Too Girly: Gaming's Problem with Femme Folks

When I was younger, the ideal woman was a badass. She was Buffy, the Charmed sisters, Lara Croft, Willow, Zoe Washburn, and Starbuck. She was kick ass, nerdy, and/or adventurous. There was a note of tomboy in most of the kickass women in nerd culture back then. They were there to save the day, be witty, a little stoic, and not take shit from people. These powerful women were falling in and out of love on their terms while fighting back evil baddies and discovering their powers and saving the world.

And because these awesome women were powerful and turning the 90's and early 2000's stereotypes on their heads, they of course influenced how our culture treated and perceived women. To the point where femininity, in pop culture, kinda became... a trademark that also meant vapid and stupid. Whether it was the high femme charms of Cher in Clueless, or the sweet Princess Peach who was always getting kidnapped, or the bitchy Cordelia who was just getting in the way, femininity wasn't valued.

That left an imprint on many of us. I remember growing up believing that girly girls were really stupid and I began to hate femininity. Girly girls...  you know the type. In gaming they were the princesses you desired, the pretty slave girls taken prisoner, the giggling prostitutes that tended to die in noir games... I mean, the only time I really heard a woman described as feminine and pretty in gaming was when someone was trying to fuck her or she was kidnapped/brutalized in some way. For some reason, I never met a barbarian woman who was also a victim.

Femininity on game covers and in RPG art was pretty much the same. The women, if there were any, that graced the covers of games were badass or victims. They were doing kick ass things in armour or they were being stolen away. The other option? They were ladies of the night, companions (see Inara), or sexbots. It seemed okay if sexbots were feminine.

Amongst my gamer gal friends, femininity was unheard of. Sure, some of us liked makeup. But none of us wore pink on Wednesdays and all of us made fun of the girly girlfriends of our dude gamers who liked shopping and glitter. When I heard the great Ed Greenwood talk about Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress, which compared shopping for armour in D&D to shopping for clothes in real life, and offered helpful advice like "did you know there are pretty dice?" I was pissed that girly girls were a target for a stupid book that treated women like they were two dimensional bimbos.

One of my friends turned to me after Greenwood's revelation that the book would be designed for feminine girlfriend-type gamers and lamented. She wanted serious gamers at her table. Not girlfriends. Not girly girls. Not one of those kinds of women. Real girl gamers, with our tendency towards alt coloured hair and goth-like clothes, or at the very least, nerdy t-shirts and jeans, just had to get used to playing with the boys.

As I got older, that perspective didn't change. Nerd women at conventions didn't wear dresses. They wore jeans and had fun hair and eyeliner and nerdy t-shirts and kickass bags. They were used to questions like "Did your boyfriend bring you?" and they had short hair and attitudes. There were also the nerd women who slightly engaged in femme things, like long skirts, long hair, cute glasses, and a touch of makeup, but they didn't wear pink and they didn't engage in classical feminine attitudes of being soft spoken, delicate, girly, or sweet.

Even today, with all the conventions I go to, I can count on one hand how many gamer women I know who self ascribe themselves as femme/feminine. Most often, they're trans, enby, or genderfluid. They present more femme because it's fun and because they enjoy it, but also because being more femme helps assure pronouns don't get fucked with.

I've dated fellow gamer women. I've been asked not to talk about makeup, or hair, or clothing. I've been made to feel uncomfortable for enjoying makeup and other things coded as super girly. In fact, the more femme I get, the more I stop being taken seriously. The more people talk over me. The more I'm ignored when I do speak. And the more I'm constantly interrupted. Basically, the more girly I get,  the more I'm treated as secondary. Not just by dudes, but also by... well... everyone else. From fellow women, from trans folk, from enby folks... basically everyone.

And that blows my mind.

Feminism and gender constructs has done a really good job of making femininity be a bad thing. Not because feminists are evil. I promise we're not. Yet the decrying of femininity came out of necessity. It was part of the construct of woman that denied equal rights, equal pay, and well, letting women just be women.

A lot of older feminist theories maintain that femininity is prescribed, not a choice, and is only done by women as a way to perform being a woman as per the directions and wants of a man. That is to say, women who wear makeup in a way that isn't subversive are only doing it because the Patriarchy wants them to.

The other part of the why we hate femininity comes from the push back against gender roles. Women have been and continued to be relegated to the feminine, and that means, the damsel, the one needing rescuing. In an effort to combat the standard femme stereotypes, people like Buffy were born out of Joss Whedon feminism. Instead of empowered, capable, and nuanced femme characters, we got a wide variety of eventually nuanced, well rounded women who were anything but feminine.

They were celebrated because of their non-femininity. No one looks at Sarah Connor and sees a feminine woman. They see a badass woman and mother. Ripley isn't feminine either. Our women icons that have informed our ttrpg stereotypes are really awesome and compelling. But they ain't feminine.

As I poured through my rpg games, it became pretty painfully clear that games don't value feminine women. They are still locked into the realm of "strong female characters" and lashing out against archetypes that are decades old.

There were some exceptions to this. Blue Rose does a good job of showing feminine capable women. As does Night Witches, to an extent, but I can't tell if that's because the game is celebrating all kinds of women or because Soviet women were expected to be ladies, as the rules pointedly note. The Watch, however, by and large a game about women, trans, and enby folks, leans pretty hard against the feminine and emphasizes women as strong warriors. Apparently warriors can't be feminine?

