Spam Spam Spam Humbug: Episode 18 – And Art Thou Male or Female?

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Podcast Topic(s)

So this is kind of a big deal, as episodes go, because this is the first episode for which the topic has been determined via an outside suggestion. You’ll recall, back in Episode 14, before we got to talking about New Project Britannia, we gave a shout-out to Juliet (a friend of Linguistic Dragon), who sent in a great suggestion: she asked if we’d consider doing an episode on how the Ultima series handled the subject(s?) of masculinity and femininity, and how these are explored in different characters and/or the Virtues.

Roughly eight years ago, Coastal Carolina University created and distributed, campus-wide, a poster which showed a pair of college students (one male, one female) drinking cocktails. The caption of the poster read:

Jake was drunk. Josie was drunk. Jake and Josie hooked up. Josie could not consent. The next day, Jake was charged with sexual assault.

Now, the point in bringing this up isn’t to start a lengthy argument about any of the hot-button topics that continue to swirl around issues like hookup culture, sex on college campuses, consent, and the like. Those are all separate topics, any and each of which could send us down a very deep rabbit hole…and who here wants to listen to a six-hour podcast? (We were pushing it with two hours a few episodes ago.)

But there’s a concept underpinning the message of the poster that I want to draw out even so. Put rather bluntly, the logic of the poster is presupposed on the premise that sex is something men do to women, which is part of the reason why even though Jake was also incapable of consenting to sex, he ended up being viewed as the aggressor and the guilty party. The male figure in the example is seen as the actor, and the female figure is seen as the recipient, or the one being acted upon.

And this is a theme we see echoed in a lot of the societal concept surrounding what is a man, or what is a woman. Our idea of the masculine is that of the actor, the outward-directed force, whereas our notion of the feminine is that of the nurturer, the one who is inward-directed and receptive. To be fair, there’s some biological basis for this, at least in the typical reproductive context of the human species: women tend to be the nurturers (e.g. of children), and men tend to be the providers (e.g. the ones who go out, act upon the world to obtain resources, and return therewith to their families).

And at least at first glance, it would seem that the Eight Virtues of the Ultima series could be divided along these lines. On the side of the masculine/active/outward-directed, we could probably array such virtues as Valor, Honor, Justice, and Sacrifice. Meanwhile, on the feminine/passive/inward-directed side, we could line up Compassion, Honesty, Spirituality, and Humility. Again, this is just an at first glance thing; the Virtues do split evenly into these framing categories, and then easily; we really don’t have to think about it that much.

Linguistic had a chance to speak with Juliet about her topic suggestion a bit more: since she’s currently making her way through Ultima 4, she has become interested in the series’ portrayal of masculinity and femininity in regard to the Virtues.

One side point that’s worth raising here is to comment on the whole idea of gender identity. Culturally speaking, it’s probably the most difficult thing we’ll have to enter into in our lives, or it can be. It’s something that really should be straightforward; the physiological and psychological aspects of gender should be fairly easily navigated. But there’s a lot of cultural baggage that gets piled on top of it, and this complicates — messes up, really — matters.

Just about every culture lays out a set of expectations for what constitutes a man (or a male), and what constitutes a woman (or a female). But…take this podcast, for example. I’m not recording this podcast in a manly way, but I am recording it as a man, as a male. Juliet isn’t asking about gender depictions in the Eight Virtues in a womanly way, but she is asking those questions as a woman. If I make a meal, play with my kids, or do the laundry, I don’t do these things in a manly way (according to Western stereotypes of manliness), but I do them as a male. And that’s okay; it’s kind of beautiful, even.

I may be courting controversy here, but my suspicion is that a lot of the gender confusion that we see today is in part a response to the stereotypes of what a man is, or what a woman is; I found it telling that Caitlyn Jenner chose to appear to the world, post-surgery, in a photo spread posing in an almost classic pin-up style. Jenner was presented as being very stereotypically feminine. And yet we also live in a culture where a lot of ink and electrons are spilled by people railing against these same notions of the stereotypically feminine as being somehow…offensive to women, or not what being a woman is about. It’s a real contrast: you have Caitlyn Jenner over here appearing the stereotypical feminine ideal, and over there you have the bloggers at Jezebel and wherever else railing against the horror of women being judged based on their looks and demeanor.

A Side Note About the Ultima Fandom’s Demographics: I took the liberty of pulling together some interesting stats from the…okay, first, I have to apologize to Stirring Dragon. I said I could get stats for the Ultima Dragons Facebook group, but this turned out to be untrue. I was, however, able to pull stats for The Ultima Series’ Facebook page. Now, this is only as scientific as Facebook profiles are accurate (which is to say: get your salt shaker ready), but here’s the breakdown of Likes by gender:

The red numbers, by the way, represent a week-over-week decline in the rate at which people Like the page; this week, 39% fewer males and 42% fewer females clicked the Like button on the page as compared to last week.

Again, it’s hard to say just how scientific or accurate these results are. I can’t pull data on e.g. how many male or female Ultima Dragons there are, or how many male or female Ultima Codex readers there are. Historically, the RPG genre tended to have a more predominantly male audience, as did gaming in general back in the 1980s and 1990s. The demographics of gaming have shifted substantially, of course; MMORPGs tend to still be the province of male gamers, but more female gamers than male gamers play RPGs in general.

Then again, I have to wonder: if the iTunes App Store is any indication, there’s a lot of confusion about what constitutes an RPG these days. That’s probably a discussion for another podcast; we certainly haven’t got time for it here. I’m just going to say, though, that Kim Kardashian: Hollywood isn’t an RPG.

To Wrap This All Up: I think the Ultima games…well, okay, at least in my considerable experience of e.g. Ultima 6, I think the games do a really good job of just not getting caught up in those stereotypes. There’s no real difference in the experience of the game based on whether you select a male of female Avatar (well, Terri at the Mint has a few different lines based on whether the Avatar is male or not…which I suppose is reciprocated by Brendann in Serpent Isle, since he’ll hit on and even bed a female Avatar). But for the most part — at least until you get to the last couple of entries in the series — Ultima just lets you play the game as you are. The experience of being a male Avatar isn’t that the game throws chest hair, power tools, and boobs at you; you just play and experience its story as a male.

The nice thing about that, I think, is that for the most part, the Ultima games don’t tie gender to externals. Thou mayest be male or female in thy declared gender, but your actions are those of the Avatar, and you enact them not in a manly or womanly way…but as a male, or as a female.

And it’s really the same for the Companions, and the Virtues. Even when the Companions are presented as male and female, it’s not so much that they’re portrayed as being stereotypically manly or womanly; they are the Companions, and as men and women they aid the Avatar and Britannia. (Well, okay, Dupre occasionally demonstrates some male stereotypes, at least if his survey of pubs is anything to be considered here.)

And the Virtues are presented in a way that for the most part avoids obvious alignment with gender stereotypes. Certainly, in the games, the men and women of Britannia (and of Earth, for that matter) have need of and benefit from all Eight Virtues in equal measure. It might be interesting to take up the discussion of how one might manifest and experience each of the Virtues as a male, or as a female, but that’s likely material for another podcast as well. Or perhaps a series of podcasts.

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Ultima VI Gates of Creation by OC ReMix