Skirting the Issue: Playing Cross-Gender

I know what it’s like to be sold into sex slavery.

Forgive me for my moment of sensationalism: I mean my character does. Or rather did.

During one of my early experiments playing a female, my group sold me as a sex-slave to evil pirates to help arrange an ocean crossing. The reasoning was sound and logical: the pirates in question were known to be ruthless and violent, to have spent a long time away from the comforts of land, and to often take female captives for just such a purpose. Being a trained assassin and clever thief, I might even find a way to take advantage of the situation. Oh yes, it all made sense, and was absolutely appropriate to the story.

But it wasn’t much fun for me.

Admittedly, that group was quite dysfunctional, and members of it were constantly looking for opportunities to rain down peril, pain and uncomfortableness on any of their fellow PCs. Torture, poisoning, betrayal, all had happened before. But it was only once I was playing a female character that I was prostituted.

But it was logical, as I said. And historically appropriate. Women were a commodity in the pseudo-historical setting. My character’s possession of female sexual characteristics made her extremely valuable. The reasoning was sound.

Reasoning can be dangerous like that.

Around the same time I ran another fantasy game where a bunch of young mages had split off from the chief order, and were trying to summon demons. The female player decided to have her female PC infiltrate them, and I, the GM, decided – for the sake of satire, and easy characterisation – that it would be fun to play the young mages as socially-inept nerds who would elevate their new member as a kind of hyper-sexualised sorcerer queen. Again, the reasoning was very sound. Most mages were male in the setting. And their lust for power fit well with a lust for the rewards of power. The satire was cutting, too, and it set a good stage for the player to have some fun with that satire.

Yes, some very good reasons indeed. But in both cases, a terrible mistake. Or really three, in fast sequence. I’m sure you can spot them, but here they are: the primary definition of the character was made to be their gender, and the primary expression of their gender was made to be their sexuality, and the primary expression of that sexuality was through subjugation and control of that sexuality by males.

What’s sad is those three errors are so common, and so constant, that half the time we don’t even notice we’re doing them. We’re getting better, as a culture, at noticing when women are used as plot-devices: when they are the damsel to be rescued, or the loved-one to be “fridged” – better, but not great – but there are plenty of other traps to fall into.

The odds are stacked against us men avoiding these traps, too. We have thousands of years of literature, metaphor, allusion and language encoded into us, and so much of it follows these kinds of patterns. We’re culturally and even biologically programmed to view women through these lenses: as primarily defined by being our biological mates, and as differentiated from us by primary and secondary sexual characteristics. So these are the things we emphasize on the other gender, and we do it unconsciously and instinctively, as a reflection of the culture we inhabit.

Roleplaying and story gaming make it even harder: these are realms where the need for improvisation and shared expression means we constantly have to fall back on genre conventions and broad characterisation to bring ideas to life and communicate them quickly. Cliché is our friend, but cliché is also good friends with prejudice and reactionary ideas.

With such a minefield in front of us, it’s no wonder so many of us abandon playing female characters altogether. Especially if there are female players present – we certainly don’t want to mock someone else’s gender, or be accused of playing it wrongly. Or we might have been taught not to do so, because of an experience with a bad group like the one described above, where it had been made very clear what the consequences are for playing a female. Others may actually believe the lie that all this reinforces: that women are simply too alien, their minds and experiences too different for a man to comprehend, let alone satisfactorily represent in a shared narrative.

I would hope those last people are few, but I also wonder if we’re not making the problem worse by stepping away from the issue. That is, while so many of us are unwilling to risk making a mess of playing a woman, we end up reinforcing the idea that they’re too complicated to understand. Even the idea that they might be played “incorrectly” can play into that belief, if we’re not clear about why things have gone wrong. We find ourselves backed into a corner, stuck between reinforcing sexist ideas about women by falling back on sexist clichés, or reinforcing sexist ideas about women by making them too mysterious to roleplay.

Maybe we just need to calm down a bit. And, to coin a phrase, woman up to the so-called challenge.

We know – or we should know – that women aren’t alien, mysterious beings. They’re humans, just like us. So maybe we should help send that message by not putting so much emphasis on gender. Let it fade into the background a bit more. Make sure that being an elf or a rogue matters a lot more. That doesn’t mean make gender irrelevant or meaningless – it is part of identity and is something to embrace – but to get it onto the gaming table and out of taboo it shouldn’t be a defining feature. Kick rules for it out of systems, minimize emphasis on it in settings and genres, and if your genre can’t handle that, get a new one.

We need to take steps to make it simpler and easier to step in to – or out of – a skirt. Because that helps remind us all that we’re not actually so different. And that helps all of us.

Of course, this assumes you can trust your fellow gamers not to sell you into sex slavery or have you make saves versus period pain. If that happens…then it’s time they got the MESSAGE, and now you have another chance to pass it on.