The Skyhook Society: On Sex and Sociological Incoherence in Games

A skyhook. ( A large gunmetal hook whose chains disappear into space; Image – Trafford Park Sculpture in Manchester, a monument to one of the first industrial parks in the world. Via Flickr/Tony Worrall )

It is hardly groundbreaking at this point to say that the social worlds painted in many video games and other fantasy environments tend to be based on politically charged ideas about gender, race, and so forth. Despite being wildly fantastic or surreal they are, just as often, presenting the player or the reader with a social world that is depressingly familiar. A world where the humans are white, where the power holders are men, where heterosexuality remains compulsory, where any sort of trans-ness is not even on the horizon; in other words a world with very familiar relations of ruling.

This is an issue that has arrested me ever since I started analysing fictional media. It bothered me in a very deep way, and not just because of its prejudice and clichéd nature. In so many games that purported to be sci-fi or fantasy, in ways great and small, I found myself confronted with the same notions of gendered and racialised power that suddenly made a galaxy feel something less than far, far away. There was something more to why these tropes of power felt so wrong to me, and I feel I’ve finally come to a preliminary conclusion about that:

It is that these societies lack internal social coherence.

In order to make their bigotries work they rely on a failure of imagination that produces skyhook societies where white cis men rule in clear defiance of social forces operating on the world. Social forces introduced by the writers themselves.

To be clear here, what is meant by the titular skyhook is something that holds a concept aloft in space, suspending it in midair unsupported by any underlying structure. It is a simple, miraculous thing whose suspension in midair is to be taken on faith. The idea, borrowed from Daniel Dennett’s framework for discussing different theories of evolution, is quite applicable to discussions of social theories. Every video game’s fantasy society expresses a certain theory of that society’s existence. However fantastic and unreal it may first appear, it is always expressing some theory, great or small, of human social organisation. This implies structure, yet structure is often absent. The reason for this has much to do with the great problem that vexes a lot of us who critique video games from a social justice perspective.

In other words the skyhook here is a substitute for any proper social structure that would undergird and properly explain these societies and their particular arrangements of power. Who rules what, and who does what to whom, in other words. I most recently explored this in my last article ‘The Twenty Millennia Decade’ where I criticised the various writers of several Star Wars Expanded Universe properties for inexplicably reinstituting patriarchal and white-supremacist power relations in their works that seemed expressly contradicted by the various societal forces they introduced in their worlds. To be more concrete about this: I suggested that their static patriarchy was unsustainable over twenty thousand plus years in a civilisation that was awash in loudly competing social arrangements, human and alien. In puzzling over the origins and inexplicable persistence of American-style patriarchy (a world where women were very rarely military officers, for example) in this world, I stated that in the end nothing could be found to hold it up. It seemed a lazy excuse to use boilerplate sexist narratives about women sleeping their way to the top or relying on paternal largesse to succeed in realms that are the traditional (for some reason) preserve of the menfolk.

Now, we all know this is not really a puzzle per se. The worlds are written like this because the writers do not want to imagine a non-patriarchal world and they will doubtlessly try to justify this with appeals to a mass audience that would be satisfied with nothing less than the stereotype.

But it is worth examining the particularities of how these worlds lack internal coherence. Their inherent failure to achieve verisimilitude is equally framed as an artistic criticism, one that demonstrates why the quest to reflect our own social relations in fantasy worlds gets in the way of telling genuinely interesting stories and portraying truly imaginative worlds.

The New World, Same as the Old World

A comment I wrote on Zaewen’s excellent deconstruction of fantasy matriarchy was an attempt to make clear some of the particular problems that one found in the world of the Drow:

Among Drow, if the society were really to be an inversion of Patriarchy (leaving aside, for the moment, the issue of caricature and distortion you eloquently describe that mocks women’s experience) then men would not be given access to the warrior or Mage caste. Except for the ‘rare exception’ which had ‘transcended the natural limitations of his sex’- i.e. exceptionalism in reverse. Why would a matriarchy, especially one that so brutally represses men, let them anywhere near weapons?

