An Open Letter to Mary Kirby and David Gaider

Serendipity

A recent thread on the BioWare forums caught my attention, one in which a young trans person gave you quite the (deserved) tongue lashing about the portrayal of trans women in your Dragon Age games as in-jokes and sex workers drawn in a problematic way, a fact that I have drawn attention to myself. What impressed me was the fact that the both of you accepted MsKehoe’s complaints, took them seriously, and addressed them in a thoughtful and largely reflexive way that gives me tremendous hope for the game industry.

So, cheers for that. Really, well done, it’s a model.

I honestly could not ask for better in some of your responses. Both of you understood that intent doesn’t matter, both of you understood that you do not have the right to tell trans people what does and does not construct an unequal society for us (I prefer that phrasing to “offended”- prejudicial portrayals do not simply ‘offend.’ As MsKehoe said: they have instrumental value that operatively does something in the world, not simply make someone feel something.) I was also very pleased with John Epler’s post:

Let’s avoid trying to tell other people what they should or should not be offended by, shall we? And while we’re at it, how about we cut out the armchair psychology.

I’m going to leave this topic open, but I strongly recommend people don’t post unless they have something constructive to say. Which means that I’d rather we cut out the posts telling transgendered people what they should or should not be offended by, as I’m rather certain the majority of us (myself included) have no experience living that sort of lifestyle and dealing with the issues and societal biases associated with it.

That is all.

About my only critique here is that trans people don’t have a ‘lifestyle’ vis a vis being trans anymore than cis folks do, but I understand what he meant and what he meant was spot on: trans people are experts in our own experiences. So, cheers for that too!

But I’m writing today about something that Mr. Gaider wrote that I would like to have a discussion about; in lieu of that I’d like it if you at least considered what I had to say on the subject. In his first post in the thread, Mr. Gaider said the following:

2) Despite the above, the request for other kinds of transgendered characters is reasonable enough. We’ve even discussed it in the writer’s pit from time to time. If anything, we’ve avoided it because it’s a hard sell (in terms of it not coming across as a “gimmick” for a major character), it’s not altogether setting-appropriate (cross-dressing perhaps, but that’s not the same thing) and because unless a trangendered person somehow made themselves stand out (which someone like Serendipity would purposefully do) they’re not going to come across as anything other than the gender they’ve chosen. More subtle nuances of appearance aren’t something we’re really set up to do, engine-wise (not without creating content specifically for that reason).

This is something that I think you and I can have an interesting and productive chat about. You see, I respectfully disagree, and I think that given how open and thoughtful the both of you have been on this subject hitherto you might just understand why. It’s an unashamedly good thing that you want to avoid a trans identity or history becoming a gimmick for a character. But I would go beyond this: is that the only way to portray a trans character? No, it isn’t really. Furthermore, you suggest that a trans character would have to be made to ‘stand out’ brightly in some way (physically or otherwise) in order for their trans-ness to be relevant to their character, and that a respectful portrayal would ensure they would “not come across as anything other than the gender they’ve chosen.” So, ‘why make them trans at all, then?’ you seem to suggest.

I have problems with this line of thinking. It is not really all that different from the thinking that keeps people of colour underrepresented in a lot of movies and TV shows (and video games, for that matter), or that has prevented women from being cast as leads in all of the above. If their ‘otherness’ isn’t vital to the plot or to the character (or to the joke they embody), then they should just be white/male/hetero/cis. If you can see why thinking this about characters of colour and/or women  and/or queer characters is incorrect, you can surely see why it’s a problem to think that about trans people. Why? Well, because I exist without my being trans defining every last part of my existence. If I and most other trans people pull that off, surely a fictional trans character can.

Would an example help? If you like fantasy books (taking a wee shot in the dark here!) perhaps the both of you might like Amanda Downum’s The Bone Palace. One of the lead characters is a transgender woman, Savedra Severos, who is drawn as a full character that is not defined by being trans. Downum, with incredible skill, manages to detail little bits of Savedra’s life as a trans woman qua trans woman without letting that take over her portrayal. Savedra’s role in the plot has to do with the arcane politics of the story, not with her being trans. Her motivations are her own, and are as nuanced as those of the cis characters. She is incidentally a trans woman without being invisible. Visible but not tokenised. Human.

