Shaking the Tree

In continuation of the last post on gender, and the ideals thereof, I think one of the problems with trying to create a strong, inherently female main character in a game is that passivity is widely regarded as an essentially female quality. Furthermore, we in the West are so heavily inundated with masculinity that we're heavily predisposed to think of activity as good and passivity as bad.

The “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy is what everyone learns in grade school makes America great. In reality, there's nothing wrong with that mindset, but like just about everything else, when pursued to the exclusion of other things, it's problematic. So much emphasis is placed on personal fortitude, (“going the distance” as I put it last post) personal ability, and the kind of strength that's required to defeat your foe, that we lose sight of the relative importance of nurturing, passivity, and intuitive understanding.

So, to recap, we've got a double whammy here. First of all, we have a culture that places so much emphasis on the traditionally masculine qualities that we devalue the feminine ones. Second, if the discussion is to be on games, we can't go very far without addressing the fact most people don't think that a game where you don't actually defeat a big enemy at the end would be all that fun. (Even if, like in Fallout, you defeat them by talking) Yes, there are exceptions to this, wildly successful exceptions, in fact, but a majority of games are built around this framework.

I just started reading We by Robert A. Johnson. It's a book that appeared in the wake of Joseph Campbell, applying the concept of Jungian analysis to myths in order to distill universal truths. Personally, I don't put a lot of stock in Jung's concept of the Collective Unconscious, especially as some sort of dynamic information system, but so far the book has had some very interesting things to say about Courtly Love as an institution.

Specifically, that Courtly Love (Check here if the concept isn't instantly familiar to you) is based on the idealization of the lady involved in the exchange. Johnson asserts (and this is debated, as best as I can tell) that the nature of the relationship was entirely non-physical, and the purpose was to bring the relationship up to a more spiritual level. The lady was idealized, so it became necessary for the knight to engage in ridiculous dragon slaying acts to demonstrate his achievement of the ideal of masculinity.

Is slaying a dragon better than being worthy of adoration? Is the sword better than the harp? Is the ability to accomplish your goals no matter what adversity arises better than the ability to remain sensitive to the changing conditions around you?

These questions are way too amorphous to be actually seriously investigated, but I think the point is made that not all of them can be answered with “yes”. Sadly, there aren't very many dragons around to be slain anyway. Either way, I'm not here to make an exhaustive list of feminine and masculine qualities, and it's important to note that everybody has these qualities, the question is to what amount. Likewise, my basis for “masculine” versus “feminine” is not based on any sort of observation on my part, so much as the historical context in which these concepts are frequently viewed.

The qualities that interest me specifically are that of intuitive understanding and passivity. These are generally downplayed in the west, and that's a huge shame, I think, but the question at hand is what these mean in games. Sadly, it seems both have the cards stacked against them when it comes to placement in video games.

Regardless of any axiom about violence and non-violence, it's hard to argue that, in a game, doing things isn't more fun than not doing things. Can passivity really be a viable means to reach some end in a game?

You can definitely craft a satisfying climax out of a moment in which your main character must decide not to fight someone, establishing the value of pacifism over violence, but if that moment came before you had some final test of skill to determine whether you were good enough at the game to beat it, wouldn't you feel cheated? I kind of imagine that I would. Activity turns so easily into challenges in a game because there are so many kinds of activity. The challenge is in picking which kind of activity you need to engage in (and then correctly engaging in the desired kind of activity). Maybe I'm looking at this too narrowly, but can anyone be said to have to chose the right kind of passivity? If asked, I would have said that the only thing you choose is the right time to be passive.

You can't make a game around that, can you? I concede it might be possible in an academic sense, but I think to deal with game design issues, this is a bit of a narrow definition. The true balance of activity and passivity is one that you achieve in aesthetics and narrative, not game mechanics. That seems like the trick here, the word balance.

Do we need more female characters in general in games? Of course. What we really need, though, is characters who act female. We can all agree that another ridiculous fantasy game with a scantily armor-clad woman with a sword is not what I'm talking about. Why? Because they're just the dumb action hero character reskinned for sex appeal to the same male audience. We don't just need realistic female characters (though even just that would be a Godsend), we need male characters that embrace feminine values. (Cecil's conversion into a Paladin in FFIV is a nice one)

Ay yi yi, this has gone on long enough. I'll leave intuitive understanding to be tackled in part three.


Malgayne said...

I think you may be too dismissive of the idea of "passivity" as a fun gameplay mechanic too swiftly.

