Sexism in the Gaming World

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A few months ago I listened to an interview on NPR with Laralyn McWilliams, a woman who works in the gaming industry. (She was the lead designer on games like Full Spectrum Warrior and the creative director for the online game Free Realms. Currently she’s the chief creative officer at The Workshop, a game studio based in Los Angeles.)

About a year and a half ago, what became known as #Gamergate stirred up a tremendous brouhaha in the video game industry. Although it wasn’t specifically about the role of women in that industry, charges of misogyny and sexism soon began to dominate the discourse. Incredibly, women gamers received rape and death threats for daring to speak out about their experiences.

Even though McWilliams herself doesn’t feel that she has been impeded by sexism in the course of her career, she still feels that it is a big enough problem that she was willing be interviewed about it. When asked why she thinks sexism is rampant in the gaming industry she offered these comments:

Tech itself is male-oriented; software is even more male-oriented than that. And because games for many years have mostly made games for men, it’s even more male-oriented than the rest of them. So it’s sort of this more condensed version of all of the problems in tech…

There is a tendency in tech, and in games in particular, that if you are a woman who talks about the issues facing women in games, that becomes what defines you. You become “the woman who talks about being a woman.” When honestly … it largely continues to feel like my gender should be irrelevant.

When I heard this I had an “aha” moment, because what she describes is a perfect description of the reaction many people have to feminists. Even if all you do is point out that women don’t make as much as men (all other things being equal), you are labeled a “woman who talks about being a woman,” or, God forbid, a feminist.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to women talking about “women’s issues.” Any time a member of a group that is discriminated against dares to speak out about that discrimination, he or she is shouted down for playing the “victim” card. I’ve heard commentators on the (mostly conservative) radio stations dismiss claims of discrimination by calling the claimants “whiners” who want the world to feel sorry for them. Any criticism of the status quo is seen as a ploy to receive special treatment.

They just don’t get it: people who feel that they have been discriminated against don’t want special treatment; they want equal treatment.

I know, I know: I can hear the arguments now against quotas and affirmative action. I’m not here to argue for or against such tactics that are often used to level the playing field. But those tactics wouldn’t be necessary if it were possible to change people’s minds without them. What employer is going to hire a woman if he’s convinced she’s going to take off work too much because of family responsibilities? Or if he assumes she can’t carry her weight because “women are weaker/less competitive/too emotional”?

Some people think that laws reflect the prevailing views in a society and should only be enacted only when there is a consensus for them. But I think that the opposite can also be true: sometimes laws have to be enacted to force society to confront and correct certain problems.

On the other hand, some things can’t be mandated. For instance, you can’t force women to enter the tech field. Nor can you force the public to buy games that were created by women. But women aren’t asking to be accepted just because they’re women; they’re just asking for the same opportunities that men are given.

I realize this is a tricky business. How do you prove that a man was given preferential treatment just because he’s a man or that a woman was denied an opportunity just because she’s a woman? Usually you can’t. But laws can be put into place that protect women who are merely attempting to have the conversation.

 

Call Me What I Tell You to Call Me

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Vanity Fair’s July 2015 issue features a glamorous woman on the cover with the words, “Call me Caitlyn.” Inside is a 22-page article about that woman’s journey to trans-womanhood. If you didn’t know any better, you would have no reason to suspect that this woman used to be a man. But because of the media coverage (hysteria?), almost everyone knows better. The irony is that Caitlyn Jenner probably would like nothing better than to be left in peace to be the woman she’s always longed to be. But because she’s a celebrity, she will probably never have that experience.

And yet I think her decision to “come out” in such a public way was actually quite brilliant. Stories about her “fluid” gender identity have been circulating for quite a while now and I applaud her decision to tell her own story. Less than two months ago, Jenner gave his last official interview as Bruce, with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, in which he explained his struggle to become and accept the person he believes he was really meant to be. The Vanity Fair feature is her first public appearance as Caitlyn. And, in his words, “As soon as the Vanity Fair cover comes out, I’m free.”

As you might expect, the public’s responses have been all over the place. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” made the astute observation that now that Jenner is a woman she is going to have the unfortunate experience of being treated like one; in other words, as if the only thing that matters is her appearance. Many other people have applauded her bravery. Still others feel that she is, at best, in need of some soul-saving, and at worst, an abomination. And then there is the transgender community, which might well see her as its ambassador.

There is also a fair amount of cynicism leveled at Jenner’s actions. She has been accused of doing all this as a publicity stunt and a way to drive traffic to her reality show, which is set to debut this summer on E! Network. She laughs at the idea that she would go through all this (including surgery to feminize her features) just to pay the bills. On the contrary, she sees this as an opportunity to educate the public about what it means to be transgender as well as offer hope to other people who are transgender.