 

Rather, my friend said, they’d be kept from war because the women “couldn’t bear the sight of their beautiful, delicate men being harmed on the field of battle. What’s more, their man meat would be far too distracting for the women warriors.” Again, this is a proper inversion of patriarchy in all of its subtlety.

 

Then there’s the issue of the violent repression itself, symbolised by that fetishsistic picture you used at the start of the article with the male drow being used as a footrest.

 

That is not how oppression works in practise. Oppression is very often violent, yes, (rape, domestic violence, hate crimes, bullying, sexual harassment) but these things are very intentionally kept in the shadows of privacy (a matter I wrote about recently on my blog). In general, violence is a measure of last resort in terms of direct confrontation with the state. People have to want to obey. In Drow society it’s clear the men don’t wish to obey, en masse, which is a sociological problem with this culture. Societies do not, in practise, work like this. Oppressive systems cannot survive constant rebellion, especially not if the underclass has access to weapons and magic.

 

As my friend and I agreed, what man would play a Drow male if his condition was truly equivalent to the position of women in Patriarchy? A man relegated to housework and fieldwork, told he was too fragile to do anything important?

 

The Drow are a fantasy of overcoming “female power.” Many men believe that women are all nags who use our feminine wiles to deceive and sunder them. This is then projected onto the Drow, who at times seem like caricatures of complaining henpecking housewives, who become a means of overcoming the evil woman through fantasy in a cathartic exercise.

 

You also made a good point about clothing. In a truly flipped-Patriarchy Matriarchy we’d see men walking around with few coverings on, possibly with bulging codpieces, oriented towards a ‘female gaze.’ Women, by contrast, might still adorn themselves with symbols of rank and station, but they would have next to no reason to dress in enfeebling and impractical ways. Why do so when they are in power? Their whole schema of sexy would be different. Women would not be the sex class, nor the referent for sex.

To frame all of these off-the-cuff critiques in my larger argument, what happened with the Drow was that their matriarchy was skyhooked into making sense. There is no proper social structure that girds the gender order of the Drow world. There is no mechanism of socialisation that explains why Drow men do not rise up in revolution when all the conditions for it exist, there is no structure of cathexis that explains why Drow women would have any kind of attachment to skimpy and enfeebling clothing when they ostensibly rule and why the sex-class system of our own real-world patriarchy is reiterated here. The skyhook, in this case, is the desire to create both a male fantasy and a male nightmare through the use of patriarchal tropes that allow for the presumed-default-male player to roleplay a conquest of domineering women. Although it makes next to no sense for a true matriarchy to allow the subordinate class any access to weapons and spellcasting, this is done to ensure that male players have an avenue to power.

All patriarchies, regardless of their individual differences, allow for cultural release-valves for women as well as celebration of some particular aspect of womanhood that is then used to create a system of pedestalisation. The most popular form of this is the celebration of motherhood as a vital and important role, and this has been embodied in the cosmology of a given society’s gender. Hera, among the Greeks, or the Virgin Mary among Christians. Societies will write their gender order into the stars. Often, patriarchies have included women in those cosmologies, but in subordinate, conquered, or instructive roles. It might have been interesting to see the same done for men in the Underdark, for them to be given a patron Drow god who was subordinate to Llolth, perhaps an avatar of sacred masculinity and hearth-based fatherhood.

Or might male players have considered that emasculating?

Whether some do or some don’t, however, is almost immaterial. If one wishes to create a society with a particular division of gender labour, one shouldn’t call it a matriarchy if men are given so much power. Whatever it is, it’s something besides a matriarchy in many respects; any pretension that it is seems to be held up by next to nothing. It seems to suggest that a matriarchy is present whenever women have any power beyond the prescribed norms of our own society. The Drow, as I said in my comment, appear as almost a sinister parody of henpecking housewives who would be a joy for men to conquer.