Obviously "doing nothing" is not a fun gameplay principle when compared to "doing something". But it's silly to assume that "doing nothing" is in some way the ideal of femininity. If it were, female characters would have reached their zenith with Princess Peach.

You may have hit on something with the "sensitivity to your surroundings" concept. For example, Trace Memory is a game where the central concept can be traced to "sensitivity to your surroundings", and the main character is clearly a strong female character. It's a clue discovery game at it's heart, and that's all about being sensitive to the people and things around you.

Of course I don't think "being sensitive to the world around you" is necessarily a good definition of the feminine archetype of passivity either. For example, the gameplay in Phoenix Wright is based on being sensitive to the world around you, and I don't think Phoenix Wright ever struck anyone as a "feminine" character.

Natalie said...

I think we should also point out that the actual activities in any given game are generally fairly limited in number. In Deux Ex, for instance, the actual activities you could choose to engage in were basically limited to movement in one of six modes (crawl/crouch/walk/run/swim/jump), attacking, and using one of about three different tools. But the game had a fairly strong narrative and very interesting gameplay - not because there were many activities but because there were many contexts in which those activities could be engaged in.

I'm just thinking out loud here, but perhaps you could build a fun gameplay idea around the concept of contextualized inactivity. But even that is really kind of a chauvinist formulation, isn't it? What about a concept like contextualized alternative activity? To take an example that I know is near and dear to your heart, Nausicaa doesn't choose to not act. She chooses to act differently than people expect.

William said...

Mal - Phoenix Wright is an interesting example. The "Masculine" aspect of the gameplay is that you're using the information you gather to cut away the lies in a witness's testimony. A very masculine activity according to the historical precidents we've established.

I find it particularly interesting that your mentor, Mia, acts just like a wiser Phoenix Wright. All the same masculine tendencies, but her younger sister, Maya, becomes Phoenix's counterbalancing Feminine side. She tempers his endless drive to push the guilty through the fires of justice.

Natalie - I agree with your formulation about Nausicaa. The duality exists on a higher level than "He does something. She does not do something."

Nausicaa fights and fights and fights, but she fights for pacifism, she fights for the preservation of all life, and she fights for letting nature take its course.

These are all "feminine" qualities, but she fights well (even kills) for said ideals.

Upon closer inspection, the problem isn't the kinds of activity being engaged in, so much as the ideals championed by said actions. Everybody wants to save the world, but "saving the world" invariably involves becoming strong to fight and kill the big bad guy that's endangering the world.

Kinda wonder how you'd beat an RPG where the villian was "the ignorance and apathy of the common man"...

Malgayne said...

Now there's an interesting game idea--and one we've discussed in the past, I believe in regards to the post-modern RPG concept you and I have discussed.

Natalie said...

I definitely think that the issue is the ideals. There's nothing particularly masculine about the deployment of force. Fighting, killing, and even torture are not, in my opinion, gendered activities. You have to fight, kill, or torture for a certain reason in order to gender the action.

So what are feminine ideals? The three you mentioned probably fall into the "feminine" bucket more than the "masculine." What else?

Here's a thought experiment I have no answer to: suppose that in the course of a game a mother of two brutally tortures a villain in order to extract the whereabouts of her kidnapped children. This is, in my mind, a clear example of a feminine use of force (albeit perhaps a morally deplorable one).

If you agree with me that the above scene is feminine, does it become masculine if the torturer is a desperate father instead of a desperate mother? In my mind it does. But I'm not sure I can articulate why, other than the sex of the actor.

Anonymous said...

I think we need a language lesson here.

Activity is "doing something."

Passivity is not so much "doing nothing," as it is "having something done to you."

Any of those games where the viewpoint character is handed a fragmented story and has to figure out what's going on while stuff goes crazy around him/her requires heavy elements of passivity in that character. Predictably, these characters are most often female (I'm thinking small girls with cameras) or males who have something wrong with them (amnesia or the like). And people play these types of games all the time.

Furthermore, being a pacifist is not being passive. Being passive is saying, "Let whatever happens, happen." There is a difference between peacefulness and quiescence.

Finally, I really cannot put down all my thoughts on how annoyed it makes me when your retread of the ancient masculine/femine active/passive dichotomy ends up with "we need more characters who act female." What is that supposed to mean, honestly? Why do you spend one blog entry talking about the lack of the Action Heroine, then denigrate the "female warrior" type to bimbos who are basically men with boobs? I know they are in a lot of games, but aren't we trying to break down that stereotype? How is it that to you, the warrior who acts female is the male Paladin type, and not the Amazon? If a woman picks up a sword, that is a female action. End of story.

Anonymous said...

