Fighting Words

[Hey everyone! My name is Dora/Sigel Phoenix and Tekanji recently invited me over here to guest blog. I have a personal/political blog on LiveJournal. I’m a college student majoring in English and Women Studies, and my interests include gender, race, and all things geeky. Nice to meet you all!]

I’m lucky in the people I geek out with, because it’s a mixed-gender group, mostly socially aware, and made up of generally good people. I don’t have to worry about guys telling me I can’t play something because I’m female, or looking down on what I’m interested in.

But I never hear the word “bitch” so often as in the middle of a tense battle in a game.

I hardly have the worst gaming experience, I know. Even the language I hear isn’t the worst – it’s nothing like the “cocksucking whores” or “stupid cunts” I’ve heard, and heard about, in the more anonymous forum of online gaming (yes, Counter-Strike, I’m looking at you). And most of the people I encounter while gaming actually try to not be sexist.

But there’s something about gaming that inspires honesty. I’d guess it has something to do with adrenaline, stress, and excitement – triggered by things like a major boss fight when you forgot to save, or that moment when you really really need to roll a 20. In any case, gaming tends to make us drop our pretenses – to help us shed our social niceties and polite talk. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t engaged in some violent smack talk during particularly exciting battles, never mind how you normally speak. I hear it in groups of any size, whether the medium is tabletop or electronic, an FPS or an RPG. And in such a fast-paced and high-stress environment, people often resort to the lowest common denominator in language, words that are fast and simple in getting your meaning across.

So when I hear people use “female” insults like this – words that refer specifically to women or characteristics of women – I can’t believe that they’re “just” words. Saying a word means that you believe something about it – something about what it means, and what a listener will understand through its usage. That’s why we usually don’t swear in the workplace, or reference inside jokes with people we don’t know; why we make our vocabulary more or less complex depending on what we’re trying to do (make an argument versus giving directions, etc.). I wouldn’t use “geek” with mundanes – at least, not in the same sense as I do with my friends – because it means different things to different groups of people.

So when we use words like “pussy” or “cocksucker” to describe the on-screen boss or our opponent in a fighting game, what do we mean? What do we believe the words mean? What kind of impression are we trying to give a listener?

I can tell you one thing: we mean something different than when we use non-gendered or even “male” insults. Sure, “asshole” and “dick” are often insults. But I often hear these words used in a light-hearted manner to describe people of any gender. That’s because the connotations of these words are somewhat positive – being a dick means that you’re rude and inconsiderate, but that’s because you’re assertive, you take no shit, you’re “ballsy.” And those characteristics are good. People will call themselves these terms – shrugging, maybe sheepish but usually laughing, admitting their own insolence and boorishness with little remorse.

In contrast, take a look at the tone of “female” insults. What makes someone a “pussy” or a “bitch,” or any other similar terms? Acting scared, or maybe being sneaky and cheating. Being underhanded instead of confronting something face-to-face “like a man.” In another sense of “bitch,” it’s being “hysterical” (which is another gendered insult, though less easy to recognize) and “overreacting,” usually because of “hormones.” Or it could mean that you were made into someone’s “bitch” because you got beaten in the game. In all senses: it’s about being weak.

How many people do you know who let others call them these words? Who consider these a source of pride? (The reclamatory usage of “bitch” is something different, and doesn’t count here.) I certainly don’t know any. I especially don’t know any men who would accept them. That’s because these identities lack the desirable characteristics of, say, an asshole. “Asshole” is almost a title, because of the way we revere aggressive (read: manly) behavior. It can indicate respect, or inclusion when it’s used among a group of peers. But “pussy”? That’s not a title; it’s a label. It’s a way of subordinating someone and showing your disdain.

Yes, this is misogynist. Even though these terms are used on people of any gender – often by people of any gender – there is a real, sexist power dynamic at work. Regardless of who says the words, the message that everyone gets is that it’s bad to be called them – and because these words are associated with female characteristics, it’s bad to be like a woman. These insults are simply shorthand versions of the common admonishments, “Don’t be such a girl” or, “Take it like a man.” Both versions maintain the old hierarchy of manly = good, girly = bad, which go beyond the game or whatever social situation in which they’re used.

The damage isn’t equal between men and women. Certainly these insults can hurt men, especially when they’re used as a method of social ostracization – something which geeks are all too familiar with. The message to men is: You’re acting like a woman, and that makes you bad. To women, however, the message is: It doesn’t matter how you act, what you are is bad. For women, these words tap into deeper and longer-standing rejection, degradation, and humiliation – into a sexism that spans social status, that spans history.

