Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Queer "Labels," Queer Lexicon, and Queer Life

A typical touching point when queer folks discuss (or are discussed) is to question the purpose of our terms. Interrogating the words we use is an important part of critical projects, as it allows us to survey our positions in a political field and to understand normative claims implicit in our speech. Reflecting on our language can also highlight limits to intelligibility and thus provide space for creative solutions. And when I speak of language I mean more than just words—I mean the broad repertoire of terms, symbols, and themes in which life is communicated.

Language is the foundation of living as social beings and the place where life is constituted. We enter the social world when we are captured by language. Language interacts with social forces which circumscribe personhood, and thus being captured does not ensure we will be afforded equal treatment and dignity. One might be tempted to condemn all language that captures, but the alternative to being captured is to be written out of reality. To be understood—to be made or make oneself intelligible—requires a language to let one be placed in relation to others and oneself. To be captured by language is to be considered possible in the social world. But for those who find themselves outside reality, it is to struggle to find words---to suffer the "social death of persons" (Butler, 2008). The edge of the possible and the unreal is where the margins end and oblivion begins:

...Possibility is not a luxury; it is a crucial as bread. I think we should not underestimate what the thought of the possible does for those for whom the very issue of survival is most urgent. If the answer to the question, is life possible, is yes, that is surely something significant. It cannot, however, be taken for granted as the answer. That is a question whose answer is sometimes "no," or one that has no ready answer, or one that bespeaks an ongoing agony. For many who can and do answer the question in the affirmative, that answer is hard won, if won at all, an accomplishment that is fundamentally conditioned by reality being structured or restructured in such a way that the affirmation becomes possible.

(Butler, 2004)

Evaluating our terms is an essential part of restructuring our reality so to make "the affirmation becomes possible." But doing so is a difficult process, as it can make our politics unstable at times when we depend on it to assert basic human rights. So the broader challenge (which is not the subject of this article) is to learn to walk a "double path," where we can learn to assert the needs of basic human rights, while also interrogating the very terms on which we make our assertions.

But not all instances of questioning our words is part of the expansion of possibility. For those for whom possibility is a luxury, expanding dialoge at the margins threatens the stability of the center. Some question why queer people would choose to identify explicitly as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual, etc, because it is uncommon for cisgender heterosexual people to self-identify—for them, possibility is a luxury and self-identification a choice. Confusion or distress is often a response when queer people use "labels" to make explicit the heterosexist or cissexist contours of the world we live. At its core, this confusion is due to privilege cisgender heterosexual people experience: they are able to navigate the world unmolested by "labels," because their gender and sexuality dominate our culture.

But you see here, we've already encountered one of the serious problems "labels" create that people rebel against: they seem to get excessive and clutter our sentences. For many in cisgender, heterosexual dominated society, using the adjectives cisgender and heterosexual appears in excess of the term person. In On Writing Well, William Zinsser gives some very poignant advice: most adjectives are unnecessary, "they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun" (Zinsser, 1990). For the typical writer, the noun "person" already contains the concept of cisgender and heterosexual, as these are the categories privileged as the default. If I were to rewrite the above paragraph to remove the words "cisgender heterosexual," my overall meaning would not be lost. Cisgender and heterosexuality regularly go unmarked and unremarked because they are already implicit (and hence privileged) within the category of person.

The "normal" of Cisgender Heterosexuality

Part of the deployment of "labels" by queer folk is the identification of the social characteristics that correspond with these marginalized queer "labels." Historically, queer folk have been made intelligible by dominant discourses that mark our bodies and minds. The term homosexuality was introduced into the English language as a means to capture a specific subset of "sexual inversions," where the former focused on the "issue of sexual object choice" and the latter was "a broad range of deviant gender behavior" (Haperin, 1986). Homosexuality became part of a discourse intent on capturing deviant behavior and rendering intelligible in reference to unstated cisgender heterosexuality. Sexual inversion was one of the first instances of a term used to capture all queer people, whose "gender traits" didn't fit into the unstated heterosexual cisgender social order.

Homosexuality ushered in the breaking down the "broad range" of sexual inversions into specific "labels" which atomize and construct sexual deviance. Natural, medical, and psychological sciences seized on deviant sex, sexuality, and gender through the construction of objects like homosexuality. Social reality changed as sexual deviance was gridded out against the backdrop of heterosexual cisgender dominance. To be marked as a homosexual meant to be brought to the forefront, where the category of person was uncertain.

Modern queer politics arose within the conflict between being identified by one's deviance from personhood, and being able to articulate one's personhood despite one's deviance. The natural, medical, and psychological sciences operated on objects like homosexuality that were already only intelligible through cissexist, heterosexist social structures. The sciences engaged with homosexuality as part of the generic process which constructed knowledge of sexual deviance as a means to gain power over sexual deviants. Sexual inversion was expanded and broken down to generate power over deviant sexuality and gender. Relations between them were laid out and tabulated. Queer people were coerced (through violence and other means) to offer up their selves to authoritative discourses. Queer people where made intelligible through disciplined investigation which rendered them into distinct species through a heterosexual, cisgender vocabulary. Queer people were obligated, wherever they are, to prove their personhood by appealing to implicit heterosexism and cissexism. This created an inherent in conflict with being queer: our very appeals through the dominant language only served to reinforce the essentialized cisgender, heterosexuality of personhood.

In recognizing this conflict, queer people began to resist these heterosexist and cissexist forces by generating novel lexicon through queer discourse. The term gay became part of sexual subcultures through resistance to the clinical authority of homosexuality. In a similar manner, lesbian arose out of women's struggle against patriarchal social orders at the intersection of sexuality and gender. Where gay men struggled to find language to express sexual attraction, lesbians have struggled to find language to express women's sexual autonomy. A "broad range" of languages and practices arose as queer people moved together to fashion ways to make themselves intelligible as persons in resistance to the dominance of cisgender heterosexuality.

Queer Lexicon, Not "Labels"

It is in this lexicon that we've developed the terms people pejoratively call "labels." Terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender are just a narrow selection of queer lexicon that has been offered to or appropriated by a social world dominated by cisgender heterosexuality. I say "offered" to point out that the lives of queer people make up the reality of what gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender mean as self-identification. I say "appropriated" to point out that many conceptualizations of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender life are continually recirculated through a framework illuminates queer life against the backdrop of heterosexual cisgender dominance. Today's queer struggle comes out of how gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people navigate a world hungry to consume or assimilate queer life.

One challenge to the viability of queer life face is cisgender heterosexuality regularly goes unmarked and unremarked. When queer folk are brought out of the category of person along axis gender and sexuality, cisgender heterosexuality is left behind as the "normal" or "natural"—an unquestioned privilege in dominant discourse. To work against this, words like heterosexuality and cisgender enable queer people to articulate what is goes unmarked. Thinking of oneself as "normal" is a luxury for those who do not have identify themselves along sexual and gender axis. Introducing heterosexuality and cisgender into popular usage troubles the backdrop of heterosexual cisgender dominance, making it available for remark. Through marking and remarking on heterosexuality and cisgender, queer discourse can engage the problematic of the heterosexual, cisgender culture and vitalize an expanding queer lexicon.

In this respect, the simplicity of calling the queer lexicon "labels" reveals to be a fundamental misunderstanding. Calling them "labels" implies that they are placed over already neutral designations, such as person. But those designations are not neutral. Marriage is implicitly heterosexual until it becomes gay marriage. Bars and clubs are implicitly heterosexual until they become gay clubs and dyke bars. Feminism is implicitly cisgender until it becomes trans feminism. Proms are implicitly heterosexual until they become gay proms. Institutions, sociality, movements, and even adolescence are deeply embedded with heterosexuality, leaving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people at the margins of society.

The diversity of the queer lexicon also demonstrates the misunderstanding that these terms are simply "labels." Other dimensions of inequality manifest in differential treatment of queer subjects in dominant discourse. Homosexuality arose, in part, as an attempt to dissociate deviant sexuality from the authority of religious knowledge. Sodomy was the term used to capture deviant sex by men, and homosexuality retained that focus when deviance was taken up into scientific discourse. When gay was introduced into dominant discourse, gay was reduced down into androcentric homosexuality. Dominant discourse understands queer life through a patriarchal, monosexist framework, and thus privileges men over women and marginalizes bisexuality. The contours are different, but as a result, bisexual and lesbian people tend to be overwritten as "gay." To call these terms "labels" misses the dominant logic which circulates these terms differently outside queer discourse. The fact is, queer discourse works to bring forth all the unmarked and unremarked things that lay in the background. And by subjecting these dominant categories to critical queer thought, we can broaden the possibilities for queer life.


One of the critical misunderstandings of the queer lexicon is how essential it is in the lives of queer men and women. As I mentioned earlier, the queer lexicon goes beyond the sparse set of terms offered up to the dominant discourse. In fact, the queer lexicon is part of a broader queer language that grows up in the milieu of a cissexist, heterosexist society. We enter the world hungry for meaning, but are faced with a broad array of social structures devoid of queer intelligibility. We struggle to create or find a queer language to capture ourselves and the ones we love. Things like our posture, dress, voice, self-care, consumptive practices, sexual practices, poetry, fiction, allusions and performances are hard won through tears, sweat, and blood. This cumulative effort on the part of queer people is extraordinary because we are constituting new ways of of living.

This is part of what I meant when I mentioned above that the terms heterosexuality and cisgender vitalize and expanding queer lexicon. By definition our language grows as we accumulate ways of living. But there is a second sense in which I touched on: a vitalized queer language opens up new possibilities. For many queer people, life isn't possible within a society dominated by unmarked and unremarked norms. The struggle to live necessitates an expansion of the queer lexicon, and expansion that must pull the unmarked from the backdrop and subject it to queer discourse. At the frontier of the margins the backdrop is undone, vitalizing the queer lexicon—creating life where it was once unthinkable, unspeakable, or fantastic.

To intervene in the name of transformation means precisely to disrupt what has become settled knowledge and knowable reality, and to use, as it were, one’s unreality to make an otherwise impossible or illegible claim. I think that when the unreal lays claim to reality, or enters into its domain, something other than a simple assimilation into prevailing norms can and does take place. The norms themselves can become rattled, display their instability, and become open to resignification.

(Butler, 2004, p. 27)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Three Hundred Sandwiches, Feminists
and "Eric the Sandwich Whore"

Sorry I don't have a picture of a sandwich. My boyfriend made lasagna last night because ground beef was on sale at Key Foods. Not all of us have the sufficient economic privilege to make daily gourmet sandwiches, much less use them to (patriarchal) bargain for diamond rings.

