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.