All Dressed Up And Nothing To Do?

This article was making the rounds for a while on Facebook: We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.  Several people I respect shared it, so I read it, and it seemed like a reasonable critique of contemporary film-making and the subtle evolution of sexism.  It’s probably worth reading, if you haven’t already, before going on.

In many respects, I took the argument at face value.  I believe that sexism is still prevalent in mainstream media; I believe that as we correct some of the more explicit and overt forms of discrimination (whether gender, race, sexual orientation, or other) that cultural force mutates, changing shape but still maintaining that energy; I get that Trinity is cool and strong and interesting in some ways, but then morphs into a supporting, traditional girlfriend.  The concept that strong, female characters still get pushed into the background behind the male protagonists rings true to me at a gut level.

The problem is, I actually saw How To Train Your Dragon 2 and The Lego Movie this weekend, and having done that, this critique seems misplaced.  It may be true in general, or in some cases, but the ways this article characterizes those movies is heavily distorted, consciously or unconsciously.  If you haven’t seen those movies, thar be spoilers below.

Starting with the character of Valka, to claim that the movie includes her as a token strong, female character is to miss the entire arc of the story.  Hiccup is missing at the beginning of the movie because he’s searching for something, his own identity and place in the world; at the end of the movie, he has arrived at both, as the chief and the standard-bearer for peace and cooperation.  What Valka represents, in this figure, is not just half of who he is; it’s the dominant half.  Yes, the competition of alpha-male supremacy is still at the heart of the film, but instead of the resolution being a chest-thumping triumph of masculine energy, what Hiccup achieves in the end is a synthesis of the masculine and the feminine – traditional leadership, true, but leadership that not only embraces  traditionally feminine values but elevates them above the traditionally masculine ones.  The conflict between war-mongering masculinity and empathic relationship-building is decisively won by the latter.

Valka is the pivotal figure in this journey.  The film signals in various ways that it is her influence that leads to Hiccup’s ability to bond with his dragon – a relationship of companionship rather than utility.  Rather than her knowledge of dragons being incidental to the battle, she is the one who unlocks Toothless’ ability to maneuver, and possibly his emergence as a higher version of himself (if Toothless is even a he, something I’m not sure is ever established), saving Hiccup, the battle, and the day.  When she was married, she did not feel bound to that institution, just as she rebelled against the common knowledge of the islanders, and when her husband appears, she does not automatically fall back into the role of wife.  Even once they are reconciled, Stoick turns to her for the deciding moment before engaging in battle.  She is neither useless nor peripheral, and reading her that way requires erasing both the specific events of the film and its larger treatment of traditional gender identity.

Granted, Hiccup is still the hero.  While Astrid breaks various gender conventions on her own, she is still secondary to him, able to lead the group only in his absence.  Valka does not become chief.  There are still plenty of conventional structures and positions used throughout the film, but the dominant theme of the film is about a shift from an older, traditional generation of leadership as masculine power to a new, younger generation of enlightened synthesis of the masculine and the feminine, with the feminine value system being the dominant one.  It’s not Andrea Dworkin, but it’s far from the “rote” depictions that Robinson accuses the film of using.

Similarly, Wildstyle/Lucy in The Lego Movie plays a much more significant role than Robinson gives her credit for.  “Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly, and to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner.”  When Emmet sacrifices himself by jumping out of the think tank, Wildstyle takes control of the entire group of master-builders, organizing them around a plan of her own devising; then, she does the same for the population in general, seizing control of the means of production of media to put out a counter-message of individuality and resistance to top-down, hierarchical social control.  While one could argue that the adherence to serial monogamy is repressive at some level, Lucy breaking up with Batman before starting an official relationship with Emmet is hardly “turn[ing] to her current boyfriend for permission to dump him“.  She neither needs nor asks for permission.  She’s telling Batman how it’s going to be; he interrupts in order to protect his own, fragile ego.  Reading this moment as anything less than Wildstyle determining her own fate and destiny rewrites the event.

Again, while The Lego Movie is traditional in its heteronormativity, it disrupts the notion of heroism as masculinity in any number of ways.  The prophecy is made up; Emmet is no more destined to become the king because of his privileged male-ness than any other character is; instead, the film repeatedly emphasizes that everyone is the Special.  The feminine characters are just as capable of kicking butt as their masculine counterparts, if not more so; in fact, when Unikitty stops repressing her own feelings and embraces them, she kicks all kinds of butt, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to map that repression into cultural expectations of girls and women to be polite, conventional, etc.  And just as HTTYD2 represents a generational shift in gendered values around power and identity, The Lego Movie ultimately shows the dissolving of an older (white, male) model of power and opening up to a more diverse one.

