Written by the chief copy editor at BuzzFeed, A World without ‘Whom’ addresses language in a fast-changing world. The title of the book refers to one of the greatest markers of this change, the use of the word “whom,” often deliberately avoided for its datedness or unconsciously substituted with “who.” Favilla provides an accessible take on various rules regarding spelling, punctuation, grammar, and style that are becoming obsolete in many areas, particularly in internet media such as BuzzFeed itself. She also provides helpful comment on developing conventions in different media, such as what to do in a text vs. an email, a tweet, etc. Published in 2017, it is perhaps not surprising that even now some of the content is appearing a little dated! Nonetheless, it is still an important read.
Favilla’s copy-editing philosophy is particularly notable. Early on, she writes, “Inaccurate information, insensitive language, and sentences that have egregious structural issues all put wear and tear on credibility…. You never want a reader to be jolted from their engrossment from a story because they’ve been distracted by an awkwardly structured, unclear, or offensively worded sentence” (33). Of course, there are exceptions to this. I would prefer to use the inclusive language of “pregnant people,” rather than simply “pregnant women,” despite it likely causing some readers a little jolt, for example, and there will be many similar situations. Perhaps this observation relates to Favilla’s critical take on the “just be consistent” mantra that often appears as a bottom-line in style guides. “There isn’t always a one-size-fits-all approach to language. And that’s really been the basis of the BuzzFeed Style Guide since day one: a fluid, evolving set of standards that shouldn’t be thought of as the iron-fisted rulers of prose… but as a thing that exists to just sorta help everyone out” (35). And quite a bit later: “How do you form an electrifying relationship with your reader? By speaking their language! Not by using the grammar rules our teachers taught us in 1989… or pretending that people aren’t really saying things like ‘I forgot how to person.'” (194).
Below I would like to offer critical comment on some of Favilla’s conclusions and suggestions. This should not be taken as a dismissal of her overall project though, which I think is basically brilliant.
In her chapter on “How Not to be a Jerk,” Favilla accepts APS* style on the distinction between a refugee and a migrant. “Use refugee when referring to ‘a person who is forced to leave his home or country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.’ Use migrant when referring to someone seeking economic oportunity” (62). But this is problematic. First, there is not always a clear-cut distinction between the migrant and the refugee. Can this persecution be the spectre of growing far-right groups in someone’s vicinity, or must it be state-sponsored violence? What constitutes a natural disaster that is significant enough to warrant refugee status? Seasonal flooding? Second, the implication that migrants seek economic opportunity overlooks a whole lot of other factors. What about those seeking education or family? Etc? Even if the distinction appears in legal texts, the responsibility of journalists and other writers involves being critical of inhumane laws, especially those that uphold such a distinction in order to prevent particular people from migrating. (*I am assuming this refers to the American Physical Society, but please let me know otherwise).
In the same chapter, Favilla commends “LGBT” and “queer” as collective terms, against such as “gay,” for example in “the gay community.” This is not simply her own conclusion but the result of many discussions with LGBTQ+ people. While I’m hetero myself, it would have been good to see comment here in regard to different approaches to the acronym. At the very least, surely a + could be included so as not to confuse say intersex people with trans people or pansexual people with bi people? L, G, B, and T don’t quite cut it as representatives themselves of a much larger collection of people. Then there is “queer,” which, while many may find it a helpful umbrella term, is potentially problematic when non-queer writers use it (especially as it originates as a slur or exonym and still carries those connotations for some), and also fails when some people who might otherwise be identified as queer reject the term altogether, even as a self-designation.
Also in this section, Favilla rejects the use of -phobic words such as “homophobic” or “transphobic,” preferring “anti-gay” and “anti-trans.” Her reasoning is that “the suffix -phobic implies a fear, and although this fear may or may not be figurative, it also implies something inherent that cannot be helped, and its use can perpetuate stereotypes.” This, however, is simply etymological fallacy, confusing a word’s meaning with its origin. I’m sure people are smart enough to be able to differentiate between agoraphobia, claustrophobia (and, it may need some work, but both the term as it is used clinically and its perhaps more common, colloquial form), and homophobia. Moreover, the noun form of the word disappears altogether. Are we to replace “transphobia” with “anti-transness?” Think also of the often helpful “xenophobia.” Don’t be so “anti-other”! I’ve had it up to here with “anti-otherness!”
On quite a different topic, I didn’t find myself quite agreeing with Favilla on capitalisation, though she suggests a great rule. “In general … you’re safer capitalizing anything derived from a proper noun than you are lowercasing it” (118). But this means that we end up with “Brussels sprouts” and “French fries”! Admittedly, Favilla reveals, “I’ll take ’em either way” (118). For such common terms, I’m much more inclined to lowercase, though perhaps this derives from my experience in theological writing where I consistently lowercase “christological” and “trinitarian” (but not “Christian” or “Triune God,” whoops). Maybe though, this whole paragraph stems from my offence at the great cheese appearing in the appendix as capital-B “Brie.” Favilla also argues that “G/god” should be lowercased “in common expressions” so: “thank god” and “god only knows,” etc. whereas it should often otherwise be capitalised (124). The reasoning is, quite rightly, that “someone’s god could be a saltshaker” (124). I wonder though, if this overlooks the other side, that someone’s god in those expressions could be quite real to them. Even atheists and agnostics (not all, I’m sure!) can harbour a poetic or literary appreciation for a G/god or two, and one that may find expression in letter case as well.
