Gender roles and gender identity have an integral part in the way our species functions. I suspect that this is because they are at the very center of how we survive. Women must carry children, men must… well as far as I can tell they’re necessary for the whole reproduction and genetic diversity thing. But women, women are really the key to the whole puzzle, and whether or not you are a woman and then how you choose to live as a woman, that seems to be really crucial to the survival of our species.
There are many social constructs that we all fall victim to, and which are extremely difficult to break out of. Those individuals who have tried to change who they are within their social constructs are almost always faced with resistance. If you want to relocate, change careers, or even cut your hair people’s views of you are bound to shift. People begin to feel unsteady in relation to you, and they fight it. They say things like “but you’re so GOOD at being a lawyer, why would you quit?” or “But you look so pretty with long hair, why do you want to be ugly?”
Recently, those of us at ResurrectFeminism.com have been thinking a lot about gender roles and the constraints we place upon ourselves as well as those that are placed upon us. Nicole has taken up radicalism, and I have taken up … gaming. An odd reaction to having gender roles shoved down my throat you might say? Perhaps not. Allow me to explain.
I recently befriended the IT guy at work. He is pretty much exactly what you would expect of an IT guy: Heavy set, smarter than the whole lot of us combined, socially awkward and very introverted. He also likes Star Wars and all things sci-fi, which is how my friendship with him started. But the more we talked, the more I realized that he had a lot of other great qualities: he is honest, thoughtful, incredibly open minded, has a great sense of humor, and is willing to talk about very personal subject matter in an honest and informative way.
One day I was sitting around with the IT guy discussing my plight as a stereotyped Jewish lawyer. We were making fun of ourselves for fitting so well into societal expectations, and discussing how limiting it could be when people expected us to be only those things and nothing else, when he said something rather enlightening. He said “That’s why I game”. Suddenly I realized that there is a whole interactive world of people who are definitely not what they pretend to be. There is a huge need that people have to be something more or other than what they are. These people create characters for themselves, wizards and warriors and princesses, characters that allow them to step aside from the societal constraints they experience on a daily basis.
The IT guy and many like him are using the role playing (RP) world to explore aspects of their personality that they are not otherwise free to experiment with. A passive person can assume the role of an aggressive character, someone who spends their entire day bossing people around may instead assume an RP character of say, a healer. People who are social outcasts can be rulers. I think this is extremely healthy, and I’m a bit sad that I never realized till now what a neat thing was happening secretly on the internet.
I’ve gamed before, but only in a half-assed sort of way. I used to play Kingdoms of Camelot but was forced to stop when it started taking up too much of my time and interfering with my job. But even then, I used the name “LadyLeahOfRose” which is basically exactly what my real name is. I cared about how people in my alliance felt, I tried to maintain social order while steadily advancing myself socially and accumulating more wealth. I only attacked people who I felt had done something bad to deserve it. I was more or less exactly who I really am. Essentially, I seem to have completely missed the point.
Like most people, there are many personality traits that get suppressed or are entirely absent from my personality. I’m not anyone’s hero. I’m rarely ever mean. But instead of exploring these in a free environment, and even when I had the freedom to be and do and say anything, I shrunk back into myself. But the IT guy, those nerds you see in the line at Comicon, they’re far more brave than I. To most people I suppose it appears as though they are running away from life, hiding in an alternate reality because they haven’t the strength of character to function within the real world. I confess to often believing this myself till I realized that they are actually going out and exploring themselves in ways most people never will.
I asked my friend what aspects of their personalities people most often changed. He stated that far and wide, most everyone chose to participate in RP through a character of a different gender. Most RPers are male I am told, and most RP characters are female. I found this very interesting, as I would have assumed that a typically overweight and pale group of men would choose to be extremely buff men with dashing dark good looks. But alas, the first thing they choose to do is explore aspects of their personality that are the most forbidden, that are the most antithetical to what society wants them to be: These men are using female characters to help them explore their masculine qualities. I find this incredibly interesting!
I asked why this would happen with such frequency, and he analogized it to loosing one’s religion. He said that taking such a far step back from who you are gave you the necessary distance and separation to be able to do such a psychologically stressful thing as stepping out publicly and saying “I am not what you want me to be”.
I have always had an incredible, overwhelming respect for people who were willing to step out publicly and refuse to be what people wanted them to be. Partially, this is because I have always felt relatively crippled by my own desire to be exactly what people want me to be. This desire never stopped me from doing anything weird, going crazy places or participating in unpopular conversations, but it always drained me and made me feel oddly guilty, like I had disappointed someone somewhere. Obviously, I still don’t do these things easily and opt to put myself right back into the box I always exist in, even in such an open RP format.
A few years ago I started dating a trans-gendered guy. It didn’t go very well for a variety of reasons and we aren’t together any more, but there were some pretty hilarious stories that came out of the whole thing, and I learned a lot from the experience. The most significant thing about dating him was that I was suddenly thrust into the center of someone else’s very significant struggle to establish and change identity. The amount of personal strength it requires to stand in front of your family and everyone you have ever known and say “I will be what I want to be, no matter the cost, no matter the loss, no matter the consequence” is just about the single bravest thing I’ve ever witnessed a person do. I continue to admire the hell out of the guy for ever having had the strength of character to do that. I watched this man struggle with simple things like restrooms, I had the conversations with him about the reproductive consequences, family acceptance, and employment problems. This man, more than anyone I had ever met, was forced to assert an identity antithetical to what it was “supposed” to be on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. The strength of character involved in that is simply astounding.
And then there was me, afraid to even be mean in a computer game.
Ever since this experience, gender identity issues have been weighing heavily on my mind. After my last round of conversations with the IT guy, I decided I need to start exploring the issue in an active way. So although I may never be as brave as my formerly female ex boyfriend, or as brave as my sister who actively applies for jobs as a man, I’ve decided to be at least as brave as my IT guy. I have decided to join in on the gender-bending fun and actively break the social constructs that I have surrounded myself with. I have decided to be more than a Jewish lawyer with big curly hair and a fondness for animal prints.
I think I’m going to build a very sexy, muscle ridden ass-hole of a character to RP with. Just a real prick. I am going to address my gender role issues in the most nerdy way possible.
Do you plan to explore gender identities? If so, how?
Originally published August 27, 2013