Many people believe that it’s impossible to be “born in the wrong body,” that saying you’re the opposite sex (from the one you were assigned at birth) doesn’t make it true; and that being transgender is a choice. But even the DSM (the manual  used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders) recently revised its terminology from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” to remove some of the stigma and enable trans men and women to get help with their “profound state of unease or dissatisfaction” about the gender they were assigned at birth. It’s not exactly saying that transgender is as “normal” in its way as heterosexuality or that it’s just one of several ways to be gendered in our society, but it has backed off from treating it as a mental illness.

We need to stop treating being transgender as a disease or a sin and start listening to the people who claim it as their gender identity. There must be some reason why they feel the way they do; it’s not likely something they would make up as a lark. Imagine having others tell you that you’re crazy or perverted just because you’re trying to express who you feel you are at the fundamental core of your being.

When I first saw the Vanity Fair cover, I thought “Call me Caitlyn” was a plea, for understanding and acceptance. But the more I thought about it, the more I hoped that it was a command instead. We all have the right to tell others what to call us and we need to exercise that right without apology. To do otherwise is to lose who we are.

 

 

Empathy: Would it Bring World Peace?

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world-peace-logo_4qghS_65We’ve all heard the adage (or some variation thereof), “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” This is about developing empathy, which is in short supply in this world. If there is one thing that causes disconnects between people, it is a lack of empathy. Every time we criticize another person or group, we almost certainly are guilty of not being empathetic.

Being empathetic is not the same as being sympathetic, but most people seem to think it is. Empathy can lead to sympathy, but sympathy doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy. You can feel sorry for someone without entering into his world, or more specifically, his head. In fact, sympathy implies that you are maintaining some distance and looking at a person’s situation from the comfort of your own (superior) position. Empathy is harder to attain and harder to feel.

Months before I converted to Islam, I wrote a post about the Islamic item of clothing called the hijab. (Women’s Rights: The Headscarf.) At the time I had no idea that I was going to convert, let alone that I would ever wear the hijab myself. I felt sympathy for the women who wear it, because of the way they are viewed—and treated—by non-Muslims. They can’t “pass” as non-Muslims, or fade into the background when it’s uncomfortable to be identified as one. (For this reason, I view wearing the hijab as a mark of bravery as much as a symbol of one’s faith.)

But I can’t say that what I felt was empathy. I simply didn’t know enough about what it was like to wear the hijab, what courage it took to put it on every day, the strength of motivation that was required to wear it in a society that is ambivalent (at best) about Muslims.

I’ve heard of social experiments where non-Muslim women have put on the hijab for a period of time (usually a day or a week, at the most) in order to get some idea of what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, let alone a woman who wears one (often known as a “hijabi”). That’s fine as far is it goes, but it doesn’t begin to address all the issues faced by Muslims, like finding a place to pray five times a day, or fasting during Ramadan (or learning how to pray in the first place, if you’re a convert).

I no longer wear the hijab and, in fact, am in a state of flux about exactly where I stand in the matter of religion. I still subscribe to the basic theology of Islam, but I’m undecided about how “Muslim” I’m willing to be. But I will never be sorry that I converted. Because if I hadn’t I don’t think I would have the empathy it takes to understand where Muslims are coming from. I could have studied Islam for a thousand years and it wouldn’t have taught me what I really wanted to know, which is: what is it like to be a Muslim?

Obviously we can’t convert to every religion, let alone pretend to be another race, for instance, in order to develop empathy. But there is a lot we can do to approximate walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

  • We can learn another language.
  • We can travel, whether it’s to a different country or another part of town.
  • We can watch movies with subtitles.
  • We can read, anything and everything.
  • We can listen to different types of music.
  • We can try different cuisines.
  • We can attend a different kind of religious service.
  • We can sponsor a child.
  • We can invite someone to dinner.
  • We can make a friend.

Anything that exposes us to another culture can help us to develop empathy. But the most important step we must take is to stop limiting ourselves to the way of life we were born into. We have to step outside of our comfort zones. We have to open ourselves up to discoveries and be willing to learn something new, preferably every day.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the more foreign something seems to you, the more important it is that you embrace it.

It’s so much easier to stick to what we’re used to, to take potshots at things we don’t understand, to hang out with people who are like us. But that’s a recipe for disaster. We can see the results in our world today. What is discrimination but an attempt to prove that the group belong to is better than the group you belong to? What is war but a refusal to admit that we all want—and have a right to—the same things: safety, security, sustenance, love, acceptance and happiness, for ourselves and those we care about?

Developing empathy is an ongoing and many-layered process. None of the suggestions above will, by themselves, help you to become deeply empathetic. But taken together, and repeated often, they will help.

