It’s been quite a while since I updated here. I’ve been exceedingly busy working on a research project in my sociology department and with some of my other commitments as well as a few personal problems I had to overcome. But, I’m back, and I thought that in the wake of Anita Sarkeesian’s struggle with a cavalcade of trolls over her proposed webseries it’s worth digging up a recent piece of writing I submitted as a final paper in one of my classes (Gender and Geography). This paper sought to chart out the geographic dimensions of cyberspace, particularly gamer subculture, through the lens of “the space of exception”.
I’ve excerpted a part of the paper that I think is quite relevant to what had just transpired with Feminist Frequency. In a section entitled “It’s Just a Game” I describe how the “unreal” nature often imputed to gaming space gives licence to abuse that would be intolerable outside of it. This “unreality,” I argue, is on the flip-side of a pleasurable “reality” that also manifests in gaming culture. It feels like the real world, and yet isn’t; because of this, many gamers feel able to express themselves in a deeply violent and prejudicial way. It feels like reality, and thus being a bigot provides all the perverse pleasure that asserting dominance over another person often provides, but the “unreal”/”fake” virtuality of the space provides moral and ideological cover for this behaviour. What follows is my attempt to draw together various sociological, geographic, and philosophical ideas to provide a thumbnail sketch of how all that works.
Gaming cyberspace provides a virtual refuge for a certain kind of masculinity, and one that is consciously constructed in defensive opposition to a rapidly changing world. Sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that for modern young heterosexual men “the fantasy world of media is both an escape from reality and an escape to reality,” capturing the dualism that defines a space of exception. He goes on to point out that this “reality” is one that “many of these guys secretly would like to inhabit” and that video games “provide a way for guys to feel empowered,” (Kimmel 2008: 150). His analysis of men’s relationship to virtual space concludes that these men feel “it’s nice to turn back the clock and return to a time when men ruled—and no one questioned it” (156).
It is hardly surprising that some men wish to perceive this as a “virtual men’s locker room” threatened by the presence of women. It is often constructed as a refuge for hegemonic masculinity, particularly as expressed through technological mastery. Connell identifies two hegemonic masculinities that she argues have diverged and are sometimes in tension with one another: dominance-based masculinity, and expertise-based masculinity (Connell 2000: 194-195). It can be theorised that gaming in cyberspace folds these two back together with a violent world of hierarchical rankings, which allows for the virtual embodiment of conquistador-style masculinity through the mastery of technology, thus reuniting two patriarchal symbolic universes. The conflict between these two masculinities may play out more widely in the physical world, but in the space of exception furnished by cyberspace they combine to form a unique but also familiar expression of gender
But it is here that we come to a very critical distinction between the space of exception constituted by, say, the [internment or prison] camp, and the space of exception the virtual world represents. The marked difference between “exception” and “normal” is important for all such spaces, but only in the virtual world is there an equally clear, aggressively policed, distinction between “real” and “unreal” that constitutes both cyberspace and its social practises. This is a nontrivial distinction, but also a connection between the two– cyberspace and social practise therein. The purported exceptionality of time and place surrounding the internet as a whole gives licence to the abuses within, and the ostensible unreality of gaming, more specifically, licences abuse within its boundaries.
This article is due to be published on Border House this coming Tuesday. In case its raging nerdular nerdence doesn’t give it away, it’s about video games specifically. Enjoy!
One of the most irksome things I hear when I make arguments for ‘good/positive portrayals’ of characters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds is that my interlocutors immediately assume I’m calling for portrayals of moral paragons. They seem to think I’m saying “if you write a gay male character, he must be the most righteous dude ever.”
In a word, no. That’s what today’s article is about, particularly with regards to women characters.
The reality of the situation is that the portrayal of women as pure, stainless alabaster icons of virtue is a huge problem that arises from cultural stereotypes of women. The notion that women are inherently more virtuous, kinder, and so on is part of the limiting and fetishising pedestalisation that serves to fence us off from being thought of as persons. Human beings are flawed characters with failings and weaknesses; angels are not.
When I call for ‘good portrayals’ I do not mean that all women should be virtuous. On the contrary, I actually want to see more women as villains, or as morally grey/dubious characters. The simple reason for this is that such figures can be fascinating, merit much discussion, and are fully human. Think of your own interests in fiction: what characters do you love to hate? Who is your favourite villain? What character could keep you up for hours at night as you discuss their philosophy and the writing behind them? Which characters have you debating their morality: good, evil, anti-hero? We all have answers to these questions, and that alone tells us why ‘good portrayals’ include morally flawed/villainous characters by necessity.
My objection to femme fatale villains is not that they are villains, but that women’s agency is always reduced to sexuality in such portrayals. Consider the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. The women are defined by rampant, unchained sexuality that is used to literally dominate men. There’s nothing interesting in this, save as a rather specific form of pornography perhaps. Moral weakness, failure, compromise, and villainy are about much more complicated motivations than luring men to their dooms with T&A.
My favourite character of all time is a woman who is widely considered a villain: Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. My love letter about this character can be found here, but for the purposes of this article the main points to raise about are these: her character is defined by a philosophy, she is not reduced to sex, she is an agent whose motivations are complicated, her morality shades into a good deal of grey.
It’s hard to peg Kreia as pure evil. She isn’t. Her overarching, long-term goal is ultimately a positive one: she wants to eliminate the new Sith threat as much as you do (if you’re a light-side character), but for her the ends justify the means. Throughout the story you’re treated to many examples of Kreia’s richly self-justified taint manifesting itself in odious actions that service the greater good she has in mind. She is utterly driven by hard-won truths in a life that has been struck by torture, betrayal, and the harshest kind of learning. It produces a figure who is conscious of how far she has fallen, but will use her last gasps of energy to train someone who “may yet be saved.”
If you are a moral idealist, as I try to be, her incredibly well-written dialogue will force you to account in detail for why you believe what you believe. You may disagree strongly with what Kreia does, but you cannot deny she has her reasons—reasons she’ll talk about at length which define her character.