A Galaxy of Unequal Representation

In my last article I talked about Admiral Natasi Daala, a powerful woman and officer in the Imperial Navy of the Star Wars EU. In critiquing a good deal of the nonsense in her portrayal—as a hyper-competent woman who is nevertheless forever tarred, even among fans, as someone who ‘slept her way to the top’—I missed something that appeared in fairly recent Star Wars novels surrounding the work of an older, wiser Admiral Daala:

She had some changes to make to the Moff Council as well. The new council would be composed of an equal amount of females as males, something still unheard of decades after Emperor Palpatine’s death.

I just like this picture, can you tell? ( A light skinned human woman with braided red hair wearing an Imperial uniform, part of her face shadowed as she stares ahead intently. )

Four decades after the events of Return of the Jedi we find it ‘unheard of’ for a democratically elected body to have an equal number of men and women. But what social structure is holding this up? As I already explored in my last article, such a thing makes no sense in a galaxy with trillions of people from a diversity of cultures. One could argue that the overt patriarchy of the Galactic Empire had ensured a world similar to our own where forty years of progress would not ensure measurable equality (our own world is a fair enough example of this: in the forty years since 1970 most countries have singularly failed on most indicies of gender equality). But the Empire’s cliché patriarchy, itself a crass mockery of our own, is held up by a skyhook: in this case, a desire to make the Empire as moustache-twirlingly evil looking as possible.

Admiral Daala is a controversial character in the Star Wars fan community, and doubtless her feminist leanings are a significant part of that. That the writers of the latest EU novels sought to make her a gender reformer of some kind was an interesting manoeuvre indeed. But it again occurs against a social backdrop that is impossible to think of as anything other than a chrome plated version of our own relations of ruling.

Using the Skyhook to Build a Real Structure

The problem with all of this is not only related to the question of poor portrayals of women and other marginalised peoples; it is also the fact that our desire to use fantasy as a validating vehicle for justifying a golden age hidden somewhere in the past. Particularly inherent to the defensive trope about how all high fantasy is akin to the “Middle Ages” is the idea that this golden age is desirable because it allows the present status quo without the presence of all the objectors. None of those nattering feminazis or PC policing anti-racist, trans, or disability activists can get you if you hearken back to the distant past.

That fear should be abandoned. Under the guise of thinking that, say, tired jokes about trans people are still funny, we lose genuine opportunities to do interesting and unique things with the possibilities that lay before us. Most writers and game developers do want to stand out from the crowd, they do not truly wake up every day thinking that they merely wish to ape all that have come before. One can do this by thinking about how one’s society actually works.

Ask yourself about structure: if you wish to create a patriarchy, what social forces create and sustain it? How do women confront and navigate that patriarchy? Where are the exceptions to hegemony and who’s there, when, and why? What sorts of emotional attachments are formed in this gender order? What, in other words, do people fancy or hate and why? All of these types of questions that require a sociological explanation for one’s gender order actually create creative opportunities. Characters may arise out of the answers to these questions. Places, quests, religions, flavourful dialogue, entries for the game encyclopaedia, or any number of other outlets for creative structural explication (Morrowind and Oblivion’s books were a famous example of this) can flow from questions like this. The point of such questions is to not take one’s world for granted.

A large tower crane. To continue with the metaphor, a skyhook attached to an actual crane might well build something.

Ask yourself critical questions about the division of labour, ethnicity, and gender. Ask yourself if heterosexuality needs to operate in your world exactly the same way it operates in ours. Ask yourself if your culture needs to be an appropriating parody of a human culture, or if every human in your world must be white. Demand of yourself explanations for these things. What you will be weaving in the process is a proper social structure that can hold up your world, one that will almost automatically make it notably different from our own. It will put your world’s various power dynamics at a tantalising remove from our own, making it feel all the more creatively alien and unique. The most interesting fantasy worlds I’ve seen are ones that do make some kind of accounting for their social systems, that possess identifiable structure, rather than unsupported mirroring of the real world.

