The Other One

There's a tired, sick feeling that comes with being excluded.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Mobile


I’ve added something to my wardrobe. I take it with me whenever I go out. I don’t really like it; in fact I kind of hate it. But I can’t seem to get rid of it. That thing is the extra breath I hold in my throat whenever I meet someone new, or hang out with old friends, or walk down the street. Hell, I even keep it on when I’m reading a book, or the news, or playing a game.

I hold this breath because I never know when a stranger is going to say something untoward or try to track me down from the safety of his car, making me feel unsafe on my commute home. I hold it because I don’t know when to expect a friend to use sexist language casually. I hold it because I don’t know when a new friend or an acquaintance is going to try to cross my personal boundaries with a word, a phrase, an uncomfortable form of contact. I don’t know when I’ll have to cut them disappointedly out of my life, before there are too many ties to cut. This breath makes it hard for me to trust new people. It makes me suspicious of my friends. It makes me cynical and mistrustful that even the most mild media won’t end up containing something demeaning, even if inadvertently.

Some manifestations of casual misogyny are so mundane to me that they just roll down into my personal junk pile of demoralized exasperation. At this rate, I don’t really expect much from most billboards or sitcoms. Despite my incorrigible love for Street Fighter, I know that when I observe a tournament the word “rape” is going to be flowing as freely in the air as beer flows from the taps of my favourite arcade. I know people won’t expect me to know how to play, that I’m just the token girlfriend tagging along. That doesn’t make it acceptable, mind you. But it doesn’t take me by surprise anymore. So I hold my breath.

Should I really be taken aback that Gearbox lead designer John Hemingway described Borderland 2′s “Best Friends Forever” mode as “Girlfriend Mode” while speaking openly to the press? Well, of course it bothers me, but I wouldn’t say it really “shocks.” I don’t despise Hemingway or Gearbox – I’m looking forward to Borderlands 2. I get that people make mistakes.

But, you see, I’m used to people expecting me to not play games, or be interested in games, or be proficient in a game. I’m used to the surprise on people’s faces when I tell them that I write about this stuff, and that I main Juri, and that yes, I would like to play.

What Hemingway said isn’t defensible, but I’m telling you right now: this is mundane stuff.

But it’s not always so predictable. Sometimes casual sexism catches me by surprise, in places where I thought I could leave the extra breath at home. I can’t say I was really expecting it when Angry Birds Seasons’ “Back to School” update contained a new pink bird possessing all the trappings of traditional female stereotyping. To be quite honest, I mistakenly had thought all the birds were female – seeing as they’re out defending their eggs – so I wasn’t really sure how to feel about the long eyelashes, pink body, high-pitched feminine voice and relatively passive-aggressive new weapon.

To tell you the truth, I don’t really care about Angry Birds. I don’t really care that the character is pink and feminine. Neither of those things is inherently problematic. I took issue, mainly, with the pink bird immediately being cast in articles about her as the “female bird.” (A mountain of proof is at your fingertips with a quick Google search.) In the first case, she actually is not the first female bird, not that it ever mattered before. In the second, this demonstrated how willing we are to define a character by gender alone, even when it is at odds with the spirit of the rest of the game. I can only speculate as to Rovio’s reasoning behind the character, but to pretend that the character is meant to not just be feminine, but strictly “female,” would be kind of naive. Of course that’s what we’d assume just by looking at her. It’s in the fabric of every social interaction we’re taught to have.

We still navigate a cultural structure in which male is universal, and female is subjective. That male is normal, and female is the other one. And historically, across race, gender, and ethnic barriers, that which is “normal” is therefore “good,” and that which isn’t perceived as “normal” is somehow secondary or deficient.

This doesn’t mean to suggest that the pink bird as a playable character is, herself, deficient. But it’s a reaffirmation that the grander cultural perception of women and girls exists as a very narrow window. No, the pink bird is not the only female bird, but she is the only one being defined as such— and her dressings just reiterate how we see female player behaviour. It’s a reminder of how our culture operates. There’s even a meme to exemplify it.

