Trigger Warning: Homophobia/Transphobia.
It wasn’t all that long ago that I’d brought my main character in WoW back from the freezer and levelled her to the then-level cap of 80; I immediately set about raiding and what not. Indeed, I hit the ground running. I got into a group for Naxxramas, an entry level raid at the time, just after hitting 80 and donning some epic gifts bequeathed by friends. All was going well!
Now you may think this story ends horribly. Fear not, it’s only a bit tropey, if anything.
When we reached Heigan the Unclean the raid leader, a man who’d been quite nice to me and effusive in welcoming me back to the server, was engaged in banter with his compatriots and the subject of Heigan’s clothing was broached. For anyone who’s played MMOs for a substantial amount of time you’ve probably guessed what’s coming: the likening of mage robes to dresses and the mockery that follows. The raid leader said he took pity on Heigan, we’d only make his day worse, he said, because after all… he has to wear a dress.
I mention this because it’s a small, often overlooked in-joke among many gamers that actually betrays deep seated assumptions about gender. At its heart is the essential mockability of anything associated with women being used, worn, or commented favourably upon by a man. Men are often not allowed to touch the feminine, and masculinity is oppositional to femininity in its construction: men are defined by being not-women, and therefore must avoid that which is associated with women. The defensive nature of this masculinity asserts itself constantly in discussions about the cloth robes usually worn by spellcasting classes, especially when their colours are bright.
Its defensive nature is laid quite bare when you find a male player asserting (either jokingly or seriously) in strenuous terms that their robe is not, in fact, a dress.
A fairly popular fan-made music video illustrates this trope quite nicely, its creator singing stirring lyrics to bolster the soul of any wearied masculine Mage:
So why, I ask, it just doesn’t make much sense
That a man of my stature should have to wear a dress
I mean what, may I inquire, were you thinking on that day
When you conjured up for a man like me a robe that looks so gay
Ahhhh sit right back and your troubles melt away
Ahhhh he uses fire but his robe looks so gay
Even my old favourite WoW machinima, Illegal Danish, which is otherwise relatively decent on various bigotry issues, does try to extract many laughs from one of its male characters who apparently likes to wear dresses- he’s mocked by one of the other characters as a “crossdressing holy man.”
It’s also worth revisiting the idea that “man in a dress” is one of the transphobic archetypes of what trans women are in the eyes of some cis people. Just as this clearly imbricates with homophobia (“a robe that looks so gay”) so too does it connect to transphobia, which is in large part a fear of gender rule-breaking. One of transphobia’s sources is, in part, this defensive fear- sometimes expressed through humour- of gender variance. Pity the man who’s wearing brightly coloured robes, because he doesn’t get to be ‘normal,’ et cetera. It’s a reasonably safe bet that the people, men and women alike, who make these jokes would also be made uncomfortable by the presence of a trans or genderqueer person in their guild or Vent server. That day in Naxxramas I had the good fortune of having a voice that sounded normative for a woman, probably part of the reason I was ‘let in’ on the joke in the first place.
Yet leaving all this aside it also represents a particular train of thought that is prevalent among some gamers: that ‘real men’ are strong meleeing warriors, not wimpy dress-wearing spell-casters. In World of Warcraft this is reflected in part in the fact that the most prominent male heroes are nearly always people bashing their enemies’ heads in with hammers, axes, and/or swords, even if their technical class (say, Paladin or Shaman) technically enables them to cast damaging spells or heal, it’s not terribly often you see a male hero taking that role.
To be honest, it never made much sense to me. Mages/wizards/sorcerers are freaking awesome, for one thing, the very nature of the class represents the power of the mind to overcome obstacles and challenges singular ideas of what ‘strength’ is. No shortage of people, men or women, recognise this. Secondly, robes have a long tradition of being worn by men, cross-culturally and trans-historically this becomes even more visible. Religious figures today often wear robes or very similar garments, regardless of gender.
As usual with cultural critiques like these we often find that people will defensively assert “it’s just a joke”- but as I’ve often argued about these things, it isn’t. It is a small drop of mortar that constructs and reinforces an interpretation of masculinity that works to the detriment of everyone; people of all genders are at risk in various ways when we find that even the slightest hint of gender bending is considered mockable. It is a reminder, a subtle warning to the gender variant that they are, at best, derisively tolerated. It’s one of those things that makes me wince with discomfort every time I hear it in a group or read it on a games website (which is, really, all too often) and as the YouTube song demonstrates it is often explicitly paired with homophobia in a syllogism that goes: being gay is bad, dresses are gay, therefore men in dresses are bad. Robe=dress=gay=bad.
I leave aside the technical, fashionista nitpicking of how robes are decidedly not the same thing as dresses because I think it’s more important to ask why it should be a problem if a man is wearing a dress in the first place.
Images courtesy of Wowhead.com, taken by various players.