A response from Lela Lee on the #AngryAsian Conflict; and a response from me

February 19, 2015
Lela Lee of Angry Little Asian Girl. Photo credit, ironically, from Angry Asian Man, who described her in 2008 as "a really cool lady".
Lela Lee of Angry Little Asian Girl. Photo credit, ironically, from Angry Asian Man, who described her in 2008 as “a really cool lady”.

Yesterday, I wrote about what I called the Angry Asian Conflict (if you haven’t read it yet, go at least skim the intro to figure out what’s going on and who the players are because I’m about to jump in without giving more background). I had no idea that this post would so resonate with you all, and I’ve been overwhelmed (in a good way) by the positive reactions I’ve received from readers.

I’m honoured by those who have taken the time to reach out to me and thank me for the writing of the post, and flattered (and humbled) by the several people who, spurred by the post and my work in general, are calling me Asian America’s Wonder Woman.

I don’t even know what to say except that I’m just so honoured, and I will endeavour to never disappoint those of you who decide to stick around and continue reading me after all the dust settles. But, I also want to emphasize that it is you, reader, who deserves all the kudos for staying engaged and involved, and above all for staying angry. So, thank you, everyone, for the outpouring of love I’ve received over the last 24 hours.

That same outpouring of love is emblematic, I think, of the many factors about online Asian America that Lela Lee failed to take into account when she published her first post on Friday evening outlining her ongoing trademark dispute with Phil Yu.

In deciding to take on Yu in such a public forum, Lee forgot that online Asian America is small, interconnected, unified, and community-oriented. As Jeff Yang writes in a compelling post on Medium this morning, these days we are also heavily invested in Millennial precepts of anti-consumerism and unrestricted sharing. These are elements of online Asian America that will translate into an intense, negative reaction to a legal conflict over brand exclusivity. As Yang succinctly puts it:

It has put Lela in the position of being seen as the monied aggressor, the Businessperson attacking the Altruistic Communitarian. It has put her in the position of being seen as the silencer, the Censor seeking to squelch the Free Press. It has put Angry Little Asian Girl in the position of being The Man.

No matter what legal footing Lee has with regard to protecting her trademark from potential infringement, this Conflict has done immeasurable damage to her brand with its most immediate and obvious consumers. From a quick, and a thoroughly unscientific, assessment of my Twitter feed and social media discussion over what @AsiansOnYouTube has dubbed #AngryAsianGate, Yang’s assessment is spot on: Lee has not emerged as the sympathetic party in this conflict. Reaction from the community has been swift, and it has been largely negative.

As heartwarming as the last 24 hours have been for me, I can imagine how hard they have been on the other end of Lela Lee’s screen; the internet is, after all, both unforgiving and a terrible forum for interpersonal conflict resolution. As I wrote in my post, I think Lela Lee is on really shaky legal and moral ground in targeting Phil Yu and Wendy Xu (and by extension anyone who might identify themselves with the words “Angry”, “Asian” or “Girl” in some combination) with legal threats, but I don’t think that should invite a drubbing by a digital mob. So, it was with sadness that I opened my email this morning to receive a notification of this tweet by Lela (because sometimes Twitter tells you about things in your timeline, I guess?):

Boo. That’s not okay.

Some time last night, Lee also read my post about the Angry Asian Conflict. She responded by taking down her original post of last weekend calling out Yu, and also wrote a response post directly to me and my writing — one that I’m about to respond a little bit to. You should go read that over at her blog now, or you can also read it here as hosted in my comments section (they are identical in text) if you want to read it on Reappropriate for some reason.

(Note: I’m not generally a fan of deleting published posts, because it breaks the discussion trail, but whatever. I appreciate Lee’s gesture as a sign of goodwill.)

In her response, Lee basically outlines that her post of last week was perhaps an ill-conceived move, and she apologizes for disappointing her fans with her public behaviour. Given that I completely believe that Lee really didn’t think through the ramifications of taking her dispute public — on herself, on the community, on her fans, or on her brand — I acknowledge and accept this apology. I don’t think Lee anticipated this negative reaction, or that her subsequent writing would so deeply disappoint her fans, particularly her feminist fans.

On Feminism And Being a Feminist

Unfortunately, I can’t say that this apology changes my diminished respect for Lee as a personal feminist icon. In her response post, Lee writes:

Also about your stating that you were disappointed in me thinking that “feminist” was a dirty word. Well, sometimes it is used as a word of backlash. And I wasn’t sure how the person was using it. I was on twitter last night being hit with a lot of names and maybe it was a knee-jerk reaction to the tweet. But the word “feminist” is used against women as a word of shaming. I am careful when I use it and in the tweet tirade, I didn’t think it was relevant or accurate to the situation because in this situation, the beef we are all up in arms about, is about me speaking up. It had nothing to do with whether I was a feminist or not. But by the definition, “A feminist is a person who believes that men and women are equal (though not necessarily the same), and should be entitled to equal rights, equal treatment, and equal opportunity.” And by that definition I am. I just didn’t know if it was being used against me as a dirty word since I was in a huge twitter fight last night and couldn’t stop to think.