Looking at my above comment, I'm really sorry for the curt tone. Only the last paragraph was meant to express some exasperation . . . The rest was just exploring definitions, not ranting!!

Looking at the references to Nausicaa in the comments, I have another thought. I actually do not think that Nausicaa is a feminine heroine. I think in more ways, she is a child-hero, and child is a neuter construct. She embodies nonviolence, curiosity, flexibility, and love; and she seems not asexual, but presexual. Discuss!

William said...

A few notes explaining myself:

I "denigrated" the female warrior type to men with boobs because, in games, it is almost always the case. I don't endorse it, but I also wouldn't feel bad about bursting out laughing in the face of someone that told me that Lara Croft from the very first Tomb Raider had breasts for any reason other than to sexually titilate the male demographic which the game was aimed at.

I try to stand up and take notice when I see this industry standard being violated, I just don't see it very often, sadly.

Fundamentally, I think the problem here is the confabulation of two different issues.

1. We need a larger percentage of video game main characters to be realistic female characters (realistic within the confines of the game itself, obviously, which can sometimes be very ridiculous)

2. We need games that push ideals that can be described as "feminine" in the historical context which I have alluded to in this post.

It's very possible that solving one problem will solve the other, or at least help, but they are most definately not the same problem.

Also of note, in regard to previous mentions of Phoenix Wright, Fatal Frame, Memento, and others, the investigation activities are "feminine" in this historical context not only because they involve sensitivity to the environment, but because they involve synthesizing numerous disparate parts of information, another feminine activity in the Jung-ian sense.


Personally, I must respectfully disagree that a woman picking up a sword (and presumably using it) is a feminine activity. Once it has a motive, then it can be gendered. That being said, it's pretty important that I make clear that I think everybody engages in both feminine and masculine actions, and anyone being too far out of balance in that regard is a bad thing.

Finally, about Nausicaa, I think it's a bit of a toss-up. So much of what she does comes from heart-wrenching naivite, she asks, without irony, at some point, "But who could have polluted the entire earth?" even though we all know there's only one answer. Nevertheless, the story insists on convincing you that this is in fact a very good way to feel about things.

However, she has an incredibly strong motherhood streak. She talks to the baby Ohmu (in the film) like a child of hers, she (in the manga) adopts the god warrior as her child, picks up the Dorok infants when no one else will, cares for Teto like a child, holds the dying Torumekkian soldier (and saves him) when he gets poisoned and starts calling out for his mother. The list goes on and on.

Nonetheless, her character is most definately non-sexual within the confines of the story, just from a narrative point of view. Personally, I would characterize flexibility as a feminine quality in the Jungian sense, likewise with non-violence. Curiosity and love seem a little beyond the purview of the historical framework I'm appealing to, (though perhaps that just means I'm insufficiently read on the subject) so it would seem they're gender neutral constructs.

In reality, I'd say Nausicaa falls somewhere in between, which is no surprise, since I don't think Miyazaki crafted Nausicaa as a paragon of femininity, so much as a paragon of humanity.

William said...

Also, I think I should point out that I find it interesting that occasionally, a lack of masculine overtones in a game is in fact mistaken for feminine overtones.

Portal, for example, features a female main character, and I've heard it said often that it represents some sort of feminine desconstruction of the First Person Shooter genre.

Personally, I don't get this. Your character is female, but they never speak, they are never spoken to in a gender specific fashion, and you never engage in any activity other than that which is devised to escape horrible death in the near to immediate future. Self-preservation strikes me as one of those gender neutral characteristics, which is the only characteristic this character manifests that's not tied to physical appearance in some way.

Anonymous said...

@ William

Respectfully, I have to disagree again. Any action undertaken by a person who is gendered female is a female action. "Once it has a motive, it can be gendered"? In what world? Don't forget you were just arguing that female qualities are supposedly passive, and therefore totally lacking in motive.

I agree with your points 1 and 2 about the need for more realistic women characters in media. But I do not subscribe to this dualistic idea that there are certain "masculine" and "feminine" qualities out there that "balance" in everyone. If that's Karl Jung, what was he doing, comparing his patients to a yin-yang?

3 quotes from Simone de Beauvoir (I was looking for the third one, but found the other two along the way.)

"To make oneself an object, to make oneself passive, is a very different thing from being a passive object."

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."

"There are two kinds of people on this earth: human beings and women. And whenever women start acting like human beings, they are accused of trying to be men."

Natalie said...

It seems to me there's some disconnect here in conceptual framework. I don't know that William would disagree that a woman picking up a sword is a female action. A female has acted; it's a female action, ipso facto. I think the question that William is asking is whether that's a feminine action, and he's contending that there's too little information to say.

