The Type of Woman I Want Others to See: Why I Wore Heels to PAX East

A black and white photo of Aldo black heels, taken from ground level and behind.

A black and white photo of black heels, taken from ground level and behind.

It was probably 40 degrees American and windy. Being from South Florida, I tend to lose track of how different the temperature feels after I get goosebumps on my knees. I spent my first night in Boston clinging to the inside of my detective coat, which was apparently poor at insulating heat. The air felt more brisk as the night went on, as if the energy of all the fans and artists of the game industry dispersed in the atmosphere. In my own room, I went through my meticulously rolled and sectioned outfits in my luggage, choosing which would be the first casuals and professionals alike would gain their initial impressions with. Cue my horror when I notice all of my leggings missing, forgotten on a dresser drawer, from my dresses-of-rather-courageous-length-only wardrobe.

I decided to take a trip to Harvard Square in the morning with the set of casual attire no one would ever see me in- comfy jeans, fluffy yellow hoodie, and feminine flats with a famous checkered pattern. Being a recent admirer of Esperanza Spalding, I decided to let my hair go free, messy but weightless. I figured a quick trip to Urban Outfitters wouldn’t be criminal, since the majority of the gaming community seemed to own everything plaid anyway. I remember enjoying the feeling of being lost in a city crowd, until I was called sir.

At first, I didn’t think the person was talking to me, because I’d first have a panic attack before entering a public space without makeup. It wasn’t until they mentioned a resemblance to Lenny Kravits that I turned to a man staring at me, since I was the only person of color within a few yards radius (something cities like Boston made me extremely sensitive about). Despite my pointed flats and twice-mascara’ed lashes, this gentleman felt it necessary to remind me that everyone saw who I ‘really’ was. That I wasn’t fooling anyone. On the train back to my hotel to change before the convention, I told myself I’d never dress like that again.

There’s two sides to these mass gathering of gaming folk, one being that I can talk with anyone about my interests, but I must also appear professional at all times. An unfortunate part about being a professional who is transgender is to be convincing. Whether my new acquaintance or I likes it or not, they will make a snap judgment of me, that I’m a woman, or I’m obviously not a woman. In an industry dominated by heterosexual men, my appearance is closely tied to any form of success. I have to battle with the implicit tension of possibly threatening their sexuality, or just their reputation with being associated with someone like me. You see, people don’t believe that I’m a woman because I say so; even self-proclaimed liberal and open-minded individuals will backdrop my identity thinking that I wasn’t always a woman, and that it’s perfectly okay that I made this ‘choice.’ What’s worse, just wearing clothing from the women’s section isn’t enough. In order for men to feel comfortably heterosexual around me, I have to be near porn-star grade in appearance, as if to make up for what’s different about me. Everything may be unintentional and reasonable considering the unlikelyhood they have experience with people who are transgender, but it is far from innocuous. This is why I wore heels every day at PAX East.

About 17 minutes after I read Leigh Alexander’s “Types of Women Men Like Better Than Me,” I cried. I cried because it prompted a good string of tweets about how insecure I felt over managing my image in a professional space. I try to make it a policy to not say depressingly self-conscious things in public, but it was a needed catharsis. I was also tired with the amount of effort it took just to appear average, to have a fair shot as just being a person. I lied to all of my friends who expressed concern over my heeled travel methods; I shrug and smile until I go home and tear up in pain because that’s what I have to do. There, I said it.

These boots are not made for walking, but I would anyway.

These boots are not made for walking, but I would anyway.

I wore knee-high laced up leather boots to the “Death of Vox Games” panel, where the group metamorphosed into Polygon. Standing in line during Q&A, I was anxious because I was only woman going to engage the panel. I wondered if my dress was too short, if my hair was okay, and if I was legitimate enough to press the Polygon staff on their growing but still lacking diversity. This isn’t unique to Polygon, but most publications both paid and hobbyist. They took a bold step of attempting to set a new standard for writing about games, and are self-aware about the precedent they should be taking on this issue. What shocked me about their response was the small amount of women that applied to write for them. Upon memory, out of about 650 applications, 12 were women writers. Doing some quick calculator work, that’s not even 2%. Assuming their newest recruits were headhunted, I was in the physical presence of a quarter of the women applicants that very day (I included myself in that). Why is this? Obviously, since there was a mess over Polygon’s opening line-up, people would aim to fill this need they have, right?

