's hips, thighs, butt and crotch are all prominently featured. Also, generally in storytelling, whenever characters are having an argument, the one that resorts to violence is usually implied to have "lost". Note that Borba dedicated a full double-page panel to Judy striking Nick.

      I can give Borba the benefit of the doubt that consciously he wasn't picking sides, but his artwork implies a subconscious preference.

      While it's true that fan-fiction often plays around with the characters for the sake of the story, there's a point where you've "bent" the characterization so much that it breaks and you're left with a hyperbolic caricature. It's clear that Borba cherry-picked only those aspects of Nick/Judy's character that served the narrative of them getting into an argument that would break them up and ignored everything else. This led to a lot of the fandom feeling they were unfairly presented.

      We may never know the degree to which Borba wrote a tale to intentionally provoke a strong emotional reaction, or was just caught up in the passion of his story and went overboard on the execution. Given how long he's been in the industry, I do tend to find apologetics centered on naiveté to be less than convincing.

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  5. Cobalt Lion here; A well-written article, and a nicely done analysis of the ethics involved in this comic and how it stirred up so much drama for everyone.

    I think the two parts to this fiasco that bothered me the most was how quickly everyone took sides and in doing so turned against each other and began fighting so quickly, as well as how fast this turned into an area of scorn for the fandom in general. I've seen this comic now pop up in multiple areas on the "mainstream" internet and it always has the same effect: People are angry both at the author and at us in general because through his actions it gives the appearance that he is representing us as a group. We all know tan angry internet is a force to be reckoned with.

    I'd really just like to see us go back to not being seen in such a controversial situation, but things happen and I think the lessen to take from this is how we deal with this situation going forward, and how we learn from it. As it stands, I'd like to tank Dr. Hedberg for bringing some much needed sanity to this.

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    1. The internet at large does have a tendency to overgeneralize with respect to most subject matter and especially with regard to subject matter that is not that well-known. In that respect, it is unfortunate that many people will draw illegitimate conclusions about the nature of the fandom and the reasons people like the film. The good news is that the internet at large also has a very short memory, and the whole thing is likely to be forgotten just as quickly as it surfaced.

      I am glad you think I was able to bring a little sanity to the deeply insane online world we must navigate, though.

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  6. First, Dr. Hedberg, thank you for your contribution here!
    Second, Andy and the ZNN crew, thank you for reaching out and bringing Dr. Hedberg in as a contributor.

    Finally (this coincides to a certain degree with the "out-of-character" observation) I would postulate that at least some of the backlash regarding the subject of this comic derives from the idea that whether you see them as romantically involved, or just friends, nobody wants to see Nick and Judy's relationship end badly regardless of the reason.

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  7. An excellent and thorough review. Glad to see you return, Dr Hedberg!

    I have my own take on this, one I was intending to make a video out of - back when IWS first came out, in fact, months before this fracas. Yes, I'm that slow.

    Essentially - in addition to all the factors you mentioned above - I think people have a certain natural tendency to project their political beliefs on to the characters they love, especially for a topic this serious. Both when it first appeared, and during the recent meme-storm, I saw several people complain that "Judy would never get an abortion!" I disagree. That information isn't conveyed in the canon, because good god, of course it isn't. Even in a film as mature and topical as Zootopia, Disney isn't going to sit down and give its protagonist an explicit stance on abortion.

    The result is people ascribing opinions onto the characters. Having given the matter a lot of thought (perhaps too much), I can honestly see Judy as plausibly landing almost anywhere on the spectrum of beliefs re abortion. But for my part, I had a gut reaction of wrongness upon seeing people decry Judy's pro-choice stance (specifically) as out of character... because I /myself/ am pro-choice, and was guilty of the exact same subconscious bias.

    See also: the way the comic fills their shared apartment with religious imagery, to ascribe to Nick the moral stances associated with Catholicism.

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  8. Everyone Borba has announced on deviant art he will be making a sequel to the comic called "See you next Wednesday"!!!

    https://borba.deviantart.com/journal/See-You-Next-Wednesday-721455713

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  9. Nice in-depth analysis on this comic. I'm glad I decided to check this out.

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