This is far more interesting than what we usually get.
Another example of such a character comes to us in the form of Dragon Age 2’s Knight Commander Meredith. She is horribly undermined by an ending that, in my view, reflects lazy writing and was perhaps the game’s worst moment, but you are otherwise shown an equally morally compromised woman who struggles mightily to do what she feels is right. Machiavellian evil is fascinating because it most closely imitates the evil we see in the real world. Most people are not Snidely Whiplash-esque moustache twirling sociopaths who do evil because it’s funny to them. Evil manifests itself in our world mainly in the form of people who are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing. Morality is rather tricky like that.
Knight-Commander Meredith is one such person. She is introduced to you quite forthrightly, her sword running through a powerful Mage on the verge of killing you. But she quickly evolves into an adversarial force. Meredith is a holy Templar commander driven by her desire to ensure that the Circle Mages under her command in Kirkwall are kept under control and do not become blood mages or abominations. With this in mind, she justifies increasingly onerous restrictions on their freedom. A literal red scare takes hold of her city as she sees the dreaded “blood mages” around every corner, purges becoming a regular feature of life in the city of Kirkwall. But through it all it’s impossible to walk away feeling Meredith has not thought this through. She commits moral wrongs in the name of moral rectitude; her convictions are deeply held and premised on fear of Mages with freedom causing widespread destruction. Meredith has considered all the arguments against her ideology. She is, you learn, painfully aware of the hurt she causes but believes strongly that she is resolutely holding back the tide of a greater evil.
To challenge her is to only compel her to stand her ground, and in a stentorian voice that feels like living scripture, she enjoins you to give her a better solution to this Gordian knot of a crisis between Templars and Mages. If you cannot—and indeed your character cannot—“then do not brand me a tyrant!” she thunders.
This is how you write a villain, and this is how you portray a woman as a human.
The most compelling characters make you think, and sometimes the most intriguing villains are those who are not outright evil, but who are morally compromised. Good people corrupted by the difficulties they confront, who convince themselves that the ends they envision are worth wicked means.
Other examples include Mother Petrice from Dragon Age 2, a quietly zealous manipulator who, again, is committed to doing what she sees as right. In a beautiful moral contest, Grand Cleric Elthina—her superior— can be shown chastising her for her radicalism, telling her “Eternity is long enough that we do not need to rush to meet it.” Elthina’s moderation contrasts with Petrice’s blossoming zeal. The struggle here is not one of cattiness, nor does it revolve around a man, but around a profound theological rift that each woman has her own struggles with.
Moral complexity is wonderful, but you can also write complicated, interesting out-and-out evil. The Old Republic has a woman villain who, in an MMO with an enormous cast, manages to stand out: Lord Zash. While her physical beauty is occasionally remarked upon, what drives the story of the Sith Inquisitor class are Lord Zash’s manipulations and a carefully planned game of chess that testifies to a truly devious and thoughtful mind. A scholarly genius and an intelligent (rather than brash, impulsive, and childish) Sith Lord, she plays a long game leaving you to wonder if you’ll be ensnared next. Her evil is not the showy, infantile evil of your usual hyper-macho scarred Sith Lord (with the way some talk, it’s not hard to imagine some go out of their way to kick puppies and steal candy from babies). It is, instead, the evil of careful, strategic planning born of a true intellect. Each strike is the solution of an equation, a carefully calculated blow rather than an impulsive iota of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence.
Speaking of such, I’m making a note here to say that GLaDOS was a triumph (if ever there was one).
There are many ways to write such characters, of course, but careful attention given to motivation ensures that a character’s humanity—rather than a fetishised gender/race/sexuality—is what defines them as a narrative figure. Kreia is motivated by a drive to stop the Sith from using an ancient evil to consume all life in the galaxy, and by a long nursed hatred of the Force itself, as well as a desire for her as a teacher to have a successful student. Knight-Commander Meredith sees herself as the woman who must make painful choices to ensure peace and order in Kirkwall, and to stop Mages from becoming abominations that threaten the lives of all. In the name of all the above, they will commit to doing repulsive things.
At no point do we find ourselves harping on their looks, their sexuality, any femininity they may possess, or any other fetishised quality. Neither is turned into a man-hating caricature. And neither is a fundamentally morally righteous person; instead, they are human beings whose profound flaws are a part of their characters. What constitutes their “immorality” is also, crucially, not at all related to their sexualities.
Consider my title here: “Immoral Women.” Even now it conjures images of promiscuous, ‘loose’, or otherwise proudly sexual women, which is a testament to the suffocating and dehumanisingly limited framework with which women are saddled. I want that notion of immorality to be expanded to be something more fully human.
Speaking of fuller humanity there is another note that must be made, one of great importance when it comes to conceptualising “women”– it is a reminder that the category “woman” includes women of colour. I adore all of these characters, and am always grateful I have all these examples of great morally compromised women to choose from… and yet also dismayed that they all are, or appear white. Everything I’ve said hitherto applies just as much if not more to the lack of morally compromised, strong women of colour in games. Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is not a villain but as a rogue/pirate/renegade, definitely skirts the outer limits of ethics– and her struggles therewith define her character well. But it’s hard to think of many other women of colour with Kreia-level thought invested in their characters, regardless of whether they’re heroes, villains, or anything in between.
This brings us back to the beginning: the role of moral diversity in character portrayals and my sincere desire to see more women (all-inclusive) as villains and compromised figures. Perhaps part of the communication problem I have is that I use the word “good” when I say “good portrayals,” which leads people to think of it as a moral proposition. What I really mean is “well-written.” This includes the full spectrum of morality, it includes amorality, it includes immorality, and everything in between and beyond. Humans are flawed, and humans are capable of that full range of emotion, motivation, and morality.