Downum herself is cisgender. If she can do it, anyone can.

Consider this possibility: a member of your party with a prominent role in the game happens to be a trans woman. If you get her to trust you enough, she will come out to you, perhaps opening up an incidental plot having to do with something unresolved in her past that’s not strictly apropos the main quest (Alistair, Wynne, and others all had such sidequests). Would you say that being an assassin was important to Leliana’s history if not fully defining of who she was? That this was not her ‘one note’ or ‘gimmick’? If you can thread that complex line you can understand how to portray trans people ethically.

Secondly there is the issue of whether or not trans people exist in Thedas. Mr. Gaider seems to say that we don’t. My question is “why not?” And to the extent we seem to exist, why is it only as sex workers? Now, sex workers are amazing people with powerful stories to tell: my problem with how they’ve been shown in DA is that they come off as less than human, entirely defined by their jobs. Serendipity seemed to have more potential to become a fully fleshed out character, however. Why was that opportunity ultimately missed?

I cannot really say much more about that because it’s really quite a simple matter: why wouldn’t we exist in this world? Trans-ness is certainly very historically and culturally contingent. But the basic phenomena of people having non-male/female genders, or transitioning from one to the other within the terms of their respective cultures is widespread and could easily be adjusted to fit some elements of the setting in DA. To take just one of a multitude of starting points: a Chantry myth about a saint who changed sex, becoming the venerated patron and archetype of Thedosian transfolk.

I’m not in any sense demanding that this be part of Dragon Age III (not that I’d complain!) but rather to suggest that there are a welter of creative possibilities before you for trans-recognition that generates good characters within a believable, setting-native context. DA has been praised repeatedly by me for finding ways to do this with women and with cis LGB people, there’s no reason you all can’t include the T.

Let’s work together on this and let’s keep pushing the horizons of possibility in fantasy, horizons I’ve always believed to be limitless. I think, at the end of the day, you both agree.

Thank you for listening.

Love and Kittens,

Quinnae Moongazer/Katherine Cross

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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27 Responses to An Open Letter to Mary Kirby and David Gaider

  1. Patches says:

    Oh man! I love it when someone writes a post that makes me feel shortsighted/stupid/idiotic in a positive way.

    Allow me to explain (advance apologies for missteps, and would encourage correction where I do):
    I had turned this very issue over in my head unable to understand how trans* as defined from simple cross-dressing would be addressed in a narrative where you don’t get visibility into a person’s mind. It seemed (to my rather simplistic viewpoint) that the story would either have to make the transition a central part of the narrative OR go out of its way to call attention to a post-transitional character’s previous gender and those options seemed to me gimmicky or ham-handed.

    The example you offered was so elegant I felt like a dolt for missing it. See, having not experienced life as a trans person (and not having read much about it), I don’t quite understand the core defining issues. What defines a trans* person as different from cisgendered? What pieces of this definition would mean the most to a narrative? What parts are easiest to show or imply?

    I think these are the questions that most of us uneducated would need answered before we could help to write trans* into narratives.

    So, I am interested in the ensuing discussion. Looking forward to the other comments!

    • Quinnae says:

      Yes, unfortunately this remains the dominant problem with transgender portrayals. Even in movies where the portrayal is (intended to be) positive, the plot is entirely about cliched markers of trans-ness. For example, the movie Transamerica is about its trans woman protagonist’s quest to get sexual reassignment surgery. She gets it (zomg spoilers) everyone is happy, and then the curtain falls.

      It’s annoying. We have lives beyond surgery, even those of us who get it and/or want it. What I loved about Savedra in Bone Palace is that she is post-transition by many years (although SRS doesn’t exist in her world, she’s long past the period of transition and has lived as her true self for some time when the story starts). That’s one way to avoid the narrative trap, for certain.

