Alesha, Who Smiles At Death and smashes geek stereotypes

I’ve started using the word “nerd” to describe myself more and more recently. I used to be firmly a “geek”, because geeks were cool and nerds were those awkward people who just went a little overboard in their geekiness.

But the more and more I think about just how much of a geek I am, the more I realise I’m really just a big ol’ nerd.

So of course I was a Magic: The Gathering player back in the day, spending my intermediate years sitting in the school library at lunchtime with a pretty kickass blue/white deck duelling it out with my nerd peers. I was, it hardly needs saying, the only girl in the group, clumsily figuring out who I was in the grand societal scheme of things and lacking the eloquence to express exactly why I found the boys’ drooling, grunting responses to cards like Sivitri Scarzam so … creepy.

I know the world’s moved on from then – with every birthday it feels more and more like I’m supposed to be a proper grown-up now, but even getting a mortgage didn’t make that sink in – and now we have marriage equality and politicians schmoozing the crowd at the Big Gay Out. But I was still pleasantly surprised to read that MtG now has a trans character. A bona fide, right-there-in-her-back-story-but-not-the-most-important-thing-about-her trans character.

Whenever things like this happen there’s always the objections – but who cares, right? Why should it be important? If you care so much about people’s gender aren’t you just a part of the problem?

And what seems really difficult to get through to my fellow heterosexual cis folk, especially in geek circles, is that it is important, and we do all care – but the reason we can pretend not to is because (to different extents) we get to assume that our media and hobbies contain representations of us. Before Alesha’s backstory was revealed in The Truth Of Names, I would’ve been perfectly free to assume she was a cis woman character. I wouldn’t have needed to ask, I wouldn’t even have really thought about it (and if I had been asked, I would’ve assumed a company like Wizards of the Coast hadn’t even thought about having a trans woman character.) And I would’ve assumed – I still assume because it hasn’t been explicitly spelled out otherwise – that she’s heterosexual.

The irony is that we ask “but why is it important to see someone like you in this game?” when we – hetero cis folk – already get to see heaps of people “like us” in the game. We just never have to think too hard about it. It’s assumed that everyone is like us until stated otherwise.

So having a trans woman character in MtG is a big thing. It says to trans people – hey, you’re as much a part of this wild fantasy world as everyone else. It says to cis people – hey, your assumptions aren’t valid, think about why that is. It says to the geek community – a community which can be so bizarrely exclusionary to people who aren’t straight white dudes – hey, other people count, and we’re not shutting them out for your comfort.

Meanwhile, back in our own world, an openly gay man who happens to be a fantastic defensive player just can’t get a job in the NFL. For every step forward it feels like there’s another two back. But those first steps are still huge.

QOTD: Mansplaining in Macquarie

Macquarie Dictionary has declared “mansplaining” to be its word of the year, and some people aren’t happy about that. Amy Gray responds in The Guardian:

Of course there are criticisms of using the term mansplaining to excess, and they’re most likely valid. But that isn’t sexism, that’s people stupidly overusing words they don’t understand, like “bae”, “budget surplus” and “minister for women”.

Oh snap.

Of gaming, boob armour, and smutty 13th century French fabliaux

(Content note: almost definitely NSFW)

A bit of a silly, non-political post for the weekend!

This article on designing better women in computer games hit a bunch of my favourite topics at once:

We put our perceptions of gender on our designs of characters before the pen hits the paper, before the brain has concocted a vision of them, before they even have a personality or a soul. Before we even understand that we’re doing it, we create gender for our characters. Now only that, but we feel we must outwardly show this decision through sexualization, instead of physicality, through subtext instead of text.

We, as designers, do this every day to every character we ever make. Even when we think we aren’t doing it, we still do it.

So, let’s stop doing it. Let’s create characters that can speak for themselves. Let’s make physicality work alongside our characters, not for a male-gaze agenda or some notions of “people just won’t understand so let’s just keep the design as-is”.

First because it tripped my nostalgia for City of Heroes, a MMORPG which my partner and I spent many, many hours defending the streets of Paragon City and confusing the hell out of people who assumed I (the hotheaded one) was the dude and he (the patient, strategic one) was the woman.

CoH had a tremendously open character creator – probably the best outside of Sims 3 for offering a truly wide variety of options and possible body shapes. The “huge” body type was still coded male, there weren’t many skirt options for the “male” body type and the “female” body type always had a bit of a nipped-in waist, but beyond that it was amazing, and I don’t know why other games – especially newer ones which push the boundaries in terms of character development, graphics and creativity – have never matched it.

