Shortcomings: A Visual Social Commentary

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the graphic novel Shortcomings.)

Publishing a post containing extremely relevant social issues can be rather daunting. While it may open discussion on current events, it’s difficult trying to word things without potentially offending someone. Even though this post is primarily a review of a graphic novel, I will touch on sensitive topics (namely Asian-American racial issues and LGBTQ+ social issues), so I apologize if I accidentally offend anyone.

Also, if I say anything incorrect regarding those issues, please know it’s not out of malice. I would be grateful if you leave comments correcting me on anything so I can get a better understanding and update my post.

Shortcomings is a graphic novel written and illustrated by Adrian Tomine. It is also the book I’ve felt most frustrated when reading, and I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be the intended reaction the author wanted his readers to have.

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine book cover

Devaluing Identities

If I were to give a bare-bones summary of the book, I would describe it as a story about an established relationship falling apart because the two people in the relationship cannot see things eye-to-eye.

At its core, it’s more than just that.

Ben Tanaka is a Japanese-American man who lives in California with his girlfriend Miko. Miko is also Japanese-American and deeply values her Asian-American heritage. There is also Alice who is a Korean graduate student, lesbian, and Ben’s best friend. Other characters who appear later in the story include Sasha, a white, bisexual grad student, and Meredith, a biracial lesbian. Surrounded by a diverse cast of characters, how does Ben treat them?

He mocks them — sometimes behind their backs, other times directly in their faces.

Now, if you haven’t read Shortcomings yet, you might take the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn’t attack them for their race or sexual orientation. That’s what Ben himself thinks, anyways. He is cynical, sarcastic, and overwhelmingly negative. Every scene we see him with Miko always devolves into an argument. Whenever he is with Alice, he’s always complaining about someone — usually Miko, otherwise any other girls he dated. (Because when Miko tells him that they need some time off away from each other, he decides that he ought to find other girls to date while she’s not around even though they haven’t technically broken up yet.)

Through the course of the book, we see Ben dating two girls, Autumn and Sasha. Both don’t last long, resulting in Ben later trash talking about them to Alice. At one point, he brings up both of them when he and Alice are discussing Miko (see the panels below).

Ben complaining to Alice about Autumn and Sasha in that order (Shortcomings, pg 86)

Here, Ben is mostly attacking them for their hobbies (Autumn) or general background (Sasha). It’s one thing if you find that your preferences or habits don’t align with someone else’s (and Autumn admittedly does have pretty odd habits), but the way Ben words it feels like he’s throwing a whole pity party for himself and trying to prop himself up as someone “kind” or “considerate” for pretending to like what they liked.

Like, come on, the only reason he tried to get with them despite not clicking with them at all was that he wanted to get laid. And because Caucasian girls are his type.

But just with these two panels alone, there is an underlying problem of degrading others based on their identity, beyond just their interests and educational background. Ben calls Sasha a “fence-sitter,” an offensive way to refer to a bisexual person. Even though that wasn’t the point of his overall complaint, that still holds severe implications. While he reduces Autumn to a weird “pee girl,” he reduces Sasha to just her sexual orientation and portrays it negatively.

This is actually something Sasha herself addresses. When she tells him that she is going back to her ex-girlfriend, Ben dismissively sums it up to Sasha deciding that she wants to be with a girl instead of a guy. He even tells her scathingly, “Well, that’s great. Have fun on the other side of the fence, okay?”

(With this kind of remark, it’s unfortunately clear that he takes the “fence-sitter” name literally. He straight up sees her as someone indecisive over being straight versus being gay.)

Sasha is angry at Ben for reducing her and her actions to (a misconception of) her sexuality. (Shortcomings, pg 72)

Sasha is fed up and calls him out on his words, but Ben thinks of it as a “her” problem. This is Ben’s most glaring flaw — he has all of these misguided perceptions of people, but when others try to call him out on it, he refuses to hold himself accountable. To him, it’s never his problem. He’s not doing anything wrong. Everyone else is just simply overreacting and “attacking him for nothing.”

Aggravating Insecurities

Besides sexuality, race is the other theme that Shortcomings explores. Regarding this subject, it’s mostly focused on Asians and Asian-Americans since most of the characters fall under this demographic.