      The fact is, a trans person can simply *be* there as a character. Their trans ness does not have to be important, it doesn’t have to be highlighted frequently. They can simply exist, as so many of us do.

  2. Alex says:

    This is a really fantastic post, thank you for writing it, Quinnae.

    Dragon Age makes gay, bi, and lesbian folks visible in a normalizing way–they are just there, as you say–and it is absolutely possible to do the same with a trans person in a way that doesn’t reduce their identity to what is in their pants.

    But including a cultural, rather than only individual, view of trans-ness is a brilliant suggestion. I recently read this blog post, which touches on real-life societies that had less binary ways of looking at gender. And I’m sure there are more examples that could be drawn from. Looking at history could also help avoid the problem of using terms that sound too modern or scientific for a fantasy setting.

  3. Korva says:

    I don’t follow the Bioware forums anymore, so thanks for both this post and the link — a good, hopeful morning-read that reminds me of why, all known problems aside, I still like Bioware. And your arguments are very sensible as well. The comparison with Leliana’s secret past is apt — it certainly shaped her in a big way, she wouldn’t be where she is today without it, but it doesn’t define everything about her nor is it immediately thrown in everyone’s face. That is how good characterization works, and there is no reason why it can’t be applied to gender just as well as to “I’m the late king’s secret bastard” or “I’m being kept alive by a benevolent spirit”.

    @Alex: Thanks for that link, too! I first read about cultures that recognized (and even celebrated) different genders and sexualities in the eye-opening “Biological Exuberance”, and it sure is fascinating. Perfect ammo for countering the jerks who claim that trans people, like homosexuals, are some sort of “modern perversion” that didn’t exist “in the good old days”.

  4. Sas says:

    I’m really happy and impressed that they apologized. However, the cynical, paranoid side of me worries that if they make a decent trans character in the next game it’ll be a trans man (to directly pay homage to the guy who wrote the post) and any trans women will continue to be trap jokes in the brothel. :p

  5. Jonathan says:

    I think that a large part of defaulting to white/male/hetero/cis characters comes from being worried about inviting additional criticism. It often seems to me that we are very quick to criticise those who venture from the industry norm and condemn them for their mistakes, while ignoring the developers who resort to those default characters because that’s what we expect.

    Given the choice of writing a white/male/hetero/cis character who will pass without comment and a black/female/homo/trans character who will get scrutinised, criticised and dragged over the coals if they don’t reach some kind of progressive ideal, it’s understandable why the former option is so often chosen.

    It’s why Quinnae has become my favourite writer on the subject. She seems to be quicker to celebrate the successes and provide criticism in the form of “This is good, but…” than pouncing on any and all missteps.

    • Sas says:

      I think on a larger level that may be true, but here … nope. They were very secure in the idea that trans women with comically deep voices making trap jokes would meet no criticism, or else they wouldn’t have put them in two games and a DLC.

      The one part of the apology that rankled me was when David Gaider said “We love Serendipity. If we didn’t love her, we wouldn’t bring her back for any reason. While I understand someone might want us to have characters that they can personally identify with other than ones that are played for laughs, having a character that we adore and who we think is hilarious is no small feat. I’d hope that she would be taken in the spirit which she was meant.” I mean, that’s not someone that’s afraid of criticism, that’s someone who genuinely doesn’t understand why being played for jokes ALL THE TIME is upsetting. He’s saying they love her so much they brought her back to laugh at her more. It’s great that he went on to say that requesting non-joke trans characters is reasonable, but that part right there was seriously messed up.

      I’ve been holding off on DA2 because I wanted to finish some other games first, but … now I think I’ll just pass on it. Even if I never go to the brothel in-game, now I have that thought of “We love people like you (when they’re in the brothel and/or making us laugh)!” coloring the whole experience.

