Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Entry 65: Robot Hugs

I’m someone who likes going against the norm. I like taking a careful look at the assumptions that underlie our society. I like defying social expectations just for the sake of defying them, and also because I want to create a freer and more accepting world for those of us who wouldn’t be able to meet those social expectations if they tried (and also because there are certain social expectations I couldn’t meet if I tried). So, when I find a comic that takes thoughtful and nuanced looks at seemingly arbitrary social constrictions, that presents meaningful discussions of the harm that unfounded assumptions cause and actively takes a stand against them, I want to share it with everybody. In that vein, allow me to describe the many things I appreciate about Robot Hugs.

I'm like this except fill in the 2014 answer for 2005, as well.

Robot Hugs achieves all sorts of things in different ways at different times. On occasion it’s something an autobio comic, while at other times it’s more of a gag strip, or a space for eloquent sociopolitical rants. The author, also called Robot Hugs (whom I will differentiate from the comic by consistently italicising the comic title and not the author’s name, unless I make some mistakes and just wind up confusing everybody) consistently finds ways to clearly discuss complex and difficult topics in a manner that’s easily understood and feels as nonjudgmental as possible.

Robot Hugs is greatly skilled at expressing concepts that I’ve thought of before, and tried to explain to people, but been unable to clearly articulate. When certain arguments come up in groups that I’m involved with, I’ve taken to just sending a link to a relevant Robot Hugs installment instead of explaining my viewpoint in my own words, because Robot Hugs does it more quickly, efficiently, and entertainingly than I would manage by typing, deleting, retyping, and pulling on my hair for half an hour while I craft a couple of paragraphs that may or may not get across whatever I’m trying to say.

There isn’t yet a Robot Hugs installment for every argument in which I might participate, but I say we give it a few years, and maybe I won’t have to express my own opinions on my behalf ever again.

Like many comics, Robot Hugs has evolved over the course of its life. The earliest comics are, as a rule, brief and facetious. Over time, particularly the past couple of years, they’ve become more complex and tackled far more serious issues, though there are still plenty of brief, silly installments. Pretty much every Robot Hugs installment stands perfectly well on its own, so if you’re a new reader, there’s no need to worry about catching up or reading through the entire archive just to know what’s going on. You can start from the most recent comic and work your way back if you like, or just read a few of them here and there. If you don’t feel like reading through each and every comic on the site, I’d recommend this as a good jumping-in point, where Robot Hugs had mostly settled into the kind of comic it is today.

If you’re like me, and want to read all of a comic as long as you read any of a comic, then feel free to go back to the very start and work your way through. There’s some fun stuff if you’re a fan of one-off gags, visual puns, or absurd humor.

Robot Hugs draws heavily from their life for comic material. That means we get to see a variety of topics, from cute stuff their cats do, to frustrating interactions with the willfully ignorant, to heartfelt essays on intersectional feminism. (Though I don’t think the phrase “intersectional feminism” has ever appeared in Robot Hugs, it contains some of the best examples of intersectional feminism I’ve ever seen.) Even when the subject at hand is very general and wide-reaching, Robot Hugs feels completely personal.

Any time the comic touches on big issues, concerns such as gender identity, mental health treatment, or modeling healthy relationships, you can tell that the author is highly invested in the subject matter. These kinds of comics don’t come about just because a cause is on the “right” side of the political spectrum, or because an author occasionally ponders an issue. These kinds of comics emerge from a desire to contribute meaningfully and constructively to an important cultural discourse.

When I wrote about I Do Not Have an Eating Disorder some time ago, one of the things that made me want to discuss that comic was the importance of openly discussing mental health issues. Doing so chips away at social stigma and makes the world a more accepting place, both allowing better access to mental health treatment and reducing the shame around such treatment, which will help people who suffer from mental illness become more likely to admit to themselves that something is wrong and seek help. Robot Hugs deals with some mental health problems, and presents them in the comics with what I can best describe as fearless tact.