It wasn’t until I went to another panel that day that someone recognized me from my question. She told me that she aspired to write about games but, after her foray into the scene, bowed out because of the homogenous mastheads of online publications. Since videogame culture started from an angle that marginalized minorities, she found staff that didn’t explicitly support diversity issues to be the ones to hand wave these sorts of concerns. Having now personally met some of Polygon’s staff, I’m confident that their representation of diversity is definitely a concern. However, I can see how their involvements with past publications show they stayed either silent or blissfully unaware of minority concerns.

She made me realize that not everyone is like me, that not everyone feels like they have to contort themselves in order to fit in. Some people give the system the finger and move on with their talent elsewhere. Polygon limits its diversity by being a super team of established writers, because minorities are still catching on that there’s a need for their voices in the industry and that not everyone in gaming excuses discrimination with all of the usual flawed arguments. I was part of the rarity that came knocking on their door; most minority talent needs to be discovered for the first time and cultivated. It’s not until minority voices are valued on teams such as Polygon’s that people like her would take a risk and apply. She made me reflect on the example I’m setting for other writers, and that possibly one day, others would look to my path.

I’m not quite sure what to change yet, but I figured I should be candid. That while I love the things I do and try to love the person I am, there’s an incredible pressure to be attractive just to have a chance. Past this ramble, I will continue to wear heels and be incredibly conscious of my appearance. This is my personal path that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, but there needs to be stories of transgender experience in writing about videogames. About being a woman in videogames. I wonder, with the next person I meet, will they see the woman I want them to see?

About Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.
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16 Responses to The Type of Woman I Want Others to See: Why I Wore Heels to PAX East

  1. Misgendering FTL.

    The number of times I’ve been misgendered in my life is pretty small, but it isn’t zero. And it sucks that it happens to you so much more, and I’m glad you came to pax and I just want to shoot supportive laser rays of awesome at you from across the internet.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I even tweeted at Leigh as well telling her my thoughts on her story since being a chubby, latina girl in this industry, I might as well be invisible just because I am not what people respond to normally or maybe even understand. It’s hard because I want to be accepted for who I am yet I feel guilty like I should change my appearance in order to get more attention and be more ‘liked.’ Thank you for sharing your story and I wish I had said hello to you at PAX East. I would have said “Are you crazy for wearing heels?! God bless you because I sure as hell can’t do it!”

  3. NazcaTheMad says:

    From one queer (Floridian!) game writer to another, support and <3 <3, if they are welcome. Your writing is inspiring and always makes me approach video games in new ways, and I for one think the field of video game criticism is enriched by your perspectives. I'll rock my fade and you rock your heels, and one day the rest of the world will catch up to us. :)

  4. Holly says:

    “She made me realize that not everyone is like me, that not everyone feels like they have to contort themselves in order to fit in. Some people give the system the finger and move on with their talent elsewhere.”

    So many people that don’t “look the part” can identify with expending a TON of mental energy on projecting an acceptable outward image, especially at sites of intense public performance + identity policing like a gaming conference. On top of that I think most trans women would agree that there’s something particularly soul-twisting about having your gender policed as a trans woman, in that awful “I spotted an impostor” way.

    I wanted to make one comment about your quote above — it’s true in two senses. First, like you say, that Polygon and other institutions (new and old) within and around the game industry limit themselves and lose out on potential collaborators because there are a lot of people who simply won’t put up with the pervasive bullshit, who aren’t willing to do the EXTRA things that women, trans people, anyone else who’s recognizably not-really-in-the-mold have to do. They go elsewhere as in, go write or work in some other sector. Gaming’s loss. This is a great example of why just saying “but we WANTED women to apply, we even said so in a tweet, but nobody showed up” isn’t enough; there are big extra perceptual / contortion-willingness barriers to overcome.

    There’s another possible take that I’d like to share, though — there are those of us who can’t or won’t or don’t contort to fit in, but also refuse to move on elsewhere. Or if we do “move on with our talent,” our elsewhere isn’t so far away. Anna Anthropy is a great example that comes to mind (maybe THE obvious one) — she’s continuing to make games, influence other game-makers, roam around the country getting students and other indie devs excited about games. She could care LESS what’s going on in AAA games; she has her own passions and interests to pursue, huge audiences waiting to play her next game, writers who want to write about it. But her “elsewhere” is right next door to the kind of stuff Polygon tends to cover, and indie games in general is taking over more and more of center stage. So if some mainstream gaming-scene doesn’t want to tolerate people who are different, screw them, we’re all building our own structures and audiences and communities and platforms now.

