A Rebuttal on @carolynmichelle’s “Male and Ms. Male”
This is a rebuttal of a blog post that was posted on tumblr by twitter user @carolynmichelle, who works at Feminist Frequency. This blog is not in support of @carolynmichelle or FemFreq, and I do not take ownership of her blog entry as it appears on Tumblr. It’s mainly being used as a template for my rebuttal, as certain parts stand out to me that I would like to respond to. My responses will appear in red text through this blog entry.
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Why I didn’t just lead in with this, I don’t know. Let’s do this.
On Male As Default And What Ms. Male Characters Are And Aren’t
Whether willfully or sincerely, a lot of people who have been tweeting the image I discussed in my last post…
…continue to essentially say, “But you said a female Link would be cool, and Link as a woman would by definition be a Ms. Male Character! That’s hypocritical! What the fuck do you want?”
And for any who are genuinely unsure about this, I want to try to offer some clarification, if I can.
It’s quite simple. A female Link–that is, an incarnation of the Hero of Time, the link between players and the game world, who simply was a woman–would not be a Ms. Male Character because the character would actually be Link. If link is an incarnation, then that means link is a spirit. A spirit can take on any form it chooses freely, and can continue to manifest in that same from if it wants to, with subtle changes. Think of the living castle in the Castlevania games. You are always traveling to the same castle, but the castle is different every time on the inside. Some things are the same as the last form, but different, nonetheless, and it chooses its final form of its own will. Thus the spirit of link could be a woman, but selectively chooses not to be.
This would make sense, because Link is not one character but many characters, and would be cool, because Link is such an iconic character, and part of what is terrific about Link within the context of the Zelda games is that he functions as a blank slate character, one for players to seamlessly project themselves onto. We rarely have iconic female characters that function as blank slates for players of all genders to project themselves onto. A “blank slate character” has neither a gender-specific trait or characteristic from the start [gender neutral]. And seeing that Link is an iconic character, that means that said character must have some similarity to the previous version of the past self, thus requiring him to retain a similar form every time. It also explains why Nintendo choose not to make Link a woman.
As series producer Eiji Aonuma explains to Kotaku, “the main character [of Zelda] isn’t actually Link—it’s the player.” The silent protagonist is meant to serve as an empty stand-in for the player to project himself onto. Link is the link—get it?—between the presumably male player and his virtual world.
Meanwhile, Linkle is the definition of a Ms. Male Character because everything about her–her name, her appearance–is designed to position her as very clearly, very explicitly Not-Link, and this reinforces the notion of male as default which is so prevalent in our society. This doesn’t suggest a “default” of any kind. Creating a character that doesn’t look anything like the character from past games in any way, is simply A NEW CHARACTER. It’s like the movie ‘Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li’. You can’t really call it a movie from the ‘Street Fighter‘ series, because while the movie has the names of characters that are from the game, they look nothing like any of the characters from the game. That’s like saying that an apple looks like a watermellon. It’s not.
As Anita Sarkeesian says at one point in the Feminist Frequency video on the Ms. Male Character…
“In a male-identified society like ours, men are associated and become synonymous with human beings in general. In other words, male tends to be seen as the default for the entire species.” The “gender binary” is something that is created and exists in NATURE, and is beyond the control of human beings. Humans can be born as Male or Female, have one or both genitals of the sexes, and have characteristics to either gender. Mother Nature is a mad scienist, and doesn’t really give two cents if you like or dislike the cycle of life.
This is why, for instance…
…the character on the right, who has no signifiers of any kind, is read as male, while the character on the left needs the gender signifiers to differentiate her from the “default” and make it clear that she is female. What you are describing, is based on character design, something that is 100% in control of the game designer/developer. The fact the designer/developer chose this appearance for ‘Pac-Man’, does not make it a default in any way. For all we know, Pac-Man could have just been chosen to look like box with two eyes, or a stick figure with a big butt, or a spaceship. The possibilities are limitless as to what can be created, and just because the character doesn’t meet an individual’s idea of a protagonist doesn’t mean there is something wrong with it, or that it’s a form of sexism.