And the Idiot Nerd Girl meme does its job. I feel unwelcome. I feel put upon to prove my credibility in ways my male friends do not. Idiot Nerd Girl is a more hostile example of this, the pink bird less so. But they do the same thing by making me feel secondary, lesser, reduced, excluded. Sent out into the ether, these things do send a message about my value and worth. I can’t help but take that personally. I can’t help but feel over-sick and overtired.

You know, it’s telling that Angry Birds is a casual game intended for a mass audience. The “pink bird” undercurrent of casual sexism already is everywhere, in cute games that children play on their parents’ iPad, in LEGOS they build with, in the books and film and ads and relationships and social dynamics in which we interact. It is in the air I breathe in.

I empathize, in a way, with the pink bird – bitterly confronting the prospect that I may always be defined by my gender, too.

Even Angry Birds makes me feel this way?

Even Angry Birds.

I wish the mechanisms of casual sexism—of the sort I describe, which are common, and difficult to see except for when they inevitably explode into something more violent—found in gaming culture were easy to isolate. I wish they wore an eye-patch, had a scar, and waited to hurl abuse at me over Xbox LIVE, so I knew where to stay away. But the natural sexism – the assumptions made about my competence or my behaviour – these things are inherent to the culture now. These prejudices occur in just about everything I come into contact with, but they aren’t typically hostile. They generally only become hostile the second you actually bring attention to them.

I can’t say that I’ve written this with the most clarity or with any easy answers to proffer at the end. It’s uncomfortable territory. But if I may, perhaps those of you out there who aren’t regularly made to feel objectified and excluded should, respectfully, think twice before telling us our concerns aren’t real; or that we don’t have our priorities straight in these discussions; excusing individual cases of misogyny only to negate them.

That may seem like an attack. This whole post might be seen as a passive-aggressive dig. But it’s not; it’s simply an account of my overgrown impatience.

I could be like Jay Smooth in his TED talk, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race, wherein he politely describes the overwhelming importance of taking criticism. The speech—and it is a lovely one—remarks the defensiveness of people when confronted, specifically, on race issues, and how taking the time to acknowledge fault, empathize and listen to the person making the critique is fundamental to forwarding discussion. I could be like Mattie Brice in her piece What About the Men?! RE: Tropes vs. Women, responding to claims of sexism against men in video games, powerfully and systematically debunking the argument. And Brice reminds us, of course, that more of these strong analyses by experts of both gender studies and games exist. They just don’t get read.

Oh, all the research and data and statistics and evidence upon evidence upon evidence I could show you to try to validate my own reality, so that you’ll believe it. I can do that. I have done that. Now I just need to be met in the middle somewhere.

But I still don’t expect much. I’m truthfully beginning to fear that these problems might be perpetual—or at least never see an end in my lifetime—and that those who might help fight them may continue to refuse acknowledging their existence. My stomach turns in knots at least once or twice a day – I become puzzled if it doesn’t. My screams are turning into sighs. I don’t want to mistrust people. I don’t want to feel excluded from the culture, having my “nerd cred” evaluated on whether or not I’m just an incompetent, attention-seeking poseur. I want to feel like a person, not a window dressing or a lazy device. I don’t want to be as sullen as I’m sure I’m coming off.

But I also don’t hold my breath for any of that.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Mobile

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

8,588 Responses to “The Other One”

  1. LewieP's Mummy

    Good article! I’d add being an older woman, or worse, being an older, disabled woman gamer. I get fed up of people looking me up and down and asking “you play games” in an incredulous voice, or offering me Nintendogs or Cooking Moma when I go into their video game shop (cough *Game* cough) even when I’ve explicitly explained the type of game I like playing.
    There are very few places where I’m accepted as a gamer without a question or funny look, people just assume I’m a supportive, interested mum rather than a gamer in my own right. I’ve just spent almost a week surrounded by gamers, devs and video games, even some of the devs assumed I was just a parent. Thankfully, most didn’t, and I got to play some great games – Johan Sebastian Joust being one of them!
    I’ll not give up though, I’m changing perceptions one person at a time.