No human is a true moral paragon of perfect righteousness. This is not a pessimistic statement about human nature, far from it. It is merely recognition that many people have intricate characters to some degree, and that because women are human, we can commit great wrongs as well as do good. What influences our sense of ethics is a complicated melange that no Madonna/Whore dichotomy can ever hope to capture.
The key to getting past stereotypes is recognising this.
Political questions- those nagging spectres both august and utterly debauched- linger and haunt if you take up the charge to be a citizen. Not just a citizen of a given country in some formalistic, legal sense, but a citizen in the sense of being a self-conscious member of a society (preferably without borders) with a sense of obligation to others. The tests of this political citizenship are always dictated to you by those bedevilling questions.
One question that I’ve run from, that I have leapt breathlessly through intellectual halls of mirrors to avoid is this one that I will now stare in its smiling face:
Am I Breanna Manning?
Global Comment editor, theologian, and trans activist Emily Manuel recently spoke to the media silence and leftist silence around the fact that “Bradley Manning” may very well be Breanna, a trans woman that the US Government arrested before she had a chance to transition and claim her identity more publicly.
Silence is a sinful little thing.
Its threadbare cloak promises protection and even seems to provide precious warmth against the ill winds of oppression. We hope that by keeping our heads down, staying mum, and conscientiously parroting the conventional wisdom of our age that we will secure that most precious commodity of transgender life: peace. I use “we” very forcibly here, this is an article in which I fully implicate myself for the silence I describe here. I cannot plead ignorance, like many in this community I knew about the leaked IM conversation between Manning and Adrian Lamo that has since become the ur text of Manning’s transgender identity in its public incarnation. I knew and said nothing.
Why did I do it? The answer, as I calculated with a coldness that frightened even myself, lies in the fact that if Manning becomes publicly understood as a trans woman, she will be the most famous trans woman in a generation. Perhaps ever. Outshining even the objectified stars of Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards, or Jan Morris. But her fame will be for having been branded “T” for Traitor, and in a militarised nation like the United States that is not a scarlet letter one wears lightly. When combined with the oppressive weight of how stereotypes work at their most depressingly basic level (“If one’s like that, they’re all like that!”) there is no way the Manning case ends well for trans women.
Ms. Manuel is right that it is not “bloody likely” that the left will come riding to our rescue, gallant knights in trendily ironic armour ready to stand at our sides. We will be, in all probability, sold out.
At the vicious intersection of ableism and cissexism, we as trans people find ourselves under constant suspicion that we are “crazy”—that our genders are a mark of “madness” and uncivilisation. In an ableist society, this is to be marked for death. The transphobia merely juices it against us in particular, as the class of trans persons. We sit now on the precipice of this subtle, pervasive hatred exploding orgiastically on cable news.
And we are woefully unable to fend off such an assault, particularly if the strike is made through the vector of Breanna Manning, the “Traitor” and the one who “made America vulnerable to terrorists” or somesuch. Lies, of course, but who will defend a trans woman accused of these highest of crimes in the American state?
In the end, we have to.
The risk to us is tremendous. The silence we share on this issue seems protective. Maybe if we’re lucky, we seem to think, we can get through this trial without it becoming a public issue, Manning gets locked up for life, this goes away, and we’ve dodged a battleship-grade munitions projectile.
It is a temptation. But I would not trust to this hope, any more than I would trust to the hope of our hipster knights saving us.
Emily Manuel’s article was a castigation to the cisgender majority on the left who might be peevish at best about accepting a trans woman as their hero who stuck it to the Man.
But there is the lingering question of that great “we” I mentioned at the start of this piece. We trans women. Will we accept Breanna Manning as a hero? Will we accept her at all? Or will we disown her in the hopes that this blood sacrifice will appease the lords of patriarchy for another while?
This does seem, after all, a relatively hopeless fight. We’d be up against cissexism channelled through that realm where democracy as discourse dies a terrible death: cable news. We’d be up against Fox News, the New York Post, the Big Three, and MSNBC all taking potshots. Can you see it now? A “balanced” panel of experts filling rolling news airtime by debating whether or not we are human beings; a Sean Hannity “documentary” about transgender deception; J. Michael Bailey being wheeled out as an expert; editorials in major newspapers that politely cluck their teeth at our plight while saying in the end maybe we shouldn’t be allowed near anything important. To say nothing of personal ramifications: we may be fired, beaten, harassed more than we already are.
It can seem hopeless.
But we should meet them nonetheless.
What those of us who, like myself, have hesitated must face up to is that we do not have the luxury of choosing battles like this, not truly. They choose us—and as regrettable as this function of our disadvantage may be, we only harm ourselves by shying away from it. Manning is getting a lot of much needed support, yes. But her sisters should stand by her and acknowledge her as a sister. If for no other reason than to lend that much needed, precious gift that it stretches the limits of our poor power to give: to tell Breanna that her understanding of her reality is real.
To tell her that she is not only a hero, but one we will embrace as a woman, as a sister.
It may well all come to nothing, but we will be the better for trying. Facing down impossible odds, staring down barrel of society’s collective gun, it is what we as trans women do so well: it is a condition of our simply being. If any of you have strength to lend to Manning, give her that iota in the form of recognition.
It is tempting to enshroud myself in silence, but if there is one great truth transition taught me it is that silence will not save me, nor any of my siblings in struggle. It will not make this go away. Ending my silence will not, concomitantly, utter a word of power that brings hellfire upon all trans people. Ending my silence will deny cisgender men in power the right to bind me in this particular way.
So, how do I resolve the vexatious question that urged the penning of this article? In the end, there is no morass or thicket of complex issues, no great philosophical lodestones to be delicately weighed against one another. There is just one simple moral question and I resolve it thusly:
Editor/Dungeon-Master’s Note: I sat on this for a while and almost didn’t publish it. Fear of speaking out bedevils most of us who say what is not exactly popular. I thank the women and men in my life for always reminding me that what I have to say has value.