The book’s namesake also warrants comment. I wonder if Favilla is being ironic when in her very first paragraph she employs such as “nary” and “frolicking” (1). Just a few pages on a “hodgepodge” can be spotted (4). Are these not the glorious companions of the departing “whom”? (Perhaps only “frolicking”; I find the other two significantly less glorious). Why, then, does Favilla proceed to argue: “Face it: You hate whom. If you don’t, you’re likely a liar or someone with an English degree who actually still really hates whom but can’t bear to come to terms with your traitorous hatred for fear of your overpriced degree being snatched from your cold dead hands” (151)? She compares it with “shall,” as both are rarely used, unless ironically, in spoken language. (Notably, my American friends living in NZ recently asked, “Why does everyone say ‘shall’ over here?”). Her most compelling argument, however, is in an example of its incorrect usage. “They were not sure whom would do a better job” (151). Now, I can accept “whom” going out of style in spoken language (though I have often heard it and am happy to use it myself in spoken language), and this being reflected in some forms of written media (virtually all forms within another fifty years, I’m sure). But maybe I’m still in the grieving stages as “whom” enjoys continued use in my academic writing (a use also enjoyed by me), so I’m being all nit-picky about Favilla’s half-archaisms (datedisms?) in the first few pages. And, really, I’m all on board with farewelling “whom” if we can finally agree that “me and [person]” as the subject of a sentence is now acceptable English (because usage!).
I don’t know if this is just me either, but I found Favilla’s rejection of the verb “to Facebook” a little frustrating. “Why? Because Facebooking sounds silly; that’s why” (156). But Favilla is quite happy in the same chapter to accept the verbs “to Instagram” and “to Snapchat.” Hmmm. Maybe it’s because the first is ambiguous. If you Instragram something, you post it on Insta. If you Snapchat/snap someone, you send them a snap. If you Facebook something you… look it up on FB search? If you Facebook someone you… contact them over Messenger? Actually, this is the form of the verb I have used and still use. It probably derives from the earlier days before Messenger became a second thing. I’m quite happy telling someone I’ll either Messenger them or Facebook them, just as much as I am telling them I’ll “send [them] a message on Facebook/Messenger.” Also of note here is that the BuzzFeed Style Guide in the appendix lowercases “google” as a verb. Perhaps this is because it’s the most common? But I think there is a need for an executive decision here. Either all verbs deriving from proper nouns retain their capitals, so “to Google [something],” or they automatically lose them in becoming a verb, so “to snap(chat) [someone].” There is precedent for the former, in much older words such as “Judaise,” though I think I would prefer a blanket lowercasing, even on the older words.
Finally, I’m likely to be outvoted here, but I’d like to offer a little apology for the !? interrobang, as opposed to the ?! one that Favilla favours, writing, “the logic being that the sentence it punctuates is a question more so that it is an exclamatory phrase; the ! is just an added bonus” (250). I find the !? much more aesthetic, however. The question mark hints at enclosing the exclamation mark, somewhat like a bracket. Compare (thing!) with (thing)! The other thing is that I read a phrase or sentence with an interrobang in quite the opposite way to Favilla. When someone says, “What!?” it is their surprise, anger, enthusiasm, etc. that is apparent to me ahead of their asking a question. The logic of the exclamation-first interrobang follows this (though perhaps this symbol should have another name, as its order does not reflect “interrobang”: a “banginter?” “bangative?”).
Reposted by me on my Goodreads with my permission.
Having written my previous post without having taken the time to read what others might have already written on the subject, I have decided now to provide a quick “literature review” here, in retrospect, of what others have said on gender and sexuality in Skyrim–though one that is in no way exhaustive. In some places I have felt the need to provide critical comment. Sorted alphabetically by author/alias:
The Dichotomy of Civilisation and Nature in Skyrim
In Skyrim the game world is segmented into cities and the areas between them, creating a more or less rigid division with civilization/urbanity marked as distinct from nature/wilderness. The non-urban is portrayed as a threatening space that must be overcome by the heroic player-character, and by doing so the player is able to dominate this virtual environment, represented by game elements like “clearing” dungeons and the ability to “fast travel.”
This is not unrelated to concerns of gender and other features:
As ecofeminist thinkers like Val Plumwood have stressed, the binary division between civilization and nature is part of the conceptual structure justifying race- and gender-based oppression: those aligned with nature and wilderness are different and inferior, and so can be denied full rights and subsequently colonized (p. 43). The environment depicted in Skyrim is a virtual one, but the paradigm that it both reflects and reinforces is one with dire consequences for all things deemed “natural.”