I have an extraordinary talent for remaining totally oblivious of certain going ons in popular culture. Even worse, I tend to discover sociologically interesting going ons months after they've fallen out of popular discussions. Call me an anti-hipster (of the subatomic quality): coming to like (or dislike) something only well after it's become "uncool."

Someone in the couple is looking like a third-wheel... and it's not the sandwich.

Today I discovered Three Hundred Sandwiches. Because this ground has been plenty trod, I'll give the short story: Last summer, the blogger/writer Stephanie Smith made her boyfriend Eric (who she calls "E" on the blog) as turkey sandwich. So enamored with her sandwich making skills, he slyly proposed, "You’re, like, 300 sandwiches away from an engagement ring." Taking this up as a "romantic" challenge, Smith has spent the past year and a half maintaining an online journal of her romance of Eric through her love of sandwiches... or maybe it's the other way around?

And that's mostly the whole story. Smith uses her blog to relay the ups and downs of her romantic Brooklyn life; all of it, of course, tangentially connected to her quest to establish 300 somewhat novel sandwich recipes. Though her message is somewhat garbled (blogging with a mouth full of sandwich?), it has clearly struck some cords with a publishing company, because as of November 13th, her blog mentions that Smith has landed a book deal. Whatever might be the uncertain status of Smith's sandwich-engagement, she has clearly found publisher who's willing to sign on before that concluding 300th "sammie."

Now, I'm clearly not the first feminist to recognize the problems with Smith's project. Many feminist have pointed out the glaring issue with capitalizing on the already sexist language generally expressed as "Bitch, go make me a sandwich." Smith is quick to side-step that criticism by making mention of Eric's own skills in the kitchen. However, despite Eric's own culinary prowess, there is still a problem with framing the successful (heterosexual) relationship in terms of a woman's ability to homemake (or sandwich-make in this case).

Alexander Abad-Santos at The Atlantic Wire writes that Smith seems unaware of how troubling her image of a "transactional-sounding relationship" is, pointing out that Smith's jokes seem pretty lost on most of us. Why is it so funny that after over a year after this "joke," he wakes up in the morning and asks his soon-to-be-fiancee, "Make me a sandwich?" Why should we find it so cute that Eric has a tedious list of "Forbidden Foods" which seems to govern the direction of her sandwich making?

Erin Gloria Ryan wrote a powerful article for Jezebel, "Lady Earns Engagement Ring by Making 300 Sad Sandwiches for Her Man." Like Sbad-Santos, Ryan doesn't buy Smith's narrative. Smith writes as if the audience is already convinced of Eric's adorableness, where in fact he reads reads like a demanding, picky, "sandwich-obsessed douchebag." On the topic of "how to keep a man," Eric states: "We’re not complex. Just do something nice for us. Like make a sandwich." To which Ryan response:

That settles it. Eric, spokesperson for men everywhere, has declared it: all women have needed to do this whole time is make sandwiches. Every magazine that you gals like to read can go ahead and close up shop; MEN HAVE BEEN SOLVED BY ERIC THE SANDWICH WHORE.

That last line seemed to have stung a bit, as Stephanie Smith felt compelled to call Ryan out in "It’s a blog, not a 'wich hunt!" In fact, Smith makes reference to Ryan and Abad-Santos without bothering to name them or link back to their work (I will never understand how journalists manage to write without any sort of citation system). Smith works to defend her "womanhood," despite the fact that her quoted critics make no mention of her being "less of a woman" for deigning to to whip up some sandwiches. Rather, the criticism seems placed clearly on the image of Eric presented by Smith and whatever truth that image may entail. In the (hopefully) fiction that Smith wrote to land her book deal, "E" comes off as a "D"-ick. I hope Smith writes him out of the story in a future sandwich installment.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Writing Racism into Our Fantasies:
Orcs from Tolkien to Paizo


What is race? This question is quite broad, and investigating it proves a colossal task. Trying to take account of various racial definitions and conceptions indicates that race itself isn't a stable concept. In general, social scientists understand race as a complex social construction and not biological fact. Put another way, race emerges as a product of discourses of difference. The dominant discourse shapes how we communicate and identify race as a quality of human nature. As I indicated in my introductory article, marginalization occurs when individuals fail to conform to dominant discourses, and that makes racism dependent on the structure of racialized discourse.

So, what is race in fantasy? Race is presented in fantasy roleplay literature through description and narrative. In many cases, race is introduced through encyclopedic headings and tables, dividing humanoids or -oids into distinct subcategories. Monster Manuals, Player Guides, and Core Rulebooks make up the authoritative discourse on any particular fantasy conception of race. These texts operate in a similar way as cultural narratives, prescribing particular arrays of physical and cultural distinctions between different races.

However, the methodology for determining and arranging these distinctions is left purposefully vague. Paizo's Advanced Race Guide provides their proposed definition of race in its introduction:

Race in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game mixes biology and culture, then translates those concepts into racial traits. Yet since both biology and culture are mutable—especially when one considers the powerful forces of magic—racial traits can be so diverse that two elves can be extremely different while still manifesting aspects of their shared heritage and culture. A race's traits, its history, its relations with other races, and the culture that all of these things imply—all of these frame your character.

(Paizo, 2012)

This ostensibly nuanced account of race explains that it is a synthesis of "biology and culture." However, what this explanation fails to account is why biological and cultural distinctions are parsed out among the myriad of other differences, to then be taken together to make up a set of exclusive racial categories. Why is there a reduction (or "translation") of cultural and biological distinctions into race categories? What makes race a stable concept in which culture and biology congeal? How can races in pathfinder be "mixes biology and culture," when elves are a coherent category despite distinct differences in traits, heritage and culture?

"Real world" race is a complex thing, and attempts to build concise, universal definitions of race generally fails. Rather, individual men and women have complex ideas about race. What makes them up, how they're determined, and what kind of history they entail, are all facets of race conceptualization. Ann Morning, in The Nature of Race, explains race conceptualizations:

[The] term racial conceptualization [refers] to a web of beliefs that an individual may hold about what race is. Our concepts of race are not limited to abstract definitions but rather incorporate a wide range of notions of what a race is, what distinguishes one race from another, how many and which races there are, how we can discern an individual's race, and how or why races emerge. In short, racial concepts are working models of what race is, how it operates, and why it matters.

(Morning, 2011)

Race conceptualizations have correspondence between the "real world" and fantasy. Races in fantasy depend on making use of our race conceptualizations, rendering race an intelligible object for roleplay use. Whether intentionally written or not, incoherence and contradictions arise in these fictional accounts of race. But these internal inconsistencies are not unique to just fantasy conceptualizations of race, as they were readily apparent in contemporary "real world" race conceptualizations.

Fortunately, locating consistent and coherent race conceptions is not necessary for the study of race or racism. Instead, exploring inconsistency and incoherence within racialist discourses is a powerful indicator that race itself does complex social work, separate from its methods of conceptualization.

This way of looking at things suggests that we proceed not by defining 'race' conceptually—in terms, that is, of necessary and sufficient conditions. We should focus , rather, on a different set of concerns: how has the term been used at different times, what has it signified, and how has it served to articulate a conception for its users of self- and group-identity, of self and other?

(Goldburg, 1992)

The historical articulation of race has been a necessary part of defining "the other." Because of this, race follows the contours of the current dominant discourse, making itself visible through prevailing delineations of difference.

Fantasy Race Conceptualization and Orcs

Above I provided Paizo's definition of race, which is different from a conceptualization of race. As Morning explains,

A "definition" carries the connotation of a formal, abstract, and explicit summary statement, one that is articulated in a clear and thorough manner. Dictionaries readily provide definitions of race, such as "a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc" (Jewell and Abate 2001, 1402). . . Formal definitions, however, cannot capture ideas that are inchoate, unexamined, or unexpressed. Nor do they easily extend to the body of ideas about human difference that might not fit neatly in a concise dictionary passage, but which are dimensions of how people understand race. A definition of race given in response to the question, "What is race?" (or "What is a race?") might not explain what distinguishes one race from another, how many races there are, or where races come from. Yet whether we examine them consciously or not, our answers to these questions and others make up the complex of our understandings about what race is. These notions contribute to a multifaceted model of race that helps us navigate a social world populated by races. How to determine a person's race; which races exist in the world; what it means to belong to a certain race—these are issues that life in a racialized society raises, and to address them we draw on our personal (yet deeply social beliefs about the nature of race (Morning 2009). The term racial conceptualization—rather than the narrower word definition— captures this wider range of thinking.

(Morning, 2011)

In this article I discuss race as it is conceptualized for orcs. Here I investigate how orcs are "made up" through authoritative racism, drawing on social scholarship to make sense of the orc race. Race conceptualization is negotiated between roleplay fantasy writers and the dominant discourse, therefor we should expect to see a correspondence between "real world" racism and "fantastic" racism. Race is made intelligible and stable through authoritative work, for example science (in the real world) or "rulebooks" (in fantasy roleplay). The kinds of structure and characteristics that make up racialist discourse is reflected in fantasy literature on race. By exploring "what are" orcs, we can begin to grasp how race conceptualizations (and racism) are rendered coherent in fantasy roleplay literature.

Orcs make for a useful starting point for this kind of project because orcs have a rich fictional history spanning the past sixty years. From Tolkien to Paizo, orcs are standard mooks, they are presented as "hordes of standard-issue, disposable bad guys whom The Hero mows down with impunity." This requires that fantasy authors "make up" orcs to be the other. The other is something that is both explicity "outside" the self while simualtaniously "made up" in contrast to the self. This dual position is what makes them effective mooks, because it distances them from ourselves while sustaining them as objects for our use.

Making up Human(oid)s and the other

Player characters are made up of "us," as fictional accounts of people articulated through correspondence to our own world. Humans are a "race" featured in fantasy roleplay because they are us. We recognize them as expressions of all that is taken as ideal about human beings. In both D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, humans are presented as having the potential for a diverse physical and cultural composition. Humans are presented as the dominant race in D&D, Warhammer, and Pathfinder. Adventures and rulebooks are written from the perspective of humans, and even more specifically American humans. This cultural and physical location of the authors places humans as the default, and all other races along various dimensions and degrees of difference. Dwarfs are short humans, elves long-lived and lithe humans, halflings childlike humans, and gnomes another variation of short humans.