It sounds, Orange-Fell, like you're disagreeing with the assumption that male and female are nonidentical concepts to masculine and feminine. Is that the case? Or are you just contending that male/masculine and female/feminine are more closely aligned than William seems to think

Anonymous said...

Neither. Yes, I am ragging on William for the "act female" thing, but that's because it's sexist language and I want him to see that.

Basically, my issue with this post is that if you want to be writing realistic female characters in video games, characters that a feminist player or reviewer will take seriously, then a combination of Jung, Heinlein, and courtly love is exactly the opposite direction that you should be heading in. That formula won't get you Nausicaas and it won't get you reliable Kushanas either. Let me try to explain it this way: the Portal character can be said to be a feminist deconstruction of the usual male-gendered first person shooter because she's a female with the exact same set of choices as the typical male type, and there's not any sort of big deal made over it. From the little I know of Portal, she doesn't really get any character development, but do shooters really ever? That can come. The point is that in the world of Portal, nobody expects the character should act a certain way or have a certain set of "feminine" motivations because she's a girl. And it's not that "self-preservation is gender-neutral." It's that she and her choices are . . . wait for it . . . equal.

Natalie said...

Fair enough. I might be putting words into William's mouth here, but I don't really see this as a feminist issue. You might argue that Lara Croft functions exactly the same way (then again I don't think Lara's most salient characteristic is her bust measurement). You could say the same thing of the female characters in MMORPGs, too, couldn't you? Their gender, like the Portal protagonist's, is strictly a question of skinning.

I think what William's really arguing for here is a different sort of personalities, mindsets, motivations, and actions to be present in games to a greater degree than they presently are. He's calling those things "feminine" because he thinks they are. It sounds like you disagree. But whether the things are "feminine" or not, they are still missing. To return to the original question posed by the post: could you make a compelling game out of them?

Anonymous said...

@ Natalie

I might as well post a feminist's opinion on it. Combatting stereotyping and encouraging strong women characters in media is an interest of mine, even if I don't game. (I also don't think that Lara Croft is nothing but her bust size. I've never played Tomb Raider, but I understand she is a more developed character than that.)

I already posted an opinion upthread about the focus of the original post: passive characters in video games. Compelling games may hold passive characters, but these characters are usually either useless (princess in a tower), extremely vulnerable (children), or damaged (usually if a male character is rendered passive, something has to be wrong with him). It is my opinion that they are hardly empowering for the gamer to embody; and while more games with passive, reactionary characters can always be written, I think the more revolutionary direction is to develop a hero(ine) who doesn't have to choose whether accomplishing his/her goals is better than the ability to be sensitive and intuitive. I hope that answers your question, I am going to try to sleep.

Natalie said...

I agree completely about passive characters. In fact the only games I can think of where being passive is fun are the really hardcore small-scale military sims, games where you can spend an entire mission doing nothing but sitting in front of some bridge waiting for an attack that could, but ultimately doesn't, come. And that's only fun if you enjoy having your nerves played on that way for an hour at a time.

On the other hand, and again I might be putting words into William's mouth here, alternate activity is something I think is generally lacking in games. RPGs are the obvious candidate to my mind: how many of them truly allow for "social" characters to do as well as "combat" characters? The only one I can think of that even comes within shouting distance Arcanum, and even in Arcanum there are plenty of dungeon crawls where you, or your party, simply must fight. I get that fighting is a much, much easier form of social interaction to code than talking, and I'm the last person to discount the literary or artistic value of physical violence. But still, the imbalance strikes me as limiting the kinds of characters you can usefully write into a game.

William, am I just having a side thread here, or is any of this at all related to what was going through your head?

William said...

I think all this discussion is quite related, yes.

I think the fundamental disconnect here (and I think we are having a bit of a fundamental disconnect) is, again, in the difference between having more female characters in games, and having characters that, I said in the post "act feminine".

Personally, I don't think that describing actions as "feminine (or masculine)", and by association, saying that people can "act in a feminine (or masculine) manner" is necessarily sexist language, but I can respect the opinion of someone who disagrees with me on that point.

Therefore, I think we're getting stuck on the way that I'm describing these personalities traits.

Nonetheless, it seems common to the discussion that this set of characteristics are badly lacking from games. It's rare enough that an RPG hero even attempts to resolve things non-violently, let alone it works.

When I go into Intuitive Understanding next post, I'll fill in as much of the historical context that I'm drawing from as possible.

Anonymous said...

