Thursday, October 9, 2014

My letter to the NWPC in re Charles Clymer receiving an award

First let me say, that I strongly support the mission of the NWPC. I was very active with the Annise Parker campaign in Houston, and my wife and I continue to support female voices in social life here in our new home in Washington state.

I was sorry to hear recently, however, that the NWPC is going to give Mr. Charles Clymer the Good Guy award at the EMMAs this year. While Mr. Clymer has accomplished many good things in the name of feminism, he has also exhibited a hostility and lack of judgment I would hate to see associated with the NWPC. He has lashed out at individual women - often falling into the same misogynistic tropes that he claims to oppose - without a hint of apology or self-awareness. He has co-opted feminism's message from women themselves claiming he has more right to it. He has hinted several times that he writes and says what he does for the purposes of self-promotion. He claims to be a feminist, but is downright ruthless and bullying with women who disagree with him. All of these negative qualities, I feel, overshadow Mr. Clymer's potential positive impact and may show poorly on the NWPC for selecting him for an award.

Just for example Mr. Clymer most recently has referred to Republican feminists as "Circus freaks" on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/cmclymer/status/520075476371767296

While I too disagree with the Republican platform in almost every conceivable way, I do not recognize this man's right to gate-keep feminism. It is incredibly disrespectful to Republican women currently serving and running for office, including, for example, Ms. Megan Rath who is endorsed by the NWPC.

I do not think the NWPC should give an award to a man who can be aggressive towards women within feminism, calls an endorsed candidate a "circus freak," and who claims co-ownership of feminism.

This is just my opinion as a male feminist ally. Men can and should be a big part of feminism, but we cannot own it or take it from women. That is precisely the kind of patriarchal thinking that we should steer away from, in my opinion. Feminism is neither mine nor Mr. Clymer's nor any man's movement to own, restrict, or define.

Please reconsider giving Mr. Clymer this award. I fear it would weaken the NWPC's status to give an award to such a divisive and sometimes unwittingly misogynistic person.

Thank you,

Jason de Kanter

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cis men, it's not about you - HeForShe

Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech to the UN extended a “formal invitation” to men to join the feminist movement – if only in spirit rather than in name.

Ms. Watson brought up several valid points about how the patriarchy negatively impacts men, and called upon men to fight against gender inequality alongside women. I feel it was an effective speech in bringing the issue to the foreground in a prominent way, and the speech was a very sincere request for help.

As part of her request for men’s help, however, Ms. Watson tended to be very conciliatory and focused on cis men. In some ways Ms. Watson made a demonstration of de-fanging feminism – even to the point of dismissing the word “feminism” as unimportant – in order to coax in male allies.
I wanted to write this to clarify that, to me at least, being a male ally of feminism is not simply believing that women should have equal rights to education and equal pay for equal work in the abstract.

Saying that you agree with these extremely basic feminist concepts is a good first step, but voicing agreement is functionally irrelevant if they are not backed by certain actions and avoidance of other actions.

I have tried my best to be a good ally to feminism for a while. I can tell those who are joining up with HeForShe just now that being a feminist ally is an ongoing project that will probably last the rest of our lives. It is not easy. It will mean confronting others as well as confronting yourself. I have made mistakes. I have put my foot in my mouth several times. I have found myself blind to my own privilege several times and probably will again in future. I have had to risk my job and I have lost friendships all simply for standing against gender-based discrimination. I do not say this as a boast. I simply want to inform others of what to expect.

All of these obstacles, however, pale in comparison to what women speaking up about the subject have to endure. While the troubles of a male feminist ally are not negligible, it is unconscionable and morally irresponsible to stay on the sidelines – particularly while women face much worse repercussions for voicing even the most basic pleas for equality.

So, you’ve decided you want to be a male feminist ally? Good. Your voice will be useful, but it will not be the focus.

Here are a few guidelines that I’ve picked up myself. I can’t say I never make mistakes and I still break these rules myself, but I do try to follow them. I can’t say this list is exhaustive either. Nevertheless, I think if cis men keep these points in mind, they will start off better feminist allies than I did.

1.    Have problems with GSD (Gender and Sexual Diversity) people or people of color or non-believers or people who have a different faith? Leave now.
Feminism is not just about white women. It is not even about the cis-normative definition of “woman.” Trans women are women too. All women of color are women too. Bi and lesbian women are women too. Atheist women are women. Women of all faiths are also women. All women are women. People who do not have a binary gender identity are also impacted by gender discrimination. Feminism is about ending gender discrimination. That includes non-binary people too. You don’t get to pick and choose who you support in the name of feminism, and who you do not. If someone is harmed by gender discrimination, feminism should be there to help them.

2.  By the way, there is no systemic gender discrimination against cis men. Just FYI.
We have a whole societal system designed to build up cis men. Yes, this backfires and cis men can feel they are discriminated against because they feel owed everything, but there is no feminist conspiracy to harm cis men. I promise. Get over it. Now. Please.

3.  Feminism belongs to the victims of gender bias. Cis men are guests.
You may have been invited by Emma Watson herself, guys, but this is not your show. It never will be. It never should be. Feminism controlled by cis men or even co-controlled is an oxymoron. We cis men can and should be a part of feminism, but we can never be co-owners of feminism. Forcing our opinion on how feminism should be shaped contradicts the idea that cis men have no right to define other people.

4. It’s not about you.
The patriarchy does negatively affect cis men, but it’s not about us. It’s a tough idea to absorb because we’re trained from birth to believe everything is about us guys, but feminism really isn’t. Feminism is not about cis male plight, although it may help us. Feminism is also not about ruining cis men’s day or making cis men feel bad. It is not even about making misogynists feel bad, although that is a nice bonus. It is about the empowerment of victims of gender discrimination – all of them (see #1.)

5.  Cis men should never restrict or define feminism for women or non-binary people.
      It is not a cis man’s place to restrict a woman’s or non-binary person’s definition of what is acceptable in feminism. We have no first-hand data on what that person’s experience is like. We have zero right to judge or dictate what a victim should do in response to her own oppression. It’s extremely disrespectful. Never do it. Freedom whose parameters are defined for you by someone else is not actually freedom. 