Trust your readers, gamers, and viewers to not need the crutch of patriarchal and white-supremacist familiarity. Amazing worlds can exist without those two things being present, without taking their presence and ineluctability for granted.

The consequence of this will not only be a world that is less problematic, but one where there is actually a better story being told. A story that fulfils video games’ promise as artwork.

About Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, (or Katherine Cross, as she is known in Muggle-speak) is a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. When she's not studying or gaming she can be found at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her blog can be found at quinnae.com and her writing has also appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.
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18 Responses to The Skyhook Society: On Sex and Sociological Incoherence in Games

  1. PlusSizedGamerWoman says:

    I love this. But of course, the people who need to read this the most will disregard it, claiming the tired trope that “well people will complain” etc etc etc.

  2. Trodamus says:

    While E3 may be stealing some of your thunder, this is undoubtedly one of your finest and most illustrative articles that I will likely reference whenever discussing this particular topic.

    My only discussion point would be in contesting whether “… writers do not want to imagine a non-patriarchal world”. I would contest that this is inaccurate by omission, as most authors probably haven’t even bothered really evaluating that portion of their tapestry. Thoughtless? Yeah. Splitting hairs? Probably. But it is a different problem that requires a different approach.

  3. Zaewen says:

    Great post and an excellent way to link together a bunch of the failings of world-building that happen so often in our genres.

    ” All of these types of questions that require a sociological explanation for one’s gender order actually create creative opportunities. Characters may arise out of the answers to these questions. Places, quests, religions, flavourful dialogue, entries for the game encyclopaedia, or any number of other outlets for creative structural explication (Morrowind and Oblivion’s books were a famous example of this) can flow from questions like this. The point of such questions is to not take one’s world for granted.”

    100% This. Actually taking the time to build a solid foundation under your world, instead of supporting it with a ‘Because I said so’ skyhook creates better stories, fuller characterizations, and a more alive world. And, better yet, by creating a world that answers these questions for the character, it also answers those questions for us, the audience. It gives us the chance to live through their lives and see their motivation and it shows us different ways of being and/or illuminates the real-world around us by having us relate to those questions and how we would answer them ourselves. We’d actually be able to learn from the fictional world, whether it be a patriarchy, matriarchy, egalitarian, oligarchy, theocracy, whatever.

    • I couldn’t agree more about that paragraph being fantastic. It provides an approach to addressing that shortcoming and creating something really viable out of it.

  4. Matt says:

    “Except for the ‘rare exception’ which had ‘transcended the natural limitations of his sex’- i.e. exceptionalism in reverse. Why would a matriarchy, especially one that so brutally represses men, let them anywhere near weapons?”

    “Often, patriarchies have included women in those cosmologies, but in subordinate, conquered, or instructive roles. It might have been interesting to see the same done for men in the Underdark, for them to be given a patron Drow god who was subordinate to Llolth, perhaps an avatar of sacred masculinity and hearth-based fatherhood.”

    We so need a sourcebook for this.

    • Doug S. says:

      It’s probably possible to retcon/rationalize the Drow society so that it makes some sort of sense.

      For example, male drow are allowed to have weapons because they’re used as cannon fodder – and because a guy holding a sharp pointy thing is obviously no match for someone granted the power of Lloth herself. (You can even point to game mechanics to back this up: D&D 3.0 had game balance issues that resulted in Clerics and Druids being flat-out better than several of the other classes.) Letting them be Wizards, though… that’s just stupid.

      I don’t really know why anyone would really want to bother, though.

      • Ruxandra V says:

        I’ve heard a retcon of the skimpy clothing in Drow women saying that one cannot hide any armour under a couple wisps of silk, and nobody goes armourless in Drow society because they have no enemies, so the message sent by skimpy clothes would be I’m so badass I don’t even need to bother with armour, since my magic/political power is enough to protect me. Seeing how both power and divine magic are considered blessings from Lolth, a skimpy-dressed Drow would be less eye candy and more blessed-by-her-one-true-goddess.