Because of this racial dominance, I have become accustomed to abbreviating the dominant discourses that make up the privileged players identity as human(oid)s. The Human(oid) is all those unmarked, unremarked, or corresponding things that are the inverse of the other. To put plainly, the human(oid) is white, male, cisgender, heterosexual and ablebodied. These characteristics are made invisible through defining the other as the opposite.

What is important to understand about the human(oid) in respect to racial conceptualizations is that "white" is not simply a descriptor of skin color. "White" is the unmarked privileged category of race, to which the other fails to embody. "White" is civilized, cultured, clean, balanced, nuanced, etc. "White" becomes something more than just skin color, in the same way that the other race isn't just the apparent description of skin or hair color.

If the reader is somewhat unconvinced that the human(oid) is defined to be white, I suggest reviewing the graphics for all the core races in Paizo core products. With the obvious exception of half-orc, all other human(oid)s core races are almost always white. Looking back through previous iterations of D&D and fantasy roleplay available to me, whiteness is even more pervasive, extending to include humans as well.

I have placed the -oid in parentheses to indicate that the status of human is contingent on whether the creature or culture conforms to the dominant discourse of difference. D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder makes use of discreet, exhaustive creature and racial categories. Humans, elves, dwarves, halfings, gnomes, half-orcs, half-elves, and orcs are of the humanoid type, and their respective races make up their subtype. This means that humans are given the designation Humanoid (human) in their character descriptions. All other will still be labeled Humanoid(Race), included under that heading of human(oid), but not human. This has lead me to find it convenient to refer to this commonality in category as human(oid), to recognize that all other races are defined by their deviation from the dominant image of human(oid).

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

To what extent Tolkien's work has influenced the culture and structure of fantasy roleplay is debatable (Gary Gygax disputes significant influence over the game). What is apparent is that contemporary racial imagery in fantasy roleplay and literature draws significantly from Tolkien's epic tale.

I will be the first to admit I've never much cared for Tolkien or Lord of the Rings (LOTR). Though I recognize the importance of Tolkien's work on modern fantasy fiction, I don't find his work particularly enjoyable. Whereas his work may be classic, in my opinion, it hasn't aged well. Part of this poor aging comes from his simplistic imagery and conception of "good and evil." John Yatt provides a pretty accurate summation how evil and race is presented in Tolkien's universe.

. . .genetic determinism drives the plot in the most brutal manner. White men are good, "dark" men are bad, orcs are worst of all. While 10,000 orcs are massacred with a kind of Dungeons and Dragons version of biological warfare, the wild men left standing at the end of the battle are packed off back to their homes with nothing more than slapped wrists.

(Yatt, 2002)

In Middle-earth, orcs make up a variety of "breeds," which include goblins, hobgoblins, Uruk-hai and half-orcs. As a Tolkien wiki tells it, Orcs were bred into existence by a powerful, god-like being Melkor. Melkor created hordes of orcs to fight for him against his enemies. A few millennium after their creation, Orcs were enlisted by Saruman and Sauron to fight against the heroes of the LOTR. As literary objects, orcs were Tolkien's villainous mooks.

Tolkien characterized orcs as inherently evil, bring together physical descriptions of their depravity with the language of barbarism. Orcs are "...squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types" (emphasis added, Carpenter and Tolkien, 2002).

The skin color of orcs is part of a general symbolism in Toklien's work, where light/white is associated with good and dark/black is associated with evil (this isn't nearly universal though, as Saruman the white is unequivocally evil). Orcs are nearly always black, and without culture. Their entire existence depends on their use by major antagonists, but otherwise were quarrelsome and undisciplined.

Taken together, Tolkien's work articulates orc depravity through eurocentric beliefs about civilization and culture. Orcs are made up to the other; uncivilized and uncultured. They represent, within Tolkien's work, a number of moral lessons, not the least of which depend on racial allegory to the orient and racist hierarchy.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (TSR Hobbies)

Tolkien's work provided some of the base material for what we know as modern European fantasy. Gary Gygax helped formulate the first editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and his writing still influence roleplay today. His original game rules for Chainmail were expanded into Dungeons and Dragons we know today.

Chainmail was different from other table-top games of the era. The key change that proved revolutionary for gaming was that each player was assigned one character to play. Prior to this, most table-top games were miniature war games, involving two or more players, each controlling many individual tokens on a map. The token units weren't characterized, but were rather treated as resources to be managed by the player.

Chainmail, and subsequently Dungeons and Dragons, changed the dynamics of the game by making players intimately connected to their characters, that were in turn made extraordinary subjects for roleplay. The Player Characters (PC) became more than just a resource, they became the persona of the player. However, what didn't change was the dynamic of the "opponent," the Game Master (GM). The convention was for the GM to still manage the enemies as a series of resources used to challenge the PCs.

Gygax argues that Toklien's work had only a limited influence on Dungeons and Dragons. Providing the language and theme of his work, but ultimately Gygax argues that his work goes beyond Tokliens, as Toklien's work isn't suitable for roleplay. "I found the "Ring Trilogy"... well, tedious. The action dragged, and it smacked of an allegory..." (Gygax, 1985). I have to agree with Gygax, as he states "Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic" (ibid). LOTR might be an epic adventure, but it lacked the necessary tone for enjoyable roleplay.

But even if Gygax recognizes the how Dungeons and Dragons necessarily deviates from Tolkien's fantasy for the purpose of dynamic and exciting PCs, the imagery and structure of non-player characters (NPCs) remains the same. Gygax didn't import goblins, hobgoblins and orcs into Dungeons and Dragons as one entity. To maintain a diverse selection of mooks, Dungeons and Dragons established separate "breeds" of baddies which continued through fantasy roleplay games into modern day.

Below I've reproduced some of the text found in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Monster Manual published in 1977.

Orc tribes are fiercely competitive, and when they meet it is 75% likely that they will fight each other unless a strong leader (such as a wizard, evil priest, evil lord) will sufficient force behind him is on hand to control the orcs. Being bullies, the stronger will always intimidate and dominate the weaker. (If goblins are near, for example, and the orcs are strong enough, they will happily bully them.) Orcs dwell in places where sunlight is dim or non-existent, for they hate the light....

Orcs are cruel and hate living things in general, but they particularly hate elves and will always attack them in preference to other creatures. They take slaves for work, food, and entertainment (torture, etc) but not elves whom they kill immediately.

Description Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration—brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen—highlights their pinkish snouts and ears. Their bristly hair is dark brown or black, sometimes with tan patches. Even their armor tends to be unattractive—dirty and often a bit rusty. Orcs favor unpleasant colors in general....

(Gygax, 1977)

Like Tolkien, Gygax has articulated the depravity of orcs through their physical presentation: darkened skin and adorned with "unattractive" colors. Orcs inferiority to unmarked [white] human(oids) beings is presented as fact, reflecting real world racism in high fidelity. "Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration" is stated as fact, supposing that darkness in skin and hair makes up physical proof of orc inferiority. Whether conscious of it or not, this depiction of orcs depends, as much as Tolkien's orcs, on the articulation of inferiority through racialist discourse. That is to say, orc descriptions are articulated through racism that organizes bodies hierarchically by characteristics such as skin and hair color. Orcs "appear disgusting" at first sight, and their descriptions of orc behavior is used to justify the original skin-deep judgment.

The predominately white consumer base of roleplaying games might find little offensive about these kinds of descriptions. This is because reference to the already established evilness, violence, and disparity of the other is authoritatively established in the text. However, there is something deeper to this "lack of offense." These "extra" descriptions go beyond the skin to justify, not describe. They "make up" the reasons to justify racism. The predominantly white roleplay consumer struggles to see the racism inherent to these kinds of descriptions because we never have to struggle against their authoritative powers. We are white, and therefor we easily rebuke the assignment of moral depravity based on skin color.

When Peggy MacIntosh writes about white privilege, she notes that white people can open the paper or turn on the television to see white people widely represented (1989). In the introduction, I argued that the human(oid) is dominantly white, and is represented through roleplaying literature as predominately white. On the rare occasion non-white images are made, they are presented as degraded forms of human(oid)s, lacking some of the ideal qualities of the white, heterosexual, cisgender, male human(oid). The invisible and default assumption of Whiteness is part of white privilege. This privilege is packaged within roleplay literature, and makes up a part of the dominant discourse which marginalizes people of color.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 1st Edition (Games Workshop)

Published by Games Workshop in 1986, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was Games Workshops pen-and-paper spin-off of their Warhammer Fantasy Battle games. Like Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay changed the dynamic of player-character dynamic while not quite changing how enemies are understood. Having the same European fantasy theme as LOTR and Dungeons and Dragons, Games Workshop's literature drew on notions of innate evil manifest in physical descriptions.

Games Workshop added their own spin on orcs, "diversifying" them and providing two varieties in their core rules.


Orcs are powerful warriors - the toughest of the goblinoid races, and often install themselves as leaders of their weaker cousins. They are repulsive monsters who love inflicting pain, and delight in cruelty and slaughter. Orcs are always fighting and if they cannot find enemies to fight, they will fight each other. The whole of Orc technology and culture is geared towards conflict. They are dangerous individual foes, but lack the organisation or motivation to present any real long-term threat to humanity....

Physique: Orcs are the largest of the goblinoid races, and can often reach almost seven feet in height. They are powerfully-built, with crooked legs and a shambling, ape-like gait. Their arms are long, so that their huge hands almost reach to the ground. Their faces are brutal with huge teeth and jaws, and their small piggy eyes peer from underneath ugly, over hanging bony ridges. Skin is often greenish or a dark olive brown, and is covered in warts, scars and filth.

Alignment: Evil

Orc, black

Black Orcs are the largest and most terrible of all the goblinoid races. Their awesome size and strength is reputed to be the result of age-old tribal cannibalism whereby the smaller and weaker Orcs are eaten - often alive. This violent method of selective breeding - know in the Orc terms as 'runt noshing' - has produced a breed of Orc that carries the evil traits of its race to the very worst excesses. Mercifully, it has not increased the race's low intelligence. Powerful creatures as they are, living only for warfare and destruction, it is almost as though they were deliberately bred by some twisting intelligence, intent on creating a master warrior. Their strength and size suits them admirably for this, but their violent, unthinking nature precludes the discipline required by such a design.