6.  Men should listen to victims on feminism, and talk at men about feminism – not vice versa.
Again, feminism is a space that belongs to the victims of gender bias. Not cis men. It’s about their experience. Not ours. The idea that a privileged group understands the situation of the oppressed better than the oppressed themselves is ridiculous. If you’re a cis male feminist ally, the mode on the topic should be listening to feminists and talking at misogynist men. Voicing support when a woman speaks about feminism is fine, but avoid talking over her. Telling a non-binary person that stand with them against the hatred they endure, is fine, but don’t monopolize their discussion.

Talking over misogynist cis men discussing feminism, however, is 100% a-okay. They do not know what they are talking about, but will not listen to women or a non-binary person tell them that. This is one of those rare times when a male voice in feminism is valuable. Don’t stand by while men hate on women or non-binary people and call yourself a feminist. It’s easy to commiserate with feminists, but that commiseration has no value if you do nothing when someone is threatened physically or verbally.

7.  Misogyny can get so absurd that it feels surreal, but, trust me, it’s real.
This is a prime issue for men who want to be allies. The idea that someone could be as cruel as these misogynists is absurd to us. You will encounter stories that seem inconceivably horrific. Your first instinct sometimes will be to disbelieve or excuse, because it is simpler than believing and acting. Belief means you have to confront a dark reality that you, as a cis man, probably have never experienced firsthand. You’ve never had to explain your presence somewhere. You probably feel safe most everywhere you go. You are confident in your control of your own space. This is not the case with everyone. In fact, if you’re a white heterosexual cis man, you most likely have NOTHING as a point of reference.

You have to trust people when they tell you about their experience at the hands of misogyny. You have to trust the stories of rape, abuse, unfair treatment, subtle sabotage…. Again... people just know their own experience of oppression better than you do. You cannot know as well as them, because you are not oppressed. What Cis het white men count as “oppression” is usually when they are not rewarded even when they do everything wrong. Victims of gender discrimination face oppression even when they do “everything right.” Emma Watson, for all her efforts to be polite and conciliatory was still threatened for advocating fairly minimal feminist goals.

8.  Follow the conversation’s tone. Be sensitive to all people in the group.
I’m ashamed to admit that this is a point I have blundered on many times. Since misogyny is so surreal and ridiculous, my first instinct is to poke fun at it. There is a time and place for this. Some people use humor as a coping mechanism. Some do not. For most people, it varies depending on the situation. If you bring in humor to a serious conversation where someone is hurting, you can cause serious harm. It’s insensitive, isolating, and can reinforce the idea that even men who call themselves allies do not care about the victim. Listen. Making sure a victim of misogyny feels supported and backed up is infinitely more important than making misogyny look ridiculous. Misogyny manages to look absurd on its own well enough.

9.  It’s not about you.
I know I’ve already said this, but it warrants repeating. The movement is about supporting victims of gender-based oppression. It’s about everyone feeling safe to exist and thrive regardless of their gender identity. Feminism’s impact on cis men is a byproduct, not the goal. It is not about you. It is not about what you say. It is not about your goals or what you want. It is not about you.

10. If you are a macktavist, leave now. If you expect something in return for your support, leave now. If you seek to profit off feminism, leave now.
Being a feminist ally is not special or exceptional. You do not deserve praise for being a male ally (see points 4 and 9.) You do not deserve love or attention for being a male ally. Fighting against gender-based discrimination is just a pre-requisite to being a decent ethical human being. If you expect women to swoon over you because you recognize their right to equal personhood, you are not getting it. If you think that discussing the horrors of gender-based oppression, which include the issues of rape and assault, is an aphrodisiac, there is something seriously wrong with you. If you see feminism as a key to riches through endearing yourself to employers or an audience, your insincerity will be exposed. Examine your motivations for wanting to help feminism, and your actions in service of feminism. Are they about helping others or are they about you?

Remember. It is not about you.




These are just a few guidelines for cis men to keep in mind as they become allies of feminism.

I want to conclude by saying doing what is right is not going to be easy. If you’re finding it easy, you are either lying to yourself or not being terribly helpful. Cis men will have to be willing to do things that are uncomfortable, dangerous, and financially disadvantageous to assist feminism.

You’ve voiced support to a hashtag. That’s good. That is probably the easiest thing you will ever do in service of feminism.

Every feminist ally’s experience is different, but here are a few things I have had to do: I have risked my job more than once. Being a feminist means finding the most diplomatic way to call out your supervisor, boss, or company president, when they’re being sexist. It will mean supporting coworkers too scared to see HR without backup. Being a feminist means pointing out the good job your coworkers are doing even when you are both going for the same promotion. It has meant lost or strained friendships for me.  Supporting gender equality has meant awkward and confrontational conversations with friends and relatives whom I love. Fighting for gender equality will pit you against strangers – some of whom can be creepy and terrifying.

Even so, keep in mind that, as a cis man, this will be much easier on you than victims of gender discrimination themselves. Cis men are listened to almost by default. People who do not listen to victims may actually be convinced by you. Following the conflict is easier than having the conflict follow you. You will probably not have your life threatened. You will probably not have your sex life researched. Cis men will always have safe spaces to retreat to. The victims you are advocating for may have none of these advantages.


If you believe that people being treated differently just because their gender is different from yours is wrong, it is imperative that you do your best for feminism. Being a cis male ally of feminism is not easy, but it is easier for us than it is for others. If you support HeForShe, acting and advocating for feminism is the very least you can do. It may cost you much and give you little in return, but the knowledge you did the right thing is worth it. At least it has been for me.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Diversity, won't you? Thank you. - Call to Advocate for Diversity in Games & Game Journalism

Importance of Having Diversity in Games, Game Companies, and Game Journalism

Unfortunately the video game industry and video game journalism can look fairly homogeneous. While the market has improved and we do see more and more diversity in both games  and those who report on them, there is still a great deal to be done. Through simple ignorance or malice, video games too often come across as a medium solely for straight white cis males ages 15-35. The market is clogged with games that seem to only cater to this specific group. 

Protagonists are virile young white men fulfilling power fantasies. Women are often sexualized eye candy in games also for the benefit of straight men. The female characters that do exist tend to be present for the male protagonist to conquer romantically or physically. People of color tend to follow stereotypes, if they appear at all. Black characters in video games are cops or soldiers. Asians are engineers and scientists. Native Americans are shown with mystical connections to nature, and Latinos are portrayed as passionate and emotional. Gay characters are very scarce in video games. Transgender characters are virtually non-existent.