  5. Sif says:

    A well-written argument for internal consistency in world-building. Well said.

  6. Rakaziel says:

    Really great artice. Well written and very good arguments and I can only agree with you. And your skyhook metaphor fits perfectly.

    As a litte thought experiment, lets add a crane to the skyhook of the Drow.
    For it to work, some aspects need to be dropped or reduced, but I doubt you will miss them.

    Since it is a bit of text I posted it on my other account http://www.furaffinity.net/view/5894226/ to save space here. If they re-rate it to mature content I will post it here in a comment.

    Please tell me what you think.

  7. Sarah says:

    Excellent article. I rarely try to apply my desire for good storytelling and worldbuilding from my writing life and into my gaming life, but this really puts gaming into context. Why SHOULD we accept things in the worldbuilding of games that we won’t accept in our favorite novels? The two are obviously very different mediums, but at the base of RPGs, at the very least, are the stories. So it seems fair that we shouldn’t need to accept a flawed story. Hmm. Kudos!

  8. Kasey says:

    “The worlds are written like this because the writers do not want to imagine a non-patriarchal world ”

    One point that may be too obvious to bear mentioning: while I think your skyhook analogy is 100% right on and I agree that most fictional worlds could use a great deal more internal consistency, building that consistency around progressive social ideals does not come without a cost! These ARE politically charged topics and tend to overshadow whatever context they are placed in. Not every writer necessarily sets out to write about gender or marginalization – and that’s fine.

    For example, if a game developer wants to tell a story about, say, balancing the needs of the individual with the demands of society, introducing a world that doesn’t reflect the world in which the author and the audience lives can actually muddy the waters for little (perceived) benefit, especially if the writer is not very experienced, or – worse – if the game is being written by committee.

    At the same time, setting narratives in the real world or analogs to the real world can actually make social writing vastly more interesting and effective – compare The Wire to something like Game of Thrones, for instance.

    • Clementine says:

      I’m not sure I agree with the part about progressive social ideals overshadowing the rest of the world. I’m going to use Avatar: The Last Airbender as an example (not exactly a game, but whatever). The creators of the show set the entire thing in an Asian-themed world (with about 0 white people), and in terms of gender it was pretty equal, with hearty representation of both powerful male and female characters. It is a politically charged decision (and equally politically charged to remove the gender equality and Asian representation in the film), but I don’t think it overshadowed the rest of the story because, throughout the story, gender equality and Asian representation is taken more or less for granted. It was a pretty radical new world, but it worked fine, and the story seemed natural.

      Radically new settings with progressive ideas can work, if only more game creators would try.

      • Kasey says:

        Good point Clementine, Avatar is an interesting example. I’m not incredibly familiar with the show, but if the largest progressives ideas in the show are simply the depiction of a non-western culture and a roughly equal gender representation, I’d argue that those acts are actually NOT radical enough suck the entire narrative of the story into an orbit around them… or not radical enough in 2011. Western (especially American, which is where I think the show originates from?) culture, especially programs for children, already do pretty well in terms of gender and ethnic representation.

        You could actually say the same thing about the Cosby show if you substitute “race” for “culture”, and this is why the Cosby show was so successful – it was a funny sitcom starring African Americans (featuring a very powerful female lead!) that, more often than not, was not really about race.

        (Hollywood, on the other hand, is a weird horrible little microcosm and I’ll just add that they did the exact same thing with the Dragonball movie!)

  9. Alex says:

    Really excellent article, as always, Quinnae!