I have as good a grasp on the fundamentals of gender as you do, thank you very much, so there is not a fundamental disconnect. We just disagree. And you're right, a lot of it has to do with your language. You want to see characters who are less violent and more sensitive to their surroundings. Natalie wants to see more characters who interact socially rather than just fight. I will own that communication, sensitivity, and peace, are characteristics which are socially and historically feminine; and I also want to see more characters like that. But what none of wants to promote--even you, I think--is characters who are PASSIVE. I understand fully how passivity has historic assoication with femininity, but that characteristic as a positive attribute of women died in the twentieth century. Feminine role models today are by and large persons of action. Some may be pacifistic, but even these are not passive. Do you see the distinction?

Natalie said...

I do, and I agree with you. I'm all for specific passivity at dramatically appropriate points in a game - there are lots of specific [i]situations[/i] you could think of where the choice to do nothing could be highly charged and artistically satisfying. But those situations generally presuppose that passivity is contrary to the character's nature; therein lies the tension. Passive [i]characters[/i], I agree, are no fun. At least if by "passive" we mean "doesn't act" instead of "doesn't act violently." William, perhaps a better term than "passive" would be "peaceful" or "peaceable?"

Malgayne said...

This comment was supposed to be posted yesterday but I got dragged into work-related drama. Hopefully it's still relevant.

I think that we may have unwittingly hit upon something here.

In one of Orange-fell's earlier comments, she (and I'm going to assume you are female here for simplicity's sake, though all the same points apply to a man who's interested in promoting feminism in the media) admitted to not being a gamer. This is an important and relevant point--not because it displays a lack of understanding of the issues, I am not so naive to believe that you have to be a gaming expert to recognize if there are feminist values being promoted in a game or not--but because for some reason, you're not interested in playing video games.

Why is this? I would propose to you that it is because games are not feminine, and I say that as a distinction not just from "female", but also from "feminist".

Natalie and I were once discussing the issue of feminism and he said something which resonated with me very strongly. He said, "I believe with all my heart that men and women are equal, but I laugh at anyone who tries to make the claim that men and women are the same."

I would argue that Portal is a fine example of a feminist game. It features a strong, capable, intelligent female character, who at no point in the game is afforded different or special treatment because of her gender. By the same logic, Tomb Raider is not a bad example of a feminist game either--in some cases Lara Croft is treated differently because she is a woman, but she invariably proves herself to be capable of doing everything a man can do and more. I would argue against the idea, however, that either Tomb Raider or Portal are feminine games.

Let me propose an axiom: Violence is an inherently "masculine" activity. Healing is an inherently "feminine" activity. While this is not necessarily the way things SHOULD be, and intelligent men may disagree on whether this is the way we are designed or merely a construct of our culture, in our current culture it seems fairly evident that violence is considered "masculine" and healing considered "feminine". A number of the "Warrior Mother" characters listed in Willie's writings follow this arc--typically you will have a main male character who is a warrior of some kind, combined with a main female character who is a healer of some kind. The two of them together need to find some way to balance their selves against one another, and form a single unified whole. Hundreds of JRPGS follow this formula--Cloud and Aeris, Squall and Rinoa, Fei and Elly, Ryu and Nina, Cecil and Rosa (Cecil embodying this whole when he becomes a paladin), etc.

What I am proposing is that those female characters are designed to embody feminine characteristics, while the male characters are intended to embody male characteristics. When a male character adopts healing as a method of problem solving, it does not masculinize the activity of healing--it feminizes the character who wields it. Likewise, when Lara Croft solves problems with her guns, it doesn't feminize the action of killing people--it masculinizes the character, because it's a female character engaged in what we consider a masculine activity.

To return to the original point--I think it's pretty clear that video games, as the current industry stands, are male-dominated both on the production side and the consumer side. Orange-Fell doesn't game, and that's perfectly understandable, because nearly all games are based around masculine activities. As time has gone on, more and more girls have started playing games--but in an interesting way, I've found this to be the exception that proves the rule.

World of Warcraft is a good example of a game with a higher-than-normal number of female players. Also being my particular area of expertise, due to my position, I think I can speak with some authority on the subject. I've known quite a few girls who played WoW, and it's very interesting to watch them interact with eachother and with other players. It's interesting to watch, because girls who play WoW seem to fall into a new categories:

--Dabblers. My wife is one of these. She plays WoW occasionally, but mostly because she likes to do things with me. She prefers to play the Sims 2, a game based around caretaking--a decidedly "feminine" activity.

--Girls who deal with their surroundings by demanding to be treated just like "one of the guys".