Duncan treats this in greater detail in the essay and I recommend reading the whole thing. He is another significant quote:
Certain places “discovered” by the player are things like forts, ruins, barrows, tombs, and caves, which function as interiors within the exterior. These exterior-interiors are some of the most dangerous sites in the game where powerful enemies like the blind and disfigured Falmer and the zombie-like draugr present a feared inverse order that is irrational and subhuman. Marking those outside patriarchal Western norms as subhuman or as “closer to the animal and the body” is a tool for the subjugation of these groups through “racism, colonialism and sexism” (Plumwood p. 4). These beings and their social order are monstrous, dangerous, and threatening to ordered society, justifying its invasion, appropriation, and destruction.
The “Misogynistic Nightmare” That is Skyrim’s Modding Community
Amy Josuweit, “Has Skyrim’s Modding Community Become a Misogynistic Nightmare?” at The Mary Sue, begins with the premise that modding is known for its oddities. “What you might not be expecting, however, is the troubled current state of modding culture. The modding scene is getting frighteningly misogynistic, and it only takes a cursory glance at the Nexus to see it,” the Nexus having been “the center for Skyrim modding for some years now.” Whereas in the past the Nexus has filtered out mods containing adult content–mods that have been made available elsewhere online–Josuweit notes that recently (post was written 20 November 2017) adult content has been slipping in unmoderated. “Adult content is all well and good…. The problem here is that this content notably focuses on adult themes with a misogynistic lean–women followers with comically sized butts and breasts, followers that are either dressed in almost nothing or are nude,” etc. Some of the mods are up-front about this, but others slip sexually explicit, misogynist material into otherwise neutral mods, “like this otherwise innocuous hair replacement mod that uses a model of a sexualized young girl.” In this world, most mods focus on adjusting female characters and bodies in the game while hardly attending to their male counterparts at all. Followers, a major aspect of Skyrim, become “glorified blow-up dolls.” The significance of this is not lost on Josuweit. “Suddenly, the implications of those sexed-up teenage followers are pretty clear.” Finally, Josuweit draws attention to the fact that this sudden influx is pushing mods of higher quality out so that the Nexus is looking a lot different to what it used to be.
It cannot be denied that a lot of these mods fit into preconceived notions of beauty and masculinity, and sometimes exacerbate these notions to an uncomfortable degree. There are mods that alter the female walk animation to make it more attractive, as well as a vast quantity of skimpy armor mods (up to 400 at nexusmods.com) and mods that modify the female body shape.
On the other hand, mods such as “Practical Female Armors” head in the opposite direction:
As the authors note of vanilla Skyrim, “Like many other RPG games, Skyrim features two separate armor designs for each piece that can be equipped in game: one for male models and one for female. Consistently the female versions show more skin, are less practical, and exaggerate and emphasize female bodies.” And this extends to character animations. They point to the “Simple Female Running Animation” mod, writing, “The default run features a conspicuous hip swaying which is off putting to many players, and further makes a suggestion that the female avatar is a sexual figure to be watched.” The mod offers a more realistic substitute. The authors also highlight the common complaint that the race and gender of the player’s character barely affect gameplay at all. They suggest that a mod addressing this “could be an extremely valuable dimension for a player to connect with their avatars in a new and meaningful way,” though they also notes the potentially huge nature of such a task. Moving on, the authors proceed to comment on two “prostitution” mods popular on the Nexus and LoversLabs:
Both allow male and female characters to talk to any random humanoid character in the game, remove their clothing, and engage in sexual activity with them with no hesitation or resistance. These mods imply that sex does not require the permission of a sexual partner to engage in, promoting the pervasiveness of misogyny and rape.
Clothing and Gender Roles
Eniko, “Bethesda’s Obsession with Heteronormativity,” at Kitsune Games, examines Skyrim in the context of other Bethseda games, discovering an odd tendency for the same clothing items to appear differently depending on the gender of the character wearing them. “I felt like the game designer was standing behind me in spirit, clucking his or her tongue and going ‘oh no dear, you don’t want to wear that, you want to wear a skirt, because girls wear skirts!'” Basically, the problem with this is that it upholds stereotypes about gender roles and the ways that different genders (here cis men and women) should present themselves. The author relates this to her own experience of being disliked for her assertiveness and being butch, which seemed to many around her as a transgression of her role as a young woman.