      • ProdiGal says:

        I think in the context of what he was saying, the “making us laugh” part was more about her in-your-face attitude and general comportment*. But yes, he’d be completely full of shit to deny that Serendipity wasn’t intended as a joke for straight men to laugh ***AT*** because it plays on their fears… I think this little spiel was mainly cover-your-ass damage control nonsense, because Mary basically came in and said, “Yeah, we fucked up hard on that”, and the fact that they did it TWICE in two different games just makes it that much worse.

        *Although I can’t verify that, because I never got around to playing the game (and now I probably never will).

        • Sas says:

          Yeah, you’re probably right about the motivations there. From the videos of Serendipity I’ve seen, though, I still feel like her general comportment is “sex-obsessed drag queen”. ~:P

      • Jonathan says:

        I’m certainly not defending characters who exist to be the butt of jokes, I was really just responding to the question of “Why do writers default to white, male, hetero, cis characters?” in a general sense.

    • ProdiGal says:

      Maybe. But honestly, it’s not like they tried to give a balanced, fair-minded portrayal of a trans person and made a few itty-bitty mistakes: they went for the low-hanging fruit and gave a “visibly-female” person a voice so deep it could make James Earl Jones feel inadequate… and they did it TWICE in two different games! I mean really, the intent of the portrayals in both games is so obvious that I feel like the only reason they didn’t have Admiral Ackbar run in and yell “IT’S A TRAP!!!!1111″ is because they didn’t want to piss off hard role-players with a break in continuity and atmosphere.

      I wouldn’t mind if they tried and failed, but it feels like they didn’t even try (which from what I understand seems to be a general feeling about DA2 in general about its other shortcomings).

  6. mim says:

    What baffles me about his response (and forgive me if this is insensitve, I’m not trans myself) is that a fantasy world would be great place for a transition, or at least for discussing it. There’s no need for a long process of painful surgeries, a spell for it could make for a world full of people who might have transitioned early and pass completely. And considering the complexities of gender identity that in turn makes for conflicts regarding non conventional expressions of gender, maybe conflict lines about openness, class or adding another layer to the storyline of magic being forbidden. In the right hands, there’s jsut so much inspiration that could come from changin this one aspect about the world.

    • Sannom says:

      I suppose that this kind of world would probably be hard to build and make ‘believable’. I don’t think it would be as simple as copy-paste our world and put in wide acceptance of transgender people, it’s basically a complete shift of paradigm compared to our world we live in. Maybe that the writers are afraid of not being able to pull off something like that.

      Compare ‘matriarchies’ in most fantasy worlds, be they be ‘good’ (Amazons in Diablo 2, Lescanzi in Dungeon Siege 3) or ‘evil’ (the Drows in Dungeons and Dragons, the invading nation in ) : they just put women in charge, gives them some privilege and never really explore how different a society where women had been in charge for centuries would be, how they kept their power, how they convinced men that they were not fit for the kind of positions they were privileged to, etc.

      • mim says:

        True, but on the other hand these matriarchies aren’t very conviously created. I’m sure that with some good will, reasearch, and hey, why not hire transgender people as writers while you’re at it, you can cut some of those problems.

  7. ProdiGal says:

    Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how they responded to this. It started out looking like a generic “I’m sorry you were offended” non-apology, but then quickly rebounded in the right direction, with Bioware admitting that they had not lived up to expectations.

    Sometimes it’s hard to look at things like the brothel scene in DA: O and keep in mind that it comes from a place of ignorance rather than malice, because you go through it again and think “How could anyone fuck up this badly by accident???”

  8. Seagloom says:

    I will need to check out the Bone Palace someday. I’m always on the look out for trans characters in various media. It’s my endless quest to find that one character I point to and say, “see! this is how it’s done!” I’ve found characters I liked here and there, but not I felt comfortable using as a standard.

    That may be why I came up empty when someone asked me what my ideal fictional trans character would be like. I was able to provide general criteria of what to shoot for, and what to avoid; but nothing too concrete beyond that. I’ll know her when I see her, though.

