A friend of mine doing gender studies just handed me a paper to read. It’s entitled “Waking Sleeping Beauty: The Premarital Pelvic Exam and Heterosexuality during the Cold War” (Carolyn Lewis, Journal of Women’s History Volume 17, Number 4, 2005) and discusses the prevailing medical beliefs and practices of sexual medicine during the 1960s and 1970s. Primarily, it details the popular idea that vaginal orgasm was the key to a healthy marriage and a happy wife, and the role doctors were encouraged to play in helping women achieve that – and not seek sexual pleasure elsewhere. Non-vaginal orgasm was seen as the cause and sympton of unhappy marriages and unhappy women.
It’s all very distressing, but the quote that caught my eye was this one:
Linked to this inappropriate sexual outlets was inappropriate gender role behavior… Symptoms included interest in such activities as playing cards, participating in sports, traveling alone and ‘perhaps even aggressive pursuit of a career.’ (emphasis added)
There’s a lot to unpack already. It’s so easy to forget how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve learnt about sexual health, mental health, gender issues and societal perceptions over the last forty or fifty years. We should never, ever forget that – it’s when we forget things like that that we think movements like feminism are meaningless because we can no longer see what they accomplished, which also helps hide what is still going on, because it lacks context. History is not about understanding the past, but understanding the present.
There is of course a temptation to dismiss the statement’s relevance. After all, that was Another Time, and, as L.P. Hartley said, they do things differently there. We must have Comes So Far. Certainly, fifty years is almost two generations. Those were Baby Boomers, Generation Y is obviously not part of such silliness. But let’s remember that those ideas in that paper weren’t just prevailing views of society, they were accepted medical fact (although the two are intertwined). Before we changed the former, we had to change the latter, which took a generation of its own. To change the latter will take another generation. We are, indeed, now reaching a point where female sexuality is being more openly celebrated in all its forms. Some would say it is being over-celebrated, because our culture prefers to keep women as sexual beings as a way of undermining them; our repsonse to the Purity Myth is to turn women from Virgins who must be Protected into Whores that seduce the purity of men.
The evidence of that comes in the part of the sentence I bolded up there. Way back in the dim distant past, the first sign, the absolute first symptom of a woman who had become dysfunctional, had refused to take obedient, dutiful pleasure in her husband’s penetration, the very first sign that she had risen up against this and rejected, from there, all her duties and responsibilities in society, that giant flashing warning sign that tells you everything is wrong?
Is playing cards.
Think about that. Roll that around your mind for a moment. It’s not the most dramatic sign – travelling alone and having a career were far more dramatic – but it was the first sign. The first one to spring to mind.
There’s an old saw that goes if you list what a society considers a crime, you know what that society does every saturday night. We must assume these symptoms were evident. That women had begun, to the horror of proper society, to the dismay of their authority figures and older generations, to the denigration of their mental health and the order of society, in the face of all these things, that women had begun playing cards.
We tend to minimise hobbies, sports, and leisure. They’re not important, like life and liberty. They’re not food on the table or jobs or the right to vote or marry or have children. Yet if we look at history, we know that these things – the way we spend our free time, the way we play and dance and sing – these things are inseparable from who we are, and play an enormous part in our social and societal make-up. And as such, they play a massive part in revolution and political change. If nothing else, they are the canary in the mine. The thing that tells you change is coming.
The American Civil Rights movement was not won by white teenagers listening to black singers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but that was part of that struggle – and the authority figures knew it, and feared it because of that. It’s very difficult to make a generation hate the people who write their music. It matters when minorities become visible in art and culture. Children sneaking off to go to “black clubs” was part of that rebellion, of accepting that culture.
Games aren’t culture in the same way, but they are part of those struggles. Jackie Robinson breaking the “colour barrier” in baseball was a massive event in civil rights. Likewise, women playing cards was an equal act of rebellion as burning bras and coming out of the kitchen. It was taking a stake in a male dominated world. Naturally, the most desirable thing, the first thing women wanted wasn’t work, but play. Fun. Enjoyment. Games. And the moment they wanted that, the gatekeepers knew it was a sign thateverything had already gone wrong. Once they start playing cards, they’ve already changed who they are – who they are supposed to be.
As I said, we like to believe that was All Long Ago. But I look around this hobby, and I’m not so sure. Women are allowed to play games, but they cannot do it without being reminded that these games are our games, men’s games. We were here first, we set the agenda, we are the largest market, and our preferences and tastes matter the most. We have let women in the door, but out of generosity, and we demand they sit up the back of the bus and be quiet – and with the ever-present assumption that it was always our bus to begin with, and always will be.
It is of course, much worse in sports, where women are allowed to play as long as they are almost invisible (how many Australians knew the Women’s World Cup Cricket just finished, with the Australian teaming wining for the sixth time in a row?) or expected to be sexually attractive before they are allowed to play (as with the world-wide promotion of Lingerie Football). But for a lot of men, the same macho parochialism is part of gaming – after all, it has the same drive to win at all costs, the same appeal to violence and strength as chief virtues, the same masculine regalia and if you’ve ever seen a gaming advertisement you know they’ll be yelling at you in a loud voice about how you must deliver the smackdown. The girls can join the Street Fight or the Tomb Raiding, but they have to do it in their lingerie.
So have we really come that far? Or, like the doctors of the 1960s and the society around them, do we still see women playing games as the first and most dangerous threat? Of a the most alarming sign of a woman going beyond her designed role in society? Looks like we still do. And if we’re still fighting that battle, we know that there are other battles still to be fought, because how we spend our leisure is part and parcel of the human experience, and making it equal is part and parcel of the struggle for equality. And it is a battle that canot be ignored.
Jackie Robinson wasn’t Rosa Parks or the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. But his success was part of a cultural and political war, and part of winning that war. You couldn’t pretend that it was okay for black people to vote but not okay for them to play baseball – and working towards both goals helps the other, and strengthens the other. Likewise, you don’t get to say you’re a feminist, that you think women should be allowed to vote and work and have equal rights, and then go home and tell bitches to get off Call of Duty, because hey, it’s only a game.
No, it’s not. Games matter. The fights we fight in gaming MATTER. They are inseparable from political struggles. If women are playing cards, then everything is under attack, they once believed. Now they believe it of video games and board games and wargames and RPGs. But we want those things under attack, on every front, so we must have women playing games, everywhere, freely and visibly and without restraint or disdain. We cannot settle for anything less.