    Anna Anthropy’s not the only trans woman working in games, obviously, trans women are all over in different parts of the industry, some more visibly and some less. From meeting trans women in gaming, I’ve noticed a lot of different kinds of gender expression, different amounts and ways that we contort. I mean, we ought to be putting on high heels because we really want to, not because we feel like we have to; the latter is and will always be a form of gender coercion and oppression, and the pressure is real, and we have to strive for alternatives. I know it can feel like they don’t exist, and it’s heart-breaking to me to hear how much bullshit you feel like you have to put up with — but we all know the bullshit is there.

    For context — I’ve been professionally making games for a dozen years, I’ve worked on all kinds of different platforms with huge brands and small companies, on my own games and games for giant publishers. I’ve worked in small groups on indie games and in huge teams on multi-year multi-million-budget projects. I’m a trans woman of color and I transitioned a long time ago now, and I’m sure I get misgendered and mispronouned especially when I’m not looking. However, I decided a long time ago to give up trying to fight that via more feminine, porn-tastic, or acceptable-looking gender presentation. I go to game conferences wearing a hoodie and jeans and sneakers, and weirdly (maybe this is just me!) I find that the only thing that affects how much I’m mispronouned is my haircut. I guess my take is that people know from clear gender-expression cues what gender you INTEND to be read as, but that’s different from whether they actually coercively “decide” you are. Right now I have pretty short hair and I get mispronouned more, but it was so noticeably related to the haircut that I don’t even care. Plus, I just don’t give a shit anymore.

  5. Cory says:

    Mattie, when I met you this past weekend I met someone with a lot of initiative and strength. You asked that question at the Polygon panel and you led discussions during the Border House meet up. You have this presence that I don’t see from most others in the industry; you’re someone who is always ready to go and ask questions that no one bothers to ask. That’s why it’s really disheartening to see this post right now, as I never thought you would be one to give a fuck what some Boston Joe Schmo thinks about you.

    Somewhere around the beginning of my high school career, I finally came to terms with myself that I was gay. I still didn’t want to come out and I wouldn’t for another four years, but between that I began running simulations in my mind as to how I’ll deal with any backlash. It’s sad that a little kid has to deal with potential bashings and mistreatment, but c’est la vie, right? Eventually, I just couldn’t handle it anymore and I decided “Fuck it. This is my life and I’m going to live it exactly how I want to with no regrets.”

    I don’t know what religious scripture you subscribe to, if any at all, but I personally believe that you only get one chance. We are unfortunately stuck on this stupid rock with no hope for escape and we only have one stupid life to live. You shouldn’t have to conform to these idiotic societal beliefs of what a woman is supposed to look like just because it makes someone else uncomfortable. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you have the right to live your life as you see it. You shouldn’t have to take steps back while waiting for the rest of society to grow up.

    I understand that you want people to see the woman you see yourself as—the woman you are—but you shouldn’t have to go out of your way to do so. Just being there, just being alive as a transgender woman writing about games and shit is enough. If anyone has the balls to decline you a job based on anything other than the quality of your writing, you move on, leave them behind, make something of yourself, and make them regret their decision by being the best fucking journalist you can possibly be.

    You don’t need to change anything about yourself. You’re too talented to be worrying about what others think of you. So, as my favorite fictional third grade teacher would say, “Bus, do your stuff!”

  6. abbeyology says:

    I don’t know if this is helpful, but at a person who happened to be born with female genitalia and identifies as female, people mistake my gender all the time. I’ve actually been confronted for being in the women’s restroom. It doesn’t mean you aren’t woman enough. I hope that you eventually feel comfortable with wearing whatever you damn well please.

    • Faith says:

      This. An aggressive blonde man actually chased me into the bathroom last week because I dare to shave my head. Everyone I’ve met for the past year or so has initially called me “sir” or “dude”, it doesn’t matter if my cleavage is hanging out of my shirt. Peoples’ ideas about gender are fucked, and it does not make you less of a woman.

