I uploaded this video to my facebook page, and it started quite a discussion. Because the discussion began getting long for a facebook wall, I thought I would continue my thoughts here.
The video (originally at Feminist Frequency):
The video started a discussion about video games and gendered weaponry. I am “B” in the discussion, and everyone else gets a letter to represent them. I have edited the discussion somewhat in order to increase the linearity of the discussion.
Warning: Spoilers and possibly triggering discussion after the jump
A: thought you might find this post about Portal interesting.
B: I agree about Portal. One of the best games ever, in my opinion. It proves that a lot of common wisdom about video games is not necessarily true (e.g. can’t have an interesting story without violence etc.).
R: There’s also Braid, although you’ve got me wondering “what counts as a non-phallic weapon?”
B: Yeah, I’ve played Braid. It, too, is interesting. Plus there is that question at the end <spoiler>about whether you have been saving the princess or stalking the princess,</spoiler> which is also subversive of most video game plots.
The article that A links suggests that the portal gun is a non-phallic weapon. It is on the third page of the post. It gives fairly convincing reasons. Also, perhaps nets, some kinds of traps e.g. leg-hold (which are reminiscent of Vagina Dentata myths; 2nd link NSFW), holes in the ground covered by nets, etc. Another possibly “vulvic” weapon is napalm, which could be considered vulvic because it is enveloping, rather than penetrating, and it is “passive” which is also associated with the feminine. Just thought I would add something that is horrific, ’cause I would not want to give the impression that it is the lethality that makes the difference.
R: I feel reassured as a game designer since [plug] in my game Fog of War you can only destroy units that have been properly enveloped [/plug]. But it’s interesting that envelopment, as opposed to penetration, would be the criteria for “vulvic” weaponry.
B: what other criteria would you use?
R: the labrys, for example, seems to be a vulvic symbol despite having greater penetrative power than equivalent size swords delivering the same cut. I think it’s a vulvic weapon because its shape is a symbol, rather than any virtue it has as a weapon.
I mean, isn’t that the usual reason why weapons like swords and guns are considered phallic, because of their shape? By that criteria the portal gun is phallic by dint of being gun-shaped. The ovipositors of wasps are also penetrative organs, genitalia that are literally weapons.
So really I find it an interesting criterion for vulvic weaponry because I’m not sure what other criteria I could use.
B: I agree that shape is related to the issue of how a weapon is gendered. But, I am not entirely sure that I think the labrys is primarily associated with the feminine because it is a vulvic symbol, even though I agree it is a symbol of female strength. I thought the reason the labrys was associated with women’s strength and power was because the weapon was allegedly favoured by Amazonian women, not because of its shape, per se. There is more than one way that something gets coded feminine or masculine. Blue, for example, is masculine in our culture, but not because of its shape. I suppose a case could be made for the labrys’ shape being vulvic, but even still, I don’t think that is the primary reason it is a symbol of women’s strength.
Yes, the reason guns and swords are phallic is because of their shape, but also penetrative use. The portal gun might have the shape of other guns (though because of its relative girth even here it might be said to look more clitoral than phallic, since the clitoris has that shape, too. See the image on pg 28 of this book and compare it to the portal gun). The article A links makes the case for it being vulvic more because of the use, though. To quote:
“She acquires a Portal Gun for use in these tests; interestingly, the gun’s masculine symbolism is subverted by the fact that it shoots portals rather than bullets. Portals are oval-shaped openings that are visually and spatially connected; go in one and you’ll come out the other… the portal is an image of the female sex organs: oval and receptive, and also a metaphorical birth canal through which the protagonist is constantly being born into new trials.”
The key thing in his point is that the use is subversive, because it is a gun you are set up to expect that it will be phallic, but then the portals subvert the expectation.
I think talking about the ovipositors of wasps is somewhat of a red-herring because in our culture wasps are not really associated with the feminine. Yes, there are many examples of female animals/insects with different kinds of sex organs in nature, but these are not taken to represent women in our culture, so I don’t quite see the relation.
We could talk about hyenas, too, which are famous for having large penetrative clitorides, and hyenas are most closely related to the cat-family which is an animal associated with women in our culture, but again, I think it would just be misleading because hyenas are not coded feminine in our culture. The sex of the animal is not determinative of whether the animal will get coded feminine or masculine. For example, in many early evolutionary psychology writings, female Hyenas were considered masculine because they mount other females and males. Rather than taking Hyenas to be a challenge to the way they had set-up female-male behaviour/hormone system in the theory or the kinds of adaptive forces that postulated were shaping that behaviour, some ev psy just re-gendered animals who behave contrary to the theory.
But it is far from clear that the way we have divided hormones/gonades/chromosomes/genes and so forth along male/female lines reflects what is present in nature, because nature is much messier. Alice Doumurat Dreger has some really interesting articles about sex, intersex, and what the messy boundaries mean for anti-same-sex marriage laws and sex-testing in sports. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine makes a similar point about how biologists failed to notice same-sex mating behaviours in animals because they simply assumed that the mounting-animal was male and the mounted animal was female.