After the Ms. Male Character video came out, to further illustrate the way that male as default is ingrained in our culture, someone made this image, trying to convey what it might be like if we lived in an alternate universe in which female was seen as the default, the “standard” gender, and men had to be defined in opposition to that default. This again goes to personal preference of a single person. The fact that Pac-Man isn’t wearing blue or a top hat and tie, is again a personal opinion and preference of the individual. And around the time the game was created, you could only do so much with an arcade and console system in the 1980’s. By the way, from my POV, Pac-Man is NAKED. Just a thought.
Because we live in a strongly male-identified society, the idea of Pac-Woman as the “unmarked” default and Mr. Pac-Woman as the deviation “marked” with masculinizing gender signifiers feels strange and downright absurd, while Pac-Man and the deviation Ms. Pac-Man seem completely normal in our current cultural context. This whole paragraph is downright absurd. “Because we live in a strongly male-identified society”, no we don’t. Women have just as much as much rights and support as a man, and men do support women. This is the problem with “Modern day”feminism: It’s a toxic argument that focuses on problems that are almost virtually non-existent in First-World countries (USA is a First-World country), but are running rampant in Third-World Countries, and is only lightly addressed.
In a female as default society, as I explored in another recent post, this collection of pixels might be interpreted as female. A Pixel is a dot on a computer screen, and should not be interpreted as a gender part…That’s just weird as hell.
(Though this should go without saying, female-as-default is not a goal of feminism; rather, we’re working toward a culture in which genders are viewed more equitably, and female is not seen as an alternate, a deviation from the standard norm of male.) In other words, you want a gender-neutral character, that can be perceived in any gender, from any individual perspective. A game free from being subjected to any tropes. This is a personal preference from a single person, and a personal preference should never be made the rule.
The issue of male as default also gives rise to (and is in turn reinforced by) the prevalence of the Smurfette Principle, which the video discusses in detail. The Smurfette Principle, which is on display in so many TV shows and games, is the tendency for only one member of a group to be female while all the others are male; often, in situations like this, the men all have distinct personality traits, while the one female member’s personality is essentially “being the girl of the group.” Gender as personality trait. A thing about Tropes, from a developer’s perspective: A Trope should be seen as more of a variable that is part of a larger equation. And like a variable, a trope can be altered to any extent [it’s value can be changed]. This can result in a different trope being created altogether, or take a spin on a trope. The problem here, is that tropes are clichés, and anyone can make them up and use them in just about anything, including Video Games. It gets worse when you use them to describe real-life comparisons, when it fact, a trope is mainly for literary works, and not for real life. Life and art IMITATE each other – they do not dictate each other. That is blurring the line between fantasy and reality, something that only the mentally unstable do. It’s a dangerous concept.
Insert 1950’s sexist rhetoric here, or just use only the picture above. Your call.
So, let’s take an example of a character who is not inherently a Ms. Male Character: Commander Shepard.
Within the context of the Mass Effect games themselves, Shepard (as a woman) is not a Ms. Male Character because she does not exist solely in relation to Shepard (as a man). When you play as her, she simply isShepard. However, because the marketing materials so overwhelmingly presented male Shepard as the “standard,” “default” Shepard, Shepard (as a woman) is in some ways perceived as an alternate, a deviation from the norm. The prevalence of the notion of male-as-default is also why fans of Shepard as a woman (including myself) often refer to her as FemShep. Male Shepard gets to be just Shepard (yes, I know some people jokingly refer to him as BroShep) while female Shepard is in some ways othered by her gender. However, as I said, taken within the context of the games themselves, Shepard is not a Ms. Male Character. If a character in a video game looks like a woman, it’s a woman. If a character looks like a man, it’s a man. The same goes for gender identity – If a person identifies as female, they are female and vice versa. And again, this is going to personal preference of having a gender neutral character in video games. Also “othered”, “FemShep” and “BroShep” are not words. If you are going to make an argument/opinion/statement, use words that actually exist. And spell check. Don’t skimp on the spell check.
Similarly, if, say, in the next proper Zelda game, Link, the Hero of Time, were simply incarnated as female (as some of us hoped might be the case upon seeing the next Link for the first time)…
…and Link were still the same typically blank-slate character that players are expected to project themselves onto and inhabit, this would not be a Ms. Male Character. Again, Jess Joho:
Here’s the bottom line that Nintendo refuses to see: when people ask “why can’t Link be a girl,” they’re not asking for the option to maybe play as a girl who looks like Link in a game with a Zelda-related title. They’re not asking for girls to be kept to the side, marginalized to a lesser product and project (anyone remember the Nintendo Girls Club?) Instead, they’re asking why—amidst an otherwise very female-centric mythology about three goddesses and a badass princess—must the “Hero” character always be a boy? Why is it okay to ask female players to identify with Link despite their gender differences, but at the same time have it be inconceivable to ask male players to do the same?