Miko greatly values her Asian heritage. However, it often feels like she’s desperately trying to seek validation towards her Asian background. Every one of her arguments with Ben boils down to race. When Ben loudly trashes on and downplays the winning film at the Asian-American film festival that Miko works at, Miko accuses him of being “ashamed for being Asian.” When Miko finds his stash of porn videos, she’s upset that the videos all feature white girls. When she drops by Ben’s workplace and sees him with Autumn, Miko immediately assumes that Ben is interested in the other girl because she’s white.

Does Miko jump to conclusions way too quickly? It’s honestly hard to tell. Sometimes it does feel like it. Taking the last example from earlier, Autumn is at Ben’s workplace because she is the new employee, and Ben was showing her around. Even though Ben does later try to date her, here he doesn’t make any advances yet.

On the other hand, you could see why Miko is so frustrated with Ben. Ben never shows any interest in anything she’s passionate about, to the point where she knows that if she so much talks about it, he’ll be bored. He has also made anti-Asian statements on more than one occasion, such as making implications that all Asians look the same and suggesting that it’s good for an Asian man to be in a relationship with a white woman.

Ben proudly telling Sasha about "white-girl envy" and a "sign" Asian men give when both are with white girls.
There’s a lot going on here and it’s very uncomfortable.

Whether her accusations are justified or not, what’s certain is that she’s heavily insecure towards herself and her cultural background, yet her own boyfriend never provides comfort or validation. Instead, he sees all of her concerns as personal attacks directed at him for no reason. It’s only a wonder how they even got together in the first place.

Rejecting Change

Ben isn’t the only flawed character in Shortcomings. Other characters also have problematic, even hypocritical views. Alice is a part of the LGBT community, and yet she is biphobic. Miko, who resents Ben’s “white girl fetish,” is later revealed to have cheated on him for a white man. For Miko, because this other man isn’t fully white. Plus, he does have a huge interest in Asian cultures (although whether that interest is genuine or just a fetish, as Ben claims, is left to readers’ interpretations).

(As for the cheating aspect, her “defense” is that Ben has also been cheating on her behind her back. Ben vehemently denies it even though everyone — including the readers — knows he’s lying. It’s just a complete mess, honestly.)

No one in the story is without flaws, and that’s fine. It’s meant to make the characters feel more realistic. It’s just that Ben stands out as completely unlikeable. There’s nothing about him that’s worth rooting. I’m certain this is done on purpose, but it doesn’t make it any harder to watch him.

But it’s fine — by the end of the book, he comes to realize his mistakes and tries to fix them, right…?

No, he doesn’t. None of the characters go through any sort of growth. They may take actions to change their current situations (both Miko and Alice moves to New York for their respective partners and to give themselves some more personal freedom), but they continue to hold their pre-existing mindsets steadfast.

Ben is no different, although he doesn’t get a happy ending for himself. In the end, Miko completely breaks up with him. Alice has found her place in New York and has no intentions of moving back to California. Ben returns home completely alone.

Is it a satisfying ending? Not really. I think I’ve read too many stories where every evil or morally gray character goes through some sort of redemption arc where they realize their wrongs and works to improve themselves. As nice as that could be, it’s way too unrealistic. People aren’t going to fix all their faults that conveniently. Some people aren’t going to deem some of their traits as things to improve on.

Ben may be alone and bitter at the end of the book, but he still doesn’t seem to understand why things have fallen apart for him. For all we know, he may continue to wallow in self-pity after the events of the story. He has done that plenty of times in the narrative, anyways.

Portraying an Ugly Reality

Shortcomings is a reflection of people in everyday life in the form of a graphic novel. It’s an observation on society, and even though it was published in 2007, it’s still relevant. I think this is probably what made the book all the more frustrating to read. There’s nothing wrong with the writing or artwork. It’s just the content serving as a pessimistic reminder of how the world is.

There are people like Ben who firmly stick to traditional but offensive views and are willing to dismiss any opposing views and downplay any milestone events.

There are people like Ben who refuse to see even the most painfully obvious conflicts as race-related and instead resort to other excuses to pardon something.

There are people like Miko who are so deprived of self-acceptance and positive representation that they’re content with just the bare minimum.

This story or the world in general, it’s all mentally draining.

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