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.
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.