(emphasis mine) You know, there was a popular character on Saturday Night Life, named Pat. And when people saw Pat for the first time, they asked one question: “Is that a man or a woman?”. And asking that question isn’t a bad thing in video games. What if you came across a NPC that was an alien that looked neither male or female, but found out quickly that the alien is male? And if you are projecting yourself onto a character in a video game, that’s a sign that something isn’t quite right with you mentally. Saying “I want to look/be like link” is fine [idol worship], is not the same as “I AM link”, and that person might have mental issues and a hard time determining what is and isn’t real. And just because a character isn’t a specific gender to one’s liking, does not mean that there is something wrong with the game itself, nor does it mean that the game will promote sexism.
If in the next Zelda, Link were Link, and a woman, this would not be FemLink in opposition to BroLink. It would just be Link, oh BTW she’s female this time, NBD. Rather than reinforcing the notion of male as default, this would be actively challenging it. Challenging a view is done from the opposition of the subject at hand. Proponents of the subject have the right to change their own views on their own terms, and when and IF they choose to do so. Just because someone doesn’t like something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. At the end of the day, the developers have the final say as to what they want in their game, and what their game is about. If you don’t like it, don’t play it. Or make your own. It really IS that simple. Who’s really stopping you? Think before you answer that question.
Linkle, however, does the opposite. By being so clearly, so emphatically identified through her name and her female signifiers as Not-Link, she only works to reaffirm the notion of male as default, the notion that male is standard and that maleness is essential to the identity of this set of legendary heroes. This statement would only be viable if it were factually accurate, as there are a ton of games that have female protagonists. Amazing Princess Sarah, The Metroid games, Tomb Raider games, countless indie dev games, the list goes on and on on on…To suggest that male characters are the “default”, means that the devs really didn’t give a damn about the game they were making, and went with a male for the main character. That is lazy as hell, and no developer thinks like that. Video games are a work of FICTION – they do not need to conform to any kind of individual standard when it comes to their story line and character design, and to suggest that’s the case, is beyond reasonable – it’s disturbing.
And if you think that all the hubbub about Linkle seems grossly out of proportion to Linkle, well, I can understand that. As Sarkeesian herself says in the Ms. Male Character video, “Taken on their own, each individual example…may seem relatively benign or trivial.” But the larger pattern throughout media as a whole is significant (as the video clearly demonstrates) and does reinforce perceptions about gender in our culture. The problem with our society, is we blame the media for our ills. Our society is formed on the consensus of what is and isn’t acceptable, and that is based on the will of society, NOT the media. A TV show, movie, video games, books does not make or define who a person is and what they will become, or make of their lives or even how they treat others – it is the personal experiences we have in our lives that make us so. To determine that a form of entertainment is responsible for society’s problems is a lazy analysis of the human condition, and just plain wrong.
Some people like to respond to critiques like this by saying “Nintendo can do whatever they want! You don’t get to dictate what they do with their characters!” And, yeah, of course! Nintendo can do whatever they want, and I can express my opinions about those creative decisions. My opinion is that, considering that Link is one of the most iconic heroes in gaming history, and since there’s no reason why Link can’t be female, it would be really exciting and really meaningful if Link (not Linkle or some other character expressly designated as Not-Link) were a woman at some point, and players of all genders got to project themselves onto that legendary hero. For once, I agree.You are entitled to have an opinion like everyone else – free country. But just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean that it should become canon. Having a personal preference as to how a game should be is a singular Point-Of-View, and should be taken as such, and because a game has something that you don’t like or approve of, does not mean that it will in some impossible fashion, affect the way our society functions, nor should it be blamed for society’s ills. And there never has been, nor will there ever be a reason to create anything, no matter what form its in or its context, nor does there really have to be a reason to create something or anything – just create.
And I know this is a rebuttal, but this is the end of it, so it’s ok: Feminist Frequency doesn’t get any of this, hence why they suck so much. Thank you for reading, everyone.