While these movies may well trigger concerns about gender identity and the way it’s being presented in popular media (especially to children), and that experience of anxiety around these films may be entirely justifiable, to characterize these particular texts as lacking in meaningful roles for their strong, female characters requires a significant distortion of the texts themselves.  Yes, these are both movies about masculine heroes – and there are any number of bases to criticize Hollywood for its lack of opportunity and range for feminine leads – but they also both embrace diversity, self-definition, and the importance of historically feminine values.  Both of these movies are celebrating the opportunity to leave behind archaic, hierarchical power systems and doing so with characters that disrupt traditional gender identity in various ways, not just feminine characters embracing masculine roles and values, but the reverse as well.

We still have a long way to go, but to criticize these movies for not being progressive enough requires erasing the progress that has been made, and I fail to see how that helps move us forward.  If you have greater insight than I do, feel free to educate me in the comments.

 

Difficult Identities

The #1reasontobe panel from GDC2014 is now online for free at the GDC Vault site.  I highly recommend it.  You can go watch it; this will still be here when you get back.  All of the speakers give great talks, telling powerful, compelling stories.  

Deirdra Kiai, the final speaker, gives a particularly personal and challenging narrative of falling between/outside the binaries of gender. They (Kiai prefers the use of the non-gendered third-person pronoun, which I will attempt to respect) outline a catch 22 of being both not masculine enough to be an insider of the “bro” culture of gamers while also being not feminine enough to be an object for that culture, resulting in a no-person’s-land in which having an identity position at all is challenging.  As they say, repeatedly, “Making games is easy.  Belonging is hard.”  Of course, we game developers know that making games is not easy; the opposition highlights how truly difficult belonging can be.  It’s worth watching the talk; I can only give you a pale shadow of what Kiai presented.

Back in the early 90’s, before the world wide web was something that everyone had access to, when you had to use text-based browsers to access even the most advanced sites, the early adopters of the internet used a variety of other formats to connect with each other.  I (and many others) got caught up in IRC (internet relay chat), a protocol that allowed one to venture forth in real-time into various chat rooms and interact with other people.  Chat rooms seem quaint now, but 20 years ago, this was groundbreaking technology.

As with most online communities, it was necessary to create a handle, an identity that would be announced every time you “spoke” in a room, a marker by which people would come to know you as you.  Fascinated by the textuality of the medium, I took the handle “ascii”.  After all, we were all just text on screens, so why not embrace that?  As a corollary, it seemed appropriate that as a purely textual being, gender need not apply.  In English, at least, language does not need to be explicitly gendered, and a virtual environment where everyone interacts through text should not require gender to function.  In general, this worked.  Most of the interactions online didn’t require any kind of gender information

However, strange things would happen when someone asked for a/s/l (age, sex, location), which was also fairly common on IRC in those days.  In most cases, I could simply ignore these requests and things would proceed along normally.  Sometimes, though, people would become insistent.  When I explicitly refused to identify as having a discrete gender, it often escalated into a type of crisis.  Participants would cajole me to go along with the request; some would become quite angry and express their anger as forcefully as they could in text; occasionally, I was kicked out of rooms and even banned.  In a purely virtual world, where every identity was composed of a series of artificial, textual events, the possibility that someone might occupy an indeterminate gender space was so disruptive that I was ejected, like Kristeva’s abject.

At the time, I chalked this up to a problem with human psychology.  Gender identification is a high-priority item in human relations.  When you walk down the street, or sit in a mall food court, or go anywhere where there are lots of people, one of the first things you do with every passing person is to identify their gender.  There are probably very good reasons for this; it could be that since so much of human interaction is coded around gender norms, that you need to identify someone’s gender in order to not violate social codes in interacting with them; there may be an evolutionary advantage in identifying gender early (is this a possible mate?  Is this a possible threat?) as there seems to be in identifying faces (is this person a known or unknown quantity?  Friend or foe?).  I didn’t (and still don’t) know exactly why this is so important, but it seems pretty indisputable that it is very important.  By refusing to have an identifiable gender, I was causing enough emotional distress to people that they felt they had to either make me stop or get rid of me entirely.

Around the same time, I read an incredibly brilliant essay by Judith Butler called Imitation and Gender Insubordination.  Again, if you want the whole deal, go and read it; it’s a challenging piece, but revolutionary.  I’m not going to do it justice here, but I will be using Butler’s analysis (or rather, my own limited interpretation of Butler’s argument) to try and shed light on the dynamics described above.  To crudely over-simplify what is a very nuanced, discursively sophisticated piece, Butler argues that the subject “I” who acts in the world may not precede the action, but rather be formed by it.  Identity may be retroactively generated by performance.  This inversion of priority does not erase or devalue the subject, but it does make it a less stable position.

