Hey Internet! It’s only been half a year between posts. Let me give you some quick updates!
- I am now working towards a Masters in Communication at PSU.
- I no longer edit for White Cat Publications. It imploded, or something.
- I still maintain and update Ramen Empire, but am behind because
- I am producing two (student) films. (And my and Zach Stoppel’s PSA won a university contest–check it Owwwt!)
I’m updating my blog not quite at the behest of Joey Pogue, a professor in the comm department, but because the spirit of my Gender Communication Seminar class is very electronic, and I figured it’d be fun to throw up a rundown of my midterm here, just in case someone cares what kind of conversations angry liberal cis white males have about gender.
For context, what follows are examples of “gender stories that retell the binary” as found in this book. The central idea is that narratives are incredibly powerful–we use them to convey a massive amount of data, and we collect them for thousands of years.
Granted, the messages of a narrative are sometimes lost after a few centuries–take a look at the Epic of Gilgamesh if you don’t believe me. In this story, Enkidu, a powerful man created to sooth the vicious King Gilgamesh’s cruelty, is too savage for civilization, ultimately meaning that he can’t come take the piss and vinegar out of Gilgy and that even though the gods mercifully created this being, he’s helpful. At least until professional prostitute Shamhat seeks him out in the wild, fucks him for a solid week, and in doing so civilizes him. Once she’s wrung out his wild, she takes him into the city, feeds him, clothes him, and teaches him. What does all this do? It makes him ready to wrestle naked with King Gilgamesh and in doing so, tame his cruelty.
There’s some strong gendered messages in there, and modern society isn’t going to give a thumbs up to most of them. All three of those characters are, by modern standards, gender-queer–Shamhat embraces sex, uses it in trade, and is also a beacon of civilization while Enkidu and Gilgamesh are bastions of ancient manliness, while also being (at least in some readings of the tablets that contain this story) (yes. tablets. This shit be old.) incredibly homoerotic 900% of the time. So the message is lost, but the power of the narrative and the importance that we give these narratives is such that we’ve preserved since (for all intents and purposes) the beginning of written literacy.
The book I linked proposes that modern narratives (and perhaps even older ones) held propagate the idea of a gender binary and then gives a sort of model for how they do this, divided into preparation, prescription, and re-inscription. What follows is essentially my best guess at fitting the sort of media I love into these three categories, and an elongated excuse to show my Wednesday night class some pictures and video links I like.
Seeing as how I grew up reading books, playing video games, and sorta, kinda thinking that my entire life’s purpose was to impress a girl with all the artistic crap I did (I wrote boatloads of bad poetry, and play the penny whistle) I’m gonna go ahead and do two things: say outright that Knight Errant adventures were the bulk of the media I consumed before and during this thought process, and then label this sort of thing as preparation for joining my culture’s gender binary.
I think that the notorious Tropes Versus Women in Gaming videos do a decent job of outlining the sort of story I grew up consuming.
Let’s ignore the misogyny. FeministFrequency does a decent job of pointing out that it exists. Focus instead on what she ignores: that these games are made for and marketed at young males, and that it’s doing far more than entertaining them–it’s giving them a warped crystal ball into which they can gaze and extrapolate data on how they should interact with women–messages that they’re no doubt far more prone to glom onto in a society where sex, gender roles and sexuality are near-taboo talking points, and where our young people tend to get most of their training from their equally stupid, inexperienced peers. Thanks, Christian Right and the Abstinence Only movement!
Let’s unpack the message of the Knight Errant story. Boy meets Girl. Boy thinks Girl is tres hot. Boy chases Girl, masquerading as rescue in the narratives, (which conveniently placing Girl in (at best) the role of captive audience for Boy’s many talents,) and also giving her a huge social debt to repay because, hey, ten seconds ago, a dragon was thinking she’d taste fantastic in ketchup. This message doesn’t just exist in video games. Nerdy boys existed well before electronics, and they read books like A Princess of Mars (which, for the record, I still love.)
The cover art for every edition of all of the John Carter of Mars books were all basically that awesome, incidentally, gendered messages aside. Pretty artwork aside, though, every single novel about John Carter and his true love Dejah Thoris features her in the prominant role of professional victim, and his single-minded purpose for living is to scour the surface of Barsoom and rescue her, over and over again.
Incidentally, while Boy is looking for Girl, he should be quite, stoic, ripped, and amazing. All the goddamn time. Because roar, motherfuckers, you are men.