It doesn’t matter how many men are also insulted in this way. Under the current system, in which men and masculinity are valued more than women and femininity, “equal” treatment in this arena hits women harder. Would you bet the other two Little Pigs went to Mr. Brick House and said, “Oh, it’s okay, the Big Bad Wolf is blowing just as hard on your house as on ours”? Nah, it was more like, “I’m tired of vulnerability, and I want in on that protection!”

Maybe people who use these words don’t think about all of this. Certainly they don’t go through a detailed analysis like this one, every time they throw out a word. To bring it back to gaming, I know that people focusing on a video game aren’t taking the time to dissect the meaning of their language. However, like I said, people in these situations are looking for fast and simple – what will express their thoughts quickly and easily to whoever’s listening. So when we use these words, we know full well what they mean, and how other people will hear them. We’re searching for an insult, and we know exactly where to look. We can’t pretend ignorance. We can only profess conformity to the status quo, and what it says about gender and power.

So what’s left for us to use? What do we say when we’re gaming and we want to express frustration or anger?

Well, we have to say what we mean. We can’t resort to the easy shorthand when it’s destructive like this. Yeah, it’s hard; we might have to pause and think, or even (gasp!) use more words. But there’s no point in whining how difficult political correctness makes life. It’s always harder to think and break out of society’s ingrained biases. In this case, all we have to do is drop a few terms from our vocabulary. In doing so, we might start to make the point to those around us that we don’t care for the sexist value judgments that try to insinuate themselves into everything we do.

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9 Responses to Fighting Words

  1. jfpbookworm says:

    Welcome aboard!

    If you’re going to get all bent out of shape while playing the game, so much so that you need to curse the t.v., try not to gay-bash it, all right?

    – Holden McNeil, Chasing Amy

    That’s the nice thing about turn-based RPGs and adventure games. I can deliver long diatribes to the screen about how the game is badly designed (any difficulties I experience with a game are due to bad design, obviously) and not have to conserve syllables, because the game will wait for me to finish insulting it.

  2. Dora says:

    Thanks!

    That’s a good strategy – though, unfortunately, when I’m tabletopping I can’t complain about the construction of the adventure lest I invoke the wrath of my GM …

    (The quote is great too.)

  3. Godless Heathen says:

    Oh boy, even I’ve caught myself saying “bitch” about something that was knocking me down in hitpoints, and I’m the one whose likely to get most upset about it. I take pride in the reclaimatory aspects of the word and normally I feel you gotta earn it.

    When it’s something like over teamspeak or face to face gaming, I tend to be intimidated into silence about it, but if someone took the time to type out the word while in a game, I usually call them out. If you have time to type it out, you had to conciously choose the word and you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. In the thick of things, all I want to see are acronyms and shorthand telling me what I’m supposed to do. Having it slip out of your mouth once or twice in suprise is forgiveable, making a habit of it will get you a few minutes with the DM or guildleader about how everyone at the table/on teamspeak should feel comfortable and welcome. Or I don’t play with you. There’s nothing quite like having the priest suddenly decide to bugger off in the middle of combat to make a point clear.

  4. Yeah, that’ll definitely get your point across. I like your style.

    Like you, I often am intimidated into silence. And sometimes I don’t have the time or energy to take someone to task for their language; or I just don’t feel like putting up with the BS I know I’m going to get in response. But like you said, there are times when you know a person isn’t just being thoughtless, but actually is putting effort into using language like “bitch,” and those are the times when it’s most important to call them out.

  5. Anthony Kees says:

    Is it not true that your real argument should be that it is not okay for MEN to be girly?

    It’s quite all right for girls to be girly. Girls are SUPPOSED to be girly. If they’re not girly, then what? They get called tom-boy, which isn’t even an insult in today’s society.

    Guys on the other hand, cannot act girly. Does it mean that acting girly is bad? No. It means that men acting girly is a bad thing.

    So perhaps instead of changing our language, you should work on changing our society, to be more accepting of men who are homosexual or ‘metrosexual.’

    Also, there are words that you can use against a man that are insulting and in no way masculating. Prick for example, is used for short penises. No man wants to be equated to that. So is this sexist? If it is, then you should probably change your argument quite a lot (from dealing with female specific insults to ALL gender specific insutls).

  6. Anthony: It’s true that women are expected to be girly, and that (heterosexual) men are not. But that doesn’t prevent both women and “girly” men from being devalued due to female attributes.