Much of video game journalism reinforces this homogeneity too through overwhelmingly straight cis white male authors who seem to write exclusively for a similar audience. Even sites that make an honest try to reach broader audiences are limited by the lack of diversity among their writers. 

As a straight cis man, I will never be able to reproduce the experience or perspective of my female or gay or transgender colleagues. While I can sympathize with fellow people from a different ethnic or religious background, I cannot speak for them. Even if I support the message, I cannot replicate or replace a voice that is not mine. Publications that claim to support diversity cannot rightly do so while leaving people voiceless through the construction of their staff.

The "boy's club" mentality thrives among in-game communities too. While active on game forums and working with in-game groups, I have seen calls for more focus on a diverse audience met with derision and hostility. Women in game guilds are often treated like privileged guests rather than full-fledged members. I've seen online game groups constantly define racial, gender, and orientation minorities by their differences rather than anything related to the game that brought players together. I have friends whose guildmates refer to them as "that black guy" or "the gay guild leader." Some players online will even seek to force minorities out of what they feel is an owned straight white cis male space through continual verbal harassment.

I contribute to a blog called Pixelkin.org, which is focused on bringing families together through gaming. The idea that games are a straight white cis male space is a barrier to families gaming together too. It's hard to ask a parent to play a game where they might be alienated simply for their gender, age, orientation, or ethnicity. Likewise it's difficult to bring kids into a gaming world where parents know they might be targeted and harassed for the same reasons. 

Games, however, are a cultural reality now. They help shape and define our culture and will continue to do so.

Children need the help of parents to address diversity issues and make sense of an improving but still intolerant and prejudiced society. We must give children the tools to take ownership of their world to make it a better place. Parents can use games to show kids the ways spaces can become exclusionary to the detriment of everyone. Kids need the guidance to learn the importance of helping others feel like a game is everyone's space - not just a space people are invited to by straight white boys.

Learning to question the art we love is a life skill we all need.

The anonymity of online communities can free bigots of social filtration to reveal just how ugly and violent exclusionary sentiments are at their core. While encountering Internet trolling can be a harrowing experience, it is a window to how ugly the world can be beneath the surface. The presence of an adult when a kid encounters this behavior or considers engaging in it, is invaluable. It's a chance to stop societal pressure to bully or be bullied, and provide that love and support we all need sometimes. 

Recently, an editing position at a game journalism site with a predominantly white cis male staff was filled by yet another white cis man, despite more diverse alternatives. I do not know what went into the decisions that led to this choice, and I have no wish to single out to disparage the man they did choose. Nevertheless, this decision was disappointing to those hoping for a change. What was even more alarming, however, was the hostility people encountered after voicing their disappointment over the decision. The backlash was so aggressive that one writer stated that she would not cover video games at all anymore. In other words, the backlash from those seeking to preserve homogeneity in games successfully created even more homogeneity.

The lesson from this episode and others like it, however, should be that diversity in games and game journalism is too important for anyone to stand up alone for it. The impact of diversity (or lack thereof) in the video game medium on our culture is too crucial to leave as the job of a few isolated brave pioneers. It is the responsibility of all of us who believe in it. If we only quietly support these pioneers, we leave them to bear the brunt of resulting abuse alone. The people trying to stifle diversity are many and vocal. I believe those who favor diversity are also many and should make their voices known.


If you feel this is an important issue to address, speak out. Let your opinions be known on the web or just to your friends and family. If you happen to be on Twitter, please use the tag #GamEQuality to mark any statements or links to your articles in support. Game companies and journal publishers need to see this matters to many of us. It's about games, equality, and quality, because diversity just makes games better. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Elliot Rodger Shooting - A Call to Action

Seven people are dead today. Some media outlets keep referring to the murderer as a "madman," but he was motivated by rejection and the sense that he had been wronged by women-kind. While Elliot Rodger may be a crazier example, he is far from an isolated madman. Many men share the same toxic philosophy and many men on the web are actually sympathetic to this murderer.

Eliott was 22 years old, a virgin, and very into the Men's Rights Movement and Pick-up Artist ideas.

For those of you who don't know about these ideologies, Men's Rights Activism is a misogynistic movement that works to discredit feminism, discredit claims of victimization despite being backed by mountains of evidence, and promotes the idea that feminism is preventing men from being "real men." They believe that women demanding equal treatment and acknowledgment of our institutionalized sexism is somehow emasculating.

Pick-up Artistry is about the "art" of convincing women to date or sleep with you. The basic assumption held by these men is that women are things (not people) for them to win or be awarded or owed for correct behavior or success. Pick-up Art is founded on the belief that if you follow a ritual of moves women will be tricked/convinced into sleeping with you.

Elliot stated that he was going to murder his victims to prove that he was the alpha male, and to punish these women for rejecting him. He felt that he had done the right moves and that, because of this, womankind owed him the reward of attention and sex. Not every Men's Rights Activist or Pick-up Artist or misogynist is a murderer, but the violence is baked right into these ideas.

Misogyny literally killed yesterday.

If you know somebody who thinks women are things to be picked-up, or feels men are owed sex, or who even just seems prone to not seeing women as equals, take this event and time to dissuade them from this toxic thinking. Challenge them. Do not laugh it off. Do not dismiss it as boys being boys. Call them to the mat.

A worthwhile person will re-examine their thinking and work to correct their outlook. I think people should have the chance to see the evidence, and rethink their choices/

A person who clings to this way of thinking, however, is not worth your time. They do not think of half of the population as real people. People who dehumanize others this way should be exiled from your life until they prove themselves safe. If someone does not see women equals - if they see women as somehow sub-human compared to men - how can you trust them to not hurt those they see as less than them?

Elliot's female victims were not guilty for not sleeping with the man (as some people are suggesting,) but, as a society, we are partly to blame.

Every time we don't call this out, we helping feed the problem that led to this.

We MUST fight back. We MUST not be timid about it. I know I have failed in this before. There have been times that I heard men talk this way about women and I did nothing. This is not excusable. We MUST stand-up to this.