Physique: Black Orcs are by far the largest of the goblinoid races. Their squat powerfully-muscled bodies range from 6 to 8 feet in height, and they are almost as broad as they are tall. Long centuries of inbreeding have led to certain Orcish features being exaggerated in the Black Orcs, and their broad, protruding lower jaws have earned them the nickname 'bulldog heads.' As their name suggests Black Orcs are invariably dark-skinned; dark brown and grey are the commonest colours.

Alignment: Evil

(Games Workshop, 1986)

Games Workshop continue the same trend set by Tolkien and AD&D. The color and evil is presented as a quality of breeding. Quite literally, "black Orcs" are made more violent and evil through inbreeding, in turn growing more "dark-skinned," than their less evil and less "black" sister races.

Warhammer orcs are featured in the Core Rulebook as classified under "Humanoid Creatures" heading of the bestiary, cataloged along side dwarfs, elves, humans, and halflings. Despite being tabled as human(oid), the text refers to orcs as a "goblinoid race," lumped in with goblins, trolls, and hobgoblins. The text does make reference to genes for a number of humanoids—expositing that lizardmen are "derived from a similar genetic stock to troglodytes." Warhammer makes direct linkages to ideas of genes and species which had become, using genetics as a basis for fantasy racial classification.

This particular track of racial conceptualization is not new (in fact, Mourning's book is an amazing primer on the subject). In 1986, the same year as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Nancy Leys Stepan published "Race and Gender: The Role of Analogy in Sciences." In this paper, Stepan discusses how metaphors operate in both science and literature to articulate human difference in intelligible ways. Racial and gender inferiority is rendered measurable through scientific discourse, making up categories which collapse broad spectrums of difference into discreet readable identities. These authoritative accounts of human difference, as they are made to relate to race or gender, become enmeshed in the dominant discourse. Racism and sexism are taken up into authoritative discourses, and reproduced to conform to the new arrangement of the dominant discourse. Science is deployed as a means to makes racism "sensible" in the 20th and 21st centuries. In turn, fantasy literature used kinds of scientific analogy and authority to make fantasy races intelligible to fantasy roleplayers.

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 (Wizards of the Coast)

Fast forward twenty-six years, to Wizards of the Coast publication of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. When people speak of D&D today, it is most likely a reference the Dungeons and Dragons as published by Wizards of the Coast. 3.5 was perhaps the most prolific of all the rule sets, producing the major consumer base we see today. Even though Wizards of the Coast announced Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition in 2007, there is still a significant number of players who remain with this popular rule set.

Below, I give the entry for Orcs in the 2003 Monster Manual for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5.

This creature looks like a primitive human with gray skin and coarse hair. It has a stooped posture, low forehead, and a piglike face with prominent lower canines that resemble a boar's tusks.

Orcs are aggressive humanoids that raid, pillage, and battle other creatures. They have a hatred of elves and dwarves that began generations ago, and often kill such creatures on sight.

An orc's hair usually is black. It has lupine ears and reddish eyes. Orcs prefer wearing vivid colors that many humans would consider unpleasant, such as blood red, mustard yellow, yellow-green, and deep purple. Their equipment is dirty and unkempt....

Orcs believe that to survive, they must conquer as much territory as possible, which puts them at odds with all intelligent creatures that live near them. They are constantly warring with or preparing to war with other humanoids, including other orc tribes. They can ally with other humanoids for a time but quickly rebel if not commanded by orcs. Their deities teach them that all other beings are inferior and that all worldly goods rightfully belong to the orcs, having been stolen by the others. Orc spellcasters are ambitious, and rivalries between them and warrior leaders sometimes tear a tribe apart.

Orc society is patriarchal: Females are prized possessions at best and chattel at worst. Male orcs pride themselves on the number of females they own and male children they sire, as well as their battle prowess, wealth, and amount of territory. They wear their battle scars proudly and ritually scar themselves to mark significant achievements and turning points in their lives.

An orc lair may be a cave, a series of wooden huts, a fort, or even a large city built above and below ground. A tribe includes females (as many as there are males), young (half as many as there are females), and slaves (about one for every ten males).

The chief orc deity is Gruumsh, a one-eyed god who tolerates no sign of peaceability among his people.

(Wizards of the Coast, 2003)

This might be the first time that orcs women (or at least "females") are mentioned in relation to the generic default male orc. AD&D's entry on orcs does mention that "females equal 50% of the number of males" in any orc lair. AD&D's entry fails to note how orcish society organizes gender, though the entry implies male orcs are the default leaders.

3.5 explicity names orcs society as patriarchal, noting how orc women are treated no differently than non-orcs. "Females are prized possessions at best and chattel at worst," while male orcs dominate the hierarchy of power within orc society. This entry also marks the first instance of "orc society" being describe explicity as a characteristic of the race. Orcs are still depicted as a chaotic rabble, unable to be at peace with "all intelligent creatures" and themselves.

Because orc women are mentioned only in relation to orc men, the majority of orc descriptions take male orcs as the default. Orc women are doubly marginalized because they become only noteworthy as minor exceptions to the male orc rule. Orc women only exist as a proportion to men (AD&D), as property of men (D&D 3.5) or when subject violence by men (which is discussed in the next section on Pathfinder). The descriptions of orcs favor men as the default and as the privileged perspective. Orc society is defined by the dominance of men rather than the subordination of women. Orc society is defined through male human(oid) eyes, which takes for granted the privileged status of the men's perspective.

Among feminists, this "default" man's perspective is termed Androcentrism. This term is over a hundred years old (Gilman, 2009), and is perhaps one of the essential ideas underlying modern feminism. Androcentrism is the privileging of men's perspectives over women's. In general, androcentrism is understood to be one of the fundamental characteristics of patriarchy, as it marginalizes the experiences and thoughts of women. Androcentrism makes women the other, as examined in Simone de Beauvoir's seminal(!) text, The Second Sex: "the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity" (Beauvoir, 2010). Orc women are made just as depraved as orc men, except that they lack sufficient power to overcome orc patriarchy.

The writing on orcs is androcentric, and following this, the descriptions provided by Wizards of the Coast and Paizo are characteristic of patriarchy. These authoritative texts describe orcs as patriarchal, while simultaneously evincing patriarchal authority. This fact is important, because it allows us to recognize how privilege makes itself invisible through "making up" the other. By calling out orcs as patriarchal, these publishers can make clear their position against patriarchy. But even in making these positions clear, they are still subject orcs to the very same patriarchal positioning (androcentrism) necessary to lend authority to their texts.

Pathfinder (Paizo Publishing)

Shortly after Wizards of the Coast transitioned to Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, Paizo Publishing put out their own Core Rules. Adapting 3.5 rules, Paizo's Pathfinder can be thought of as a polished set of house rules. In conjunction with there new rules, Paizo sustained their publication output through development of Golarion, there campaign setting. This provided grounds for the republication of classic Dungeons and Dragons races and monsters.

Paizo's first Bestiary published in 2010, features the same orcs we've seen throughout much fantasy literature.

This savage creature looks like a bestial version of a savage human, with green-gray skin and greasy black hair.

Along with their brute strength and comparatively low intellect, the primary difference between orcs and the civilized humanoids is their attitude. As a culture, orcs are violent and aggressive, with the strongest ruling the rest through fear and brutality. They take what they want by force, and think nothing of slaughtering or enslaving entire villages when they can get away with it. They have little time for niceties or details, and their camps and villages tend to be filthy, ramshackle affairs filled with drunken brawls, pit fights, and other sadistic entertainment. Lacking the patience for farming and only able to shepherd the most robust and self-sufficient animals, orcs almost always find it easier to take what someone else has built than to create things themselves. They are arrogant and quick to anger when challenged, but only worry about honor so far as it directly benefits them to do so.

An adult male orc is roughly 6 feet tall and 210 pounds. Orcs and humans interbreed frequently, though this is almost always the result of raids and slave-taking rather than consensual unions. Many orc tribes purposefully breed for half-orcs and raise them as their own, as the smarter progeny make excellent strategists and leaders for their tribes.

(Paizo, 2010)

In 2012, Paizo published their Advanced Race Guide. This book aimed to "offer 36 different playable races, not counting subraces." In this text, Paizo further expanded on Orcs, in what seems to be a failed attempt to transform this monster race into a playable option.

Orcs are aggressive, callous, and domineering. Bullies by nature, they respect strength and power as the highest virtues. On an almost instinctive level, orcs believe they are entitled to anything they want unless someone stronger can stop them from seizing it. They rarely exert themselves off the battlefield except when forced to do so; this attitude stems not just from laziness but also from an ingrained belief that work should trickle down through the pecking order until it falls upon the shoulders of the weak. They take slaves from other races, orc men brutalize orc women, and both abuse children and elders, on the grounds that anyone too feeble to fight back deserves little more than a life of suffering. Surrounded at all times by bitter enemies, orcs cultivate an attitude of indifference to pain, vicious tempers, and a fierce willingness to commit unspeakable acts of vengeance against anyone who dares to defy them.

Physical Description: Powerfully built, orcs typically stand just a few inches taller than most humans but have much greater muscle mass, their broad shoulders and thick, brawny hips often giving them a slightly lurching gait. They typically have dull green skin, coarse dark hair, beady red eyes, and protruding, tusklike teeth. Orcs consider scars a mark of distinction and frequently use them as a form of body art.

Society: Orcs usually live amid squalor and constant mayhem, and intimidation and brutal violence are the glue that holds orc culture together. They settle disputes by making increasingly grisly threats until, when a rival fails to back down, the conflict escalates into actual bloodshed. Orcs who win these ferocious brawls not only feel free to take whatever they want from the loser, but also frequently indulge in humiliating physical violation, casual mutilation, and even outright murder. Orcs rarely spend much time improving their homes or belongings since doing so merely encourages a stronger orc to seize them. In fact, whenever possible, they prefer to occupy buildings and communities originally built by other races.

Relations: Orcs admire strength above all things. Even members of enemy races can sometimes win an orc's grudging respect, or at least tolerance, if they break his nose enough times. . . .

Orcs view humans as race of sheep with a few wolves living in their midst. They freely kill or oppress humans too weak to fend them off but always keep one eye on the nearest exit in case they run into a formidable human. Orcs look upon half-orcs with a strange mixture of contempt, envy, and pride. Though weaker than typical orcs, these half-breeds are also usually smarter, more cunning, and better leaders. Tribes led, or at least advised, by half-orcs are often more successful than those led by pure-blooded orcs. On a more fundamental level, orcs believe each half-orc also represents an orc exerting dominance over a weaker race.