  2. Josef Burn

    As a male (and I kinda wish I didn’t have to feel compelled to say that, but the truth is I do) I agree with every word of this article. It feels like, at least with the digital age, every time females start to have their recognition grow and expand in a certain area, males find a way to knock them down. That nerd girl meme has always pissed me off simply because it perpetuates mockery nonsensical and unfair mockery and derogatory behaviour towards ‘girl gamers’ because, with the power that memes have, it takes that label and makes it into something “Stupid”.

    And I understand what you mean, feeling like you have to constantly be defensive about who you are or what you do against a moronic but widespread and hidden ideal definitely gives you that ‘tired’ feeling.

  3. Generic Male

    Insomuch as I can, I empathize with your plight. It’s not difficult to want all people to be equal. The difficulty is finding a way to help bring equality to all people. I’ve always been someone who wants others to be happy in whatever way they choose as long as it doesn’t hurt someone, either directly or indirectly.

    It’s a fine line to walk because things aren’t that simple. What seems harmless to some is offensive to others. There comes a point when being equal is tantamount to walking on eggshells with land mines hidden underneath. Eventually one missed step results in an explosion that destroys any goodwill built up to that point.

    What can I do to make someone feel welcome? I’ve talked to females (the very few I’ve seen) at arcade fighting game tournaments. When I ask if they play I get scoffed at. Trying to be inclusive has given me negative feedback, so I’m stuck ignoring them. It only reinforces the “culture” of fighting games. If I see a door and try to open it, only to find it’s locked tight, I move on. I’m not going to stand there and fiddle with the lock.

    Basically I’m saying there needs to be an open dialogue on both sides. Your baited breath isn’t helping your cause. Instead, try not to assume the worst. You have every right to be cautious but by holding back, you’re consequently holding everyone back with you.

    • Line

      You heard him, ladies. If you’re locked tight, he’s left with no choice but to ignore you. He doesn’t have time for fiddling. If you don’t have an open door policy, you might as well just leave.

    • oh you

      ‘It’s a fine line to walk because things aren’t that simple. What seems harmless to some is offensive to others.’

      Seriously? Do you think the writer of the article is five years old?

      ‘There comes a point when being equal is tantamount to walking on eggshells with land mines hidden underneath. Eventually one missed step results in an explosion that destroys any goodwill built up to that point.’

      yeah, when you do and say sexist things, that tends to happen.

      Also, we are called ‘women’, not ‘females’.

  4. Austin

    Great read. I really dont want you to lose hope. Im a male gamer and developer, and these articles are definitely read and taken to heart. It will never be perfect, but it will get better. Arguably race relations are better now than 50, 100, and 150 years ago, but we still have reminders and discussions on the topic because individuals need to be exposed to it and taught to find it normal. Lets keep talking but keep hope alive.

  5. The

    Damn fine article. With all the talk about homophobic and racist xbox live comments, nobody really mentions sexism much in any video game sense except to laugh at female fighting game characters or fantasy characters. I’m a guy, and a lot of my friends make fun of me when I choose to pick a female character, calling it a fanservice pick or window dressing. (Unless it’s Cammy in Streetfghter, then they know they’ve already lost) But I have seen the sexism work both ways, with girls having a blast making fun of the Bro attitude of the Gears of Wars guys. But as far as thinking that a girl doesn’t have a place at a particular game, that just seems dumb. I’ll always be a believer that you hand a person a controller and see what they have.

  6. mindcrayons

    Love the article. I often feel frustrated and tired when I play games – even the ones I love because of the casual sexism. I teach teenagers about video games and one of my students (who is a 17-year old boy) wrote a piece about sexism in games that was published on HuffPo Teen and the comments were incredibly upsetting. He managed to valiantly respond with polite logic but it was incredibly disheartening for me as an educator watching him get ripped apart in a public forum. I love games but sometimes dominant gamer culture makes it so difficult for me to really love games. My main consolation is that I work with a group of teenagers that notice, acknowledge and understand the need to speak out against sexism and stereotypes in video games. So, there’s hope for the future!

  7. Osprey

    This is a great article. Casual sexism and racism wears me down and tires me out, to the point where quitting seems like the best option. Thanks for articulating why it’s a problem.

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