Daedric Princes and Gender
Evolution Kills in a forum post at The Thinking Atheist, highlights something that I haven’t been able to verify yet but would be interested in hearing from others on: “My use of gender neutral pronouns [for Daedra] is purposeful, because Daedra are genderless. While some may prefer a male avatar (Mehrunes Dagon, Molag Bal) or a female avatar (Azura, Nocturnal), others are more than happy to be either as needed or desired (Boethia, Mephala), while others eschew a humanoid avatar entirely (Peryite, Hermaeus Mora).” The significance of this comment is in relation to Nocturnal’s “suggestive” clothing: “Given the Daedra’s penchant for toying with mortal affairs for their own enjoyment, if Nocturnal is choosing to manifest as a suggestively clad woman, it is for its own benefit. Nocturnal is operating from a position of power, and it sets the terms of the player’s limited interaction with it.” I’m not completely convinced though because although this is a possible interpretation, it does not take into account game design that is clearly sexist in other areas. Evolution Kills’s comments on certain women in Skyrim, namely Jarl Elisif, Karliah, Aela, Serena, and Haelga are also noteworthy.
My character (a dude) could propose marriage and get hitched to a dude without any discussion of its strangeness, without having to jump through extra hoops, without getting treated any differently by anything at all.
This is the correct way to approach queer inclusivity: by treating it as normal (because, for us, it is- as normal as your heterosexuality is to you); by not treating it like something outlandish, freakish, bizarre; by not calling attention to it.
Beck is sceptical of the possibility that this was a market-driven decision on Bethseda’s part. I’m not so convinced that it’s that easy to make such judgements. Virtually everything is market-driven and both inclusivity (in the current climate) and controversy can be profitable. You will also note that Beck does not address the heteronormativity of the wider world of Skyrim. This might be addressed in the 44 comments on the post though, which I haven’t read.
If you venture to the next village after the siege, you’ll meet Camilla Valerius in Riverwood, a beautiful woman stifled under her brother’s control and pitted between two sleazy men with nothing better to do than vie for her affections like she’s a limited edition Amiibo. I’m still disappointed there wasn’t an option to toss both men into the river.
Jillian proceeds to comment on the Flame Atronach, “Really? Flaming breasts were an absolute gameplay necessity? The frost atronach should have had ice balls, then.”
Jillian also notes that Skyrim constructs a dichotomy between virginal, desirable women who can be controlled, such as the Flame Atronach, and the “whore,” the undesirable and uncontrollable woman: “In direct contrast, the hagravens represent the aging, decrepit form of the typical witch stereotype. You can’t control them in-game because they control themselves — after having sold their humanity in order to possess such power.” Finally, Jillian highlights the lack of supportive friendships between female characters, in contrast to those of male characters in the game: “Ulfric has the ever-faithful Galmar and Balgruuf has the admittedly short-sighted Hrongar. General Tullius, at least, has Legate to balance him, but no other woman in sight.” One of the comments in the relation to Jillian’s piece is also of note, from Empress M: “Just wanted to point out, in support of this, that there are two pages worth of named female characters and four pages of males. So basically Skyrim has double the number of important males in it…which is insanely ridiculous.”
Skyrim and Life as a Transgender Woman
K. Danielle, “Gender is Like Skyrim,” at Dude, I’m a Chick, employs Skyrim as a metaphor for life as a transgender woman. Unlike World of Warcraft, players in Skyrim are not bound to a particular class (mage, warrior, rogue) or faction. “Let’s say you make an Imperial woman named Fera. That’s it. You’re done. So, what are you? Are you a rogue, warrior, or mage? Are you aligned with the bandits or knights or thieves? You don’t know yet, because you will figure all of that out while playing the game.” Moreover, throughout the game if you get bored of going in a particular direction, like using the sword and shield, you can switch to magic and even be skilled in both, etc. “You’re not playing a class; you’re playing YOUR character.” If you haven’t picked up on what K. Danielle is getting at yet, she spells it out for you:
In our society, we sort of look at gender the same way. Men are expected to have dominant nature, muscular strength, hairy bodies, penises, the ability to impregnate, paternal attitude, and are generally independent. Women are expected to have submissive nature, curvy bodies, soft skin, vaginas, the ability to get pregnant, maternal attitude, and are generally dependent. In a game like WoW, a Priest would be made fun of and have a very hard time playing the role of a Warrior, and vice versa. Similarly, a man would be made fun of and have a very hard time playing the role of a woman, and vice versa. The traditional RPG class system has a lot in common with our society’s standard gender roles, doesn’t it?
Whereas “society wants you to decide” on a particular gender, or WoW on a particular class, the example from Skyrim demonstrates that this is not always as clear-cut:
You don’t fit in the system. You are so complex and strange, that the world’s classification system does not apply to you. Your character in Skyrim could never exist in a game like WoW. Furthermore, you’re making a bold argument that the classes in WoW are somewhat disappointing because you’re constantly feeling the urge to wear armor or weapons that you simply aren’t allowed to. How many men want to cook, but don’t out of fear of being made fun of? How many women want to lift weights so they can be muscular, but don’t because their friends will think they look ugly in a dress with big muscle arms. How many people will be forcibly categorized as male/female when they’d rather not be either? I don’t look at things that way.
Nor does this simply apply to trans people, K. Danielle concludes. Everyone needs to realise that they cannot be slotted into simple categories.