Alignment and Religion: Orcs have few redeeming qualities. Most are violent, cruel, and selfish. Concepts such as honor or loyalty usually strike them as odd character f laws that tend to afflict members of the weaker races. Orcs are typically not just evil, but chaotic to boot, though those with greater self-control may gravitate toward lawful evil. Orcs pray to gods of fire, war, and blood, often creating tribal "pantheons" by combining these aspects into uniquely orc concepts. . . .

(Paizo, 2012)

Paizo provides a much "deeper" perspective of orcs than previous iterations, yet they are really no different than Tolkien's. Going back nearly sixty years, the tradition of orcs has been expanded but unchanged. It is almost hard to believe that Paizo published the advanced race Guide with the intent to make orcs an accessible race for roleplaying. Rather, the description provided suggest strongly that orcs are irredeemably evil, creatures only suitable mooks for the PCs to mow through.

Like previous iterations, orcs are characterized by their lacks and extremes. Orcs lack typical human(oid) intelligence, by exceed average human(oid) "brute strength." Orc society reflects these excesses in both structure and description. Physical power characterizes the hierarchy of orc society, in which gender plays a role. Pathfinder's description of "orc patriarchy," where "orc men brutalize orc women," and in turn they both brutalize others. This structure seems to naturalize gender violence among orcs, relegating it to a byproduct of general orc violence and a sort of essential gender inequality.

At the intersection of orcs and women, we can see how two distinct systems of oppression (racism and sexism) "make up" orc women. Dominant discourse tends to describe gender violence among marginalized groups as a defining characteristic, which makes them subordinate to white, heterosexual culture. This of course makes D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder's description of orc gender violence very problematic. Orc women are presented as imbued with the same essential violence as orc men. These authoritative accounts of orc gender dynamics, present orc violence against women as the an exceptional orc trait absent from human(oid) society.

Within contemporary discussions about women of color, there is a strong tendency to do two things. First, there is effort on the part of White people to export gender violence into non-white communities. Domestic violence is painted as a problem for other communities, purposefully painting these groups as internally dysfunctional and at odds with White culture. This is analogous to how orcs are painted as internally chaotic and at odds with all other "intelligent races."

Second, there is double work being done on women of color. In combination with the exporting of gender violence, White, patriarchal culture designates violence against women of color as "due" because of their nature. For example, Collins demonstrates how Controlling images normalize violence against black women:

The dominant ideology of the slave era fostered the creation of several interrelated, socially constructed controlling images of Black womanhood, each reflecting the dominant group's interest in maintaining Black women's subordination. Moreover, since Black and White women were both important to slavery's continuation, controlling images of Black womanhood also functioned to mask social relations that affected all women.

According to the cult of true womanhood that accompanied the traditional family ideal, "true" women possessed four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Propertied White women and those of the emerging middle class were encouraged to aspire to these virtues. African-American women encountered a different set of controlling images.

(Collins, 2000)

The image made by Paizo of the orc women who brutalized by orc men and "abuse children and elders" makes up a strategy to justify the violence the human(oid) players will bring to orcs. It makes itself invisible by explaining gender violence into orcs as a means to reflect the interests of the dominant human(oid) characters. Intersectionality is the feminist study of oppression at the intersections of difference systems of oppression. With roots in Black feminist thought, intersectionality has done great work bringing together queer, critical race, and feminist theory.. The core of intersectionalist theory can be traced as far back as the 1970s and the work of the Combahee River Collective:

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.

(Combahee River Collective, republished in McCann and Kim, 2010)

Intersectionality continues to be a powerful way to articulate the interaction and interlock between different systems of oppression. Patricia Hill Collins work mentioned above is an example of intersectional study of oppression. She makes visible how controlling images of women work through racist and sexist systems to make up black women as doubly marginalized. In this way, we can see how roleplaying literature works to "make up" women who are doubly subordinated to both the racist and sexist images of orc women. The invisibility of white privilege and androcentrism makes this quality of fantasy literature doubly invisible, hiding how oppression is embedded in scientific and authoritative accounts of race and sexism.


While there are some distinct similarities between these different instances of orcs in fantasy roleplay, there is also some changes that trend over time. Though the descriptions and qualities of orc fantasy races have undergone important changes, there are a number of common threads that can be traced between all of these iterations. What is important for our discussion is the understand how these threads are articulated through real world things, and very often those things are embedded in racism and sexism.

To quote Anita Sarkessian, "remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it's more problematic or pernicious aspects." I sincerely love table-top roleplaying games, and as a corollary I love engaging in critical dialogue about table-top roleplaying games. The analysis I provided here is meant to do at least three things.

First, as argued in "Let's Play a Feminist Game," interrogating dominant stereotypes, narratives, and stories is a necessary part of undoing heterosexism, cissexism, racism ablism, and sexism. These things are deeply ingrained in our society, and as such they permeate nearly every layer of our culture. Gaming culture is no different in this respect, and as such much be made subject to the same kinds of critical discourse that we subject other (arguably) more important things.

Second, as I also argued in the introductory article, we need to learn and understand how systems of oppression makes themselves invisible, and how certain tools and ideas can make visible these systems. One important way to make themselves invisible is for privilege and systems of oppression to work in tandem. Because of this, intersectionality is one of the strongest tools that we have to work at undoing oppression and privilege throughout society.

Finally, I made this post (and hopefully more in the future) because I believe that these kinds of discussions ought to be made more available to those people who are unaware of these issues. Like I said, systems of oppression and privilege makes themselves invisible, and one important goal of my work is to work to make visible these things to those who have significant privilege. Roleplay has historically played an important role in the development of my social conciseness. Ideally, by publicly discussing these things, I can help enable roleplay that resists and subverts the already pervasive and pernicious presence of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, ablism, and sexism.

Thank you for reading! Please feel free to share this blog with your friends and family!


de Beauvoir, Simone. 1952. "The Second Sex: Introduction" In Carole R. McCann and Seung-kyung Kim, editors, Feminist Theory Reader, pages 35–42. Routledge, 2010.

Carpenter, Humphrey and Christopher Tolkien, eds. 2002. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

The Combahee River Collective. 1977. "A Black Feminist Statement." In Carole R. McCann and Seung-kyung Kim, editors, Feminist Theory Reader, pages 106–112. Routledge, 2010.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge

Goldbery, David Theo. 1992. "The Semantics of Race." Ethnic and Racial Studies 15(4):543–69.

Gygax, Gary. 1977. Monster Manual. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Hobbies.

Gygax, Gary. 1985. "The Influence of Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D Games " Dragon. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Hobbies.

Monster Manual v.3.5. 2003. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

Morning, Ann. 2011. The Nature of Race: How Scientists think and teach about human differences. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Pathfinder Roleplaying Bestiary. 2010. Redmond, WA: Paizo

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook. 2009. Redmond, WA: Paizo Publishing

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Race Guide. 2012. Redmond, WA: Paizo Publishing

Player's Handbook v.3.5. 2003. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

Stepan, Nancy Leys. 1989. "Race and Gender: The role of analogy in science." Isis 77(2):294–77.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. paperback ed. London, UK: Hogshead Publishing Ltd.

Yatt, John. 2002. "Wraiths and race." The Guardian.

External Discussions

Updated as they arise!

Reddit: "Writing Racism into Our Fantasies: Orcs from Tolkien to Paizo"

Paizo's forum: "An interesting article on the history of the depiction of orcs in tabletop games." This discussion was locked by Paizo management.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Let's Play a Feminist Game:
Using Roleplay to Critique and Subvert

I vaguely remember an image of myself and my mother when I was about five years old. I had found two twigs from a willow tree, and I held them above my head like antennae. I distinctly remember telling my mother that I was an ant (in the order Hymenoptera, like bees), and that I was looking for food. I had gotten this idea from a children's book about animals. In it, I learned that ants use their antennae to communicate information and find food. I played at being an ant, and tried to use my antennae to coax food out of my environment. As silly as it was, this is my first memory of roleplaying.

Biographical Introduction

Once I was old enough to make sense of television shows, one of my favorites became Star Trek: Voyager. I loved the cast and the show format. Unlike most television shows I watched, Voyager's format mas more "mature." Each episode selected a few primary characters to focus the narrative on, and over the course of the series individual characters had different story arcs. Stories of the Doctor were about questioning the limits of personhood, and that stories of Seven were about exploring what it means to be an individual. I enjoyed these stories so much, that I turned to imagining and roleplaying to explore these themes in my own life. I valued the narratives supplied by Voyager and learned to imagine myself as members of the crew.

Though there have been plenty of other media which has influenced my play, I mark Voyager as a significant fiction in my early childhood. I remember how my roleplay involved playing as different characters, "trying on" different kinds of protagonists. One characteristic of Voyager which stands in contrast to other television shows I watched was its prominent cast of women characters. Captain Janeway, Seven of Nine, and B'Elanna Torres broken many boundaries in popular culture, giving use images of intelligent, competent women. Though there is much to be desired from the Star Trek franchise, Voyager has inspired much praise and critique from feminists.

Now some eleven years later I'm certain that Janeway, Seven of Nine, and B'Elanna were influential on my budding imagination. Their depth of character (at least to a ten year-old) inspired many kinds of roleplay and imagining. Because their stories were so compelling, I explored imagining myself as a woman. In contrast with much of my previous media consumption, the women of Voyager were probably the most nuanced characters I had experienced. And in turn, I developed a preference for media with women protagonists.

I found myself gravitate to a handful of the popular children's shows that featured women protagonists. I remember watching Clarissa Explains It All, The Secret World of Alex Mack, and The Wild Thornberrys. One particular show that stands out almost as prominently as Voyager is Sabrina the Teenage Witch (which explains my not-so-secret love of Melissa Joan Hart). Each of these shows featured women as protagonists with extraordinary experiences. And like Voyager, I wanted to roleplay these experiences. My experiences engaged in roleplay gave me a perspective that stretched my imaginary limits of gender.

My experiences roleplaying the characters I found in fiction wasn't just limited to television. Though I loved reading, my yet-to-be diagnosed ADD made books a challenge to me. I was somewhat skeptical of any unread book, and would quickly get board with stories that didn't "hook" me right away.

Despite my reluctance to stick with some stories, I somehow I persisted through the entire Wheel of Time series. Like Voyager, I remember preferring some character narratives more than others. There was something I loved about the Aes Sedai, and I would skip over Rand and Mat chapters to get back to Elayne, Nynaeve, and Egwene. The Aes Sedai were made up to be a very powerful group of women in the world, and that appealed to my imagination. Admittedly, years later I recognize Robert Jordan's portrayal of women as limited by the sexist stereotypes he used. Aes Sedai in Jordan's universe were so supernaturally powerful, that made them emotionally deficient individuals as a means to propel the stories of the three main male characters.