Secondly, because in reminding me of the hilarious existence of boob armour (sexist and technically impractical) the article prompted my brain to recall one of the great epiphanies of my life: when I realised that the reputation Middle English and Old English have as stodgy, boring topics which only total nerds would pursue (especially to postgrad level, cough) was utterly erroneous.

Because our Anglo ancestors were smutty as all hell.

You get an early taste of this in a lot of 101-style English Lit courses where you study a grab-bag of works – one Shakespeare, one modern novel, something gothic, something really-old. A popular choice is Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, which begins:

3187         Whilom ther was dwellynge at Oxenford
There was once dwelling at Oxford
3188         A riche gnof, that gestes heeld to bord,
A rich churl, who took in boarders,
3189         And of his craft he was a carpenter.
And of his craft he was a carpenter.
3190         With hym ther was dwellynge a poure scoler,
With him there was dwelling a poor scholar,
3191         Hadde lerned art, but al his fantasye
Who had learned the arts curriculum, but all his desire
3192         Was turned for to lerne astrologye,
Was turned to learning astrology,
3193         And koude a certeyn of conclusiouns,
And he knew a certain (number of) of astronomical operations,
3194         To demen by interrogaciouns,
To determine by scientific calculations,
3195         If that men asked hym, in certein houres
If men asked him, in specific (astronomical) hours
3196         Whan that men sholde have droghte or elles shoures,
When men should have drought or else showers,
3197         Or if men asked hym what sholde bifalle
Or if people asked him what should happen
3198         Of every thyng; I may nat rekene hem alle.
Concerning every thing; I can not reckon them all.

… which is fairly intimidating even if you are a big ol’ language nerd. The actual tale, which involves the Miller’s wife cheating on him with a handsome tenant and conspiring to get some alone time by telling her husband that God is planning another Great Flood, which is foiled when another dude who’s in love with her rams a red-hot poker up the tenant’s ass (long story) is beautifully juvenile, and takes most people by complete surprise (“I thought this was a treasured piece of English literary history! Why are there fart jokes?!”).

But I wasn’t thinking of the Miller’s Tale – which is itself a fabliau – in the context of silly sexist boob-armour. I thought of the glorious tale of De Bérangier au lonc cul – that is, Sir Berenger of the long arse.

Another foolish husband – and boy, were fabliaux a wonderfully misandrist genre – lords it over his good lady wife, and is vanishing into the forest each day to rub dirt on his armour and bash a few holes in his shield so she’ll think he’s a tough guy. One day she follows him – having donned somebody else’s armour – and confronts him, declaring he must either joust against her (and probably die because she’s badass) or kiss her – or rather, “his” – arse.

He’s a chickenheart, so he agrees to kiss the strange anonymous knight’s arse.

The lady would grant no respite
But immediately put foot on ground
And raised her robe
And bent over in front of him.
“Sir, put your face here.”

And he looked at the crevice
Of the arse and the quim, and it seemed
To him that it was all one.
He thinks and says to himself
That he has never before seen so long an arse.
Then he kissed her with a hearty kiss,
In the manner of an evil cowardly man,
Right at the hole there;
She has well brought him to what he deserved.
Straightway the lady turned around,
And the knight cried to her:
“Good sir, I beg that you tell me your name,
And then you can leave here entirely satisfied.”

“Young man, my name will never be concealed;
But such a name was never found;
None of my family bears it but me.
I am called Bèrenger of the Long Arse,
Who puts all cowards to shame.”

Yep, dude’s such a prat he can’t even consider the possibility that a woman in armour has defeated him. He returns home, where his now un-armoured wife awaits to inform him that her good friend Berenger popped by for a cuppa and told her all about it. And lo, her husband learns his lesson and stops being such a douche.

Now, in a world where we assume women’s armour is essentially a metal catsuit (and illustrators don’t really understand how those work, either) this kind of hilarious smut could never take place.

So don’t just think of practically, historical accuracy, or challenging sexist gender norms next time you see ridiculous armour on a female character. Think of what our culture would be missing without poems about douchebag men being taught humility by kissing their wife’s quim.

(Also, bring back the word “quim”.)

The pay gap in Hollywood – and the rest of the world

The Sony hack just keeps hurting, with revelations about the pay gap between male and female actors leading one leading lady to demand a raise:

After leaked emails in the Sony hack showed unequal pay between male and female actors, Charlize Theron insisted she get the same pay as her male co-star Chris Hemsworth for “The Huntsman.”

She succeeded, netting a $10 million increase that puts her on par with Hemsworth.