LGBT Characters in the Elder Scrolls Series
ladynerevar, “LGBTQ in the Elder Scrolls,” at The Provisional House, has provided a brief overview of LGBT characters in and aspects of different games in the Elder Scrolls series. Concerning Skyrim, only the player and their potential partners through marriage, alongside Bjorrnolf and Hrodulf in the Dragonborn DLC are noted. Significantly, it seems that since the release of Elder Scrolls Online, the series has given a lot more attention to this, with ladynerevar listing 22 possible examples. A less comprehensive, similar post, though with more detail in areas, is offered by Jack Maher at RAINBO.
Gamer Poop and Subverting the Heteronormative Norm
Lawrence May and Fraser McKissak, “Queering Stories and Selves: Gamer Poop and Subversive Narrative Emergence,” Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media 9 (2017) — discuss mans1ay3r’s YouTube channel, GamerPoop. Even before modding and other forms of adjusting games, games already have a “latent potential” (3) for queer representation. For example, in the context of Skyrim, “the emphasis on the bodies and musculature of hypermasculine warriors might invite comparisons to the homoerotic interpretations of Conan the Barbarian or Fabio’s game art for Iron Swords II” (4). Regardless of the developers’ intentions, material from the game can be queered by players for their own sakes. But perhaps the authors are too generous in their definition of queering, writing, “The very act of modding a game can be understood as a queer practice. It is a queering of the game text because it involves radically rewriting, or queering, the intended meanings of the video game” (5). I wonder if there is some cognitive dissonance as to how this relates to explicit queerphobia, misogyny, and racism in the modding community. So it is that “the mods available for games such as Skyrim and Fallout 3 would hardly be considered overtly ‘queer’ in nature, as they predominantly focus on heterosexual fantasies involving female character models and ways to improve the graphical features of environments to make them more realistic” (6). Nonetheless, “Even though the content of the mods might be ‘straight’, the practice itself is consistent with the way we can understand ‘queering’ as an act of deconstruction” (6). This kind of argumentation does make me wonder. How quickly does it become indistinguishable from the following?:
Moving on, the authors proceed to apply this concept of queering to mans1ay3r’s videos. The YouTuber goes beyond the latent tendencies in the games: “The Gamer Poop videos are, ultimately, very deliberately constructed, involving various degrees of effort by mans1ay3r in terms of planning, scripting, customising and applying game mods, video editing, audio-manipulation, and voice-over work” (7). Thus,
The queer reconstructions of Gamer Poop’s videos game content are queered in ways that would be impossible within the fixity of the gameworld as played by gamers. Mans1ay3r engages with queer affordances within the game engine, rather than the game’s narrative or ludic potentials. The user therefore exposes the heterosexual assumptions that govern these gameworlds. Latent queer content exists in the games, but mans1ay3r must stop playing them to engage with it…. The videos of Gamer Poop take their queer engagement one step further by queering the infrastructures of the gameworld itself (7).
In contrast to Skyrim’s “desexualised” nature–no sex takes place in the world and sex is rarely talked about (while mostly agreeing, I would point the authors to such as Haelga and the Lover’s Comfort)–mans1ay3r’s videos present quite the opposite: “The sexual content in mans1ay3r’s videos—particularly in their continual references to pussies, cocks and sexual acts—sex an otherwise desexualised world, so that heterosexual assumptions of the sexed body can be more readily queered” (8). But the authors appear to be wholly positive about mans1ay3r’s “queering” of Skyrim. A little further we read:
In the emergent narratives of Gamer Poop, heteronormative gameworlds are subverted into queer lifeworlds where queer performances and identities can exist openly and sporadically to such an extent that to be seen as straight, or to watch the videos as straight, is to become the outsider (11).
This may be true and a fair point to an extent. But, I wonder, what is the nature of this queernormativity and an almost heterophobia? I don’t think that mans1ay3r’s “playfulness,” a term the authors use throughout, should be so readily implied as a celebration of queer sexualities. As the authors later acknowledge, “At times the Gamer Poop channel’s humour is counter-productive and veers towards mockery. But what mans1ay3r does show is the emergent potential for queer storytelling and identification: plausible, logical and seemingly sustainable alternate versions of these video games’ worlds can be created, and they can be queer” (14). And further, “This is not to say that
mans1ay3r is attuned to the political nature of queer theory, or that their channel’s queer content is progressive (for the most part it is definitely not). Even if the objective is simply to elicit audience laughter at the videos’ representational absurdities, a rejection of heterosexual norms and heterosexual narratives is evident” (15). I don’t find this line of argument wholly convincing. Surely it is queer people who themselves know how to tell their own stories? Consider the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a good example of why not to go in this direction.
