It’s Not a Dress! It’s Transphobia!

Heigan the Unclean! ...Not sure why he's called that, those robes look pretty spotless, if you ask me. ((Humanoid male with huge bushy beared and purple, red and gold trimmed robes, menacing stare and green-orb tipped staff used to make raids cry.))

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.

Rock on you beautiful pirate, rock on. ((A burly human man looking quite spunky in what is, actually, a pink dress with gold trim- and a pirate hat for good measure and/or awesome.))

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.

10 thoughts on “It’s Not a Dress! It’s Transphobia!”

  1. Guy’s wearing multiple, complex layers and three sets of hobbling chains, yet he can still flatten a rhythmless raid in seconds. He doesn’t need to concern himself with what the Real Men Wear Pants brigade down at the Pig and Whistle thinks.

    The whole ‘real men wear plate, with big flanges and frills that would probably get you embarrassingly killed in reality’ thing is unfortunately reinforced by the state of female armor (as discussed in previous entries).

  2. My first thought was, the Scots and kilts. I would not say those were skirts in any way shape or forum.

    Toons in robes can melt your face…they’ve melted mine in BGs over and over :) How is that gay or bad? Bah. It is not. Period.

  3. I did not notice that the pirate was wearing a dress and not a robe until I read the caption. Also I didn’t notice it’s pink, because colorblind.

    Is it a good sign that it doesn’t register as odd for me?

  4. I used to run a larp system, and one of my enduring fond memories was of one of our more powerful characters, a 6’8″ male orc, the king of a country, decided that ‘Arch-mages’ (pronounce the ‘ch’) wore dresses, and so, in order to be respected as a powerful mage, his ceremonial dress would be a dress.

    The whole thing started off as his way of making fun of mages for wearing ‘dresses’, but the joke completely inverted, as suddenly nobody would make fun of anybody for wearing a dress, for fear that their ‘little joke’ would be reported to the King.

    1. HA! That is great. I wish that sort of thing would happen more often. What was the OOC atmosphere about the situation?

      I love Heigan, he’s one of my favourite raidbosses (I should add that I never raided much so I have hardly seen them all). My first kill of him will always remain memorable because it was done over the course of about eighteen whooping minutes with just my druid tank and a priest healer left alive after most of the raid had bit it during the first dance phase (except for the other tank, a paladin, who was alive most of the time until a misstep halfway through). The dead people cheered us along all the time, not a single one said “just die so we can try again”.

      And getting the Safety Dance achievement (i.e. nobody dies during the fight at all) felt really good, too.

      But, anyway, it has long baffled me how incredibly fragile the alleged divine masculine superiority seems to be — and the same goes for heterosexuality. If a man or a straight person can be tainted and turned into a laughing stock by the merest hint of anything “girly” or “gay”, it’s a sure sign of how hollow and pretentious it all is … and how damn poisonous for both genders.

    2. I’m imagining a huge, fancy, sequined hooped ball gown here, specifically tailored for the (presumably hulkingly muscled) king.

      It is quite a mental image.

  5. Who else is thinking back to the Rend fight? “Kill the one in the dress!” Very practical advice, really.

    I’ve often felt that players should have the choice, at least with some gear pieces, to wear either pants or a skirt/robe/kilt/whatever. Largely this is because I am opposed to wearing robes in my chosen role of feral druid. None of the other tank classes wear robes (well, maybe the occasional paladin)

  6. Kinda reminds me of a random grumpy old wizard in the background of one of the Harry Potter books (can’t remember which one). He was required to disguise himself as a non-magic person and his choice of muggle attire was a polka-dotted dress. A younger wizard who knew slightly more about muggle fashion was trying to persuade him to put on trousers, but the old codger weren’t having none of it. This IS proper muggle clothing. It was bought in a muggle shop. And he “liked a healthy breeze around (his) privates.”

    Rock on, sir. Rock on.

    1. I forgot about that guy! I love that guy! I write YA fantasy. Since I have a younger target audience, it’s a primary goal of mine to be sending the right messages; however, I need to balance it with not being too blatantly subversive and “preachy,” so I can get to that audience at all. J.K. Rowling is the reason I got into writing for youth instead of exclusively adults, so thank you so much for reminding me or a moment when she was subtly subversive :3

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