WOMEN ARE PEOPLE. YOU ARE OWED NOTHING FROM THEM. THEY ARE NOT PRIZES, NOR DEITIES, NOR OBJECTS THAT WILL SERVE YOU IF YOU ACT A CERTAIN WAY.

Share this basic truth with anyone you encounter voicing these idiotic ideas. One misogyny leads to another and eventually to violence. Misogyny is violent at its core. Stop it before it grows to the point that it reaches firearms.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Maiev: The Danger of Female Power

After my post on Tyrande I chatted over Twitter a little with Keezy Young, who writes for Pixelkin.org, and Emmett Scout, who writes for Next. Pixelkin.org recently named Tyrande as a female role-model for young people. I would certainly agree that Tyrande deserves that title. As I state in my post she is great example of leadership. She’s strong, she makes tough decisions, and she listens to others even if she disagrees with them. We briefly discussed why Maiev or Sylvanas might not make that list.

Unacceptable awesomeness
We agreed that the fact that one of Maiev’s main themes is vengeance edges her out of the running for role-model of the year. The discussion got me thinking though. Despite how well she is written for the most part, Maiev still falls into an archetypical trope of a dangerous female in power. If Tyrande shows the lines within which female power is acceptable, by contrast, Maiev is an example of female power gone outside the lines that the writers felt were acceptable.

"POWER MAKE WOMAN CRAAAAAZY!"
Maiev joins other female characters, from the classic Medea to Shakespeare’s Regan and Goneril to the modern Jean Grey, as a woman who is portrayed as so empowered she is driven mad. In other words, too much power for the implied weak female vessel. It’s a backhanded sexism that suggests female empowerment only to point to it as problematic if pushed too far. It is the same mentality that suggests that a woman may serve in congress but not as president (still hasn’t happened in the US), or can serve in the armed forces but not in combat (only officially fully allowed in 2013.)

Now, I do not think that Blizzard wrote Maiev with this in mind, and Maiev at least does not go absolutely crazy cuckoo bananas and end up the villain. Still, it’s disappointing to have this otherwise amazing, heroic, and honor bound female character thrown into question by the other protagonists for simply doing her job.




First, some quick review or background. Maiev is Illidan’s jailer. Remember Illidan and how Tyrande killed a few night elves to liberate him after 10,000 years? Maiev and her fellow Watchers were down there with him for 10,000 years. There’s no indication that they ever got vacations outside of the prison compound either. Maiev and her fellow jailers just stayed down there guarding Illidan for 10,000 years until Tyrande passed by, killed a few of them, and then liberated the prisoner. Tyrande suddenly doesn’t seem so great when you think about that.

Maiev, the prison’s warden, somehow evaded Tyrande’s forces. I can’t recall why if we’re ever told. Maybe it was during one of her rare chances to rest. Maybe Maiev stayed back tactically in the shadows, or maybe she was just too dumbstruck as Tyrande rolled in, killed a few people who had been dutifully on guard for the past few millennia, and then released the prisoner… that they had been dutifully guarding for the past few millennia.


Someone new - not Tyrande or Malfurion, his brother.
Apparently nobody saw fit to keep track of Illidan after he was released and metamorphosed into a demon-night-elf hybrid either. Whoops. This is where Maiev comes in. She is on the chase to track the mutated Illidan down and bring him back to prison. Despite the setbacks, Maiev takes her job very seriously. What’s more, she’s dressed for the job too. She wears full armor with a cape hemmed with knives. It’s almost as if being sexy wasn’t of concern to her at all!


Too cool to feel required to show you her bellybutton.
She is essentially awesomeness incarnate, and she’s not specially blessed or chosen either. You get the feeling that Maiev go to that point of awesomeness through hard work and practice.

Maiev chases Illidan all over the place. She is referred to as relentless and is presented as being kind of hound-like as she chases her quarry. There’s a sense during the campaign that she has taken the hunt dangerously too far – past the point that is healthy. Honestly, however, what else was she supposed to do? Her job, the entire past 10,000 years of her existence, has been focused on keeping this dangerous person imprisoned. If Illidan’s outside of the box, Maiev’s sole purpose is to get him back in.

Hey wait... yeah!
The writing is initially geared towards having the player sympathize with Maiev. Things start to feel a little odd when we see Maiev threaten Tyrande for having freed Illidan in the first place. 

So patronizing.
Despite Maiev making a perfectly valid complaints about Tyrande murdering her forces and freeing their prisoner, the argument is mediated my Malfurion. Malfurion is presented as a kind of male voice of reason and balance, and this is where things start to go poorly for Maiev’s narrative and Malfurion’s as well. Malfurion tries to keep Maiev and Tyrande from attacking each other’s throats. With the way he hand waves the issues away, however, Malfurion seems to take neither Maiev’s complaint against Tyrande nor Tyrande’s assertion that she is accountable to nobody but the moon goddess as very serious subjects. These are both important statements in the game’s world, but Malfurion seems to dismiss them as the ladies just being catty.


Not strictly true, but you should know that whenever anyone assures you that they saw something "with their own eyes" before you even doubt them... they're probably lying.
The player is fully turned away from sympathizing with Maiev when she tells Malfurion a lie. Maiev states that she saw Tyrande torn apart by the Scourge when she actually just saw Tyrande get swept down a river towards Scourge forces after a bridge collapsed from under Tyrande. The player is meant to see the revelation of this lie through the eyes of Malfurion. 

Deceptive, but solid thinking.
There is definitely something very male-gaze-y about the results. Maiev explains that she lied because she knew that Malfurion would abandon the mission to apprehend Illidan to save Tyrande - which is probably true. Malfurion appears to only have obsessive eyes for Tyrande and her well being during this campaign. Malfurion still labels Maiev a “betrayer,” comparable to Illidan, for lying to him.


Jerk even calls her "woman."
Illidan has willfully murdered dozens at this point and was interrupted attempting to destroy the world only moments earlier. Nevertheless, the player is now expected to join Malfurion in equating Illidan’s crime with telling the lie that Tyrande is dead rather than most probably dead. Tyrande has also now become a damsel in distress or precious object of purity to be protected regardless of whether or not it endangers the whole world.