--Girls who deal with their surroundings by being overtly feminine.

Every WoW guild has one or two of these. I can name several in each category just off the top of my head. What's interesting to me about this, is that every one of these behavioral patterns is clearly a mechanism designed to help a woman function in what is considered to be a "man's world". I don't think of this so much as evidence of a more girl-friendly game, as it is evidence of a culture where women participating in "masculine" activities is considered more and more acceptable.

There aren't very many genuinely "feminine" games out there, and I think that stems from a lack of writers and game developers who are genuinely interested in in pursuing avenues like this. I encourage you to continue to explore avenues like this--not just in terms of story, but also in terms of mechanics and design.

Anonymous said...

@ Malgayne

You make some pretty giant assumptions about me because I labeled myself a feminist. Why I personally don't game is neither here nor there, but it's not because "most games are based around masculine activities." Where did I ever say that I reject "masculine" qualities or am disinterested by them? I didn't. Conversely, a person can be both a gamer and a feminist. (Also, if you notice, out of all these comments, only you decided to move the discussion from women characters to real women you know and how they live up to some quotient of "femininity" that you perceive to exist. That bothers me a little.)

On the topic of characters, your observation about the M/warrior + F/healer duo archetype is correct. It would be fun to turn it on its head. Thought question, using a character I think we're all familiar with: Alanna of Trebond is a female knight who also has an ability to work healing magic. If, instead of that talent, she had an ability to augment her skill in battle by magically causing wounds, would she be somehow less feminine? Why?

@ Natalie

I'm so glad we agree! When W. updated his blog a few days ago, I told him, "Yay, I get to argue with Eric again." ;)

*always online at 2 a.m*

Natalie said...

Alanna does have the ability to augment her skill in battle by magically causing wounds. It's not one that she's focused on, but that's because for her the point of her healing magic is to balance the lives she takes, which she does plenty easily enough without using her Gift.

I don't think Alanna is defeminized by her use of magic in combat, but I do think she's feminized by her use of magic to heal, and in general by her acceptance of her role as a healer. And I think in this case Tammy (a fire-breathing feminist if ever there was one) just might agree.

Consider the strong gender language in the scene where she saves Jon from the Black God, for instance, in The First Adventure. Why is it so important that only the woman Alanna can save Jon? I'd argue that the re-making of Lightning is a similar act, in that it requires Alanna to accept and integrate disparate parts of herself. Alanna's character arc in the Song of the Lioness is generally one of moving away from her girlish rejection of all things feminine (epitomized early on by the convent at the City of Gods) and towards embracing all aspects of herself - the killer, the healer, the hero, the lover. As she says at the Roof of the World, she can be a knight and still like pretty things. But it's the traditionally feminine aspects - the love of pretty clothes, the mastery of healing, accepting that she enjoys dominant men in romance and in bed - that are the ones she has to move towards, and I think Tammy clearly sees that as important. I find it interesting that these books were written in the 1980s by an avowed feminist, and if I remember my history of critical theory aright, it was just about that time period when feminism as a whole started to shift its definition of womanhood away from the rejection of traditional "feminine" and towards a more inclusive model where the only thing about the traditionally feminine is being confined to it. That journey away from a blind rejection of traditional femininity and towards accepting it as a healthy part of the whole is exactly the journey Alanna takes over those four books, and an important part of her ability to synthesize that way is her ability to accept a) her Gift and b) her healing side, magical and non-magical.

So in answer to your question, in Alanna's case specifically I think the answer would be yes. I don't think that's a generalizable answer, but for Alanna, focusing her Gift on combat, as she focused her physical training and ambitions as well, would represent a rejection of her unintegrated feminine side. That would make her less feminine both by dint of rejecting what I think Tammy labels her "feminine" side and by dint of rejecting the integrated whole-person version of feminism her author (and perhaps most modern feminists) espouses. But as I say, not generalizable. As a counterpoint example, I think Honor Harrington engages in combat with warship, handgun, sword, and empty hand in a distinctly feminine way.

Anonymous said...

@ Natalie

I should have just said "a female knight" instead of making it Alanna. I was trying use her example to question the M-warrior/F-healer double archetype, not to say anything in particular about her storylines and her purpose. (I also didn't remember any instance of her using magic to inflict harm, but it's been a while since I reread the books.)

Can I make a book rec to you? Read "Cordelia's Honor" by Lois McMaster Bujold. Cordelia is one of my heroes.

Natalie said...