Those of you who have spoken to me at any great length know that I am quite big on the idea that if you scratch a misogynist you will find a transphobe, and vice versa. There is a continuum of prejudice in our society; it’s scarcely a coincidence that Western people who bleat loudly about savage brown men in the Global South who “oppress their women” then turn around and defend egregious sexism in their own countries. But it is always an interesting exercise to find just where the linkages appear. It came to my attention that John Derbyshire, a man who writes for that great pillar of social justice The National Review Online, had this to say about not just the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain, but the very idea of sexual harassment:
Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like “racial discrimination“? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up. Is this any way to live?
Kurt Schlichter, who works on these cases, spills the beans in America’s Newspaper of Record this morning.
“When you consider that, more than a decade ago, Herman Cain settled some unspecified sexual-harassment claims, you also need to consider that the only things you need to file a lawsuit are the filing fee and a printer. Facts are optional.”
There has never in the history of the world been a people better mannered and less inclined to insulting acts of prejudice than today’s Americans, yet we’re supposed to believe that the nation is seething with “harassment” and “discrimination,” women being groped in every business office and crosses burning on every lawn. For Heaven’s sake. Aren’t there any grown-ups around?
I might very well ask him the same question; if there’s an adult in the room at NRO, it isn’t Mr. Derbyshire. One scarcely knows where to begin really. An upper class white cisgender hetero man thinks Americans are legendarily disinclined to acts of prejudice? News at 11.
What’s interesting for me, however, is sketching out how ideas this especially odious are not just isolated monads floating in nothingness. According to Lynn Conway:
In his writings, Derbyshire for some reason often returns to an issue that seems to particularly haunt him: the existence of gay males and “effeminate men”. We’ve included examples of his writings on these topics below, in which you can sense the particular and peculiar focus of his horror about homosexuality, namely that some people enjoy “being penetrated”, and his perception of the degradation and humiliation such penetration involves, notwithstanding that “Women expect a certain amount of penetration as coming with the territory of femaleness … ” (J. Derbyshire, The Houston Review, April 25, 2001).
And now, of course, for the coup de grace, a quote from a certain book review Derbyshire wrote for the National Review (courtesy of Andrea James):
Part Three is the book’s most difficult section, because it deals with the rarest and most puzzling aspect of male effeminacy: According to Bailey, less than one man in 12,000 is transsexual, a condition defined simply by “the desire to become a member of the opposite sex,” whether or not that desire has led to actual surgery. The striking finding here is that there are two quite distinct types of men who wish they were women, distinguished by the choice of erotic object. On the one hand there are “homosexual transsexuals,” who desire masculine men—heterosexual men, for preference—and who dress and behave like women to attract them. And then there is the “autogynephilic transsexual,” a man whose erotic attention is fixed on the idea of himself as a woman.
The strangeness of this latter type is captured nicely in the title of Bailey’s chapter on them: “Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies.” An autogynephile is essentially a heterosexual man whose object of desire is an imaginary feminine creature which happens to be himself… or herself, depending on how you look at it. Such a person was usually not effeminate as a child, has likely been married, and does not show typically homosexual preferences in career or entertainment choices. The historian and travel writer Jan (formerly James) Morris, to judge from her autobiographical book Conundrum, belongs to this category. The consummation of sexual desire presents obvious difficulties for the autogynephile. Indeed, it is occasionally fatal: Around 100 American men die every year from “autoerotic asphyxia,” which seems to arise from a conjunction of masochism and autogynephilia—the two conditions are related in some way not well understood.
All of these types—girlish boys, male homosexuals, transsexuals of both types—are of course human beings, who, like the rest of us, must play the best game they can with the cards Nature has dealt them. No decent person would wish to inflict on them any more unhappiness than their mismatched bodies and psyches have already burdened them with. At the same time, there is circumstantial evidence that complete acceptance and equality for all sexual orientations may have antisocial consequences, so that the obloquy aimed at sexual variance by every society prior to our own may have had some stronger foundation than mere blind prejudice. Male homosexuality, in particular, seems to possess some quality of being intrinsically subversive when let loose in long-established institutions, especially male dominated ones. The courts of at least two English kings offer support to this thesis, as does the postwar British Secret Service, and more recently the Roman Catholic priesthood. I should like to see some adventurous sociologist research these outward aspects with as much diligence and humanity as Michael Bailey has applied to his study of the inward ones.
Derbyshire, J. “Lost in the Male.” National Review, June 30, 2003. pp. 51-52.
You can go to Andrea James’ webpage on Derbyshire to read her pleasurably scathing response and some other interesting quotes from “the Derb.”
The little games of Six Degrees of Political Separation one can play with patriarchy are very interesting. To recap, John Derbyshire is a man who thinks sexual harassment is the legal equivalent of the tooth fairy, and who is also best mates with J. Michael Bailey whose deeply transmisogynist and unethical ‘research’ The Man Who Would be Queen is a prime example of modern cissexist pseudoscience, is also quite scared of men taking it up the chutney. When one tilts her angle of vision just so, just a few degrees off the horizon of patriarchy, one starts to see all of these things as connected. Derbyshire does not believe these things in isolation from one another, they are part of a fabric, a framework. One notion leads into the other, one idea reinforces the other. This is patriarchy as a belief system.
Who We Really Are
It seems almost obvious to belabour this point and yet I feel it bears repeating; we do not often see recognition of the fact that transphobic cis men are almost always misogynists of some flavour as well (often as not, a fairly strong flavour). There is a powerful connection between the hatred of all women generally and the hatred of trans women specifically. Men like Derbyshire, who at this point I definitely would not trust to be alone in a room with me, in a very broad sense understand what most transphobic men understand: we are women.
That’s a rather paradoxical statement to make, considering that it is almost fundamental to the definition of transphobia that it constitute an unwillingness to recognise a person’s gender. What makes men like Derbyshire transphobic is that they see women like me as “men,” right? Yes and no. We occupy the cultural space we do for a reason. Cis men who laugh off sexual harassment as so much whinging about misconstrued compliments are transmisogynist men as well, and they hate us because we are women. When they talk about crazy women making false accusations they are talking about us as well. They are trying to make our world smaller as well. The protest of their transphobia, the assault on our gender, the mad rush to undermine us, pathologise us, erase us, or vilify us is, like most masculinist protest, premised on deep seated insecurity. They do interpellate us as women; they just don’t want to.