The title of “feminist” has absolutely been misappropriated by anti-feminists, and asserted as a pejorative slur. This has done incredible damage to the fight for women’s rights, gender rights and equal opportunity. Young men and women who believe in the cause of feminism are discouraged by any association of the title of “feminist” as a slur to hide their feminism. I can’t tell you how many passionate college-aged activists have pulled me aside to confess their feminism to me, as if believing in gender equality is something to be ashamed of.

So long as we allow the label of feminist to be seen as undesirable in any way, we allow the actual fight for gender equality to also be seen as undesirable. Feminists have many social causes we need to champion; chief among them must be the reclamation of our movement from those who would denigrate what we stand for by transforming who we are into a slur and an insult. I believe we all should always stand tall as proud feminists, and challenge any hint that to be called a feminist is anything other than a profound compliment.

Angry Little Asian Girl has always been a comic about standing up for the rights of outspoken women to be angry and outspoken, and to be proud of that outspokenness regardless of how taboo it might appear. That message resonates deeply with my relationship to my feminism. Thus, while I respect Lee’s relationship with her feminism, it’s been tough to realize that her relationship with her feminism simply does not encapsulate my relationship with mine.

Angry Little Asian Girl will always have an important and respected place in the history of my political evolution and the birth of this site, and that will never change. But, I don’t think it will be possible for me to hold up ALAG as my personal feminist icon any more.

(Note: I’m reflecting on a personal evolution in my relationship with ALAG, not calling for a community-wide boycott. Different people have different relationships with things they admire; just because through this process I’ve lost a feminist relationship with the ALAG character doesn’t mean other people will or should.)

On More Legal Stuffs

Lee also outlined a few responses to my legal discussion. I really don’t want to delve too much farther into the legal stuff because 1) I’m neither a lawyer nor a judge, so ultimately my opinion on this matters not at all, and 2) I think it’s about time to pull this matter out of the sphere of public judgement (see below).

In general, though, I believe that what Lee writes — that her original 1999 trademark explicitly covered “social issues” in the same way that Yu’s blog does because she references “jokes”; or, that Yu’s blog falls into the sphere of comic or cartoon because of his Bruce Lee header art — are a pretty big stretch.

More importantly, I want to emphasize a distinction that may have been lost in the ongoing conversation: there is a difference between trademark infringement (“your brand hurts my brand because having two in the marketplace is confusing”) and plagiarism (“you copied from me”). Lee’s accusations against both Yu and Wendy Xu blur the lines between these two things, and not only does this contribute to the overall shakiness of the legal argument due to lack of rhetorical precision but it also adds a level of character assassination that can only lead to destructive escalation.

I talked yesterday about how I don’t buy the plagiarism accusations against Yu. With regard to Xu, I’ve outlined how I’m not sure that a judge would agree that Angry Girl Comics infringes upon Angry Little Asian Girl or Angry Girls, Inc. because the USPTO has permitted similar trademarks on other uses of “Angry” and “Girl” to sell items similar to some of the merchandising that Lee’s trademark outlines. Lee outlines her encroachment argument as follows:

And for Wendy, her being an Asian cartoonist, going to Comic Cons, the name, the screaming girl with outstretched arms were getting close.

I dunno that I’d really describe “being Asian” as reasonable grounds to build a case for trademark infringement or to target someone with threats of a lawsuit. Wendy Xu’s character is autobiographical; Lee’s argument about trademark infringement amounts to arguing that young Asian female cartoonists don’t get to draw autobiographical comics about their social justice interests lest they risk a lawsuit. Maybe there’s an argument there for potential trademark infringement (I don’t think so for reasons stated, but again, not up to me), but I’ve also already mentioned my bias against things that discourage activists in growing their activism. So, there’s that.

But regardless of whether Xu’s and Lee’s comics would ultimately be deemed as overlapping by a judge, the plagiarism accusation is totally different and, in many ways, far more serious. Trademark infringement happens (sometimes accidentally) and are actually typically resolved outside of the courts through respectful compromise; accusing an artist of plagiarizing work is, on the other hand, a deep insult and requires some substantiation to avoid counter-charges of defamation. Absent that; and since people throwing their hands up and yelling is a thing that many angry people do; and since it is also a gesture that has appeared in countless comics before and since ALAG‘s inception; for the record, I do not think Wendy Xu is plagiarizing ALAG and can fully understand why this would rapidly escalate the conflict to a place of character attack.

I would furthermore strongly encourage that moving forward, we perhaps reconsider invoking the plagiarism accusations at least without a great deal more evidence to support them. These are neither convincing nor helpful lines of argument.

On Respect

A final point that Lee raises in her post is in regards to respect and disrespect. Lee writes:

I interpreted his being busy with stalling and disrespect for my work and I got angry.

I get that. I get that it can be frustrating to want to try and meet a person and hash out a conflict over a trademark, and to have to wait weeks or even months to receive email responses. I’m guilty of losing emails in my inbox for weeks or months (or longer), or getting distracted by other things midway through dealing with something and just forgetting. I get that it can be frustrating to be on the receiving end of this.