In that case my answer remains the same. I don't think the psyche of a female knight (or even the population of female knights) is the same as the psyche of a male knight (or the population of male knights). For me, though, violence isn't an inherently masculine activity. For me violence is masculinized or feminized by some mix of the gender of the actor and the way the character interacts with it. Alanna's violence is more masculine than feminine to me because it's directed primarily at her insecurities as a person. Honor's violence is more feminine than masculine to me because it's directed primarily at protecting something she's decided to devote herself to. Anakin Skywalker's violence is more feminine than masculine to me for the same reason (though he certainly has his share of insecurities he's trying to cover up).

If I can try to anticipate some feminist flak, I should make clear that I don't think there should be any particular sort of congruity between the gender of one's violence and the gender of one's self. One might think I analyze Anakin as a flawed character because the gender of his violence (as categorized by me) and the gender of his person don't match, but that's not the case. Anakin is a flawed character [because he's badly written *cough*] because what he's trying to protect and the way he decides to go about it are morally flawed. Alanna's "masculine" violence (in the Song of the Lioness; I think she integrates better later on) isn't a bad thing; I just don't think it's something that makes her feminine. Which isn't to say that it makes her less female, either, or that it makes her a bad female, or an insecure female (she is an insecure female, but not because she's a knight). But if someone were to ask me, "What makes Alanna feminine?" (and I think she is), I wouldn't say, "Her shield." I would say that Honor Harrington's tactical, handgunning, fencing, and black belt contribute to her femininity, though.

Natalie said...

Er, I should clarify that I don't think "masculine" can be boiled down to "insecurities" or that "feminine" can be boiled down to "protectiveness." I'm not sure I have a good comprehensive definition for what those two terms mean to me, really. But in the particular cases I cited, those are the most salient factors.

Malgayne said...

@ Orange-Fell:

I don't feel like my posted comment made giant assumptions about you, and I apologize if that was what you got from it. By introducing real women to the discussion, I only meant to try and make the discussion more personally relevant--a character cannot exist in media without interacting with a consumer, and the characteristics of this consumer will obviously have a dramatic effect on how the character is interpreted.

Here are the steps in the logical process I made:

First, I assumed that you were female, which I admitted to not actually knowing. In the absence of a correction I'm going to continue to operate under that assumption, feel free to let me know if I'm wrong. :)

Second, you pointed out that you are not a gamer. No reason was given. No problems there.

Third, I made the assumption that the reason why you were not a gamer was because, for some reason or another, you were not interested in games--either the actual activity of gaming (pressing buttons and staring at a screen), or the representative activity of gaming (beating up Solid Snake in SSB:B, slaying monsters in Final Fantasy, etc.) simply does not excite your interest. This is an assumption--there are certainly other reasons not to be a gamer--but I don't feel like it was a GIANT assumption.

Fourth, I expanded this example. I consider it to be common knowledge that vastly more men consider themselves to be "gamers" than women. I pointed out (trying to use concrete examples in personal experience) that despite the fact that more women than ever are playing games, gaming nonetheless continues to be a "man's world". From my perspective, the impression that I get from the majority of women who play games (or at least, the ones who play the same games I like to play) is that they are aware, on some level, that they are existing in a male-dominated culture. They deal with this in numerous ways--some by remaining content to merely visit, some by expecting to be treated exactly the same as everyone else, and some by expecting to be treated differently from everyone else. But all of these are "coping methods"--symptoms of the underlying problem, which is that the gaming world is still (unfortunately) a world that is created, run, and primarily enjoyed by, men. I hope you do not get the impression from my comments that I consider this to be anything other than a tragedy.

Finally, from all this data, I drew the conclusion that the reason why gaming is a "man's world" is because primarily, the activites involved in (and represented by) gaming are 'masculine' activities. This is a circular definition--what is a 'masculine' activity except an activity that is primarily engaged in or enjoyed by men? But it opens the door for further questions to be asked, hopefully, in this comment thread. Questions like:

-Are activities masculine or feminine by their very nature, or is the 'gender-ification' of an activity purely cultural?
-What activities are primarily masculine, and what activities are primarily feminine? I proposed an example here, of violence as masculine and healing as feminine. This does not mean that men beat people up and women sew them back together, necessarily--as William says, everyone must have these characteristics in a sort of balance, and leaning to far in one direction is unhealthy.
-How can gaming evolve in such away as to transcend its 'masculinity', not only so that it appeals to both men and women, but also so that the truths expressed in gaming can transcend the male perspective so as to mature as an art form?

Anonymous said...

@ Malgayne

-Are activities masculine or feminine by their very nature, or is the 'gender-ification' of an activity purely cultural?

It's the latter.

