So I know it’s been a long hiatus and it’s probably going to be a long one again after this post. Still, I couldn’t resist posting this video.
Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., is a book that analyzes myths, fairy tales, and other stories of the Wild Woman archetype from a Jungian perspective. Its purpose is to help women reconnect with the power of their wild woman personality. In the book, the author brings up the story of Vasilisa the Wise (sometimes translated as Vasilisa the Beautiful). I have already discussed this story at some length in a previous entry (see The Black Cauldron and the Goddess of Fire). In this entry, I will present two new magic items of feminine, power from the story of Vasilisa, that can be easily introduced into any campaign.
DOLL OF VASILISA
The doll of Vasilissa is a figurine of indelible wisdom, granting its owner intuitive insight. In addition, the doll has the ability to perform the most arduous of tasks.
This item represents a woman’s intuition. It also represents her power to come up with solutions to difficult problems through the process of dreaming.
Description: The doll of Vasilisa is a tiny figurine, small enough to fit into one’s pocket. The doll has a red dress, and a porcelain face with a small slit in its mouth. The doll is capable of speaking any language that the possessor speaks, but can only answer with brief, one or two word sentences.
Activation: The doll of Vasilisa can be activated up to three times per day. In order to activate the doll, the owner must have had the doll in her possession for a period of at least 24 hours, during which time the doll bonds to its new owner. The doll can only be bonded to one person at a time, so a previous owner must once again bond herself to the doll in order to regain its powers.
Once the doll has bonded to its owner, it can only be activated by feeding it a specially prepared, holy wafer with the spell bless water cast upon it. Activating the doll in this manner is a standard action that does not provoke attacks of opportunity.
Note: The doll may sometimes activate on its own; jumping up and down in its owner’s pocket whenever one of its owner’s actions might result in serious harm or injury. Activation of the doll in this manner is at the sole discretion of the DM.
Effect: The doll of Vasilisa can tell its owner whether a particular action would be good, bad, or indifferent, as per the augury spell.
In addition, the doll can be asked to perform up to three tasks for its owner. The doll performs these tasks to the best of its abilities, while its owner sleeps, before returning to its owner’s pocket. In all other ways, treat this effect as the unseen servant spell.
Aura/Caster Level: Faint Divination and Conjuration (creation). CL 3rd.
Construction: Craft Wondrous Item, augury.
Price: 7,200 gp
TORCH OF BABA YAGA
The torch of Baba Yaga is a hideous item that grants its user a fantastic array of powers. Like the doll of Vasilisa, this item is also representative of woman’s intuition. However, this item possesses the ability to burn away all that is opposed to a woman’s spiritual development. It is a frightening power, that may cause many to turn away in horror. Only those who have been initiated, who know what they want from life, are able to wield the torch. All others are burned by its sheer power.
Description: The torch of Baba Yaga takes the shape of a human skull and spinal column. From its eyes, red flames flicker and dance menacingly.
Activation: The torch of Baba Yaga functions continuously acts as an everburning torch, requiring no activation. Its ability to detect auras opposed to the wielder’s alignment can be used an unlimited number of times per day. Finally, the torch’s searing light ability can be activated up to three times per day.
Effect: The torch of Baba Yaga can be used to detect the presence of creatures who are opposed to the wielder’s alignment. For example, an evil creature wielding the torch can detect the presence of good cratures, while a lawful creature can detect the presence of chaotic creatures. The wielder can use this ability for a period of 1 hour each day. The duration of the effect need not be consecutive rounds. In all other ways, this ability functions as per the detect evil spell.
In addition, the torch can be used up to two times per day to cast the spell searing light at creatures who are opposed to the wielder’s alignment. This ability functions as the spell searing light cast by a 6th level caster.
Any creature of neutral alignment, with no leanings towards law or chaos, who tries to wield the torch, is burned by the torch’s searing light ability. The torch continues to attack the creature each round until they are either dead, or until the torch has released the torch from the creature’s grasp.
Aura/Caster Level: Moderate Divination and Evocation. CL 6th.
Construction: Craft Wondrous Item, detect chaos, detect evil, detect good, detect law, searing light.
Weight: 3 lb.
Price: 28,800 gp
This weekend was commencement weekend at the university I work for, and since I work in the Registrar’s Office, I had to work the ceremony all weekend long. Because of this, there will be no entry this week. Sorry.
This entry is the second part of a two part entry written in response to a blog entry written by Jonathan Tweet on the subject of evolutionary psychology, and the effect that gendered behavior has on gaming. In the first entry, my discussion was focused on understanding some of the fundamental principles of evolutionary psychology, namely the Baldwin Effect. In this second entry, I will be responding more directly to Tweet’s comments regarding gendered behavior, and the effects it has on gaming.