But two things: 1) this is the perfect circumstance under which a face-to-face meeting, which was offered each to the other on multiple occasions would’ve resolved this feeling of disrespect, and 2) the legal system is the proverbial nuclear option when it comes to forcing respect. In fact, I think the legal system is a really shitty tool for creating respect.

It’s, on the other hand, a really awesome tool for instilling fear. This, I think, is part of why the threats of legal action have gone over so poorly within our community.

On Taking a Deep Breath

So that leaves me where I wanted to end my last post: where do we go from here?

First of all, I think it’s time for all of us to take a deep breath. The Angry Asian Conflict has been engaging for many of us because it has been deeply personal for all parties involved, as well as most of us bystanders. Not only does it intersect with dry legal concepts of brand management and protection (things I can totally wonk about), but it also resonates with a far more emotional core within Asian America that is focused on questions of identity and self-identity.

As Lee writes in her post, there is a way for Angry Little Asian Girl and Angry Asian Man/America to co-exist. But, we now need to give the two parties involved the space to find that mutually beneficial resolution, and trust that whatever happens is something both sides can live with. The same is true with the dispute between Lee and Wendy Xu.

This was a dispute that should never have been made public. This is a dispute that could have been dealt with by each party’s lawyers and have never become personal. This is a dispute that, now, shouldn’t invite character assassination, sexism, or derogatory hate against anyone involved.

For the record, I agree with Jeff on his proposed solution. Lee should license variations on “Angry”, “Asian” and whatever to Phil Yu and Wendy Xu for free, in exchange for a clear, outlined guideline for disambiguation disclosures that link back to Angry Little Asian Girl. I will add to Jeff’s post however that given the reality that Lee was somewhat obligated to pursue this sort of action a decade ago with Phil — and that since it is appropriate for her to broach the subject with Wendy Xu at this stage in Xu’s career in order to protect her trademark registration — Lee should actively pursue a similar arrangement with every other site or Twitter handle she has identified in her response post; or, give folks the option to change their personal brands if they so choose.

Do I think Lee’s trademark actually extends to exclusive rights to the phrase “Angry Asian” or “Angry Girl”? No, not really. But, if this is a solution that would address everyone’s interests and allow the internet to continue to be full of Angry Asians, then by all means, it is the right one.

This whole debacle started with Lee’s presumption — wrongly — that she can safely let a potential infringement from Yu slide for over a decade. The law does not acknowledge this as niceness, it views this as acquiescence. Instead, such behaviour seriously weakens Lee’s position and damages her qualifications for trademark protections; if she’s going to pursue this kind of licensing arrangement with Xu and Yu, she needs to do it with everyone — especially since this sort of arrangement is generally non-punitive and beneficial for everyone.

Done. Everybody walks away happy.

  • I’ll agree she may not have had as much foresight on this as one would expect. If she saw this coming, one would’ve hopes she wouldn’t have gone down this particular path in the way that she has. Sadly, she really has done immeasurable damage to her brand among her core market.

  • DovSherman

    You’re overlooking the difference in market. Trademark is intended only to protect against brand confusion within the brand’s given market. Since ALAG is a series of cartoons and AAM is a social awareness blog, the two products exist in different markets, unlike Superman and Supergirl, which are both comic books.

    A better comparison would be Superman vs Superglue. The two trademarks both contain the prefix “Super-” but they do not infringe on one another’s trademarks because a consumer is unlikely to try to purchase a comic book and wind up being confused into purchasing a small tube of adhesive instead.

  • bigWOWO

    I don’t know how the law will be applied, but no, it’s the same market.

    That’s why people are claiming that Lela is hurting her brand–because they see her as criticizing someone in the same market. That’s why people always ask Lela if the two are related. No one does that with Superglue and Superman. No one thinks that Kryptonite removes Superglue.

  • 1) What is your argument for saying they are appealing to “the same market”? DovSherman is right — the fact that the two products are different in scope and character means that, by definition, they market to distinct (if possibly related) markets. ALAG is, by its own admission, a humour comic; AAM is a news-digest blog. Your argument only works if you think that all Asians are — by virtue of our shared race — the same market.

    2) Even if one buys that two companies are selling products to overlapping markets — a stretch of the definition of “market” that ignores the differences in these two products — that is only one factor by which likelihood of consumer confusion is measured; and hardly even the primary factor. Two companies can produce distinct products that nonetheless market to the same consumer, and do so without producing consumer confusion. Superman and Superglue can both market their products to the same nerdy toy enthusiast who hopes to use his Superglue to build an action figure of Superman, and do so without the enthusiast confusing his glue manufacturer with his comic book manufacturer.

    That’s why people are claiming that Lela is hurting her brand–because they see her as criticizing someone in the same market.

    Actually, if you read this post, I am criticizing Lela because her legal argument is weak. Please don’t presume a motive to those with whom you disagree that is not there.

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