gender issues

Tangential Politics: A strange little tale of gender, superheroes, and video games

Before I put up a post about the existential panic of being so close to a funded Kickstarter but running out of time, I want to take a moment to tell a weird little tale that might show, in a quirky way, some of the deep-seated issues of misogyny ingrained into both parts of the comic book culture and the video game culture.  In fact, the arena for this little tale is none other than one of those nexus points of the two cultures, one of my favorite video games, Marvel Heroes.

Marvel Heroes is a fun, free-to-play action game using the Marvel IP.  They make their money primarily by selling cosmetic costumes for the characters in the game … a pretty smart way to go, as visuals can mean everything to people and comic book characters often have quite a wardrobe that can be sold.  Early in the game’s history, they also introduced the notion of Enhanced Costumes:  Costumes that had more than a basic visual change.  Altered special effects, new voice overs, new animation sets, that kind of thing.

One use of Enhanced costumes was for cross-gendered counterparts of characters.  As you may know, many comic book characters had Distaff Counterparts created, female versions of male heroes, both as cheap fixes for the female demographic or, more recently, trying to bring some equality in the male-imbalanced comic book world by putting a woman in a legacy hero role.  Rarely, you can see the reverse, the Spear Counterpart, but considering the massive imbalance already between male and female representation in comic books, this has been exceedingly rare.

Here’s where things start to get creepy.  From the start, there have been sections of the game’s player base to keep shouting about the ‘unfairness’ that there were multiple male-to-female swaps (Lady Loki, Kate Bishop (a modern female Hawkeye), Lady Deadpool, etc.) and no female-to-male swaps.  Any argument about gender imbalance in the existing cast (which these costumes helped to even out) or the tremendous lack of Spear Counterparts in comics period were met with deaf ears.  The developers opened a feedback thread for suggestions for such female-to-male costumes and 99% of the suggestions were extreme stretches, often trying to stick totally different characters into totally incompatible character slots.

Eventually, two female-to-male costumes were announced.  A lot of people were unhappy about them, because they were, by the eyes of any fan of comic books, stretches.  The developers original policy was that Enhanced Costumes had to have near identical powers as the base character and be strongly linked.  Both of these new ideas were on-point with the second idea, but stretched the first one considerably.  Still, they continued on.

Cut to the now, as the first of these is to be released.  There are now creepy and strange little nitpicks about it.  Why isn’t the character name changed, it looks weird to see a feminine name (despite the fact that no other Enhanced costume has had a name change)?  Why do the power icons still show the original character, it looks weird to see a woman’s face on them (despite the fact that, you guessed it, power icons have never changed on other Enhanced costumes)?  Why did this costume take so long to come out, all the other female enhanced costumes came out so much faster (even though they took just as long, one even being released incomplete after a long delay)?  To contrast, none of these questions were brought up by the female gamers who were getting male-to-female costumes; they just expressed relief and thanks for getting more female playable options.

This may seem a little thing, but it’s very eye-opening about the casual misogyny that men (and some women) can show.  There’s an expectation that there are different rules and that what applied to women doesn’t apply to them.  Their needs are more important and things that weren’t previously an issue are now big issues that need to be addressed for their comfort.  The one positive I can take away from this is that the Marvel Heroes dev team have not indulged in any of this chicanery.  Still, the whole deal colors portions of the game’s community in a pretty negative light … thankfully it’s no one I hang around with!

Writing from another gender’s viewpoint, how hard is it really?

Looking at gender, issues surrounding it, and then looking at it again through the lens of creative endeavors is and may always be something of a hot-button topic.  For me, personally, it’s an unusual thing in that, while I rationally understand why people make such a fuss about it, emotionally it’s never seemed like a complicated thing to tackle.  It is just the simple notion that, differences aside, people are elementally people.

I think the place where many authors (and normal people, for that matter) trip up is that they don’t look at other-gendered characters (or people) in the right light.  Often times, they are classified in a surface-down fashion instead of a core-up fashion.  To clarify, let’s take a male author looking at a female character.  It’s certainly common enough for that author to think of the character’s make-up and actions in the story through the primary lens of ‘woman’ and that leads to difficulties.  Not only will the author be tempted to fill in gaps with female stereotypes or, just as bad, with the polar opposite of said stereotypes (which are ironically JUST as stereotypical), the character’s actions outside of those stereotypes will still feel stilted and unnatural.

A better approach, I feel, is to try to train the mind to think of all characters in terms of their core essence first.   In such a situation, the author from above views the female character he just created as a human (or elf or dragon or whatever) first and foremost.  He doesn’t find himself asking the awkwardly-phrased question of ‘what would a woman do here?’; he simply asks himself ‘what would a person do here?’.  The action becomes more natural, because they ARE more natural, not based off stereotypes or other gender concerns.

Obviously, there will still be situations where specific gender issues cannot be ignored.  Some of these are biological, of course, and some of these are societal.  Still, the above rule of thumb, I think, holds true.  There is still a core at the heart of every character and those cores must be the foremost consideration when it comes to the action of the book.

The simplest example of this is to take a female character placed in a modern setting.  When the scene has this woman exposed to sexist remarks from her co-workers, how does she react?  There is no set answer, there aren’t even a few.  The spectrum of reaction is going to be as broad as the human spectrum, even though it is also a specific gender issue.

To sum up, the ultimate point I want to be making here is that, underneath all of our differences, be it gender, ethnicity, or purely social, there is a core humanity and a core personality.  While those differences may add filters to that core, it makes each person no less ‘human’ than the other.  We can only get natural and meaningful action in our writing if we keep to that idea.

Not only that, but I think we could all approach the world in a better way if we applied that same principal to the world outside of our writings.