Transphobic feminists operate on a somewhat different level. For them it is very vital to constantly assert we are men. For your run of the mill, average cis male transphobe, the stakes are different. In a bizarre way, they see what that vocal minority of transphobic feminists do not see: that we are a fundamental threat to how most people in our society understand gender, and that if we are possible, anything might be possible in the realm of gender. It is no longer so comfortably fixed in the immutable essence of finely crafted genes with a thousand millennium pedigree. They cannot help but to see us as women, to see us as occupying that same dangerous, violently contested space that cis women occupy. They cannot help but fight with us to try and keep us there.
Who Are they Trying to Convince?
It seems almost absurd to take an idea to my readership so simple that it forms a bedrock assumption to the epistemology of most regular readers of this space, I’m sure: that trans women are women. But in most mainstream writing on the subject, be it on Huffington Post or The New York Times or O Magazine, that is actually not a proposition that is carried through to its logical conclusions. One of the reasons that I have taken the Herman Cain allegations so seriously, and the aggressive co-opting of anti-racist rhetoric by white conservatives so seriously, is because these things are very much about my experiences and my social location as a woman of colour in this country. Too often we see trans people put into segregated boxes of exoticised and discrete unitary “Experience” that more or less fully elides our lived reality in a given gender.
I have something to say about being a woman, without qualifiers, in America. Many of us do, and many of us do feel as personally attacked as many cis women might when a powerful man tells a major media outlet that women with a grievance should “think twice” before coming forward. Trans women are so hated by cis men in part because we are women. Even as they aggressively insist that we are actually male, be it through hateful words spoken in arguments, debates, or violence and rape, or published work in an academic journal, they are saying that just as much for their benefit if not more. They fixate on us because we are women, and that scares them to death.
Cisgender men tell themselves many rather twisted stories about why we transition, most reading like some pulp horror novel dashed with awkwardly inserted sci-fi elements. Perhaps it’s that we hate men so much that we “castrate” ourselves or that we’re men who drank the wrong estrogen-infested water one day and suddenly wanted to be girls, or perhaps that we were just regular ol’ guys who just woke up one sunny day and decided to transition. However they construct it, it frightens them deeply. It frightens them deeply because we are women. We’d not be much of a threat if we weren’t. There would not be this widespread cis het male moral panic about trans women “deceiving” them into fucking us if we were not women.
Their constant protests that we are men fall into the same realm of that clichéd therapist’s question: “Who are you trying to convince, me or you?” They must cling to that idea that we are men, even as a whirlpool of doubt draws their every thought of us into gendered oblivion.
And in the final analysis it makes sense that a man like Derbyshire, who views trans women as an idle curiosity, fit for colonisation, analysis, and study by a white cis male friend of his, also sees women as endlessly touchable and endlessly lying. The only way the truth can be found is if trustworthy white cis men like J. Michael Bailey cage us and study us. What would we do if we had our druthers on? Why, we might start filing golddigging sexual harassment claims when Mr. Derbyshire is being a perfect gentleman, only seeking to regale us with his thoughts on the deep (and I do mean deep) meaning of penetration ten times after we asked him to stop…
In summation, cisgender men have a profound obsession with trans women, and specifically what we do with our penises. Many cis men wince and get nervous at the thought of a trans woman having SRS, and I ask you to consider the relation between this and Tucker Carlson saying that he involuntarily crosses his legs every time he sees Hillary Clinton on television.
The bedrock truth of the matter is this: transmisogynist cis men hate us because we are strong women… and that scares the living daylights out of them.
Not long ago I attended a conference at New York City’s Hunter College commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings where Professor Hill, in damning detail, publicly testified to her experience at the hands of now-Justice Thomas which included sustained sexual harassment. Her courage caused open discussion of sexual harassment to burst violently onto the national scene, unapologetically breaking the silence felt by millions of women who had been shamed, threatened, and cajoled into pretending what had happened to them was business as usual. The conference sought to honour Professor Hill and featured a variety of speakers, activists old and new, commentators, reporters, academics and friends who all offered their perspective on the matter. It was elucidating and, to turn that blessed cliché, empowering.
The volunteers at the university all wore T-shirts that read “I Believe Anita Hill.” It was a powerful and dangerous message,as much now as it was then: to suggest that one accepts a woman’s reality as real.
It is a cosmic irony that just a little over two weeks after this conference, one which at first felt like it was summoning up something confined to the misty history of the early 1990s, I should discover that Politico posted a special report about how Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain had sexual harassment allegations levelled at him by at least two women some fifteen years ago.
It is as if I attended a special seminar on handling emergency situations and then, practically upon leaving, I find myself having to use all of the tools given to me therein with the utmost urgency. Within the last 48 hours events in the commentariat have spiralled out of control and old revenants that haunt American politics now shriek with window-shattering violence. Clarence Thomas’ sins have been resurrected, countless commentators on the right have resumed bashing Anita Hill, the words ‘hi-tech lynching’ took less than a day to appear at the very cusp of the breaking news froth (on the BBC, no less), and a cavalcade of racism and racist appropriations have gushed forth from the mouths of every white talking head within shouting distance of a satellite link-up.
Yet what is of special interest to me, and what prompted me to say something, are the particulars of what a well-known white conservative woman has been saying about this scandal:
Ann Coulter, a right-wing commentator, called the claims “another high-tech lynching”, saying liberals couldn’t stand strong black conservatives.
She has quite a lot to say about Clarence Thomas, up to and including her beliefs about where accusations like this originate from:
“If you are a conservative black, they will believe the most horrible sexualized fantasies of these uptight white feminists,”
I’ve just returned from the washroom and after careful examination I have concluded I’m not white. But, moving on:
“Our blacks are so much better than their blacks,” she said, speaking of Democrats. (Source.)