I even caught him mid-sneer
After Illidan and Malfurion join forces, Malfurion once again just lets his brother go – despite Tyrande earlier having stated that freeing him was a mistake and Maiev sentencing him to death. Malfurion apparently just gets to make these kinds of decisions suddenly. As Maiev does her job and chases Illidan off into Outland, Malfurion just shakes his head and says “She has become vengeance itself, bound forever to the hunt. I only pray that in her zeal, she doesn’t cause even more havoc than Illidan.”

Cool power but unsettling subtext 
Maiev is now presented as a crazed zealot. How is seeking to bring to justice a demonic-hybrid mass murdering criminal like Illidan “causing havoc?” Maiev apparently is just too powerful and aggressive to contain it all in her fragile female body. She is out of her place as determined by the male tyranny now embodied by Malfurion. Her ultimate ability, the spirit of vengeance, is literally a shadowy version of herself that is larger than her. It is a representation of power that cannot be contained within the female vessel.

I hated this ending when I played through the campaign years ago. I felt that I was being pushed to accept something I saw as ridiculous. Tyrande and Malfurion, whom I had come to like in the previous campaign, were suddenly aristocratic tyrants. Tyrande apparently styled herself after Henry VIII and believed herself only answerable to the divine. Malfurion now determines right and wrong for himself and changes decisions of justice based on his brother helping Malfurion save his girlfriend.

After such a great start, Maiev had been ejected as crazy and in hysterics.

"No sir, I promise you look totally cool with those feathers on your arms... not like a ridiculous buffoon at all."
When I later rolled a night elf warrior on World of Warcraft, I didn’t let this go either. I always role-played her as a Watcher who was highly skeptical of Tyrande and Malfurion. She was a good soldier, but pointed out the ruling couple's flaws constantly while extolling the virtues of Maiev Shadowsong. Unfortunately there’s no raid to depose those two in favor of Maiev, but maybe some glorious day they’ll let players take the steps to hold those two accountable.  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Finding Masculinity - Groundwork

“The thing about a hero, is even when it doesn't look like there's a light at the end of the tunnel, he's going to keep digging, he's going to keep trying to do right and make up for what's gone before, just because that's who he is.” (Emphasis mine)
― Joss Whedon


When it comes to characters in any media, but particularly in games and other nerd media, straight white guys definitely have it made when it comes to characters they can identify with.

"So you get clothes, and I get a skin tight bodysuit?"
A great deal has been written about the absence of women in primary roles. Women are so seldom portrayed as the primary heroes that it becomes a subject of note when they are. The same goes for any hero of color or a character who might not be read as straight. I agree that this is where the bulk of the conversation should be, but there is another side to this paradigm that is discussed less often.

The portrayal of straight white men as the default hero hurts everyone. Yes, it even hurts straight white men too. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t contribute to male privilege. I know that I’m lucky to have a plethora of positive heroic characters that I can easily identify with. Since this privilege is built on a foundation of sand and lacking true substance, however, there is a cost to having masculinity defined as it is in many games and other media.

The criticism of the patriarchy does not have to be limited to its impact on women. The diminished role of women and the constant exaltation of a certain kind of man portrayed in games and nerd media hurts men too. Patriarchal dominance harms society as a whole. Feminism is not about fighting for half the population. It’s fighting for all of it.

Despite the wide variety of characters men can identify with, there are a few tropes that the nerd genres in particular strongly push to define masculinity. These tropes become problematic when they start to strictly define maleness in very specific ways that are neither realistic nor healthy if brought into real life practice. In this post I’m going to cover the stereotype, explain some of the costs of this construction of male identity. This post is my groundwork for going into how some media like Pacific Rim and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have presented some interesting angles on the stereotype.

Strong, Self-reliant, and In Command  – Masculinity Defined

"It's a glorious day to be a super man."
When a male-oriented game loads that first cinematic or we see the opening scene of our manly hero in a movie, we can instantly make some baseline assumptions about the man we are watching. After dozens of movies, stories, and years of a reverberating culture informing our expectations we can assume that this hero is almost definitely strong, self-reliant, in command (especially of his feelings.) These are what our culture has accepted as the formula not only for a hero but also a man. Deviation from this template can happen in a heroic story, but it is narratively significant if it does.

"About 98 lbs, sir. Why?"
For example, Captain America starts off his story as a physically weak man and part of his narrative is gaining respect and command – as well as super strength. His initial absence of strength is such a deviation from the template that it becomes the focus of the first act of the movie. Even prior to being blessed by a strength granting serum, it’s emphasized in Captain America: The First Avenger that Steve Rogers always had a personal strength of character. This strength of character is presented as a kind of proxy to stand in for Cap’s lack of physical strength until it’s serum time.

Can you even imagine Han asking Chewbacca or anyone else for help?
 It’s rare to see our male hero ever ask for help, rather than give orders. Asking for help conveys weakness or vulnerability for the male identity. Needing to work alone to protect others is all over comic book heroes. It’s where the whole costume thing comes from after all. Batman, Spider-man, and Superman all make a point of working alone. It’s the source of heartache for our heroes but enduring the solitude is just another attribute that defines masculinity in this construction. There might be side-kicks or team ups, but it’s rare for any of these types of characters to really be in need of someone else.

When Wolverine flips out it's "heroic." When a woman does it, it's "hysterics."
Our male hero is always the general – never the lieutenant. If he is the lieutenant, his general often doesn’t really “get it” so the hero is the moral superior officer anyway.  He is always in control. Even when his emotions get the better of him, a male hero is typically channeling that into something awesome. Wolverine might lose his cool, but it’s always getting lost in the direction some kind of important objective anyway. We rarely see our masculine hero break down in weakness for very long.

"My whole life has been building up to this point when I greet you as you exit your pod, sir.
It was a pleasure to watch you sleep."
Often the male hero of a movie or video game is so in command of everything that goes on around him that he becomes almost like a black hole sucking all the attention and motivation for other characters into himself. In video games, where the player is usually taking the role of the hero, this phenomenon can get especially silly. In Halo, for example, you get the feeling sometimes that NPCs are just waiting for Master Chief to arrive and give them a purpose in life – so much of narrative’s universe is centered on the male hero.

Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but almost every male hero follows this general template. These aren’t really bad traits for heroes to have . We want to have a hero that is strong. It’s good to have self-reliance and no have to lean on others all the time, and being in command is just part of the wish-fulfillment escapism that goes hand-in-hand with these kinds of stories. These traits are so engrained into our heroes that the template has become too rigid. We are limiting what we think of as a hero.

The Costs of "Masculinity" 

These truly are heroic traits, but because heroes are so predominantly male we often understand them as specifically masculine traits. We expect men, and even young boys, to be strong, self-reliant, and in command even when the situation does not demand heroics. Men come to expect this of themselves in everyday life, despite the fact these traits are usually either unattainable or unsustainable.

Nobody in real life can be heroic in these ways all of the time. To me, real life heroes and the best fictional heroes share in common that they are ordinary people driven to accomplish extraordinary things under circumstances that demand something exceptional. I believe that we all have that strong, self-reliant, in-control hero within us that can come out when the time comes, but it is impossible to draw on that inner power at all times. It’s definitely not healthy to try.

No Bruce! Don't!
There is a cost to letting these traits define men. Everyone will always experience moments when we are weak – physically, morally, or emotionally. We will always be surrounded by others who are stronger than us in one way or another. A wise person accepts vulnerability and seeks out the help of others. This is not weakness so much as it is being human. On a team at work, on a sports field, at school, or in a game, usually a team that can rely and lean on each other can accomplish more than a group of lone-wolf super stars. The heroic masculine identity construction pushes men to do more with less – usually needlessly.

In the workplace men will try to hide or obscure a lack of knowledge or ability until they find themselves in a situation where they can only be fired. This hurts the employer who promoted the man to a position of incompetence and it hurts the man who could have been just as successful as a lieutenant if he had not believed his identity as a man depended on him being a general.



This masculine identity construction takes its toll on mental health too. Men suffer from depression at the same rate as women, but they are less likely to seek help for it at factor of 2 to 1. This is strongly correlated with heroic concepts of masculinity. The heroic male suffers quietly. He believes he should endure pain on his own because he is expected to be strong. In the real world, however, untreated depression steadily gets worse. Our real-life stoic and heroic men become incapable to help those around them, and many turn to the unheroic coping mechanisms including substance abuse and suicide.

On the one hand, dealing with problematic portrayals of a heroic male identity is undoubtedly preferable to dealing with the subservient support role or completely absent role women have forced upon them constantly. At the end of the day, a man is left struggling to fit into an unrealistic, yet positive, construction of masculine identity, while the female heroic identity still struggles to even be visible. Nevertheless, the problematic nature of masculine identity is another damaging element of the gender identity construction in our games and nerd media.

Working towards cooperative identity and monster slaying robots.
We are making progress as a society, but we still have a long way to go. As cracks and fissures appear in patriarchal formulaic story-telling, however, we are seeing a few interesting challenges to both the stereotypical female and male roles shine through. I started this post after noticing some interesting takes on the masculine identity trope in Pacific Rim and an episode of Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.


Next post or two I’ll be exploring those twists in more detail. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lessons about Winning, Losing, and Claiming Online Gaming for Good (instead of Evil) - Part 1

“I hate the negative talk and we hear a lot more of it when we end his screen time for the day”


Sometimes I talk with my co-worker about his son’s geeky interests. Chris has told me a few times about his 12 year old son’s experience online with games like Minecraft and Team Fortress 2. While Chris is supportive of his son having fun with games, he isn’t a huge fan of the negative culture sometimes found among gamers. The stories that he has told me can chill me, but, sadly they are very familiar. Mixed in with the good people who game online is a vocal collection of individuals who see online games as a chance to eject all social filters and civility towards other people.

A lot of gaming online is competitive, and I have encountered plenty of people who get a little over-invested. A win is seen as license for tearing into an opposing player, and a loss is viewed as permission to tear into teammates.



Often to these players a match that is unlikely to result in a win is not worth playing. Knowing that everyone is bound to lose sometimes, this mentality guarantees that one simply will not have fun a significant portion of the time. This is a big contributing factor to the “negativity” my co-worker refers to. With value only placed on winning, a loss becomes just a thwarted expectation of happiness with no redeeming qualities or lessons of its own. There are even servers dedicated to PvP in World of Warcraft that are populated almost entirely by a single faction because nobody wants to risk losing.

9 of the 10 most faction split servers in WoW are PvP servers. What is the point exactly?

Granted, people like to win. In studies conducted by psychologist Cheryl Olson on the motivations to play video games “to compete and win” (emphasis mine) is a common reason. And why not? Winning makes us happy. One of the limitations of Olson’s study, however, is determining the weight of a loss. Players might seek out gaming to compete and win, but are they denied all happiness by only competing and not winning? Is seeking out competition inextricably linked to seeking out the win?


According to Olson, the young boys surveyed are especially focused on the win and the bragging rights come with it. Indulging in a little swagger after a win is perfectly normal and acceptable. It’s a chance to celebrate with your teammates and enjoy that accomplishment, but can a child understand the smaller victories? The victory of playing well even in defeat? The victory of doing better than last time or at least having a couple of good moments in a match?

Maybe learning to accept those smaller victories takes some time and guidance.

For my own part, online matches against other players have taught me to appreciate the competition more than winning or losing. Online games are a great opportunity for my co-worker’s child to learn lessons about winning and losing graciously, teamwork and strategy, and the art of going down fighting even in the face of impossible odds. Chris knows this but is uncomfortable with his kid’s online experience with good reason. There is a truly vicious segment of the gaming community out there that no parent would wish their child hurt by or to become a part of. The mean attitude encountered online has therefore become a barrier to something that Chris’ son could otherwise learn a lot from.

The “winning-is-everything” attitude is not even the worst behavior gamers endure online. Bullying can be a serious problem online, and it can go far beyond what you might expect in the real world. I’ve seen personal attacks based on racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and sexism fly freely in games. It’s not something you would want your own child engaging in online or - worse - bringing into offline life.



Whenever we talk about these issues, I encourage Chris to try to get involved in whatever his son is playing, so he can be present to provide some guidance to his son through the morass. Okay, so a kid in their early teens might not really want their goofy parents invading their hobbies. Video games are an opportunity for a kid to leave the nest and explore life on their own a little. Nevertheless, parents can still be a part of the same gaming community as their kid, and not be hovering next to their kid while they play. Games are a common text that children share. Parents can share that text with their children too.