Race and Gender in Skyrim vs. Realism
Matt F., “Race and Gender in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” offers some comments on race and gender in Skyrim. On race, he notes how Skyrim attempts to tackle this issue, but does not extend racial limitations to the player (apart from differences in beginning skill-sets): “It does however, fail to make the player character subject to the trials and tribulations of other races. For example, a Khajiit player character is allowed to go freely in and out of the cities, whilst the computer controlled Khajiit must stay outside of the city.” Notably, “Gender in Skyrim is handled much worse than race is. Gender in Skyrim has no effect on the player character aside from looks” (this is mostly true, but see, for example, the Allure perk, among other minor things). Matt then suggests that Skyrim might be improved by having NPCs interact differently with the player according to their chosen race. Thus, “The game could be modified in way that makes Khajiit unable to enter cities without first performing tasks in order to gain the trust of the cities,” among other suggestions. In regard to gender, Matt makes the interesting proposal: “Clothing and armor would have to be available in both male and female sets, allowing female players to dress as males and vice versa.” As with race, he suggests that different NPCs interact with the character in different ways on the basis of their gender. Matt concludes by arguing that Skyrim’s attempt at racial and gender equality undermines its realism.
Skyrim and the Dollhouse
SarahBeck, “Exploring Gender Roles in the Virtual Dollhouse of Skyrim,” at Women in Game Studies, offers a look at gender in Skyrim by way of the field of dollhouse analysis. “Dollhouses have been historically used as interpretive play spaces where the user can explore social constructs. The goal of this essay is to merge the analysis of dollhouses, originating from the 16th century concept of miniatures and deconstruct gendered social norms in virtual spaces.” To be honest, I didn’t really follow the significance of the connection, but SarahBeck does make some other interesting points. She notes the traditionally masculine domain of property ownership, something available to the player through the Hearthfire DLC. “For example, until the early 1900s women were not allowed to own property independently, and the right was first granted to married women exclusively.” The player thus takes up the role that is traditionally masculine, which can also be seen in their income far exceeding that of their spouse’s. Moreover, traditionally feminine tasks are those “the player can engage in or opt-out of, such as cooking and child rearing.” SarahBeck also attends to Skyrim’s “market economy” where “the prices of the homes and land are arbitrarily decided by the Jarl of the hold.” Significantly, a class system accompanies this:
A good example of these ideologies can be seen in Elisif the Fair, Nord Jarl of Solitude. She is the widow of High King Torygg and thus has a claim to the throne of Skyrim…. This depicts acquiring the position of Nord Jarl not because of her skills, but marriage. Also, it is relevant to point out the gender disparity in politics in the world of Skyrim. Of the nine starting Jarls of Skyrim only two are female and neither Elisif the Fair, who is defined by her beauty, and Laila Law-Giver, known for her ignorance surrounding the thieves guild, are representing women being competent at holding power.
All of this leads SarahBeck to the evaluation that:
These observations show that although Skyrim allows you to play as any gender that the writing and development of the game is still rooted in a heteronormative and sexist ideal of the home, family and property. Especially when compared to other societal structures such as North American indigenous knowledge paradigms where the community cumulatively owns land. This highlights the Eurocentric themes of the games and exposes the subtle bias towards patriarchal and colonialist beliefs.
And further: “By rewarding players with free stat bonuses, gold, and food for marrying Skyrim is also concluding that these things are deserved rewards teaching the player that in marriage one’s spouse is supposed to serve them and offer them free labour.”
Gender Representation in Marketing and Gameplay
Sophie Prell, “Studying sexism with Skyrim — Fus Ro Va! Gina!” at Destructoid, combines a narrative of her gameplay from her character’s perspective with comments on sexist tendencies in Skyrim. She introduces her analysis with a comment from Tom Bissell in his review of Skyrim, a comment that no doubt evoked some pushback: “If you have no idea what the Elder Scrolls franchise is, you are probably either (a) an adult woman, or (b) the sort of person who once beat up the sort of person who likes the Elder Scrolls franchise.” Prell replies, “It’s an attitude equivalent to a ‘No Girls Allowed’ club, and if I can let you into my life as a child for a moment, I confess I never really had a fondness for those, either.” Other problems with Skyrim’s playership also quickly emerge: “The most popular Skyrim mod on Curse right now is for nude females. By a 5 to 1 margin it beats out the better performance mod, meaning the subculture you and I belong to would rather see tits than see a game run better.” Prell proceeds to the game itself. Like countless others before it, it lacks adequate female representation. This extends to the marketing of the game. “Whenever a game is released that features the ability to customize a character’s gender, the prominent presence associated with its ad campaign is almost universally the male one.” This was no less true for Skyrim. Prell continues on to the gameplay. In both the Thieves Guild and Companions questlines, important women like Karliah and Aela ultimately end up standing aside:
Merrillia [Prell’s character] saves the day, assisted by a strong female, who at the last minute is bafflingly shoved aside to make way for a male or Merrillia herself to take power. I understand player empowerment, but there comes a point where a sense of progress is impeded by the game handing heaps of praise and awe onto my character without reasonable justification. It forces characters whom I once viewed favorably, such as Aela and Karliah, to act out of character; they must suddenly be disempowered so that I may take their place. The easiest way to do that, of course, is to fall back to gender stereotypes, i.e. sexism.