At some level, I think I was prepared to accept this model because of my own experiences.  When I was 12, I went to live in Malaysia for a few months with my mom and step-dad.  As one might expect, it was an eye-opening experience, on multiple levels, not all of which are relevant to this discussion.  One of the key pieces, though, was that identity is heavily about context.  Whereas I was a fairly normal, albeit quirky, kid in my own experience, in Malaysia, with my towheaded blonde hair and my white skin, I stood out from the crowd everywhere there was one.  Complete strangers on the street would touch my hair, because it was considered good luck.  I had gone from normative to alien in one long plane flight.

Just as importantly, at an impressionable age, I was transplanted out of my existing social context into a completely different one.  At the school I went to in Malaysia, no one knew who I was.  The only way for them to figure that out was to observe me being me.  And “me” in this context was a loose concept.  Whatever my performance of myself, that is what people came to know, and there was a lot of latitude there.  This was reinforced when I came back to the states and went to live with my dad, enrolling in yet another new school.  Having already jogged loose a bit of my previous identity, I was once again able to re-invent myself, because there was no prior knowledge in this new context.  As I went to middle school, and then high school, and then college, I re-invented myself repeatedly, capitalizing on previous successes and learning from previous failures, so that I was pretty comfortable with my artificial self by the time I hit grad school.

Artificial, in this context, does not mean inauthentic.  Rather, if we accept Butler’s structure of performance generating identity, there is no position more authentic than to have consciously and artificially created a coherent set of performances that establish an identity (not that authenticity is a value worth elevating; one could take a cue from Nietzsche here and argue that there is no position less authentic than to have consciously and artificially created an identity).  That is also what I did on IRC; it is also, I would argue, part of what Kiai is doing in preferring the third-person, non-gendered pronouns.  They may have a different perspective, though; I do not speak for them.

All of which is fine and good, but what about the “bro” culture, with its misogyny, homophobia, and intolerance?  Why does it generate so consistently this violence (emotional, textual, verbal, and, yes, sometimes physical) against its others?  What is gained by constantly rejecting the feminine, the homosexual (or bisexual, or transsexual), the Other?

Going back to Butler, these performances, this repeated (almost ritualized) opposition is a hysterical attempt to solidify a straight, male identity that is constantly under threat of becoming something else.  By rejecting the Other, one affirms one’s own position as the self.  This creates the soothing image of a stable, grounded identity, and the associated violence both makes this more emphatic as well as signaling how truly disturbing this instability is on a psychic level.  People insist on stable gender categories, even in virtual spaces, precisely because the digital, virtualized space is calling into question, more and more every day, the stability of the identity practices that have traditionally supported that notion of the self.

The experience of leaving behind a historical social context and being free to (or being forced to, depending on one’s perspective) re-institute a model of the self took me going halfway around the world in the 1980’s.  In the 1990’s, it was starting to be available through your computer, if you had the privileged resources necessary to access it, but now in the 2010’s, it is ubiquitous.  As our communities become more virtualized, as our relationships become more mediated through online interactions, that sense of self becomes less and less stable.  We should not be surprised that some of the most strident notes in this conversation come from the young (already challenged in their identity functions by growth, awkwardness, and lack of control) and the male (masculinity is dead, and what are all of these misogynistic, homophobic outbursts if not its tomb and sepulchre).

In other words, as we (game developers) create more and more opportunities for players to experience being a different self, to perform an identity that is not connected to their immediate physical context, we are both undermining the stability of identity (and should expect this to generate crisis and resistance) and liberating the subject from its historical shackles (only to introduce new shackles, of course).  Regardless of whether that dislocation is seemingly reinforcing cultural norms or explicitly destabilizing them, by giving players the experience of re-formulating themselves, of finding the “I” through its performance, we are undermining the conceptual stability of all kinds of identity positions.

The jerks will still have to be policed, to be sure.  In many ways, this is going to be a generational shift, not a sea-change, and in the meantime, we still need to work to keep the peace, to create safe spaces for a broad range of identity performances.  But, just as the generation of kids who grew up with gay characters on sitcoms are now overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing gay marriage (an astonishing shift, considering how challenging it was to be out in the 1970’s), so today’s kids who are growing up in a world of digitally-mediated, artificial social spaces will one day have a much more diverse and tolerant set of expectations around identity than what is the norm today.  It is coming.

So, yes, belonging is hard.  But it is getting easier.  And games are helping.