On the Evolution of Warfare, Team Sports, Ice Skating, and Makeup
One of the difficulties in responding to Tweet’s comments is that many of his statements about gendered behavior are vague, and open-ended, leaving the reader with the difficulty of trying to determine exactly what is or is not being said. For example, Tweet claims that LARPing largely appeals to women because “it’s more about personalities, relationships, clothing, and make-up.” However, because he never explicitly states why he thinks these factors should appeal to female gamers, one could reasonably argue that he is implying one of two things: 1) That these preferences are the result of genetically inherited traits, 2) That these preferences are the result of factors that are heretofore unmentioned. It should also be noted that since Tweet describes no mechanism to account for these purported preferences, it is left to the reader to determine what mechanism or mechanisms he thinks are in effect.
Because of these difficulties, I am forced to make an assumption regarding Tweet’s intended meaning. In this case, I am assuming that Tweet believes that all of the behaviors described (from love of hunting and warfare in men, to preference for clothing and makeup in women) are the result of ontogenetic adaptations that have evolved into genetic traits as a result of the Baldwin Effect (for more information on these concepts, please see my previous entry). With this assumption in mind, I will begin this discussion by first determining whether or not Tweet’s comments have any scientific validity, and if not, what behaviors the scientific community believes might be considered genetically inherited.
First the validity of Tweet’s comments. Unfortunately, in all of the reading that I have done, I have not found anything- either from proponents of evolutionary psychology, or from its critics- which support Tweet’s claims. Granted, I have only read a handful of books on the subject, and it’s possible that there are researchers out there who have made claims regarding the genetic inheritance of hunting, warfare, group behavior and/or love of ice skating. However, I find the probability very unlikely, since what little I’ve read on the subject suggests that there is remarkable consistency in the scientific community regarding what behaviors might be considered gender based. For example, in Eleanor Macoby’s, and Carol Nagy Jacklin’s book, The Psychology of Sex Differences (see summary below), the researchers concluded that out of nineteen claims made by various researchers regarding sex differences, eight had been satisfactorily disproved, seven were too open to interpretation to warrant any conclusions, and only four- verbal ability, visual-spatial ability, mathematical ability, and aggressive behavior- were considered fairly well established.1 Granted, evolutionary psychologists routinely use the more open questions of difference as evidence to support their theories. However, given that I am not an expert on the subject of gendered behavior- nor, do I imagine, are many of my readers- I think it is best to limit this discussion to the sex differences that are considered fairly well established by the scientific community, and to see if they might have any effect on the number of women who participate in gaming.
Unfounded Beliefs About Sex Differences
Open Questions of Difference
Fairly Well Established Sex Differences
|Girls are more social than boys||Tactile sensitivity||Girls have greater verbal ability|
|Girls are more suggestible than boys||Fear, timidity, and anxiety||Boys excel in visual-spatial ability|
|Girls have lower self-esteem than boys||Activity level||Boys excel in mathematical ability|
|Girls are better at rote learning and simple repetitive tasks; boys are better at higher level cognitive processing||Competitiveness||Boys are more aggressive|
|Boys are more analytic than girls||Dominance||-|
|Girls are more affected by heredity; boys are more affected by environment||Compliance||-|
|Girls lack achievement motivation||Nurturance and “maternal” behavior||-|
|Girls are more inclined toward the auditory||-||-|
If verbal ability is genetically inherited, and if the difference in verbal ability between men and women is a statistically significant factor, then it shouldn’t have a negative impact on the number of women who play games. On the contrary, greater verbal ability in women could be seen as advantageous in roleplaying games and board games, which rely heavily on both verbal skills and social interaction from players. In fact, one might argue that it’s this difference between men and women which accounts for the purportedly high percentage of women gamers who enjoy LARPing. However, before we can conclude that greater verbal ability is genetically inherited, and that it plays a significant role in the number of female gamers who participate in gaming activities, there are several questions that we must ask. First, why have women supposedly evolved a greater verbal ability? Second, what mechanism might be used to account for this genetic inheritance? Third, even if the evolution of such characteristics can be accounted for, do they play a meaningful role in reality, and if so, how meaningful is it? I will examine these questions and determine what role, if any, verbal ability might play in both evolution and gaming.
