LARP and Misogynistic Culture: Dealing with “Historical Accuracy” in the Modern Age
Posted by Angela
Female LARPers walk a fine line. On the one hand, we’re participating in a world that encourages strong women in an intense hobby. We take our characters’ lives in our hands and make world-altering decisions with each and every step, we fight off armies of enemies with fierce determination, and we have the opportunity to defy sexist beliefs and cultures through role play and character creation. We may still be the lesser represented of the traditional genders at games, but the numbers gap is quickly closing.
On the other hand, a lot of LARPs encourage historical and cultural beliefs and traditions that seriously deny women their strength and individuality, in a way that can promote harmful modern culture, and we deal with it because it’s “part of the game”. If there are aspects of a game that you don’t like, you don’t have to play, right? But since when did participating in a hobby come down to fun versus standing up against sexist stereotypes? Should we be penalized for wanting to maintain our feminist autonomy in an environment that trivializes sexism and anti-humanism?
I used to play a game in which some nations kept and defended their use of slaves. It was mostly backstory fluff, but instances came up every now and then where a player would make a wrong step in front of one of these nations and slavery would be their go-to punishment. I was one such character. I made a decision that put me on the wrong side of a debate with the prince of a nation, and part of my punishment was a temporary slave status to the ranking town member of this nation. I accepted the role play, and I admit at the time, I was excited. It was an aspect of game play that I thought would be interesting to examine, and the player in charge of “keeping me” was my real life boyfriend, so I knew I wouldn’t be put through anything terrible. In reality, the role play was tame, and it was pretty uneventful. I did things like get my captor dinner, heal on command, and hold his shield when he wasn’t using it – almost more like a squire than a slave. I wasn’t allowed my usual mace and shield, however, and that was worrisome to me. The most fun part of the weekend was finding little secret moments where I could break my slave-chains and kill a goblin beyond the tree line or let slip rebellious comments about my “oppressors”. After the weekend, I went back to being my character’s carefree, outspoken self, and it never came up for me again.
Other players/characters, however, had a much bigger problem with it. Their characters would be outspoken against slavery, saying it’s just not okay, and I cringe now remembering my response: “There were slaves in the middle ages. It’s all part of the game. It’s no big deal.” Part of me still agrees, but for a much different reason.
I don’t usually believe in censorship; there is a place for all kinds of art, even derogatory kinds, although it’s not for everyone. When there is a controversial matter, it belongs in it’s own forum, for the purpose of creating discussion. While I may have defended the slave trade in that game, I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons. We should never allow harmful things to happen simply for the sake of “historical accuracy”; we should allow these things to exist in a controlled environment to create discussion and thoughtful reflection about why these matters are controversial in the first place. A lot of people think, for example, that books containing slavery or sexism aren’t appropriate anymore even though they’re still considered classics. Groups advocate the banning of these books, but banning something just makes it more desirable. (And ignoring our history just makes us doomed to repeat it.) Instead, they should be taught for the significance they hold and the opportunity to create discussions about tough subjects and why they’re wrong.
As LARPers, we don’t do this, and we should be. When a game has a culture that treats women less than men, there’s no discussion about why. Game wrap-ups don’t initiate dialogue on why a plot was run a certain way and what it means to women and the misogynistic community. It’s included to be “realistic” or to have a varied list of culture types, and the game’s players are given a choice of whether or not to participate. But among those who participate, there’s no exploration of why that culture appealed to them, why a woman would play one, how it relates to women’s struggles today or why it’s considered sexist – if the topic of sexism even comes up at all. It’s dismissed as “part of the game” and “not required” to partake in. But this doesn’t make it better – it makes us more dismissive when we see sexism in real life.
My husband and I joke around a lot. We play-fight, and he tells me to go make him a sandwich. I throw something at him, or glare, and we move on. The few times I actually do (to be nice, or because I’m hungry too) he’s genuinely shocked and defends his sandwich-making ability, as if I made him one because he wasn’t capable of it. We, unfortunately, are an enlightened bunch. There are still men – yes, in today’s world, and yes, in this country – who believe a woman’s job is to be behind a man – or under him. That she belongs in the kitchen. That her job is to make babies (a solely individual responsibility, apparently). (And if the woman happens to be of color, the percentage of men who believe this jumps up even higher.) When I hear someone making a joke about being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, I speak up: “Actually, that stereotype is offensive to women on a fundamental level, and I understand you think you’re being funny, but I don’t find it humorous.” So why don’t we speak up when men go easy on women in combat, or when a culture exists that demeans it’s women players? Because we accept it as “part of the game”, something we have to deal with because of the content source and historical precedence.