 

 

Adrienne Rich: Not Just a Feminist Poet

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Adrienne Rich died last Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at the age of 82. If it is at all fair to sum up a poet’s work in one word, in her case it would be “feminist.” But of course it isn’t fair, or accurate, to do so. Rich wrote about so much more than feminism.

It is true that she became known as a feminist poet partly because her poetry gained recognition during the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In fact, her third poetry collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, was published the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Rich’s life followed a predictable course for a young woman of the ’50s: She graduated from college (Radcliffe) with a bachelor’s in English in 1951, married in 1953, when she was 24, and had three sons before she was 30. But by 1970, when she and her husband divorced, her life had taken a radical turn. She came out as a lesbian in 1976 with the publication of her poetry collection, Twenty-One Love Poems.

Along with her poetry, Rich also wrote non-fiction on a variety of topics: racism, the Vietnam War, politics, social commentary, and of course,women’s issues. She was also willing to act when something moved her.  For instance, she was so critical of the policies of the Clinton administration that she  refused the National Medal of Arts that was awarded her in 1997, citing her dismay that “amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

It’s sad that we often don’t pay attention to a person’s life achievements until after they’re gone. I’d heard of Adrienne Rich, but didn’t really know anything about her or her writings. I plan to correct that. I’ve ordered two of her books, one verse and the other prose, and I’ll be sharing what I learn from them in future posts.

In a 1984 speech she stated that her writing and her life were about “the creation of a society without domination.” That’s why I think it’s a shame that she is categorized as a feminist poet, just because she was a woman who sometimes wrote about women. Naming an artist a feminist is one way that society silences its critics. (And naming her a lesbian is an even more effective strategy.)

That’s why I’m going to read Adrienne Rich. Not because she was a feminist, but because she was against all injustice. Hers is a voice that deserves to be heard by everyone.

 

 

Where Are the Female Buddy Movies?

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There’s nothing I like better than female friendship movies. If only there weren’t so few of them.

The quintessential female buddy movie is “Thelma & Louise.” Come on, people! That movie is twenty years old this year. Isn’t there anything a little more recent?

Movies about friendships between women are few and far between. I found a couple of articles that contain lists of movies that supposedly qualify and I have to tell you: I am not impressed. Here are some of the candidates:

  1. 9 to 5 (1980)
  2. Beaches (1988)
  3. Mystic Pizza (1988)
  4. Steel Magnolias (1989)
  5. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
  6. A League of Their Own (1992)
  7. Waiting to Exhale (1995)
  8. Boys on the Side (1995)
  9. The First Wives’ Club (1996)
  10. Set It Off (1996)
  11. Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)
  12. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)
  13. Calendar Girls (2003)
  14. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005)
  15. Sex and the City (2008)
  16. Baby Mama (2008)

“Sex and the City” is a bit of an aberration because it owed its success to a television series. In my opinion, TV has a worse track record than film as far as having main characters who are female and best friends. “Friends” comes to mind. So does “I Love Lucy.” But look at “Seinfeld”: of the four friends, only one is female. No gal friendships there.

So why does this matter? It matters because, for one thing, it reflects the fact that there aren’t all that many strong roles for women out there, either solo or ensemble. But more than that, it teaches women that their world is focused on men. Either that, or they go it alone. How many women sit at home while their husbands and boyfriends go out with the guys? How many of them say the hell with it and go out with the girls?

The picture we get of males and females in movies is made up of generalizations like: Women and men tend to bond over different things. Women’s interests revolve around men and children for the most part. Even the “Sex and the City” story lines almost always had to do with what the men in their lives were up to, although they probably came the closest to showing what women’s friendships can be like outside of whom they’re dating or marrying. The only way that men’s friendships focus on the women in their lives is when they’re talking about sex.

Women’s friendships are thought to be more “touchy-feely” than men’s are. Guys don’t talk about their feelings. (Think “City Slickers.”) Men tend to like to just “hang out.” That’s the message we get from the movies. Where are the women who get together just for companionship? Or the women who let down their hair with each other?

Women are afraid to show their dark sides to each other. They’re afraid to get mad at each other. Men can get into a fight and be best friends as soon as the fight is over. Women carry grudges and have high expectations. Men tend to live and let live.

The visual media are probably the biggest influence that any of us have on how we relate to each other. But they obviously don’t feel a responsibility to show strong female relationships. Movie and television executives have this crazy idea that so-called “chick flicks” don’t sell, so they don’t produce them. And the cycle of misreading and misguiding men and women continues.

It just occurred to me that one movie that could go on the list is “Mamma Mia.” It’s all about long-term, supportive, fun-loving friendships between three strong women. I highly recommend it.

For more examples of female buddy movies, go here and here.

MGM/Everett Collection

Read this article about “Thelma & Louise” at 20.