-What activities are primarily masculine, and what activities are primarily feminine? I proposed an example here, of violence as masculine and healing as feminine. This does not mean that men beat people up and women sew them back together, necessarily--as William says, everyone must have these characteristics in a sort of balance, and leaning too far in one direction is unhealthy.

Yes, there are vague cultural standards (usually called "gender roles"). I think gender archetypes (and even stereotypes) can be very useful in creating fictional characters that are interesting and appealing. I disagree that a "balance" of supposed masculine and feminine characteristics creates a healthy person.

-How can gaming evolve in such a way as to transcend its 'masculinity', not only so that it appeals to both men and women, but also so that the truths expressed in gaming can transcend the male perspective so as to mature as an art form?

Maybe if more gamers realized that a person's genitalia does not constitute his or her "perspective."

Malgayne said...

You make some pretty giant assumptions about me just because I'm a gamer. ;)

I intended these questions as discussion points. I'm getting the impression that these are points you don't wish to discuss. I feel as though one can't have an intelligent discussion on the second and third point without also having a discussion on the first. Obviously, having a "balance of masculine and feminine characteristics" is a meaningless concept if there are no characteristics that are inherently masculine or feminine. I disagree with you in that I believe that some characteristics are inherently masculine or feminine, and that men and women do have certain differences by nature. I don't think that makes me a chauvinist.

For example--hundreds of cultures worldwide independently developed a male-dominated societal hierarchy. I think it's a gross oversimplification to say that this can all be traced back to a single White European male who decided that having a penis made him better. I believe it's because there are fundamental differences between men and women, which transcend cultural boundaries, that predispose male/female pairings towards this behavior.

Please understand me--this is a tremendous tragedy, and I make no defense of it whatsoever. I don't intend to say it was inevitable, I have no intention of saying that anyone was "asking for it". Women did not bring it upon themselves. Whatever remnants we have of a male dominated culture today are injustices that demand to be put to rights. But it did happen, independently across a majority of cultures, and I have difficulty imagining how such a thing could happen if, outside of their physical differences, men and women started with exactly the same "raw material" in terms of natural inclinations and problem solving methods.

Another example: William will have to support me on this in terms of the research, but my understanding is that--for example--men and women tend to relate to eachother in different ways. Men primarily relate to one another by engaging in mutual activities. Women primarily relate to one another by direct communication, usually talking. This is why a man will frequently consider someone his "friend" even though they only see eachother once every two weeks to play poker, and even then they never say a word to one another beyond "I fold". In the majority of cases, women don't seem to have this kind of relationship--their friendships are instead solidified by sharing communication. Women make friends by getting together to talk.

If my feelings aren't obvious, I'm not saying either one of these methods of relating to your fellow human beings is inferior. If anything, I think maintaining friend relationships through speech leads to deeper, more meaningful relationships. Nonetheless, I personally don't find such relationships satisfying. Unless we have something to do, I don't feel like we're really together. I have difficulty imagining that this is purely because my culture has taught me that this is how men get along.

Anonymous said...

@ Malgayne
What? I didn’t say anything about you.

I am not going to get baited into a debate on evolutionary psychology and anthropology. It would clutter up Willie’s blog. But, just to outline my position: quite a lot of what you said on those topics is factual. There are some basic differences between men and women. For example, I am not a man. That means, in part, that I do not have the physical features or the biological drives and processes of a male. It also means I do not consistently behave in the ways our culture and society considers “masculine,” nor am I expected to behave in such patterns consistently. There is a different set of expectations I live up to rather more consistently, because I am a woman. I am not passing a value judgment on any of this, I’m just laying out the facts.

Any action performed by a person gendered male may be called a “male action,” and the same concept applies to actions made by females. It’s a construction that is uninteresting in the literary sense, and is way too easily confused with “masculine/feminine actions.” Those mean, on the other hand, actions that mesh in some way with the expectations of the male or female roles in a particular culture or society. If you look over the thread, you’ll see us commenters dealing in archetypes, debating what fits into what category. Any one example can be deconstructed a thousand ways. Is fighting in a war “masculine,” because it’s aggressive and violent, or “feminine” because peace is the goal? Or “masculine” because it might be to increase personal glory, or “feminine” because it is only to protect innocent children? Or “masculine” because only men can be on the front lines, or “feminine” because we’re talking about a society of Amazons?

So to reiterate, actions are not masculine or feminine by their very nature, because any criteria you try to use to define them in such a way would be meaningless without cultural references. The gendering of actions is purely cultural.

(Hi Willie my dear, I hope this thread is amusing for you!)