    I’m with Sas on finding David Gaider’s answers a bit off putting. Those quoted lines about Serendipity were one example. I also had mixed feelings over what he wrote in a following paragraph: “Is Serendipity a bad representation? I don’t think so– in my mind, this is a bit like the people who claimed that Zevran was a bad stereotype because he was (in their view) too flamboyant and sexual. Never mind that he was just a single character and not meant to represent any larger group, positively or negatively.”

    I do not consider Zevran and Serendipity equivalent here. The former is a fully realized character; and as a result, has an identity that transcends his race and sexuality. More importantly, Zevran was not the only bisexual character around. Leliana was right there to provide contrast in the party. Then there were bisexual or gay NPCs running the gamut from the campy Wade and Herren, to the tragic Hespith. DAO gave a clear message that lesbian/gay/bisexual folk can and do run a gamut of personalities, just like everyone else. In comparison, trans characters were one note. Even if Serendipity were written with the best intentions, her status as sole trans character automatically casts a spotlight on her Zevran never had to stand in by his lonesome.

    Still, however much I disagreed with some of David Gaider’s comments, I was impressed by the overriding developer response to that thread. It’s given me a sliver of hope for future games.

    • Sas says:

      I agree, and thank you for addressing that bit. At least he went on to admit that he as a privileged person wouldn’t immediately understand what the problem is and needs to listen, but still, yeah, comparing Zevran to Serendipity is just silly. From what I understand, Serendipity doesn’t even get any plot relevance, much less the kind of development a party member/romantic interest like Zevran got.

  9. Medicine Melancholy says:

    If anything a trans character would make it sell as a curiosity piece. It might sell for the “wrong reasons” at first, but if it ropes people in and makes them sympathetic, that’d be a good thing.

    Didn’t Nier sell largely on the back of Kainé’s “gender issues”?

  10. Mattie Brice says:

    I think Quinnae is completely on point. Kirby and Gaider didn’t succeed at creating a respectable trans character, but they reacted to the criticism in a very professional and compassionate way. In the end, compassion and empathy for one another is what will solve this problem. I didn’t see anything funny about Serendipity at all, because the writers relied on the usual heterosexual male anxieties over their sexuality as the punch-line. The sassy, empowered minority attitude is overdone, the perfectly feminine looking with a bass voice is overdone; and what’s great is that the writers are listening and speaking publicly about the act offending someone rather than the intention behind it. Admitting that it’s difficult to hear “your privilege is showing” but understand that it needs to be said. What’s next? Quinnae said it perfectly, and there’s a way to achieve the writer’s artistic goals and integrity and also find a new topic and characterization to add to the mix. This needed to be written.

  11. Jonathan M says:

    I think that venturing into the issue of transgenderism in a fantasy world is problematic. Not problematic as in bad more problematic as in… well… problematic.

    In a world where magic in a reality, gender reassignment suddenly becomes a lot easier. With one ritual, a mage could line up sex and gender with no repercussions or ambiguity. No hormonal treatment, no expensive and risky surgery, no healing time, no impact on sexual function and (most importantly) no extended periods of transgendered status.

    Transgender identity is a product of the fact that a) some people are born into the wrong type of bodies and b) for social, economic and scientific reasons, there is no easy way to solve this problem. Presumably fantasy transgenderism would feature (a) but not (b) as scientific roadblocks would not exist and social roadblocks would be much diminished as someone whose gender is reassigned magically would be completely indistinguishable from someone who was born into that sex.

    As a writer, particularly a writer for video games, this opens up all kinds of problems because even if you want to be sympathetic and you go off and research the transgender experience, this is a mine-field: If you adhere closely to the fact that your world contains magic then you’re depicting a version of the transgender experience that is very different to the one that transgender people have in our world. Alternately, if you adhere closely to our world’s transgender experience, you open yourself up to accusations of inconsistent world-building or of being unfair by denying transgender characters the benefits of living in a world where magic exists.