These types of stories go way, way back–the Arthurian Legends and the ideas of Chivalry that get thrust onto them most certainly contain these gendered archetypes and doubtlessly inspired, at least indirectly or in part, a lot of these tales. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that women who aren’t victims in Knight Errant tales tend to be antagonists.
They’re not always evil, mind you–The Green Knight’s wife is testing Gawain’s moral virtues, and probably not just being psychotic independently of her husband–but the tendency for female characters is as either victim or villain, and the tendency for the male character is either stoic hero or, well, villain who won’t be seducing the hero.
I like Knight Errant stories. They’re probably not healthy to consume as one’s sole message on gender roles. And if anyone else like me is out there, who grew up devouring this type of story, I’ll remind you that they tend to end on happily ever after, without much guidance on what made it so damn happy.
The bottom line?
If you’re the type who thinks video games make kids violent, give some serious thought to supporting media that gives kids a good working definition of a relationship, so that the gender binary stops being Victim and Victor, and so that Boy and Girl get to see what that happily ever after looks like.
I’ll pick at another point that FeministFrequency makes, incidentally. With good cause, I think, she criticizes Zelda as a character in her titular games: even when the princess is more than a doll to be rescued, she’s only that way because she’s dressed as a man, and even those trappings vanish, bam–back to being a victim.
There’s a pretty bad message there. But the lore of the game does something interesting. Zelda has the Triforce of wisdom, while the hero, Link, has the triforce of courage. (Zelda fans: I haven’t played in years. Don’t roast me too hard over the minutia. <3)
This ostensibly casts Zelda into a role of adviser. That never plays out in the games–it’s just a thing that should be true. My critical observation here is that Link’s possession of the Triforce of courage is displayed again and again and again. Primarily because it seems to give him no abilities (unlike the villain, who has the Triforce of power and uses it tell you, repeatedly, that this isn’t even his final form, bro!) outside of being stupidly reckless. Link, as a heroic figure, essentially executes a chain of bad ideas that he lucks through, repeatedly, until he saves Zelda.
So in other words, courage and idiocy are effectively identical, and if I’m going to give Link the same deep reading that FeministFrequency gives Zelda, I should take away that a man’s role in the gender binary is to be flat-liningly stupid.
My theory: there’s only a biforce, and it’s composed of a yin-yang of stupiddumb.
I’m going to talk about Lara Croft again, even though it got me and my poor, gentle blog flamed last time.
I get that John Carter and Mario and Zelda can all be viewed through a prescriptive lens–I do–but I encountered those media as a child, and I think there’s strong evidence extant in the aesthetic choices of all those media that show them geared, if not always marketed, at young boys.
Lara Croft, though, was made for the big boys. And her prescriptive role is a strange one. The character was reinvented a few years back and the Tomb Raider series (in which she plays the star role) was recast to be more survival horror and less run-and-gun, becoming less of a near-faceless set of marksman boobs and more of a real character.
My argument is, again, that this game is marketed at males. Under the guise of rewriting this character a strong survivor, this is what one of the game’s designers had to say [taken from the Kotaku]:
“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character,” Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.P “They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'”
Rosenberg already faced backlash for this comment, and perhaps a bit more than he deserved–because internet, amirite?–but the authorial intent [which I usually ignore, but hey, this is my blog. shoo off if you no likeylikey.] but it’s still worth considering Lara’s role as prescribing the American gender binary.
It’s subtle, if you’re not looking for it.
On the surface, there’s a strong female character. Beneath it, though, her dangers are mirror to the implied dangers of a captured princess–bondage, pain and rape–and she’s still hypersexualized. Men are supposed to want to protect her. Everything Ultimately, she’s still a victim, and if the male isn’t there to guide her, she’s left to the wolves, with a strong implication that she’ll get raped.
For a male player, nothing’s different from the knight errant story, save that he is now the invisible hand of God. For a female player, though, the message is resounding: you can be really strong in our narratives. You can get hurt and tote guns and be a hero… as long as you’re still a princess who needs rescued, fleeing the dangers of a damsel in distress. The Knight Errant story is still right there, heart beating beneath the surface, pumping the same message through our collective minds.
Does that make the game bad? No. It makes Rosenberg hyperaware of his target audience, though, while not being too savvy–or perhaps while not caring about his message.
I can’t fault him, though, or anyone else on the Tomb Raider design team. Feminists trying to change the message end up prescribing it. Just because I like her so darn much, here’s FeministFrequency again.