    I suggest rereading these paragraphs from my post:

    Regardless of who says the words, the message that everyone gets is that it’s bad to be called them – and because these words are associated with female characteristics, it’s bad to be like a woman. These insults are simply shorthand versions of the common admonishments, “Don’t be such a girl” or, “Take it like a man.” Both versions maintain the old hierarchy of manly = good, girly = bad, which go beyond the game or whatever social situation in which they’re used.

    The damage isn’t equal between men and women. Certainly these insults can hurt men, especially when they’re used as a method of social ostracization – something which geeks are all too familiar with. The message to men is: You’re acting like a woman, and that makes you bad. To women, however, the message is: It doesn’t matter how you act, what you are is bad. For women, these words tap into deeper and longer-standing rejection, degradation, and humiliation – into a sexism that spans social status, that spans history.

    I assure you, the insults of “bitch” and “pussy” don’t become less insulting when applied to women just because they’re “supposed” to be that way.

    The rest of your comment violates our discussion rules. In particular, refer to #8 and #11. Dismissing the oppression women face and instructing me to give equal time to men who face some of the same level of difficulty is not allowed. Consider this a warning. I would also urge you to refer to Finally, a Feminism 101 blog for more information.

    If you think that I’m being short in my response to you – well, I am. The reason is that I (and tekanji, and other feminist bloggers) have to deal over and over again with the charge that men are more oppressed and deserve more attention. It’s a tired argument that we have to spend our energy refuting again and again. Most of these comments come from men who do not spend their energy blogging about men’s issues – they only come to feminist spaces and demand that feminists take up men’s causes. Consider that, along with the links I’ve given you, next time you start to make the same complaint in a feminist blog.

  7. Pingback: Official Shrub.com Blog » Blog Archive » Harassment, silencing, and gaming communities

  8. Demexii says:

    I’m not sure how to express it but I believe one of the reasons why insults to men don’t work so well is because men don’t really care as much. I believe that women take an insult closer to the heart than a man does. My friends insult each other so much that it pretty much is a “yeah, yeah” kind of thing. Someone walks in and says “Hey jackasses” and no one really even looks. One guy failed physics and we make fun of him whenever we can because of it “Hey, maybe if you passed physics you would have known you couldn’t make that jump!” We are pretty mean to each other to begin with. But calling someone a girl is probably the ultimate insult. Relate this to being a “geek” or another social group. Calling a fellow geek a geek is fine because both are geeks and know that they really are. But if you called a “geek” a “stupid jock” they probably will take it worse because you are saying “You don’t belong in this group but that one that isn’t as good over there.”

    If someone insults a male they usually turn it into pride “Yes, I am an jackass/dick/bastard.” But females aren’t able to as readily. Instead of saying “Yes, I am a bitch/slut/pussy.” they instead try to separate themselves from that and say “No, I’m like you! See!” Or maybe I am wrong. I’ve only been on this Earth for 20 years and have more to learn. Peace.

  9. tekanji says:

    Demexii: You listed all you need to know why most women seem to be more touchy when they’re insulted, and yet you’ve failed to connect the dots.

    Let me pull the relevant parts from what you’ve said:

    But calling someone a girl is probably the ultimate insult.

    Calling a fellow geek a geek is fine because both are geeks and know that they really are. But if you called a “geek” a “stupid jock” they probably will take it worse because you are saying “You don’t belong in this group but that one that isn’t as good over there.”

    When men make jokes about women, it’s not the same as calling each other “jackasses”. And I’m sure you would be surprised to know that women — yes, even the humorless women’s studies set — engage in the same kind of play-insulting that you and your buddies do. We even know how to turn it around (it’s known as “reclaiming”, and for an example see “Heartless Bitches International” on my blogroll).

    But what we don’t like, nor feel a need to play along with, are insults that tell us, “You don’t belong in this group”. When “girl” (or “bitch/slut/pussy”, etc) is one of the ultimate insults you can use within your group, then when you insult a woman, especially by using a gendered insult, you’re degrading her in a way that you wouldn’t, and indeed couldn’t, degrade your buddies. You’re telling her that she isn’t fit to be in your group.

    And if you add to that all the other baggage that comes with those words — they are staples in the verbal aspect of domestic violence, to name one example — it makes them even more potent.

    So, in summation, don’t try to use your own experiences to judge that of another group because there is no valid way to do a one-to-one comparison.

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