Though I lacked a nuanced understanding of Jordan's portrayal of women, my imagination was left wanting more from the Aes Sedai. Roleplay and imagining gave me an opportunity to consider alternative plots that deviated from Jordan's man centric narrative. I remember once writing a short fiction about Aes Sedai doing wondrous things in their battle against the Dark One. My fan fiction was probably not very good, but it was an opportunity to explore Jordan's universe through an unintended critique of his sexist plot. Further, I remember writing myself into the story as an Aes Sedai. While I may have made a literary mistake with my Mary Sue, looking back on it, it was a powerful and enjoyable flight of fancy.

Narratives and Imagining Ourselves Otherwise

The convergence of my experiences with Voyager, Sabrina, and The Wheel of Time left a lasting impression on my imagination. I became preferentially oriented towards science fiction and fantasy with women protagonists. I found that stories about extraordinary women ignited my imagination and challenged how gender was structured around me. I heard the ringing of the Abhorsen's bells in Sabriel (Garth Nix). I traveled with Phedre across Terre d'Ange and beyond in Kushiel's Legacy (Jacqueline Carey). I've walked post-apocalyptic highways with Lauren Olamina in Parable of the Sower (Octavia E. Butler). Each of these women helped me imagine myself differently, and in turn subverted the inevitability of our gendered society.

Narratives are powerful cultural vehicles. And though the stories I've discussed might indicate gender diversity in our media, the dominant narratives present suggests otherwise. Many of my experiences with women protagonists in media took place in the 90s, and were part of a "boom" of women characters. However, in the past decade, American popular media has experienced a decline in women staring as sole protagonists, or as members of gender diverse casts. Of the popular shows I've watched in the past few years, very few seem to be able to pass even the sexy lamp or Bechdel test. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice, The Walking Dead, Dexter, Harry Potter, and True Blood all fail to portray women as competent, impactful characters.

Further, this inequality in gender portrayals corresponds to real world inequality between women and men writers. Reflecting over my exposure to women protagonists, it's not hard to notice that many of them were written by men. Looking for women protagonists significantly narrows the field of available literature. If we were to limit ourselves to just the literature written by women, this would narrow it further.

My first proto-feminist thoughts came from fiction writing, as these books and shows have helped teach me that my own perspective is subjective. To imagine myself as a women, as one of the characters I've mentioned above, I have to recognize that my own experiences are not universal. We all may share some basic human similarities, but our individual social positions has a profound effect. Being able to grasp different kinds of experiences through communication, such as story telling, is an important part of developing a realization of our own subjectivity.

A casual survey of protagonists in literature, video games, movies, and television shows our culture dominated by white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied men. The severe lack of characters from marginalized groups severely limits our abilities to imagine ourselves otherwise. For marginalized people, this makes our abject status real. If there is no room in our imaginations for ourselves, then how can we come to understand our differences beyond their prescribed subordination. The inverse of this is that it makes it easy for white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, men to assume their experiences are universal. This is part of a dominant discourse that marginalizes people who don't occupy privileged positions along axis of oppression and inhibits privileged people from imagining the experiences of others. For privileged people, our narrow realm of personal experiences becomes universalized when the dominant culture reflects it back at us. This limits imagination and inhibits our compassion for suffering. Being part of privilege isn't a choice, but being ignorant of it is something we ought to work against.

Challenging Hierarchies Thought Imagination and Critique

The current state of fiction is failing our imaginations. And much of our media is devoted to cementing gender, sexual and racial differences while simultaneously ranking said differences. Our culture is organized hierarchically, situating white, heterosexual, cis, able-bodied men at it's apex. If we hope to see this hierarchy undone, then we must engage and resist the dominant trends of fantasy and fiction. Of course, this argument isn't something that's a completely novel creation on my part. There are lots of areas where people have focused their efforts to transform our culture through our media. What I suggest is that efforts to challenge the limits of our imagination can come from two directions.

The first direction is through the creation of new kinds of narratives, characters and stories. This isn't something easy, and those participating in artistic creation have a lot of barriers to overcome. Though I've mentioned some women writers and a writer of color, there are countless writers who labor at the margins because of sexism, racism, cissexism, and heterosexism. These people write their experiences and souls into their art, but suffer because they fail to confirm to or embody the dominant discourse.

Though the women characters of the 1980s and 90s may have faded from the spotlight, there effects on me personally were substantive. I am terrified by the idea that future generations may loose the chance expand their imaginations. And when reflecting on my own imagination, I am embarrassed that my formative experiences were almost always white, cisgender and able-bodied. Producing and distributing subversive and revolutionary art has the potential to undo the reproduction of some forms of oppression. In turn, I believe that fostering and participating in these arts necessarily expands our capacity for empathy and enables others to do the same.

The second direction is to use critique to make visible the stereotypes, narratives, and stories that support or contribute to our already white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, male dominated media. Part of the power of dominant narratives is that they can make themselves invisible even when they are ubiquitous. Naming characteristics of the dominant discourse is a necessary part of overcoming and subverting it. We can't talk about racism without developing and learning concepts to organize the complex and often contradictory facets of racist discourse.

Learning how to recognize racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, and ablism is essential because if we can not recognize them, then how can we produce media that subverts them? Living lives where some of us are privileged along some axis, but oppressed along others makes these issues complex. It isn't enough that I understand heterosexism through my own experiences as a queer person. Revolution and subversion requires that I make myself understand sexism and racism, even if I do not experience them as a white man.

Marginalized groups already struggle to navigate hierarchies built on their oppression, so we in turn develop tools and concept to make our oppression visible. The next step is learning to share and receive these tools, building bridges where differing intersections can collaborate. Learning how to call out racism and sexism is essential for me as white queer man, not because these systems necessarily oppress me, but because interlocking systems of oppression depend on each other to make themselves invisible as a whole.

Narrative, Roleplay, and Critique

To borrow the words of Judith Butler, to me roleplay is "taking the body as a point of departure for an articulation that is not always constrained by the body as it is" (2004). We are currently stuck in a world where our bodies are defined for us; gendered, raced, sexed, sexualized and organized in a social matrix that is beyond individual needs or desires. In turn, interlocking systems of oppression work to divide these bodies and isolate our experiences. These divisions are maintained through the elimination of subversive discourses which share experiences of oppression and marginalization. To transform our reality, we have to work in spaces of possibility. Roleplay is just one possible place where we can try to overcome and subvert the divisions imposed by normative reality.

In the fall of 2012, I began working on a course project I termed Feminist's Role Play Game (FRPG). I drew on the work of feminist scholars, such as bell hooks, Judith Butler, Allan Johnson, Carol Stabile, Chrstine Delphy and others to formulate a feminist project on roleplay games. The project was very ambitious, and I ended up trying to take two different directions with it.

The first direction I tried was to write my own roleplay adventure. I elected to use the Atomic Highway: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying rules published by Radioactive Ape Designs. I titled it "Blazing Trails," and I had intended to write it as a cross country adventure across post-apocalyptic west. I had intended to use it to challenge a number of gendered tropes common in science fiction and western narratives.

Though I proceeded quite far in plotting the adventure, I ran into the problem that I had never written anything like this before. I have little experience writing fiction, and even less writing roleplay guides. There is a big difference between reading and understanding roleplay plots and literature, and actually writing roleplay content. My lack of experience doing this kind of work left me with little resources to draw on, and I eventually put this part on hold.

The other direction I took was to critique already present roleplay media and culture. This part of the project proceeded really well. I discussed problems with Dungeons and Dragons alignment systems and in-game racism. I argued that issues of racism inside roleplay content corresponds with real world racism, and therefor were of importance to feminists. I concluded by proposing that content analysis of roleplay games can be part of the gameplay process, by challenging players to subvert dominant narratives within roleplaying games. Taken together, the inspection of roleplay media could produce many places for subversion of structural characteristics of oppression.

A recent bout of too much free time (read unemployment) has given me time to reflect on the budding project I started almost a year ago. Since my initial work on this project, I have expanded my repertoire of tools to describe sexist, racist, heterosexist, and cissexist discourses. In turn, I have been revisiting some of the roleplay games I analyzed, and I recognize how other structures in roleplay games correspond with real world structures. I think that it would be worth spending some of my "free time" considering these further.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When White Folks Protect Privilege:
Halloween isn't an excuse for racism.

Bloggers' Rights at EFF

Edit: By the request of the original blog author, I have edited this article to remove her website link and name. The request threatened "further action," unless I complied. Whatever that means, I am really uninterested in sparking a legal conflict over this site and a simple link.

Though my review of EFF legal resources indicates that linking does not constitute a violation of any intellectual property, I chose to remove the link anyways. From my contact with this blogger, I don't really think they're willing to deal with the issues addressed here. So, in turn I think it's best to reflect on the things presented here as a potential learning opportunity for others.

Currently, I am working on a post about racism and Orientalism in table-top role playing games. I've been reviewing some game material and some texts on racism. However, while taking a break from my work, I stumbled on an example of racism and white privilege.

In a discussion about racism and cultural appropriation, I was linked to a blog post which showcased a make up and costume for Pocahontas. The blog author discusses her costume style choices and explains "I was going for an post-battle Pocahontas."

From what I read, I got the impression that the problems with this costume choice wasn't apparent to her. So, I commented on the post, and directing her to some websites that discuss the issue of racial and ethnic Halloween costumes. I linked to Sociological Images, "Racist Halloween Costumes," and Angry Navajo/Indian Girl, "My Identity Is Not A Costume for You To Wear!."

There are a number of very problematic things with "post-battle Pocahontas." Brooke, the author of "My Identity Is Not A Costume for You To Wear!," provided a strong critique of stereotyping Native Americans in Halloween costumes (an article I highly suggest readers go read in it's entirety):

Now, what twists my trick-or-treat bag in a bunch, is where the heck Native Americans fit in all of this! Why is it socially acceptable to dress like the stereotypical Indian: "Brave","Chief", "Princess", "Squaw", "Maiden"? Pardon Moi, but when did the Native American enter the realm of Wizards, Fairies, Super-heroes, Goblins, or Ghouls? When did it become ok to reduce the diversity, language, and culture of nearly 500 different Indigenous tribes into a tacky "costume" of cheap suede, colored feathers, plastic beads, and fringe? Who decided that the history, identity, and lineage of Native Americans could be easily put on and taken off like greasy Halloween face paint? Who was the Native gal or guy, who gave the American people the "Okay" to do this? Who signed the treaty to allow such mockery to run a muck?