I could just end the article right here as this, in some ways, can say everything that needs to be said about how white conservatives have handled this latest issue with Herman Cain. But much more should be said.
In my last article I talked about some of the ‘sorrows’ of gender activism (and they could apply to activism generally, to be sure) centring primarily on how one knows when to do the right thing and how one knows when to stay the hand of one’s righteous indignation and rage.
Yet as any of us know, perhaps all too well, this is scarcely where the problems end and I would like to examine a few further issues through the lens of the Shadow as understood by Carl Jung, a very helpful psychological metaphor that I thank Sady Doyle for introducing to the conversation. Let us begin with a fairly acceptable Wikipedia definition of the thing in question:
In Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts. It is one of the three most recognizable archetypes, the others being the anima and animus and the persona. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” It may be (in part) one’s link to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.
According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to projection: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections are unrecognized “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object–if it has one–or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.”  These projections insulate and cripple individuals by forming an ever thicker fog of illusion between the ego and the real world.
Sady Doyle used this concept to suggest that what we as activists are most keenly aware of in others is often as not something we suppress and fear in ourselves, to the point where we- in essence- project the failure onto other people. The more virtuous we seek to be, the more we define ourselves against the evil in the world, the more likely it is that we will have a harder time seeing the shadow in ourselves. Or, to resurrect my own metaphor, to see the shadow being cast by our swords.
This often works in very particular ways in activist communities and is precisely at the heart of many problems we all confront; it is one of the reasons that being a radical activist always leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth, that perhaps your real ‘enemies’ are your comrades at times. It is an interesting take on that old saw about the British Parliament: the Opposition sits in front of you, and your enemies are behind you. Yet while some people become disillusioned with activism for these reasons, for that ever pervasive sense of having to fight harder with your fellows than against the very oppression you’re purportedly organised against, the opposite has happened with me. It’s actually entrenched my radical trans feminism because what I see is not some depressing and noxious ‘truth’ about what feminism actually is but how it fails often to live up to its own ideals.
The issue is not feminism itself but the world in which feminism is necessarily situated. Our Shadows are internalisations of patriarchy itself that then become projected outwards into our work in bizarre ways. But they are not so bizarre that they are unintelligible.
At my university, for instance, I have dealt with some rather awkward situations with the faculty where a particular pedagogical vision held sway among certain members of the department: shock value and discomfort were important teaching tools. That the people who advocated this were white and cis did not matter as much to them as the fact that were feminists and radicals who sought to include everyone and criticise everything. Noble, mighty, swords of truth thrust defiantly into the air.
This, of course, leaves aside an important question: for whom does the shock have value?
When you have a professor telling a rape survivor to “suck it up and stop being such a baby” because she fears an assigned film with violent sex may trigger her, what does his feminism mean in that moment? It means something rather patriarchal, although he just won’t admit it. This is where every activist movement runs afoul with “the ends justify the means.” For this professor, his radical feminist project involves colonising the experiences of others, harvesting their emotions for the greater good and using them to teach. This comes at the expense of those who feminism claims to fight for, but never mind. There is a radical goal in mind and that matters most: to unsettle, to discomfit, to drag people out of comfortable illusions and delusions.
All well and good, never mind a woman whose comfort comes in precious islands of luxury that she struggles to hold onto.
What does feminism mean in this moment? It means there is a shadow of patriarchy being cast. If a white cis male Economics professor were doing such a thing to his students, perhaps this feminist man might well have a justifiable conniption fit and speak loudly and proudly (and truthfully) about the entitlement and privilege of that professor. But if the culprit is a gender studies prof? Well, he’s doing it for the right reasons.
Not To Be Spattered By His Blood by Edna St. Vincent Millay
(St. George Goes Forth to Slay the Dragon — New Year’s, 1942)
Not to be spattered by his blood—this, even then,
This, while I kill him, even then, this, when I slice
His body from his head, must be my nice concern.
This, while I kill him, whom I have hated purely and with all my
heart, for he is evil,
This, while he dies, for he will strive in death, for he was strong
(I say “was strong,” for I shall surely kill him; he is numbered
Already with the dead) .
Yes, although now with all his shining scales, the one above the other
fitted in symmetrical
—Oh, in most beautiful—design, he moves,
And his long body undulant is looped in many loops most powerfully
flung from side to side over the world—
Yet is he numbered with the dead, for I shall kill him surely.
Not to be spattered by his blood—this, while I kill him,
Must be my mind’s precise concern.
Though the dungeons be empty; though women sit on the door steps
in the sun
And sigh with peace, because they fear him no more—because they
fear no one;
And old men in their rocking chairs sing;
And strangers meet in every street of the world and greet each other as
And people laugh at anything—
Not here my mission ends.
I must think of my return.
I must kill him with gloves on.
For Hatred is my foe, and I hate him and I will kill him—but oh,
I must kill him with gloves on!
Not to be spattered by his blood—for what, should he be slain,
Done to death by my hand, and my hand be stained
By him, and I bring infection to city and town
And every village in our land—for he spreads quickly—
What then, shall we have gained?
Why then, I say, sooner than that, why, let him live, and me
For it is fitter that a beast be monstrous than that I should be.
Not to be spattered by his blood! —For I know well
What I must conquer.
Can I with seething hatred kill him, and return
And be myself, hating no man,
Once he is dead?
Yes. With God’s help, I can.
Not to be spattered by his blood—Oh, God,
In the great hour of my supreme engagement,
Wherein, by Thy just will
And with what strength and skill I can to the endeavor call
I slay our common foe
(For Evil didst Thou never love),
Lest in the end he triumph after all
And what I all but died to kill
Loop his length still
Over the world; lest I inherit
Most hated Hate, and be his son in spirit;
And Evil in my veins froth, and I be no one
I ever knew—Oh, God, lest this be done,
Bless Thou my glove!—
And watch that in the moment of my supreme encounter I wear it, I keep
Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head.
