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.
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.
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.