Ladies – we’ve got it wrong!
I read an article recently on XOJane about a gem of a panel at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, where four women talked for an hour about sexism and white male privilege at a panel called “Women Who Kick Ass”. These four women talked about how they’d been looked down on, taken advantage on, gone easy on, and shunned for being women. Some quotes:
Michelle Rodriguez: “Some actor dude once said chicks couldn’t drive cars… I was like “move over.’”
Katee Sackhoff: ”Once a guy on set kinda beat the shit out of me during a fight scene. He said he thought I could ‘handle it.’”
Tatiana Maslany: ”One time… a crew member started hitting on me when I was tied to a bed for a scene. I was young. I was just starting out. I couldn’t get away.”
For too long we’ve let this shit go, thinking it’s just what we have to deal with, being women playing a man’s game. As the author, Kate Conway, puts it, “Because for a certain kind of man, a woman’s ideal response to sexism is always to “just ignore it.” Because nobody likes to feel uncomfortable in a space where they’ve been assured they can get away with just about anything.” We’re told that it’s our lot, that we should turn the other cheek, rise above the ignorance, and be better people for it. This. Is. Bullshit. If we don’t unite, speak up, and create educational discussion, these beliefs will just keep happening.
So it is with gamers, too: Just because we’re LARPers doesn’t mean we should just accept cultural topics like slavery, rape, chauvinistic chivalry, and the “women are weak” stereotype (all things I’ve seen firsthand being “role played” at LARPs). We’re attracted to LARPing because we love character development, storytelling, and feeling strong and fierce. Plots and storylines that demean women are taking away from our experiences, even if we just brush them off, because they’re perpetuating these stereotypes and forcing the women dealing with them to internalize all that hate. And there’s no guarantee that the men we LARP with are as enlightened as we’d like to think; LARPing takes all kinds, and I’d be willing to bet at least one guy at your game thinks women have no place on the battlefield. Until recently, our US government thought the same thing.
My favorite quote from the article, and the panel in general, is when Michelle Rodriguez said, ”We gotta start writing. Writing, and directing, and producing the kind of content we want to see. Because otherwise, nothing’s gonna change.” This is so true of Hollywood, but just as true in our daily lives – and in our LARPs.
I don’t want to advocate for everyone to go out and change the fundamental structure of their games if they include controversial materials; like I said earlier, I do believe these things have a place and a purpose. But if you play a game that does have slavery, or patriarchal cultures, or no women of prominence in it’s backstory – speak up! Create a discussion in your forums, Facebook page, or among your LARP friends. Ask the tough questions – why are all our world history’s heroes men from a white nation? What is the reason and significance of some nations allowing slavery? How do we role play such touchy subjects in a way that’s respectful for all involved, and also make it clear that these subjects are controversial for a reason?
For me, education is always the key. I’ve said it before many times, and I likely won’t stop, but talking about things and creating discussion is the key to understanding complex issues and moving past demeaning ones. And anyway, if LARPing is, in part, about character development, then creating these discussions will benefit all players by making the characters think about the reason why they believe or don’t believe in such things. It will result in a more well rounded character – and probably a more well rounded player, as well.
- What is Old is New Again: Game-Based Learning and Live-Action Role-Play (zelenzeducationconsultants.wordpress.com)
- Gender in LARP: Still An Issue (examiner.com)
- There Were Whispers (mostlylarp.tumblr.com)
What are some stereotypes you could do without in your LARP? If you don’t LARP, what stereotypes bother you in real life?
About AngelaAngela lives two lives; one as a writer and activist, and the other as a holistic health advocate. In her real life, she works as a chiropractic assistant while going through massage school; but on the internet, oh, she is many, many things...
Posted on July 28, 2013, in Advocacy, Geekery and tagged controversy, education, games, Katee Sackhoff, LARP, Live action role-playing game, Michelle Rodriguez, role-playing, San Diego Comic Con, SDCC, Sexism, Slavery, Tatiana Maslany. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.