Nor can this be explained away with reference to Skyrim’s fictional world: “I would wager the same thing happened with Skyrim that happens with most fiction writing: they didn’t even consider strong, respectable female roles as a possibility in the first place. I wouldn’t blame them. They’d be traversing largely unexplored territory.” Prell ends with a call for gamers to engage developers and ask for better representation in gaming.
Stephanie Weaver, “Skyrim & the Unequal Application of Bigotry Pt. 1,” at Speculative Rhetoric, begins by noting that the player’s gender does not affect their gameplay. One problem with though is that the player’s gender is set, so that their pronouns are consistent throughout the game and whatever clothing or armour they pick up automatically adjusts to suit their gender. “In short, Skyrim doesn’t permit any genderbending or nongendered characters. And while the playable character may marry men or women regardless of gender, they seem to be the only queer character in the entire country, since all other couples you run into are cisgendered and heterosexual.” Weaver proceeds to address the “misogyny [which] is widespread in Skyrim.”:
One of the most disturbing quests is recovering a necromancer’s journals from Yngvild Barrow. The barrow is filled with ghostly women, and reading the journals reveals that Altermeri necromancer Arondil, after being shunned by the attractive young women of Dawnstar, retreated to the barrow to continue his experiments. After reanimating a number of female corpses to obey his orders, Arondil found their company agreeable, with heavy overtones that the relationships became sexual, and when a live women was captured by his reanimated slaves, he tried a different kind of experiment to create these spectral beings that, when touch, produce “a sensation unlike any other, as if her essence were invigorating [his] very soul, connecting with [him] on a level no woman of flesh and blood could do” (Arondil’s Journal #4).
Weaver highlights a similar storyline in the quest Blood on the Ice. She goes on to provide some critical comment on the quest Caught Red Handed, in which the player is tasked with hunting down tokens that a woman, Haelga, gives to her different lovers and subsequently confronting her. “That’s right, people, it’s Slut Shaming: The Quest.” Weaver observes that one of the lovers, Bolli, accuses Haelga of having slipped something into his drink. Weaver comments on the disappointing lack of options to engage this accusation:
1. If Haelga did in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that should have been treated as more serious. There should have been an option to investigate the claim and a stricter punishment than just embarrassing her.
2. If Haelga did not in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that claim should not have been made by Bolli or he should have been chastised or punished for the claim. The way this plays out just further reinforces a damaging narrative that people lie about being raped and therefore we should not take rape claims (especially rape claims made by men about women) seriously.
Interestingly, Weaver comments on the issue of religious freedom. If Haelga’s exploits are part of her religion, as she and others in the questline claim, then the player’s acts against her and the hushed nature of them suggest that this is not merely a case of slut-shaming but of religious persecution as well. Finally, Weaver admits that she is in two minds on how to go about remedying this: “If, for instance, misogyny were equally applied, players would be punished for choosing a female character, and that’s not a good thing. On the other hand, this kind of unequal application may allow male players of women characters to further ignore the misogyny around them because it doesn’t affect them.” I am not up with the newest RPG games but I think these types of questions will become increasingly relevant as we see developers continue to grapple with the needs of their audiences. (Note also that this post is labelled part 1, posted on 29 July, 2017. Weaver intended to do a second post but as of yet it has not appeared).
Inside the Sex Modding Community
Steven Messner, “Inside the Skyrim sex modding community where almost no taboo is off limits,” at PC Gamer, provides a look at the “Skyrim sex modding community.” Skyrim’s potential for modding allows for a much vaster player experience. This is especially the case with mods dealing with sexual content, where the community “hasn’t left many stones unturned.” Messner begins with Ashal, the owner of LoversLab, which provides many modders with the tools and materials for adding sexually explicit content to the game:
LoversLab and its roughly 1.5 million members are responsible for thousands of mods that meticulously cover every aspect of sexuality. It’s such a massive community that even on a Monday morning there are over 1,700 active users. The mod Schlongs of Skyrim, to take one example, provides an exhaustive suite of options for tailoring every aspect of a character’s penis to make it look justright. And then there are mods like Devious Devices, an incredibly in-depth series of BDSM mods that give players every bondage or domination tool they could dream of.
This quote from Kimy, who works for Devious Devices, is also worth repeating:
I don’t want to see sex scenes for the sake of seeing sex. I want them embedded in a meaningful story or setting. A lot of [LoversLab] mods actually provide just that, which to me is their main benefit over [porn]. My specific focus—bondage—isn’t even necessarily pornographic in nature. Bondage play can involve or result in sex, but doesn’t have to.