A symphony of 16-bit color and sound!
I loved talking to my own father about playing Civilization even though we never actually played together. The fact that my father played the game himself gave me a channel to talk about it if I wanted to. Even if we never co-ruled, we could swap stories about trying to halt those expansionist civilizations whose thirst for cities and tribute could never be sated. If there were an online component to Civilization 1, maybe I would feel better talking to him about it knowing that he had some context for what I was talking about.


Maybe Chris and his son won’t be an unstoppable father-son TF2 team, but I think that having a trusted friend or relative who shares this hobby is a huge help – even for those of us who are past our teenage years. Even if a teenager won’t admit it, I’m sure Chris’ son still looks to his parents for guidance. Maybe the kid is not going to be asking for any gameplay tips, but he’ll probably pick up on how Chris treats other players. If the child is bullied online, Chris will have a context to advise how to deal with it.



I believe the negative culture in online gaming is self-feeding. People rip into each other and get personal because “that’s just the way things are on the Internet.” I refuse to accept this and think it’s time we push back and enable others to do the same. The first step is helping each other be the kind of players we want to play with, and the first step can even start right at home.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Warcraft’s Racism and Sexism Problem – Part 2 (Women of Warcraft 3 - Intro and Tyrande)

I would like to give a shout out to noted author and velociraptor expert Emmett Scout for conversing with me on this topic on Twitter and helping shape some of these thoughts. Emmett is an editor for The Next, a blog that gets deep and brainy with games and all sorts of nerd media.

Before proceeding onto reviewing the manifold sexist and racist missteps of World of Warcraft, I thought it was worth noting four female characters that Blizzard introduced in Warcraft 3 that were written particularly well. Lest people get the impression that I believe Blizzard did nothing right in terms of feminist or racial sensitivity, I should also point out what they did well, right?


Tyrande Whisperwind, Maiev Shadowsong, Sylvanas Windrunner, and Jaina Proudmoore were all introduced as key figures in the Warcraft 3 series. They were all strong female characters that accomplished their goals through the point of an arrow, the keen edge of a glaive, or good leadership and diplomacy. These characters had their own stories outside the context of any man’s story. They were fully realized and heroic – each in a unique and interesting way.  



Despite how well these characters were written, however, Blizzard artists did not always present them visually in a way that followed their empowered characterization. All of them, save Maiev, have occasionally demonstrated a reckless disregard for their midriff’s safety, for example.  Depending on the artist, they are often abundantly endowed in the chest to the point of gravity defying absurdity.

Sylvanas evolves in World of Warcraft from "Suitable but Night Elf" to "There's the Dark Ranger!" to "I'm only cold on my head, shoulders, and legs. My torso strangely feels just fine."

Apparently this is the only the context in which many players and artists understand female power. “Sure, they can murder you, move like the wind, spray knives in every direction, and control the elements, but will they still be arousing and able to nurse many babies?” seems to be the pressing question in some people minds.

Nevertheless, despite the occasional mismatched art, I have to give credit where credit is deserved. Here they are in detail one by one, starting with…

Tyrande Whisperwind:



We are first introduced to Tyrande at the start of the last chapter of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. She leads an army of night elf fighters, all of whom are women. The night elf men are asleep at this point, because apparently druidism (which only men practice at this point) is really exhausting. Tyrande overlooks her beloved Ashenvale Forest and sees it threatened by newcomers – orcs and humans.

"Just checking out my dominion from a cliff like a boss, Shandris."


We saw the night elf women previously in Warcraft 3 during the orcish campaign when they began skirmishing with the orcs harvesting lumber. The orcs in response have murdered the night elf demi-god Cenarius. Diplomatic relations are not great among the different mortal species at this point.

Imagine how many worker units and demi-gods would still be alive, if anyone in Warcraft just tried *talking* to each other before starting a fight?

Tyrande, however, recognizes the greater oncoming threat of the undead and their demon overlords. These Burning Legion guys are old news to the night elves... 10,000 years old old news. Tyrande is brave, but she is also prudent. Unlike a stereotypical video game hero character might, Tyrande does not dive face first into conflict. Tyrande exhibits real leadership and seeks out support. This is clearly out of wisdom rather than weakness.

Tyrande and her army awaken the male druids. This includes Malfurion, Tyrande’s lover.

Malfurion and Tyrande exhibit a pretty healthy and believable relationship for characters in a video game. They are both independent types, but they are genuinely caring towards each other even if they do not agree 100% of the time.


For example, they have a disagreement about freeing Malfurion’s brother, Illidan. This is a disagreement with possibly cosmic implications.


Illidan sought out demonic power for himself is the problem… Malfurion thinks freeing Illidan invites more trouble than help. Tyrande thinks that Illidan is precisely the kind of trouble the demons need to halt their advance. Malfurion considers this reckless and even tries to “forbid” Tyrande from freeing Illdian.


Tyrande effectively tells Malfurion to get lost, and does what she thinks is best. After Tyrande has freed Illidan, however, she and Malfurion are still affectionate with each other - even if they are cross. Furthermore, despite their flowery language, neither Tyrande nor Malfurion really strike me as being creepily enthralled by each other. Tyrande’s story is not eclipsed by her love interest’s. Instead, Tyrande’s story is her own, and sometimes is shared with Malfurion’s. It's a pretty good example of how two people in a relationship should interact.


Whether Blizzard did this consciously or not, the power couple’s relationship offers some lessons often lost to real life guys (especially nerds) when contrasted with the relationship Tyrande has with Illidan. Illidan is obsessed with Tyrande, and claims to fight only because she wishes it. Tyrande’s cold polite rebuttal to Illdian is a beautiful crushing of Illidan’s all too familiar “But I really really like you and am willing to do all this stuff” case for romance.

"I worship you like a goddess. That means you HAVE to love me back, right?"
Sorry Illidan. No amount of infatuation or labor can obligate Tyrande to love you. Thanks, but no means no… now go fight a demonic army.