    I’m not entirely convinced about the reasons the writers give for not including transgendered folk as major characters but I think that there are serious conceptual challenges that any fantasy representation of transgenderism would have to overcome and so I completely understand the writers’ reticence to wade into those waters.

    Also, it genuinely did not occur to me that the transgender sex workers in Dragon Age were supposed to be funny. Instead, I took their presence in the game to be an echo of the fact that many transgendered people are forced to support themselves through sex work as a result of prejudice and the prohibitive cost of gender reassignment surgery. Given that a lot of transgendered people in our world do wind up in the sex trade, it made perfect sense to me (at the time) that the same would be true of the world of Dragon Age. Yes, some stupid teenaged boys might react with horror and humour to the discovery that their sex worker was born into the body of a man but then… I imagine that the same could be said of the game’s other GLBT elements as well.

    • Korva says:

      It only becomes a lot easier if magic works that way in a given system and setting. In your average high-magic D&D world where an Elminster lives in every no-name backwater hamlet and becoming a god is a very real possibility, it wouldn’t be a problem — but in a setting where magic is much weaker, rarer and/or less explored and developed, magical gender assignment might not be possible at all. So a trans character in a fantasy could have it any shade of easier or harder than in a real world. Magic doesn’t have to be an immediate, side-effect- and pain-free, universally available cure-all.

      It all depends on what the writers want, or what the franchise-owners allow.

      • Sas says:

        I agree. Dragon Age even already has built-in problems in the magic system, where magic dealing with altering the body (and even non-magical surgical research!) is considered too close to forbidden blood magic and frowned upon. I wouldn’t mind a trans party member who had a secret side-quest devoted to finding an apostate mage with the capability to shapeshift him or her permanently (as long as that wasn’t the ONLY thing motivating the trans character). I know that’s what I would do if magic was real!

    • Alex says:

      I’m not really impressed by the “it’s hard!” argument. There are a lot of consequences of having magic that need to be thought through thoroughly in order to make a cohesive and interesting fantasy world. Most people who are into world-building take it as a fun challenge.

    • Medicine Melancholy says:

      I doubt most of the poorer people could afford such a complicated ritual, and you could always rig it so it has to be a gradual thing. “Magic” doesn’t mean you can change or do anything.

      The anime Simoun dealth with this in an odd fash, where you had magic bullshit fountain sex changes versus the more primitive “invading” couionntry who had to take hormones etc.

      • Patches says:

        From where I sit, Simoun was really more about the liminality of adolescence than transgederism, but maybe that’s just the ignorance speaking? The girls seemed to choose genders less an an expression of feeling like they were in the wrong body and more as an expression of what they saw themselves as after assignment (does that make sense?).

        But that’s a little OT.

      • Ms. Sunlight says:

        Indeed. Glenda Larke’s Stormlord trilogy has a transexual character. When you first encounter him he is a man and a military officer in an all-male army; you have no reason to know he was assigned female at birth. It later turns out that his mother used healing magic to gradually chance him as he grew up and underwent puberty. He does encounter prejudice because of his transition.

        Most fantasy settings don’t seem to have magic be either so easy or so commonplace that trans people could just transition with a wave of a magic wand; that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting thing to address.

  12. melisanda says:

    Hallo! This is the first comment I give on Boarder House, but I find the matter of transgender in games to be an interesting subject. I’ve red some of your posts. The one about queen Anora was my personal favourite. I think you made an important point in there, about sexist way of watching at female characters. I know I’m going away from the subject, but I’d lake to make a suggestion. I find that surprising that on the web site like that noone raised an issue of sexism and immature attitude to homosexuality shown in The Witcher 2. It’ s like its just begging to be commented here. I would certainly like to read a good article about that. There are many opinions at forums and on youtube, but no real, insightful article. I apologize again for writing not on the subject, but I really feel that there should be an article about that, and after all those posts of yours I’ve red I just think you would do this great if you played The Witcher 2. I have a feeling I’m not the only one who would be very interested to read that, so… Please, c’mon…

    PS: I’m sorry for mistakes I might have made. My english isn’t perfect.

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