Messner proceeds to comment on some of the other content available, such as mods that allow players to engage in necrophilia, bestiality, or rape. “Other[ mods] simulate sexual assault to a troubling degree, including victims exhibiting emotional trauma by crying after their assault is over.” Indeed, on the modding site, “the only thing that is strictly off limits is anything involving children.” This leads Messner beyond the world of gaming into that of sex therapy and psychology, finding that there is no scientific basis for a correlation between rape fantasy and committing rape or sexual assault in reality (this article, for example). Even in regard to perpetrators, other factors play a much larger role. “Violent media serves a very small part” (quoting Dr. David Ley). Messner does not address the notion of rape culture, however, which many of these mods surely perpetuate.
Misogyny in the Modding Community and its YouTube Coverage
thefeministgamer99, “Sexism in modding and MxR Mods,” at The Feminist Gamer, writes about sexism in the modding community, using videos by the YouTuber, MxR Mods, as an example (“This is not to incite any hatred against MxR Mods personally, he is just one of many male gamers who does this kind of crap and I am sorry for singling him out”). She begins by noting that the thumbnails on his videos display scantily-clad women from various mods. She then proceeds to a mod that the YouTuber covers in which players receive a lair from a Daedric Lord in which you torture women in different ways:
I found this video particularly disturbing for the casual response to this kind of level of violence against women. In the comments in fact, no one had any problem with this mod being called “kinky”. If these were men, we know that this would not be dubbed “kinky” and would instead be “gruesome”. The fact that no one appears to find this mod disturbing and in fact, this mod has been endorsed hugely, is alarming to say the least.
The YouTuber expresses dissatisfaction in a joking manner over a mod in which the player needs to constantly give a female companion gold in order to win her affection, stating, “Why the fuck do I want a gold digger as a follower? I guess it is kind of immersive because girls kind of are gold diggers.” thefeministgamer99 proceeds to note that the YouTuber is likely young and that this kind of misogyny has a structural aspect. But, she continues, this does not mean that we shouldn’t be critical. One of her main concerns is that modders and YouTubers might be unaware of women in their audience, perpetuating sexist tropes, which turns people like her away from potentially interesting content.
Skyrim’s Subtle Nods to the Patriarchy
Tinyorc, “imagining gender equality: the case of Skyrim,” at massive hassle, questions the oft-expressed sentiment that Skyrim “does not discriminate based on gender.” She responds, “Despite the fact that there are ostensibly strong women everywhere in Skyrim, I’ve always had a nagging sense that this world still doesn’t really belong to them.” Tinyorc proceeds to give numerous examples, such as:
Riverwood is intended to be the first town the player visits. In Riverwood, you can help resolve a love triangle in which two men are trying to win a woman’s affections by deceiving her. Men competing with each other for a woman’s hand with no actual input from the woman in question is part of patriarchy. As you move on to the city of Whiterun, you will encounter Carlotta Valentina, who is being harassed by the bard Mikael. Mikael, it transpires, is the author of A Gentleman’s Guide to Whiterun, which is essentially a pick-up artist’s guide to the women of Whiterun, rating them by attractiveness and discussing risks and considerations for getting them into bed. Mikael views women as objects to be evaluated and acquired – how did he develop such a misogynistic perspective in a purportedly egalitarian society?
Examples such as these lead Tinyorc to conclude, “Skyrim is a colossal imaginative undertaking, but when it comes to gender equality, it falls at the first hurdle: it fails to imagine a world where the power relations between men and women are fundamentally different to what we know and accept in the real world.” The same is true of Skyrim’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, which, as Tinyorc notes, finds no corresponding examples in the wider world of Skyrim. Finally, she comments on the potential for high fantasy gaming to actually challenge patriarchy. I especially like the way she puts this: “Forget dragons and wizards and ancient artefacts of indescribable power; a world built on gender equality from the bottom up? Now that would be something truly fantastic.”
And Others in Short
baratron at Live Journal registers a brief complaint about LGBT representation in Skyrim. “The only overt same-sex couple are both dead,” she writes of Hrodulf and Bjornolfr. Eunseob Lee and others at Prezi provide a short, interactive presentation on gender equality in Skyrim, highlighting those aspects which they believe demonstrate its egalitarian nature. Jeff Venancio at Geeks New England writes of being male and playing as female characters, using the example of Skyrim. John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun wrote in 2011 of the then forthcoming Skyrim and same-sex marriage, contrasting it BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. LA RYTER at F-BOM comments on the ups and downs of gender representation in Skyrim. Meghan Burrows at Women & Cyberdrama is wholly positive about Skyrim’s features that concern gender and sexuality, though her placing of it in the context of Gamergate and the events surrounding Anita Sarkeesian may be of interest to some readers. piercestream at Play the Gay Away briefly comments on Skyrim’s LGBT representation and then demonstrates some of the homophobic coverage that this occasioned, following the hashtag #skyrimjobs. POWERXCIV in a forum post as GameFAQs makes a plea for better gay representation in the Elder Scrolls series. Sam Dercon at Sex, etc. offers a teenager’s perspective, praising Skyrim because it “break[s] barriers not only in the graphics and game play departments but also in its representation of sexuality, specifically gender roles and sexual orientation.”