Swapping out the male for the female character and having a self-rescuing princess is essentially a desexualized Tomb Raider, (except all the men are gone.) Ladies, you can be a hero. As long as you’re a princess and fit comfortably into a Knight Errant story. Surely someone could tell a story of a self-reliant female protagonist who goes up against men and women alike (you know, like in reality) but whose primary concern is the same as a male character’s–where she’s not trying protect herself, the vicarious princess, from the horrors of male evil doers. Male and female characters alike should have some goal besides rescuing a faceless love interest, and female heroes in knight errant stories should be developed and thought through to the same extent as male characters.
Dear FeministFrequency: It’s okay if she kills her evil brother at the end. It’s okay if there are male guards who want to stab her with swords, because adults will know that swords are merely phallic, and not actual penises. Removing the male only puts an elephant in the story, and leaving the female as a faceless (though now self-reliant) rescuee does absolutely nothing to change the message beneath this sort of story.
Ultimately any retelling of the Knight Errant tale with any sort of change to gender roles will be referential to materials that retell the binary. Feminists who want new female gender roles in video games should look to other story structures; Kafka-esque plotlines and Magical Realism remain largely unexplored in gaming, and could make an excellent vehicle for breaking apart some of the gaming industry’s same-old same-old messages.
There’s worse prescription out there, though. You could only be female in a narrative just so that there can be a drawn out, painful pregnancy scene.
FeministFrequency is hardly the first person to put female characters in the spotlight in damsel in distress stories, and she’s certainly not the first one to toughen up the damsel.
Mercy Thompson is a were-coyote, who is capable of killing, sneaking, stealing, and solving puzzles as needed–until act three of the novel, when she becomes the damsel in distress and needs rescued. Every time. So the message is that female characters can be strong, until they need a man to come rescue them. And the men can be weak–until they have to get it together and go save the damsel. The gender roles seem to have been revised until you hit a plot point. FeministFrequency’s proposed game would be more interesting if it had concrete plot points that were shielded from this reoccurring fantasy trope.
There are… a lot of novels like this; Mercy Thompson is basically a cookie cutter type female character with development as a consequence of multiple novels existing and layering her with plot points, rather than as a result of careful character development. Giving a damsel in distress tattoos and a weapon doesn’t do much if she still needs rescued for the story to reach a conclusion.
Synthesis and Innovation
A video game series titled Mass Effect (as well as its sister games, Dragon Age) manages to tell a victory-through-arms type story without sending a message that labels men as victors and women as victims. It was clever innovation, having the second-person storytelling medium of video gaming allow the player to select their gender–not just their sex, but their sexual orientation. Commander Shepard, the main character, comes in female gay, female straight, male gay and male straight flavors, and they’re all given the agency of competence and fully animated, voiced cut scenes that genuinely impact the b line of the games’ stories.
There’s another, somewhat stranger direction that video gaming has gone, though. In online games like World of Warcraft, the storyline becomes little more than background radiation, and the designers’ focus on play mechanics rather than aesthetic and storytelling choices create a place where rather than enforcing a gender binary, the game pushes a monogender.
Extreme dimorphism of World of Warcraft characters aside, everyone in the game is considered male regardless of the gender they gave their character, and the decision to choose male over female affects absolutely nothing. So while the game manages to carry a number of sexist motifs, it’s not a damsel in distress simulator and never could be.
Mostly because it opted to be cocaine instead.
Happily, the place to look for real innovation is children’s entertainment. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic manages to tell different types of stories to little girls, and gives them a number of strong archetypes to cling to–role models and gender models that teach them ways they can see themselves and ways they can be outside the damsel narrative.
This character in the show is one of several distinct figures. Little girls watching this suddenly have a model for being analytical and scientific–a female figure in their entertainment giving implied permission to care about the deep questions of the universe (is time travel possible?) rather than being caught up in an intrigue from which she needs rescued. And it doesn’t force this role to have a relationship with other genders; there’s no quiet soap box, unlike in damsel narratives, demanding that a female character play a specific role. Rather, the show is a set of narratives inviting little girls to participate in society in a multitude of complex, contributive ways.
Sadly, I don’t know of a show like this for boys–where they’re told how to interact with one another rather than a single, so-called “opposite” sex, shown roles outside of stoic hero, and where they’re invited to interact with their world in similarly unique, complex ways.
Know of one? I’d like to know about it too. Drop me a comment!