Lisa Wade from Soc Images explains how racial and ethnic costumes "tend to collapse culturally distinct groups into a cheap stereotype, Costume Craze has a whole section of the website devoted to 'History and World Culture Costumes.'" (Once again, an article very worth reading). In my search of good resources on the subject of racism in Halloween, there are lots of great resources beyond those provided here.

Disappointingly, The author of the Pocahontas post wasn't too interested in discussing the issue and she deleted critical comments from the blog. However, before those comments were deleted, she provided dismissive responses and deflected attention away from her own actions:

Halloween is a time of year to dress up and portray characters, cute and spooky. There's nothing offensive behind this makeup as I previously stated. Some women don't want to be a Disney princess on its own and want to create a "spookier" version, this is an alternative for them. No one is forcing you to do this nor look at it. I'm glad you feel strongly about something but your radar is very much off if you think this was done as an attempt to offend an ethnicity or sex. My grandmother is 100% native american and my mom is partial, leaving me a small amount as well though it's not much. To refer to me as "white" and imply I shouldn't do this for that reason is much more offensive than anything in this post.

Would you tell a little girl who wanted to be Pocahontas for Halloween the same thing because her ethnicity wasn't the same as the character she wanted to play? If so, you need to take a step back and wash your hands before pointing dirty fingers. Thanks for the comment, next time leave it out though please.

Yet if I was fully Native American, no one would have a problem with this Halloween look. That's reverse racism, grasp that. :) You all really just want something to gripe about to create drama. Did you not dress up like indians and pilgrims in school for Thanksgiving? Give some schools a call and some movie directors, stop being a hypocrite and find something better to do with your time. It's my blog, this look was done in the spirit of Halloween, the only racist part about it is all of you trying to say I can't do it because I'm not actually Native American.

There are a few things to remark on here. First, no one said that this costume was wrong because the author is white. People were pointing out that, whether the author is "1/8th" or "1/16th" Native American ancestry, the post demonstrates white privilege. Her second comment on "reverse racism" indicates that the author understands herself as white, and that her ancestry doesn't translate into an understanding of herself as part of a racial minority.

Second, the author's appeal to the commonness of racist costumes fails to grasp the seriousness of the issue. She isn't disputing that her actions perpetuate privilege and racism, but instead is arguing that it's commonness makes it "okay." This not only does it substantiates the concerns of anti-racists that these problems are wide spread and serious, but it trivializes the concerns being voiced on the grounds that "everybody's doing it."

And on this second point, it is important to note that author is very correct: racism is still thriving all over the place. Halloween costume culture is just one of many examples of how racism permeates society. Hundreds of years of racism and white privilege has produced our culture, and even the most "trivial" of things like Halloween costumes are thick with racism.

In closing, this isn't a unique problem of the author's. Rather, this form of racism is still a serious problem for a lot of men and women. This is hard for some people to grasp, in part because many people are reluctant to analyze their own privilege and start addressing the ways they themselves reproduce racism (and other systems of oppression). But the first steps must be taken by those who have the privilege. Intelligent writers of color have done us white folks a huge favor. They've taken their experiences and articulated critiques racism in Halloween costumes. The essential next step for white people is the internalization of these critiques and learn to recognize how racism operates as a nearly ubiquitous system of oppression and white privilege. Only once we've done that can we being the process of undoing centuries of shared racist culture.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Christina Hoff Sommers: Anti-feminist knock-knocks feminists for being "humorless."

If you're looking for some off the cuff Sommers quotes, look no further! I present here a showcase of "The Wisdom of Sommers." She's found herself in the bosom of Reddit's Ask Me Anything (AMA) forum. And there is nothing but love for the libertarian gone feminist gone anti-feminist....

...At least, that's what I would be saying if Sommers had managed to provide more than 21 brief AMA answers. I intended to "live blog" Christina Hoff Sommers' AMA thread in Reddit, but the champion of conservative “maternal feminism" seems to have dropped out of the discussion before much could be said.

Generally, I think Sommers is without intellectual content. She spends most of her time talking about feminism as if it's a child gone astray, not an intellectual project in which to participate. Sommers indentifies as a "conservative maternal" feminist, and she portrays all other feminists as radical and discordant. Sommers believes herself to be grounded and pragmatist, and other feminists are pessimistic idealists; misguided in her eyes, and abrasive to others. Sommers wants to show feminists love, but feels her matronly duty demands discipline. To put simply, Sommers is patriarchy's advocate and patronizing embodiment.

Because of this, I am usually choose to ignore Sommers. There is very little work that can be done with someone so invested in patriarchy and class exploitation. As a consequence of her position in the general anti-feminist discourse, I have a hard time seeing anything to her rhetoric beyond the politics necessary to support free market capitalism and structural racism and sexism.

However, there is one particular thing that Sommers does that is troubling. I regularly find her arguing for the "truth" of certain feminist stereotypes. In Freedom Feminism, Sommers remarks on certain persistent stereotypes of feminist women:

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest feminist organization in the United States, claims that feminists have been unfairly portrayed as "unhappy, angry, humorless." These stereotypes, she says, have estranged the younger generation. But are the stereotypes really unfounded? (2013)

"Unhappy, angry, humorless?" Sommers introduces this question without ever answering it. She side steps it by listing Eve Ensler, Jessica Valenti, and bell hooks as examples of "feminist hardliners." She even goes so far as to call bell hooks writing "contrived radical theory of oppression even more alienating and removed from reality than those she criticizes." I don't consider myself well read on Ensler or Valenti, but I have read hooks, and I have a hard time imagining her as incapable of humor or consistently unhappy and angry. So, on Friday I asked Sommers to finish answering the question in the AMA, to which she responded:

I do not think the stereotypes are unfounded. Feminism has taken a wrong turn and it is led by women who tend to be male-averse, statistically challenged and chronically offended. Are they unhappy? I don't know. Are they humorless? Yes.

I was kind of hoping she would reject the underhanded rhetoric. Instead, she affirmed the truth of the stereotype and even ascribed "man-hating" and "women are bad at math" stereotypes as well.

There is a lot to criticize about Sommers continuous perpetuation of these stereotypes (because that is exactly what she is doing here), but I want to comment on the feminists are "humorless" part. It's clear that to call a feminist "humorless" is an ad hominum. But there seems to be a kind of additional political work done by this stereotype. That is, this stereotype meshes with the already sexist discourse that is typically levied at feminist.

"Feminists are humorless" is a strange accusation to make. On the face of it, what could be so wrong about being humorless? Certainly, humorless people might not be fun or funny, but there doesn't seem to be any obvious reasons why feminists ought to be humorful.

But calling feminists humorless goes beyond just asserting feminists lack a sense of humor. In it's seemingly meaninglessness, the pejorative "humorless" is really just a claim that feminists "lack" something. Jocelyn Hollander and Hava Gordon discuss how humor is a form of emoting (2006). Emoting adds layers of meaning to communication, and humor is a way to elicit and share feelings.

...three features distinguish humor from “serious” interaction: humor calls for immediate audience response, it contains dense layers of meaning beyond the obvious, and its implications can be denied without the speaker’s losing face.... (Hollander and Gordon, 2006)

Because humor "contains dense layers of meaning beyond the obvious," being humorous requires cleverness or intelligence. We've all been in situations where we "don't get the joke." We were missing a key layer of meaning in the humor, and thus found ourselves silent or pretending to laughing.

To claim feminists are "humorless" is to go beyond disputing their sense of humor, it is a "challenge" to their intellectual and social capacity. Feminist women are already regularly challenged by patriarchal forces to justify their legitimacy. They have to overcome pervasive social obstacles which work to discredit their voices and concerns. Calling feminists "humorless" is a way for Sommers to engage in very same patriarchal rhetoric. By asserting feminists are humorless, she implies that feminists are unable to communicate effectively. This rhetoric denies feminists the credibility to dispute the assertion.

To put another way, Sommers places feminist women in an intractable situation. When accused of being "humorless," feminists are being challenged to "prove" their "humor." Of course, emotion policing is levied at women all the time as a means to enforce gender conformity. The demand that feminists "stop taking things so seriously" implies that the "thing" isn't actually serious. If the feminist points out how trivial the challenge is, she substantiates her humorlessness. If she tries "prove" her humor, she conforms to the very emotion policing that dismisses her concerns.

Calling feminists out for being humorless is also a tactic of alienating feminists from others. Humor is shared, and to be humorless is to fail to share in this significant part of social life. Parallel to the above "challenge," claiming feminists are humorless denies them their humanity. TV Tropes provides and example of this in the trope "humorless aliens."

For better or for worse, humor is one of the most common communicative tools of the human race, and more than anything else it unites us. It is understandable, then, that alien visitors to Earth might find it difficult to understand our attempts at jokes. In popular media this often translates into extraterrestrials appearing to be Sarcasm-Blind or to have No Sense of Humor....

Sommers accusation of humorless reserves the characteristics of humor for everyone else. That is, the anti-feminist states "feminists have departed from normal human experience and intellect, and as a consequence fail to understand normal humor." The consequence of Sommers' juxtaposing "other" feminists vs. "normal" people, provides a strong argument against identifying as an "other" feminist.

Sommers' argues as fact that "other" feminists who seeks to upset "imperialist, capitalist, patriarchal society" are "alienating" (2013). However, her logic seems to be backwards as she never supports the claim that opposition to systems of oppression are inherently alienating to people. Rather, her "proof" is "made up" through her presentation of feminist stereotypes as "unhappy, angry, humorless," "male-averse, statistically challenged and chronically offended." In this, feminists stereotypes themselves are alienating to people.

In my review of her work, Sommers fails to expound on what things demonstrate feminist humorlessness. Her pejorative laden descriptions side step the whatever specific jokes, riddles or stories that are funny to her, but are not so funny to feminists. I have little doubt this omission is purposeful, because it allows Sommers to proceed in her anti-feminist project without the prerequisite evidence usually demanded. So, because Sommers has failed to put forth a coherent account of feminist humorlessness, we will have to tackle this issue another way.