    • Sarah says:

      Add me to that list, too. I was born with female genitalia and identify as female, yet I am always conscious of what I wear because too many people mistake me for a guy. Which saddens me a bit, because I always considered myself fairly feminine in both appearance and behavior. I’m no oil painting, but I get by. But apparently people see me completely differently. I often get told “why do you stand like a man?” or “why don’t you dress a little nicer?” or “why can’t you try to look more like a lady?” and I’m usually left standing there, thinking, “I…didn’t realize my looks WERE a problem?”

      Nothing sucks more than thinking you DO look fashionable or feminine or whatever…then people constantly tell you that you don’t. Even when I try to fit society’s standards I seem to fail miserably. :(

      • Korva says:

        No. Your looks, whatever they are, are NOT a problem. Nor are Mattie’s. The only problem exists in the heads of these assholes, who believe that a woman is nothing but a wanktoy for their excitement. A set of holes to piss, shit and vomit into whenever they want. And anything that blurs the line between the hole and a the real person threatens their whole, pathetic damn worldview. To them, we will always be the eternal “other”, damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

        I wish we could just wipe the words and the toxic concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity” out of existence.

    • Eraziel says:

      Well, it happened to me, too, and I’m the kind of woman who actually wears her hair long, but dresses unisex casually and has some sort of tomboy-ish behaviour. And I was together with my boyfriend in that situation. Maybe I just look too scary from time to time, when I have my face half-hidden behind my hair and look up to somebody, or maybe my shoulders are just THAT broad or my voice is THAT loud and deep, but I was definitely mistaken for a man, even if just for one moment.

      Funny thing though, as the one who mistook me must have thought my bf and I were a gay couple then and that didn’t seem to bother him at all (yay to Europe :D)

      And yeah, being mistaken for the wrong gender is as confusing as it can be when someone thinks your three-years younger sister is your daughter when you’re 14 :/
      It happens to me sometimes that I cannot tell the gender from visuals only when I see teenage boys with feminine faces and long hair or tomboy girls before puberty. Though I try to avoid calling them boy or girl until I definitely know for I won’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

    • GarrickW says:

      Yeah, I’ve had similar experiences, though from the other side. I’m a cis male, but I’ve got long (luscious!) blond hair with lots of volume and somewhat wider hips than most men, so I’ve had people from behind think I was a woman and call me “ma’am” more than once (not to mention people directly commenting on how my look doesn’t mesh with my gender). As a teenager, I did wonder “am I manly enough?” but as an adult I’ve come to understand the gender ideology behind the assumptions, and how they don’t actually say anything about who I am.

      Hair, of all things – it’s surprising how strongly we sort gender according to such ephemeral characteristics.

  7. Amanda Lange says:

    “That while I love the things I do and try to love the person I am, there’s an incredible pressure to be attractive just to have a chance. Past this ramble, I will continue to wear heels and be incredibly conscious of my appearance.”

    Wow, you said it. Thank you so much for this. The news about that small percent of Vox applicants is a little disheartening. But don’t you give up hope! It was great to see you at PAX.

  8. J.D.Jarvis says:

    If there’s a group of people that shouldn’t be all that concerned about image it’s gamers…
    don’t we get taught time and again not to read a book by it’s cover?

    It’s our lives and one thing we do have control over is the image we present to the world. I wore my ratty, hobo, don’t screw with me clothes to PAX this year and was delightfully invisible, just like I wanted to be.

    Years back I was in a dance club that catered to gay, lesbian,transvestite, trans-gender, and anyone who didn’t give a damn about how other people choose to live their lives (even for an evening) and there was this one elegantly dressed trans-? looking a little older then most of the folks there that night as they were clearly there to dance I asked them to join me on the dance floor for one of the slower old-fashioned tunes and it was fun, it didn’t matter who we were as right then right there we were a gentleman and an elegant lady dancing on the dance floor.

    Image can be important but it shouldn’t be the beginning or end of who we are. when the songs over how are we going to be remembered: for how we looked, or who we were?

  9. Dave Fried says:

    A random collection of thoughts:

    I’m sorry you have to deal with that kind of bullshit regarding others’ perceptions of you. Thank you for sharing your struggle here and helping those of us who don’t experience it directly understand.