It seems pretty straightforward: in case after case, women were being paid less than their male co-stars. Even, to be blunt, male co-stars who no one was going to see that film for:

For their work in the movie “American Hustle,” male actors Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and the director David O. Russell all got 9 percent of back-end profits, while Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, the movie’s two female leads, were each getting 7 percent. (Lawrence was originally going to get 5 percent but her pay had been raised.)

But not everyone see this as a problem. One of the top comments when I read that article said,

Charlize Theron was free to negotiate whatever she wanted to be paid as part of the movie. The fact that her co-star was a better negotiator doesn’t mean anything sinister is at play.

This is one of the major myths of wage-setting in general, and the gender pay gap in particular. The biggest hole in the argument is this: most people do not have detailed information on (a) pay rates in their industry, (b) pay rates in their workplace, (c) the financial status of their employer. The idea that every worker – from a checkout operator to an A-List actor – has a perfect idea of what they should be able to negotiate for from their employer is a fantasy.

When Charlize Theron was offered X, and Chris Hemsworth was offered X+10, they obviously didn’t compare notes and go “okay, that pay gap’s totally fine.” They didn’t have an industry-wide collective agreement setting out pay rates for their roles.

The only reason Charlize Theron knew she was getting paid less is because of the Sony hack.

Look at the other examples in that article. For American Hustle, the  (male) director and male co-stars got 9%, while Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence got 7% each. Surely it’s a coincidence all the guys were on the same, higher payrate? They obviously just negotiated better.

Do we really believe that the studio itself saw no problem in paying Jennifer Lawrence – one of the biggest, most-beloved stars of cinema at the moment – less than Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper?

Are we really going to pretend that Jennifer Lawrence just “didn’t negotiate” as well?

There are many factors to the gender pay gap, including the fact that jobs which are traditionally women-dominated are paid less than jobs which are traditionally men-dominated, despite involving just as much skill, qualification, and hard work.

But there is also just sexism, and the Sony hack has highlighted this.

I’m not suggesting that studio executives sat in smoke-filled rooms twirling their moustaches, saying “Muahahahaha, we’re going to pay Charlize Theron less than Chris Hemsworth because she’s a lady!” (Though that hacked email calling Angelina Jolie a “spoiled brat” means we shouldn’t 100% discount the possibility.)

It’s far more insidious than that. Sony probably offered Theron less money, and agreed to pay Hemsworth more, because it just seemed natural to do so. It’s just automatic to treat a male co-star of a movie as The Star and a female co-star as The Supporting Actress.

If actors’ pay was about qualifications or pull, we might look at the fact that Charlize Theron is a critically-acclaimed performer whose list of award nominations is can’t be captured in one screenshot on my monitor and includes an Oscar. And Chris Hemsworth is a hunky bit of man-flesh who’s mainly been nominated for Teen Choice Awards for starring in comic-book adaptations. Which might suggest that if there’s going to be a $10 million pay gap, it should go in the other direction.

But that would be weird.

And that’s why there’s a gender pay gap in Hollywood.

Rape culture and Jane Austen

Another study has shown what many feminists and progressive activists have known for a while: that for a lot of very normal people, there’s a lot of confusion about what “rape” really is.

The survey found 31.7 percent of men said they would act on “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if they could get away with it, but just 13.6 percent said they had “intentions to rape a woman” if there weren’t any consequences.

The authors of this study note the difference relies on whether or not they described what constitutes sexual assault, versus whether they simply called it rape. For this study, the researchers defined rape as “intercourse by use of force or threat of force against a victim’s wishes.”

When combined with what the study’s authors described as “callous sexual attitudes,” the results suggest a man with a hostile attitude toward women may view “forced intercourse as an achievement,” and a woman saying “no” could be “perceived as a token resistance consistent with stereotypical gender norms.”

This part of what’s called “rape culture”, a term almost instinctively pooh-poohed by some people who consider it completely ridiculous to suggest our culture has a persistent, entrenched set of attitudes which mean some sexual violence is taken less seriously; which assumes women (especially women of colour, trans women and other marginalized groups) don’t really mean “no” and don’t need to say “yes”; which assumes that the fault for rape lies with the survivors of rape, not the perpetrators; which says some assaults aren’t even assaults at all.

And, sadly, that these attitudes go well beyond sexual violence, feeding a whole system of attitudes and narratives which keep women oppressed.

The funny thing is how much that last paragraph above reminded me of a classic piece of English literature …

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is rather an extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”

“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins very gravely — “but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain that when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall speak in the highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualifications.”

“Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.” And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had not Mr. Collins thus addressed her —

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on this subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”

“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as may convince you of its being one.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813.

To appreciate the full creepiness check out David Bamber’s wonderfully slimy performance.