There are two things that can be done to undermine Sommers objections to humorless feminists. First, we ought to ask "what kinds of things are feminists 'failing' to find humorous?" This question asks whether being "humorless" at certain things is itself justified. This question refuses to accept Sommers' blanket condemnation of humorlessness as valid grounds to reject contemporary feminism. Because she fails to show that humor is necessarily objective and "right," we ought to consider whether all instances of humor ought to be met with laughter.

The second question is "in what ways to feminists participate in humor, and use it for both pleasure and progress?" This question disputes the generalized statement that feminists are somehow dominated by humorless leaders. While Sommers puts more stock into the specific positions or emotions experienced by ostensibly feminist leaders than I do, she once again fails to identify any specific leaders as proof of her statement. Therefor, we can proceed by simply looking for influential contemporary feminists who fail to uphold Sommers' stereotype of the "humorless feminist."

For anyone who refers to feminists as "women's libbers" or, better yet, as "ladies' libbers," it typically takes only one feminist to make a joke. In fact, she is the joke.' The joke is complex, for she is both a woman and a person committed to a particular point of view. Women are traditional objects of humor in our culture (and in numerous other cultures). We have countless jokes about dumb blondes, scatter-brained redheads, myopic wives, mothers, mothers-in-law, lady drivers,and college co-eds. Because she is a woman, a feminist is an amusing creature indeed.

The complexity of the joke enters precisely where the feminist distinguishes herself from nonfeminist women. For while she is unwilling to accept the stereotypes of women's ignorance, irrationality, irresponsibility, and so on, or to accept the fate ordained by such stereotypes,she is still a woman and hence subsumed under those stereotypes in the eyes of many beholders. Her challenge to the stereotypes then merits serious consideration only if she can demonstrate that she is an exception to the stereotypes, that is, only if she can demonstrate that the challenge does not come from ignorant, irrational, and irresponsible quarters (Bergmann, 1986)

Women are regularly used as the butt of sexist humor. And sexist humor carries a great deal of weight in our society. People laugh at sexist jokes because gender is one of those "dense layers of meaning" which we're all familiar with. Everyone knows a dumb blond joke, and some of them are quite clever. However, at the core of every dumb blond joke is the teasing misogyny feminists have come to recognize.

So, when a feminist takes a stance against misogyny, it means that the perpetuation of misogynistic humor must be resisted. We may grin, crack a smile, or even giggle, but the fact remains that those jokes depend on a culturally shared misogyny.

Therefor, feminists are "humorless" at times because we are in opposition to popular misogynistic humor. This raises the question of whether Sommers really think that's so bad? Does she think that humor at the expense of marginalized groups is inevitable or preferable? Or necessary for a society with humor? Does Sommers only find jokes that marginalizes the suffering of women, queer people, people of color, or differently abled people necessarily funny?

But the point here isn't to pontificate on what amuses Sommers, but is to point out that there are things we legitimately think are not funny, even if the dominant discourse works otherwise. Not laughing at these kinds of jokes can be a part of resisting the forces that normally move people like Sommers to callousness or dispassion. More so, by working to recognize that jokes and humor can be used to justify inequality, we can become more sensitive to the ways inequality is normalized. Doing this is a necessary part of challenging the current state of things.

The stereotype of the humorless feminist isn't an novel invention on the part of Sommers. Stereotypes of humorless women is tied together with the idea that humor is "a necessarily all-male pastime." Case and Lippard explain:

This domination of humor as a means for communication is a useful and effective means for males to assert and defend patriarchal ideological tenets, while preventing opposing perspectives (feminist and other nonpatriarchal views) from being asserted in contradiction....

The attempt of men to ignore and suppress the humor of women is likened to patriarchal societies' attempts to suppress women's sexuality. Gagnier (1988:137) writes that "men fear women's humor for much the same reason that they fear women's sexual freedom—because they encourage women's aggression and promiscuity and thus disrupts the social order...." Auslander (1993:321) comments on the fear of women's humor, noting: "One clear indication that women’s comedy is perceived as genuinely dangerous within ‘the patriarchal public sphere' is that it is often subject to strategies of patriarchal recuperation." One strategy for discrediting women's humor is the assertion that women simply lack a sense of humor (e.g., Freud 1960). Barreca (1988:19) states: "Charges of unlaughing and laughing inappropriately have been leveled at women... since women began to participate in the creation of literary works." One reason for this stereotype is the reluctance of many women to encourage or applaud (through laughter) the abusive depictions of women in traditional male-dominated humor. "So when we hear jokes against women and we are asked why we don’t laugh at them, the answer is easy, simple, and short. Of course we’re not laughing, you asshole. Nobody laughs at the sight of their own blood" (Weisstein 1973:88). (2009)

So there is a correspondence here between the reservation of humor to the domain of men, and the subsequent lack of humor expressed by women. The first part follows from the general feminist observation that women's self-expression is often at odds with patriarchal limitations placed on women's bodies and minds. For a woman to be humorous is, to a certain extent, for her to be just as capable as man to express thoughts with "dense layers of meaning."

Assertions that 'women simply lack a sense of humor" are really no different than assertions that "women simply lack the logical thought necessary for mathematics." And when patriarchal notions of women are presented within the dominant humor discourse, women's objections to their treatment is given as proof that they are "humorless."

This process is quite plainly being reproduced by Sommers as a means to dismiss the concerns raised by feminists. Contemporary scholarship shows a relation between humor and sexism. Bergmann catalogs a number of ways that sexist beliefs are used in the generation of humor.

  1. Incongruities generated by sexist beliefs....
  2. Apparent sense or plausibility generated by sexist beliefs.....
  3. Hidden morals generated by sexist beliefs....
  4. Disparagement enjoyed because of sexist beliefs....
  5. Sense of "naughtiness" generated by sexist beliefs....
(Bergmann, 1986)

As Bergmann explains, "the feminist who does not smile when faced with this plethora of humor may be dubbed a 'killjoy' or worse." Sommers' "humorless feminist" is this same rhetorical tactic, used to duck the issue and hand and to avoid addressing the sexist content within. If Sommers can successfully assert that feminists lack of humor makes them unaware of certain social details, then she can avoid having to discuss sexist social details that feminists identify.

For those who believe that sexist humor is really a serious problem, there is of course always meaning the goes beyond the humor intent in a sexist joke. Especially in Bergmann's examples above, many of the ways sexist beliefs are used to generate humor require that those sexist beliefs be understood as true.

So, it is not just that these jokes are based on sexist beliefs, but that they are also deployed in ways to reify gender difference and inequality. For example, when someone tells a joke about women failing "humorously" to do mathematics, such a joke reinforces sexist beliefs while remaining under the guise of humor. While some people will admit they don't "believe" that women are less capable at mathematics, the fact that a corresponding joke about men failing at mathematics doesn't seem to carry the same punch.

But there is a way to use humor to "undo" sexism, at least to a certain extent. Bergmann identifies "incongruities generated by sexist beliefs" as a source of humor. Corisponding to this, a great deal of feminist scholarship has been done on the subject of internal contradictions present in social understandings of gender and sexuality. For example, the patriarchal expectation that women ought to be sexually experienced virgins.

But it's in the internal contradictions that feminists can find paths to resist the dominant discourse on gender. By uprooting common assumptions, feminist humor has been used to undermine patriarchy. In fact, humor is a way feminists can make apparent the differences between conventional sexist humor and feminist comedy. By undermining these foundations, feminist comedians participate in feminism in a whole new way. They can interrogate certain places that may be unavailable by other means.

Both Heller and Cho perform stand-up that does useful work in regards to understanding how feminism departs for typical notions of comedy. Heller directly addresses feminist stereotypes and the challenges faced by feminists in contemporary sexual politics. Cho's video segment is rich, and serves as a way to rally women and men to the feminist cause (something Sommers seems unable to commit to). Cho and Heller both recognize how women's sexual experiences are shaped by patriarchal notions of women's sexuality, and the subsequent contradictions embedded within.

Humor itself is a place where we communicate complex ideas and emotions. Because feminism is about investigating the complex social categories of sex, gender, and sexuality, humor can provide an important locus for the representation and reproduction of "dense layers of meaning." Humor has the capability to transpose feminism into other parts of society, spreading feminist ideas about gender and sexuality into other spheres. Because contemporary feminism necessarily needs to be radical to deal with systematic problems, feminist humor provides an avenue in which to radically reshape how people come to know themselves as feminists.

Whatever allegiance Sommers believes herself to have with other feminists is undermined by her inability to participate productively with feminists. The accusation of humorlessness is part of a general social attitude which dehumanizes feminists and deligitimizes feminism. In positioning a series of straw feminists throughout her work, she builds a bulwark against radical feminist action. She works to dismiss feminism as a serious intellectual project through rhetorical twists and "gender warring."

Whether her motivations are personal or professional, I don't believe them to be intellectual. Her view that any feminism that goes beyond liberalism is myopic. Her failure to accurately describe contemporary feminist discourse is more than just an editorial oversight. Her word depends on sustaining certain myths about feminism. To try to accurately represent feminism in her writing, Sommers would have to reproduce some of the most damning feminist critiques of capitalism and patriarchy. Of course, in doing so she would have to recognize how serious these critiques are, and how unhumorous these social problems are.

Feminists have always been under critical patriarchal gaze. Our actions and words are seized on at every opportunity, and used to roll back legal progress or reaffirm gender inequality. Stereotypes of feminists are an essential part of reactionary anti-feminism. These stereotypes are closely articulated with normative notions of gender and sexuality, and in part represent the successes of the feminist movement to undermine these normative notions.

In other articles here, I've discussed other instances of anti-feminist rhetoric working. Contemporary anti-feminism has certainly come into its own; articulating its disagreements through powerful normalizing mechanisms. Emotion regulation, like that we see in Sommers' work, is an important mechanism in maintaining inequality in modern society. So, in response to these mechanisms, feminists must learn to articulate themselves in ways that subvert and undo their power necessary for effective anti-feminist rhetoric. This process is not easy, but it is essential to many feminist projects.


  • Bergmann, Merrie. 1986. "How Many Feminists Does It Take to Make A Joke? Sexist Humor and What's Wrong with It." Hypatia. 1:63-82
  • Case, Charles E/ and Cameron D. Lippard. 2009. "Humorous Assaults on Patriarchal Ideology" Sociological Inquiry 79:240-255
  • Hollander, Jocelyn A. and Hava R. Gordon. 2006. "The Processes of Social Construction in Talk." Symbolic Interaction. 29:183-212
  • Sommers, Christina Hoff. 2013. Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today. Aei Press