That's the essence of Tyrande in Warcraft 3. She's tough and focused on her job. She is a hero who fights for the forest and her fellow night elves. The Blizzard team wrote her as an exemplary leader and warrior by any measures regardless of gender. She knows when to use diplomacy and when to be forceful. Despite her art being sometimes oriented through the male gaze, her writing, for the most part, is well done. She comes out of Warcraft 3 as a true hero that people want to be like rather than simply be with.

Tyrande's only big fault in Warcraft 3 was her casual beating of Illidan's jailers. I was never quite clear how Maiev evaded Tyrande's notice, but Illidan's prison warden does not give up on her job that easily...

Next installment: Maiev Shadowsong.

Ready and equipped for the job.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Unconscionable Carving of Beverly Katz

A little over a week ago an episode of Hannibal aired that really threw the series off its rails for me. I still enjoy the show and its antics, but the show has done little so far to undo the harm it has done in Episodes 4 and 5 of the 2nd Season.


I am writing specifically about the entirely needless and narratively clumsy elimination of Beverly Katz, the show’s only Asian principle character, and one of a diminishing number of women in the show.


  

In fact, if you look at the female principles we have seen so far in the show, all but Alana Bloom have been murdered or are slated to be murdered (if they follow the novels Freddie will be killed.) To be fair, a great many people have gotten murdered throughout the show, and maybe Freddie will get to live in the TV series. Ms. Lara Jean Chorostecki, after all, has done brilliant job making the character both sleezy and powerful at the same time. The male Freddies that have gone before her were kind of oafish characters, while Ms. Chorostecki’s characterization is alarmingly adept, albeit still a lower tier tabloid journalist.



Nevertheless, we’ve had two recurring principle characters die for what seems to be the exact same purpose: Man Pain.



The trope is sometimes called “Fridging.” A female character dies, usually in a horrific manner (but stuffed into a refrigerator is what the trope is named for), in order to provide motivation, Man Pain, for the male protagonist to soldier on and take revenge or win the day. It’s an old trope in a lot of movies, comics, TV shows… any media really.



Murron in Braveheart?  Good example. That’s William’s wife, by the way… you don’t recall her name, but you recall William being pushed by her death though, right? Exactly.



I recently went to Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, and there panelist Cora Walker mentioned Beverly Katz as an example of “Fridging.” It didn’t even hit me until then: In Beverly’s case it was quite literally *fridging.* She is killed, fridged, and put on horrific display to motivate Will Graham and Jack Crawford.

It should be pointed out that in these Fridging Scenarios the woman’s death usually had nothing to do with her personal narrative, but everything to do with the man’s. Murron in Braveheart, going back to our archetypal example, has no narrative outside her connection to William Wallance. Her death is inconsequential to her arc, but crucial to his.



Beverly’s death is even worse in some ways because she was a well-developed character on the show and she had an arc to work with. It’s always offensive when the woman or person of color has no development and serves exclusively to die in service of telling the white male protagonist’s story. There’s something especially offensive about building up a character that *could* have her own arc, but then has that thrown aside in service of getting the audience attention back to “real protagonists.”


A lot of viewers really identified with Beverly Katz. She was smart, scientific, proficient with firearms, comfortable with incredibly creepy murder scenes, strong instinct, and willing to take chances. She was an interesting, well-rounded, and realistic character. Do you know how difficult it is to find non-ninja Asian women on TV? It’s really tough. You know how easy it is to find women, Asian and otherwise, who are just normal people capable of doing extraordinary things in the real world? Very easy. Why can’t art just reflect reality?  


That’s, after all, the essence of beloved relatable characters. In a TV show or movie or game, we usually  want to see someone like us or the people we know, who, through some narratively justified events, is in a place to do something amazing. Beverly Katz was accomplishing exactly that. She was a well written character that made the world of Hannibal feel more real because we don’t only see men accomplishing amazing things every day. With her gone, the audience is only stuck with an increasingly simple Alana Bloom as the only female principle character in the show. Alana is literally used as a sex object in Episode 6.




There was no narratively justifiable reason for Katz to die. Abigail Hobbs had already died earlier in the show to provide exactly the Man Pain that they are now trying to give Will Graham through Katz. At least when Abigail died it was believable and felt like it fit in with Abigail's own arc as a character. She played a dangerous game Hannibal. She brokered some deals with the devil and ended up over her head. (Faustible!) Moreover, she had a relationship with Will Graham that was not wholly appropriate. Will was warned about his paternal feelings towards Abigail and that made her death even more dreadful. Will had a tragic flaw of caring for a person whom he should have kept some professional distance from and it was exploited to demonstrate a point – this is how good drama is to be written.



Beverly Katz, however, made uncharacteristically stupid decisions that lead up to her death. Why would she ruin all the evidence against Hannibal by searching his house without a warrant? Why would she leave no trace of what she was following up on or consulting her colleagues? If she were willing to share what she suspected with Jack Crawford, why not leave him a note or write a report to alert him of what she felt needed investigating? Why did this previously quite capable FBI agent suddenly become like a drugged do-do slowly wandering into her doom?

"No, wait! This is all wrong! My character would never be this dumb... there's a man behind this, I know it!"



Oh that’s right… it happened just so we are doubly sure that this show is all about him. Doesn’t matter where her narrative was going, or what her character growth was heading. Let’s break narrative and all we know about this character just to keep the male protagonist reaching for the stars.



What really saddening is how this contrasts to the film that made the Hanniverse a household name. Silence of the Lambs on the surface is a story about the capture and escape of two different very creepy serial killers, but, more deeply, the movie is mostly about Clarice moving her way through a man's world and coming out a victorious woman. 



In comparison, the trajectory the Hannibal TV series is taking seems to bear the subtext of the feminine being literally killed and eaten for daring to wander into the male domain. The murdered characters we've spent much of any time with so far are Beverly, Abigail, Georgia Madchen, Marissa Schurr, Dr. Sutcliffe and Franklyn Froidveaux. With the exception of Dr. Sutcliffe and Franklyn, all of these characters were female, and Franklyn's character was such that one might as well lump him in as being a characterization of the feminine.

Most disappointing. I hope that this was just a hiccup in the show and that we can steer more towards competent female character in the series rather than very worn out and old tropes, but I'm not holding my breath. Maybe though? Who knows with Hannibal! An earless Abigail may be fighting her way to freedom right now.
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