    It must suck to have to fight like you do, but if you didn’t then maybe those who are unconsciously promoting prejudice would never become aware of what they’re doing. So whatever you decide for yourself in the long run, I’m glad you’ve put yourself out there and gotten in people’s faces now.

    Also, I have never met you in person, but I have listened to your podcasts. You have a wonderful radio voice and no sane human who listened to you would ever mistake your gender. I’m not sure if that should mean anything; just letting you know that even when you’re just talking and being yourself it’s easy to hear who you really are. And it’s too bad if some people don’t get that – it’s entirely their loss.

    (And anyone who turns you down for a writing gig is just dumb.)

  10. Rynn says:

    I feel so sad when I read articles like this. To be honest, I am always afraid to approach transgendered individuals because, like it or not, I know that a majority of social interactions are based on gender. I’m afraid to speak to him or her because I don’t know whether to call him or her ma’m or sir (as mentioned in the article). I’m hoping that if I say ‘Excuse me’, there won’t be a noticeable space where I would usually add that honorific. I don’t know if they’ll catch that I’m being so timid because I don’t want to hurt their feelings.

    There is so much that can’t be known by simply looking, and there are so many factors that I feel that the transgendered individual will always become offended by my mere address of him or her. Some men just like to dress in women’s clothing, or vice versa. There are transvestites that will be offended if I identify them with the gender they’re dressing towards. If a person looks like a male in

    Obviously, some people are just rude. They don’t care about a transgendered individual’s feelings because they’re offended by that person’s existence.

  11. Rynn says:

    I feel so sad when I read articles like this. To be honest, I am always afraid to approach transgendered individuals because I know that a majority of social interactions are based on gender. I’m afraid to speak to him or her because I don’t know whether to call him or her ma’m or sir (as mentioned in the article). I’m hoping that if I say ‘Excuse me’, there won’t be a noticeable space where I would usually add that honorific. I don’t know if they’ll catch that I’m being so timid because I don’t want to hurt their feelings.

    There is so much that can’t be known by simply looking, and there are so many factors that I feel that the transgendered individual will always become offended by the mere address of him or her. Some men just like to dress in women’s clothing, or vice versa. There are transvestites that will be offended if I identify them with the gender they’re dressing towards. I don’t believe that it’s wrong to dress in women’s clothing if you identify as a male. I don’t want to just assume that the person is gay, or that they’re transgendered but still look masculine to me…. But there’s really no way to find out without offending them first by simply asking. If a person looks very masculine in the face in my opinion, but is dressed in a sparkly pink tutu and high heels, I’m not sure how to approach them. Is that person transgendered, and simply doesn’t look like a female to me despite their attire? Or is that a gentleman who likes women’s clothing?

    In that situation, I’m being asked to make a very serious judgment call on someone’s looks. You were hurt that someone couldn’t immediately, without a doubt call you ‘ma’m’ instead of ‘sir’. I would be offended if someone called me ‘sir’, too! (I’m an Asian female who usually wears skirts and dresses). The reason why I am continually baffled as to how to approach an individual whose gender confuses me is because I know that my gender was luckily very convenient. I have never felt like I’m going against the ‘norm’ because I generally like many things considered girly or at least gender-neutral. I’m straight. I am very lucky that I don’t have to fight any social battles over these things. I know I’m privileged in that way. Your gender, and, because of that, many aspects of your identity, are constantly under scrutiny and question. I would be so afraid to open that emotional can of worms that I probably would act nervous around any transgendered individual. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or contribute to their sense of being an outcast, or not feminine or masculine enough. But I don’t see what I can do to avoid that besides avoid them completely.

    I would love to know how that person would like to be addressed – but they can’t tell me if I don’t know them. And I don’t know them if I don’t approach them. And I can’t approach them because I’m afraid of them.

    Obviously, some people are just rude. They don’t care about a transgendered individual’s feelings because they’re offended by that person’s existence, or because that person’s ideas about gender are just out of their realm of thought. I don’t like to be lumped in with those people if I don’t know whether to call someone ‘ma’m’ or ‘sir’.

    I’m not saying that you’re wrong to be hurt by it. I’m sure the way that a lot of people say it is offensive in the tone alone. But I just wanted to put it out there that being confused by someone’s outward appearance isn’t always meant as an offense. Sometimes it’s just genuine confusion.

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