It’s hard to find representations of depression that feel accurate and constructive. Someone in the midst of depression is unlikely to be capable of producing meaningful work in that moment, and once they’re out of that space they’re unlikely to want to think about it.

When someone is both able and willing to represent their experiences of depression, I’m always grateful. Creating a world full of resources to help others understand that experience enriches our ability to relate to one another. Some people might find new and helpful ways to interpret their own experiences, or learn how to better empathise with loved ones, or simply gain some exercise in the art of compassion.

I relate so very strongly to this.

I believe that most people can relate at least partially to at least some experiences of depression and anxiety. Most people have bad days sometimes, or have that one thing they just can’t do without freaking out over it. Finding that nugget of shared experience can be the first step to a true attempt at understanding another person’s struggle and supporting them.

That shared experience can be a double-edged sword, though, as it can blind someone to those aspects of someone else’s experience that don’t match up. Many people have gone through brief periods of depression that ended after a while, possibly after they found some motivating factor to pull themselves through. People who’ve been able to “snap out” of depression may not understand that other people can’t do that. It’s easy to lose sight of compassion and fall into the easy narrative trap that people with depression just aren’t trying hard enough to get better.

That’s just one example of a way that people can allow their own experience to overwhelm their understanding of what other people are going through. Many others exist, and it’s important to be careful when discussing shared experiences, avoiding broad generalizations and clarifying that one can only speak from one’s own experience and understanding.

I suffer from mental health problems, including depression, myself, and I love seeing some of my own experiences reflected in Robot Hugs. However, what I appreciate even more is seeing experiences that differ from my own. They help build my understanding of myself in relation to those around me, letting me sort my own thoughts into those that I share with many other people and those that are more particular to me. And I get to practice empathy for those experiences that other people have but which don’t affect me all that strongly. For instance, the inner monologue in the following excerpt is extremely familiar to me… except for the part about always being alone. Because that particular sentiment, for me, would bring comfort rather than distress.

The characters who show up in Robot Hugs are diverse, racially, culturally, and in terms of gender and sexuality. Robot Hugs is one of the most aggressively inclusive comics I’ve ever read, and just about the only place where I’ve seen asexuality represented consistently and nonjudgmentally in any discussion where it holds relevance.

The art style is usually simplistic and cartoony. Every character has basically the same body type, differentiated from other characters by things like hair style, skin tone, and the presence or absence of glasses. The result is that the reader can’t make any assumptions about the characters’ genders or levels of conventional attractiveness. We have to wait for characters to identify themselves before we can assign them pronouns. If a character complains of harassment, there’s no room to say “well they were asking for it” because that character is dressed and shaped just like every other character. Basically, the stylization of the characters is just one more aspect of Robot Hugs that consistently trains its readers to become better human beings.

Robot Hugs is written and drawn by Robot Hugs, and it does a pretty good job of communicating some pretty important, complex, and potentially controversial ideas. I’m particularly impressed with the way every issue, from gender policing to mental illness, is treated with an appropriate amount of gravity while still being entertaining. Robot Hugs isn’t always funny, but even at its most serious it’s never dour. Many serious issues are presented in ways that are funny, using silly humor to combat misinformation and bigotry.

If I could show Robot Hugs to everyone on Earth, I think it would become a nicer planet to live on. For the meantime, I’ll just settle for sharing it with everyone in my own limited sphere of influence, and hope the effect will keep rippling outward and have a positive influence, not just on people who know me or who read this blog, but on people who are entirely unaware that I exist.

Also on people who think holding a cat's tail down could possibly be a good idea.
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  1. So... pro-perversion, then?

    1. It's pro self-actualization, in whatever form that takes. I would describe very little of the content in Robot Hugs as "perversion" (maybe the couple with the guy dressed as a dog in this one?), but there's definitely a message of acceptance for whatever identities or activities people take on, as long as they're not harming themselves or others.