So I don’t think the examples of what gets coded male-female can be quite so straight-forward. It is not just one thing: shape, use, passive/active, colour. Instead it is a combination of things combined with cultural presuppositions about what-attribute-goes-with-what-gender.
Trigger Warning, Discussion of Sexual Assault and Rape to follow
D: I noticed in that video that they use Postal 2. I don’t know if you’ve ever played it (I wouldn’t suggest putting it too high on your ‘to play’ list), but, in that game you can use the character’s (and therefore your) penis as a weapon directly. After you’ve set random a passerby on fire, you can whip-er out and douse them with urine…thereby putting out the fire.
Food for thought. Horrible, horrible food.
B: I have not played Postal 2, but I have not heard good things. Don’t think I have much interest in it.
When I was a little girl there was some graffiti in the lane that read “Disarm Rapists.” I always thought that was really strange and I used to try to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a culture that regarded one’s source of intimate pleasure as a possible weapon. This is an experience that I truly cannot identify with at all. Weird that the penis-weapon link is taken so literally in Postal 2.
There is a really interesting conversation at The Hathor Legacy that began with Mecha’s comments on the “Don’t Rape Her Meme.”
It is extremely common for women to be given advice on how to avoid rape. Many anti-rape activists object to this advice because is presumes that most rape is stranger-rape, even though the statistics show women are more likely to be raped by someone they know. Some of this advice is sensible, but a lot of it involves severely restricting your movements, behaviour, and fun. It also suggests always living in fear, and never trusting men. Ever. Some “tips” have even gone so far as to suggest you never go into a business alone (which would obviously make getting a job very difficult). So many women object to the advice because it is nearly impossible to follow and seems to blame the victim.
In response to this kind of advice, some groups started circulating a list of points that are also ridiculous, but are aimed at men. This set of tips advises men on how to avoid raping someone. See here. This list contains items like ” If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!” Mecha objects to this list in his comments because he says he thinks it addresses all men as though they were “mindless childlike rape machines.” I think he has a good point, although it is one that I cannot relate to experientially at all. There is nothing in my experience that is even remotely similar to Mecha’s experience here. This is why I thought the “Disarm Rapists” graphitti was so interesting as a child, it made me think that there were elements of human experience that are just not open to me as a woman.
The Hathor Legacy has a follow-up post “The presumption of Passivity” that explores this impasse in understanding. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but the relevant bit is this:
Men really hate it when they’re discussed or addressed as people who can and desire to commit grievances against other human beings. In a lot of conversations about rape and abuse by men of women, men will get defensive, and we will tell them they’re privileged, and the conversation stalls out. Of course it sucks to be accused of something you haven’t done, but we’re not doing that. Why do they assume we are?
The problem is, [the “don’t rape her” list] continues the presumption that men do and women are done to. While it’s true that only rapists can 100% stop rape, and this needs desperately to be recognized, we also need recognition of the fact that by doing anything, women become gender transgressors who deserve any punishment they get, and by doing nothing we reinforce the perception that we’re powerless targets for abuse.
I believe I’d rather have what men have – the presumption that I have agency to do both good and evil. The only assumption I’ve had to deal with is that I can be pushed around. And in those situations, it wasn’t martial arts or not drinking or not going to hotel bars that saved me: it was my absolute sense of entitlement and willingness to kill in self-defense if I have to. Bullies of all types have, so far, backed down when they see that in my eyes – the complete lack of presumed feminine passivity and uncertainty. But that sense of entitlement is not easily learned. I wouldn’t have a clue how to teach it to a woman who didn’t share my life experience. Hell, a lot of men don’t have it either, but they don’t really need it because the presumption they have it – and agency – creates an extra layer of protection for them.
For women, the opposite presumption creates an extra layer of vulnerability to people who would try to victimize us. So when men complain it’s unfair they’re presumed to be thugs at times (and it is), my first instinct is to roll my eyes because I’d so much rather be presumed evil and scary than thought of as inert and helpless.
The thing that interests me about this is that I think it is an example of a situation in which we are really not in a very good position to make comparisons because in most cases men won’t have had the experience of being presumed passive, so cannot really get what that would be like, and women won’t have the experience of being presumed capable of evil. I honestly don’t know which I think is “worse,” and I am not really sure whether there is much point to trying to determine which is worse. The experiences might be incommensurable. Both are bad and I think it is enough to leave it at that.
So what do you think, blog readers? What makes a weapon phallic or vulvic? (And why is phallic a word, whereas my spell checker goes mad with red-underlines for vulvic?) Are there any experiences you can think of that are particular to one gender that are difficult to understand from the perspective and experiences of another gender?