Even as I glanced through Chill, a game I adore for it's wide net casting of pre-generated characters, I was sad to see that while there were definitely feminine characters, they were dilettantes and artists and dancers. D&D 5th, however, has some femme folks in its art. As does Lamentations and Pathfinder. Doing shit besides medic or bard. Is D&D really going to out show the "woke" indie designers lead by some badass feminists?

They very well might. 

With the exceptions of A Thousand and One Nights, The Romance Trilogy, and a bunch of Magical Girl rpgs (hats off to those games), our games are widely filled with every type of woman, but the feminine. Indie land is filled with feminine women... doing feminine things... in games about women in history focused their roles in history. It isn't celebrating the feminine. It's exploring gender roles set in the past.

Somewhere between Sailor Moon and The Lord of the Rings, we lost the ability to imagine feminine women as capable human beings, and instead insisted that capable women would be anything but feminine. Despite Galadriel's badass nature, we resorted to Eowyn and just ran away with it. After all, she is no man.

This trend of seeing only non-femme women as capable extends into our social scenes. I've spoken to multiple femme folks who all have noticed the same thing I did as I embraced my love of femininity in the last two years: that people ignore us more now, that people speak over us more now, and that people interrupt us more now.

You don't even have to be high level feminine to get this weird new treatment. Dye your hair a femme colour and people treat you less so. Have pink dice. Wear a dress. Have really nice well cared for hair, especially if it has lovely curls. Enjoy a feminine handbag or purse. Hell, even just play a feminine character and you too could feel the crushing silence that is the gaming's industry issue with femininity.

Femininity is not a failure. As a human, I am allowed to choose what delights me on my body. I am allowed to want to wear makeup, to enjoy dresses and the colour pink and floral prints. I am absolutely allowed to speak softly and still expect to be listened to. Do not ever tell me that I should behave differently if I want to be seen or heard or treated equally because you value me less now that I like pink.

For years I avoided pink and flowers, even bright pink lipstick. I abandoned dresses and cute shoes. I left behind my long time love of well done makeup because I believed to be taken seriously and to  be a better woman, I needed to cast off the ideas of femininity.

I even needed to change how I spoke. I needed to speak up and stop using the passive voice of being a woman. I needed to learn how to speak like a man, in the assertive and often aggressive, to be heard. Language is so heavily coded by gender that most people don't even notice it. It's in the way we speak, every day, to each other. I was literally told by a mentor to speak more like a man to be heard.

At every turn I have been given advice, from TV to video games to RPGs to books, that being feminine and liking "girly" things is beneath me. From the way Zelda could only be a fighter when she was non-binary/masc. To the way Susan became redundant once she liked lipstick and boys in Narnia. To the way Katniss is only femme when forced to be by the capitol. Femininity is the bad guy.

Femininity isn't the problem though. We are.

Our view of femininity, our treatment of feminine characters and feminine people, is pretty despicable. In a world where generations fought for women to have the right to choose their life, we're still punishing those who we think made the wrong choice. We do that through exclusion.

We remove feminine folks from our games. We don't make them playable characters. We decry and devalue traditionally feminine skills. We ignore feminine people. We silence feminine people. We interrupt feminine people. We speak over them. We look down on them. We call them "Fake gamers." We don't like them.

I used to be one of those people. I used to hate feminine women. It took a long time for me to understand that they were just being them, doing what they wanted, living as they wanted. And that's amazing. It's fantastic that we're allowed to be who we are. Except in gaming we still can't. In gaming we're still unwanted, unseen, and told to be quiet.

My journey to embracing feminine things and feeling feminine and living in that femininity has left me alienated and isolated from other gamers. There isn't a con that goes by where I don't have to ask myself if dressing how I want is worth it. Across the board, I've been told that if I'm not being masc, I'm failing at being a good gamer woman. It hasn't been men who have told me this. It's been other women. It's been the people I love and celebrate.

In a community that struggles so deeply with inclusion and creating space, but one that also claims to welcome all genders, the message is still very clear. Don't be a girl. Kill any parts of you that could code as femme and learn to act more like the masc we all idealize and believe is radical for women. While I love the way anyone presents their gender, across the spectrum, I still witness those wearing femme on their sleeve being treated as lesser and not finding themselves in the games they play.

I know we're capable of better. I know so many amazing people in game design who claim to celebrate the feminine. I know so, so many badass femme freelancers and designers who deserve to be full fledged capable characters in games. Feminine people can be warriors, rangers, revolutionaries, spies, and everything that everyone else can be. Yet in gaming, we actively choose to say that feminine folks can't be warriors. They can be clerics.

Black Widow is fucking badass and femme AF and somehow we ignore that in gaming culture to focus on all the Katniss' in the world. Wonder Woman has proven that women can be feminine badass warriors, can still wear dresses, and still like lipstick. Supergirl has let us imagine a world where a feminine woman is still saviour of the world. And despite it's age and Whedonism, Buffy was originally about a cheerleader who kicked ass. Why have we forgotten these lessons?

Stop demanding feminine people stop being feminine in order for you to respect them and listen to them. I won't change just because you've decided I'm worth less time now that I'm wearing a dress and on point makeup. I'm not going to change how I speak because you've decided I'm not worth respecting as an individual now that I wear heels or because my presentation isn't your ideal of a capable woman or person.

Feminine folk are worth so much more than your dismissal. Celebrate us. 
Because we're not going away.