  10. Nezumi says:

    It’s occurred to me that if you’re really that wedded to scantily-clad, sexy female Drow and non-sexualized male Drow, there’s a way to actually make it make social sense. It would be entirely possible for Dark Elves to consider sexuality and the expression thereof to be a form of power — it’s unfamiliar to modern cultures, which largely descend from those that consider sexuality shameful and something to hide, rather than empowering and worthy of being embraced, but it’s an entirely valid social schema.. Women dress in ways that exhibit their bodies — although even in this social framework, they would certainly do so in ways that are practical, rather than impractical and enfeebling ways — to show that they are in control, while men wear concealing, sexless outfits — although again, this would be different from the canon; think more along the lines of “burqa” than “shirt and pants” — to deprive them of this power, to send the message that they aren’t supposed to be sexual beings with their own agency, but simply near-mechanical babymakers subject to their women’s whims.

    This is a reasonable social framework that explains why things are the way they are. It’s also never likely to happen canonically because a remotely realistic oppressive matriarchy paralleling oppressive patriarchy is terrifying in ways the men who write this stuff don’t even like to imagine.

    It’s not a cozy “male nightmare” in which men are oppressed-but-not-really and have the power to overcome the domineering women through macho heroics. It’s a world in which men are treated as less than human so systematically and thoroughly that it’s not hard for them to actually end up believing it. It’s a world in which change comes slowly if at all, and through the bravery of taking a stand, even though it means you will be belittled or even physically harmed, where even the other men who you are doing this to support will often hate you for rocking the boat. It’s the world too many women in the real world have to live with.

    It would do the world good for more men to experience just what patriarchy, especially at its extremes, really entails… but it’s something most of them would be deeply, deeply uncomfortable with, for good reason.

    • Nezumi says:

      It occurs to me that someone might say that Drow are already portrayed as a society that considers sexuality empowering… but they’re not. Not really. Women are sexualized in the same way they are in societies where sex is considered shameful and the primary value of women. Women express their sexuality in ways that are disempowering, rather than empowering — impractical clothing, “slutty” or “depraved” sexual behavior, etc.

      Most damningly, they don’t meaningfully control male sexuality. Men are allowed to wear outfits that are not particularly desexualizing (and thus disempower them by stripping them of sexuality), nor are they reduced to sex objects in clothing and treatment, souring their sexuality as something disempowering rather than empowering. They are just allowed to be in this regard, without either being stripped of their sexuality or having it turned against them.

      A society that is supposedly both a repressive matriarchy and one that considers sexuality empowering would not allow this to be the case — to allow men to wield such a base of power as their own bodies and sexuality unrestricted goes against everything such a society should stand for.

  11. Crabbadon says:

    A class article, and one I really enjoyed. I’m kind of tempted to run more non-modern tabletops now, just to mess around with this. One thing I would say though is that I’m not sure I’m convinced by the degree of intent you seem to put into the people creating these worlds; I’d expect there’s far less conscious decision and more just a complete blind spot to the ideas underpinning the skyhooks.

    I might suggest looking at the Culture and Earthsea as examples of setting which avoid a lot of these skyhooks if you aren’t already familiar with them; the Culture is a genuine utopia (possession is a mostly theoretical concept, transitioning between sex and gender is fairly commonplace and extreme restructuring of the body goes in and out of fashion) and the Earthsea Quartet is notable (and christ it says something that it is) for having all explicitly non-white characters because why *would* there be white people in that climate. I don’t recall exactly how it dealt with gender, though I think some form of male domination did exist, probably with magic-users being somewhat to the side of that structure. (not exactly skyhooked in a historical-tech low-fantasy setting)

    • Crabbadon says:

      Starstorm (new indie RPG) has a fairly good matriarchy in Dracha though the islands only get a scant paragraph’s writeup in the corebook; it’s plainly obvious that men are the stronger sex, and therefore best suited to duties that match their temperament; labourers, farmers and rank-and-file soldiers. Wholly unsuited of course to tasks such as governance, scholasticism, the clergy and leadership, where these traits (with which they are blessed!) are of no practical use.

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