My first D&D character was a Paladin, a young woman from the race of angelic Nephilim who sported broad and beautiful white feathered wings. In service to her Goddess as a shieldmaiden, hers was to fight for truth and justice against all comers. The setting? The D&D equivalent of Hell, a plane known as The Abyss whose inherent moral alignment was listed as Chaotic Evil. This plane had layers. Infinite layers. This Paladin, Zoe, was on the four hundred fourth. One woman against an endless plane that was the home of demons, soul eaters, monsters great and small, and every terror imaginable.
There was Zoe with her limitless faith, her sword and shield, and her endless quest to spread not only love, but to find yet more pie.
One might well say that from a psychoanalytic perspective it was interesting that I chose this character, and that it is exceedingly interesting that in my roleplay I rather adore paladins and priestesses; women of faith whose beliefs guide their weapons and their spells into the heart of Evil in their quest to protect the Good, save the world, and find more pie. What is most interesting to me is that this image has long accompanied me on my journeys into the politics of the real world, my own mission out into the Abyss we know of as Earth and has necessarily become infused with my vision of feminism.
It is a beautiful image, as inspiring as a cathedral fresco, with the moral force of the statue of Lady Justice, sword held high in the air, ready to avenge all sin and protect those who cannot protect themselves. Yet she also holds scales aloft; balance, equity, fairness and compassion. Not a shield, but the scales on which Maat weighed the hearts of the judged against that oh-so-light feather. It was those scales, I came to realise, that were much more ponderous than the sword. It was the scales that would determine whether that sword would be shortly stained with blood.
For me, trans activism, feminism, trans feminism, and indeed academic inquiry into society, were always part and parcel of learning to use the scales. Knowing how best to judge, knowing when to judge, and having a sense of honourable ethics; to know when to use the sword and only when necessary.
What Sady Doyle captured so very well, however, is the dark side of all of this. The Jungian Shadow of it all. Your sword casts a very long shadow indeed and the tighter you cling to it, the harder it becomes to notice its shadow, to be wary of it, to draw it back and sheath the weapon. I am not the first woman to stand up and speak tentatively of the fact that she has seen things on the internet within the canon of net-feminism that have disturbed her, that have caused her to swallow thickly and keep quiet in the hopes that she would not be slain by the swords of her comrades-in-arms. But even harder to admit is the fact that I have sometimes used that sword when I shouldn’t, coming down with all the righteous fury of a Paladin, and slaying without mercy. Without error. In the deep of night I ask myself ‘was I right?’ ‘did they deserve it?’
When I play certain video games I get the strange feeling of wandering through the weird and lurid landscape of a Dali painting; beholding the familiar, albeit distorted in the strangest of ways.
One might expect this. After all, video games are not supposed to be realistic by default. They operate on their own internal logic, their worlds hewn out of something called ‘game design needs’ rather than say billions of years of geology and thousands of years of culture and history, for instance. But I came to realise it was something beyond that point which I could comfortably suspend my disbelief and immerse. What jarred me out of, almost consistently, was the fact that many games have had the pretension of being representations of the real.
A artificially warped landscape is a good and interesting thing so long as one does not purport that it is, in fact, akin to a photograph.
Rated M for Misconception
Whenever one hears the word “gritty” or “grimdark” appended to other adjectives used to describe a video game, you’ve likely stumbled on a game that does what I’m going to discuss in this article: promote a rather cliched perspective as ‘real’. Various other euphemisms for this include ‘adult’, ‘mature’, and the like. Let’s take Kieron Gillen’s review of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for Eurogamer and allow it to speak for itself:
“Bloodlines has the best script I’ve seen in a videogame since… well, since ever. In recent times, Planescape is probably hits the same peaks that Bloodlines does, and has the advantage of mass of words, but in terms of writing a modern, adult videogame, no-one’s come near. No-one’s even tried.
It makes cultural references with the casualness of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – there’s a particularly memorable off-hand gag about fetish slang which dazzled me with the skill, audacity and comfort it showed. Where most games that try something similar come across as callow posturing, this was done as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It deals with the big adult topics – sex, death, whatever – in truthful and honest ways. It has characters who swear as much as anyone out of Kingpin – but they’re characters who swear rather than an attempt to turn the game into a noir thriller by lobbing a few four-letter words into the mix. Conversely, there are characters who have perfectly civil aspects. Troika has done the writerly thing – that is attempt to write people rather than ciphers. I can only applaud.
So ‘truth and honesty’ are themes in this game, apparently, of a rather dramatic sort. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is a roleplaying game set in a deeply noir Los Angeles, replete with weakly flickering neon, smoky back rooms, and the thrumming bass of rebellious club music set to the jingling chains of the mosh pit dancers. This game is nothing if not deeply possessed of atmosphere. You wander about as a newly initiated vampire in this world, a creature of the night learning the true meaning thereof in a fast-paced auto da fe of supernatural life. Aside from the cool colours of night and the chiaroscuro template of Gothy dusk that define the game’s palette, the other is of course red. A crimson that splatters many a wall.
VtM:B is a passionately violent game complete with murder, dismemberment, exploding bodies, torture, flesh eating, and, of course, rape. For how could one find true verisimilitude without sexual violation?
All of this begins to dissolve into the usual narrative that can be reduced to the following equation: “There will be blood, there will be tits; therefore there is maturity and realism.”
In my recent article for The Border House I took on a number of the arguments made by a few starry eyed technophiles in favour of ending the practise of online anonymity. This is a significant issue for me that, in its many facets, presents me with the ultimate intersectional landscape on which to grow my ideas about interpersonal politics. In other words, it is very easy to talk about sex, race, power, class, and a range of issues surrounding both individual and group behaviour (group psychology and sociology), identity, and just plain old techno-geekery. It touches on a myriad of issues that are important to me.
What follows is a refinement of what I wrote for The Border House and an expansion of it.
I.- Setting Information Free(?)
It is very much worth mentioning that the central idea behind the anti-anonymity advocate’s vision is the firm belief that the death of anonymity will allow information to flow more freely. The reality, however, is that the end of anonymity means a significant lever of personal control will be wrenched away.
To explain what I mean by this I should go into greater detail about the nature of the information being hotly debated at the moment. Invariably the two pieces of information most prized by the Zuckerbergs and their ideological fellow travellers are, in order of importance: legal names and recent, tasteful photographs. This is what I’ve long referred to as “driver’s licence info” and it is information of a very particular and discrete (if not discreet) type. Driver’s licence information actually has very little to do with your personality and who you are as a person. Such information can, in the case of some, affirm who they are (such as in the case of us trans folk) but even that is only the result of the primacy placed on this otherwise relatively un-telling data.
The reason it is so vitally important, the reason it is fought over like the bloodied scrap of earth it is, is because people in power have made that information a matter of life and death.
A name is what you decide to call yourself, and secondarily what others agree to call you. The ‘legal’ codification of it was merely a forerunner to the 20th century invention of serial numbers which are used to ‘identify’ us ever more finely as the owner of a legally sanctioned identity. Legal names are the foundation of this particular form of identification and are the essence of it. Their legality arises from governmental sanction, but it says nothing immediately genuine about who you are. The reason my own name speaks so powerfully to me is because I chose it. I sought to have it legally recognised because in our society where legal names are gold standards and wherein we must all have one, I felt the most self-empowering thing I could do would be to choose it. So indeed I have and my name is now recognised at various levels of officialdom.
But it was no less mine and no less true to me when it lacked legal recognition. It was my name from the moment I chose it in the company of a dear friend as I tepidly set out to claim a name as my own for the first time in my life. If anything my old legal name actually signal-jammed a good deal of truth that may have eminated from me years sooner, and equally blocked a lot that I might have otherwise taught myself. Obviously my old name was not solely responsible for this– a welter of other social conditions played their parts– but it had a starring role to play. We can discuss and debate the particulars but the fundaments of the matter are these:
My old legal name hid far more than it revealed, hindered more than it helped, and stifled far more than it liberated.
In other words it was actually an impediment to the free flow of information for it to be known and in the public record. It was an obstacle to me forging my own identity, right up to the multiple legal rigamaroles I had to endure in order to change it publicly.
Forcing me into a particular ‘legal identity’ closed doors, it did not open them. Who, precisely, is Mark Zuckerberg to adjudicate on which name is a person’s true name? These legal names are important, yes, but only for the same reason that, say, the institution of marriage is important: so many unjust privileges are bound up in it that we cannot help but pay close attention to its use. For precisely that same reason control of that information must remain in the hands of those with the least power. More broadly, it should remain in the hands of those who are the rightful adjudicators of such information: the people themselves.
It is the job of fusty, addlebrained academic sorts to take things we all enjoy and take for granted, and then dissect it with the ponderous seriousness of a graying doyen of our particular art. Especially in the social sciences. Teasing out social messages, identifying wider imbricating discourses, and seeing patterns with relation to the media is usually a sombre affair filled with sad news. This is how this movie reinforces patriarchy, this is how this television show transmits transphobic messages, this is how our media is coarsening social attitudes, this is how this commercial is making us hate our bodies, and so on and so on. It is a rare, rare joy indeed when I get to turn my critical eye towards explaining how something in the media is positive in its influence on our society.
When a good friend of mine nudged me into watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic I internally scoffed. It sounded cute, and nothing was wrong with cute, but I’m a woman in her 20s, jet setting and on the go, kicking patriarchy’s ass and sipping skinny lattes while jogging between classes and speaking engagements. What use did I have for girl’s television anyway? What’s more, it was probably the usual problematic pap encouraging girls to be docile, quiet, restrained and feminine in a deeply unnerving way, another Cult of Pink devoid of all that can be good about growing up.
To say that I was dead wrong on all counts is an understatement.
The Sociologist as Children’s Hero?
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic began to arrest me when I realised that the main character was a bookwormish unicorn named Twilight Sparkle who was a serious minded, organised, knowledgeable student with a profound magical talent, proud of her tutelage under Princess Celestia– the benevolent ruler of Equestria– who’s known far more for her wisdom than her beauty it seems. The pilot episode finds Twilight learning several lessons that I would not only feel comfortable with my future daughters learning, but I’d actually fall over myself to get them into this programme. Twilight had to learn the power of friendship, yes, a rather old and clichéd concept in children’s programming. But what sets MLP apart is both how this was done and with whom it was done.
Twilight Sparkle is sent to Ponyville by Celestia to make friends as Celestia worries for her star pupil’s social skills. But the plot does not revolve around Twilight dulling her intellect to become a social butterfly; far from it she learns her to use her talents relationally, as a member of a diverse group of ponies who all have distinct skills. She learns a group ethic; teamwork, in other words. One of the show’s most heartwarming messages is that you cannot always do great things alone; this message is a beautiful, at times subtle, contradiction of the selfish ethic of heroic individualism that has become like a cancer on our society. It is not just a paean in one episode, but rather a theme underlying every single one. It is the language through which the programme is expressed.
In all of this, Twilight’s skills and intellectual acumen are not blunted but become essential to her friendships. Her friends love her for who she is and are proud to know the “smartest Pony in Ponyville.”
I rather love Twilight Sparkle—when having her first slumber party she used a reference book on the subject to help her organise it. She is portrayed as an intellectual, she always lives somewhere surrounded by books—I envy her library. She is readily portrayed as a capable leader, a (community?) organiser, and maven of the world’s lore always ready to teach the ponies some esoteric fact. But perhaps the bit that really melted my heart was that Princess Celestia told Twilight to deliver a report about friendship every week, relaying her “findings.”
That’s right, Twilight Sparkle is a budding sociologist. I was sold.