It is difficult to imagine what role greater verbal ability in women might play in evolutionary psychology. Nevertheless, there are theories which try to explain how such a behavior might be considered beneficial to women. For example, psychologist and anthropologist, David C. Geary, believes that greater verbal ability in women evolved in order to compete for the resources they need in order to raise their children successfully. As he puts it, “Girls and women… compete by attempting to disrupt the social relationships of their competitors, and this competition is largely expressed through language.” He goes on to say that, “language is also an important means for the establishment and maintenance of the intimate and reciprocal relationships that are important to girls and women,” and to “provide a means to control the dynamics of their relationships with larger and potentially aggressive men.”2 As far as what mechanism might account for the greater verbal ability of women, Geary refers to several studies that suggest that estrogen might be a contributing factor to the development, and use of verbal skills.3
So is it true that women have greater verbal ability than men, and if so, how significant is the difference? In the past, researchers have tried to determine the significance of these differences by administering tests of verbal ability to students, and based on these scores, the averages for boys and girls were calculated. This method, known as the hypothesis-testing approach, is the method used for all of the studies listed in Jacklin and Macoby’s aforementioned book, The Psychology of Sex Differences. Since then, Jacklin and Macoby have tried a new approach, that asks the following questions: if all you know about a person is what score they received on a test for verbal ability, how reliably can you guess the person’s gender? Conversely, if all you know about a person is their gender, how reliably can you guess what their score is on a test for verbal ability? If the difference in verbal ability is truly meaningful, one should be able to reliably determine the gender of a person based on nothing but their test score, and/or vice-versa. This method of determining the meaningfulness of a statistically significant result is what is known as meta-analysis. When this method is applied to the differences in verbal ability between men and women, the differences become statistically meaningless. One study using meta-analysis finds that gender differences can only account for approximately 1% of variance in verbal ability between men and women; a difference that is so miniscule, it can safely be considered statistically insignificant.4 As a result, it calls into question the validity of Geary’s claims regarding the role that verbal ability might play in the reproductive success of women. It also calls into question any claims one might make regarding the effect that greater verbal ability might have on the number of female gamers who enjoy LARPing and other roleplaying activities.
Many board games, roleplaying, and collectible miniature games rely heavily on a player’s ability to visualize where their pieces are in relation to various obstacles, opponents, etc. Perhaps the quintessential example of a game that relies heavily on visual-spatial ability is Robo Rally. Here, players must not only use random cards to move their pieces forward, back, or rotate them 45°-90°, they must also maneuver their character across a board filled with moving conveyor belts, rotating gears, and other robots in a maddening race to be the first to touch all of several flag checkpoints. Granted, most roleplaying games are not nearly as taxing as Robo Rally in terms of visual-spatial ability. However, one could argue that tactical strategies, such as flanking, might benefit from a greater visual-spatial ability, which could account for the lack of female gamers in a game as tactically complex as Dungeons & Dragons. However, like verbal ability we must determine whether visual-spatial ability is genetically inherited, what mechanism might account for its genetic inheritance primarily in men, and finally, we must determine if it has a meaningful impact on the number of female gamers participating in roleplaying games. As before, I will examine these questions each in turn, starting with the view of evolutionary psychologists.
According to Geary, greater visual-spatial ability in men has been sexually selected for two reasons. First, because male-male competition often involves the use projectiles, such as stones, spears, or arrows, men have evolved not only a greater throwing accuracy, but also a greater ability to block, or avoid incoming projectiles. Second, because men have traditionally had to wander farther from their home in search of prey, resources, and other mates, they have developed a better ability to visualize their terrain and accurately determine distance, as well as spatial relations between objects. In order to bolster his claims, Geary uses studies by Schiff & Oldak which demonstrate that 3 out of 4 men are better than women at being able to both judge the velocity of a moving tennis ball, and better at being able to block or avoid a tennis ball being fired at them. He also relies on studies Vandenberg & Kuse that show that men are better able to mentally rotate three dimensional objects. Finally, like greater verbal ability in women, Geary believes that the mechanism responsible for greater visual-spatial ability in men is prenatal exposure to sex hormones; in this case, testosterone.5 Nevertheless, it could certainly be argued that other factors- such as the presence of X-linked or Y-linked genes- might be able to account for this effect as well (more on this subject later).
So how likely is it that greater visual-spatial ability in men is genetically inherited? In this case, a statement by Geary himself actually calls the likelihood of this possibility into question. In reference to one of Schiff & Oldak’s studies, Geary states that “in one of the studies… it was found that practice and feedback (i.e. telling the participants if their choice was correct after every trial) improved the performance of both men and women, but the magnitude of the men’s advantage did not change.”6 [my emphasis] Why is this statement telling? Because in a study testing for visual-spatial ability in first-graders, it was found that boys do somewhat better than girls on simple, embedded figures and block tests when neither have seen such tests before, but when allowed to practice, it was found that girls were quickly able to catch up to the scores of their male counterparts, while the scores of the boys changed very little. Similarly, a study involving teenage students enrolled in a drafting course showed that while women were initially less capable than men at rotating three dimensional objects at the beginning of the class, by the end of the six-week session, these differences in ability disappeared.7 In other words, both of these tests- which involve skills that conceivably require much less practice than being able to judge the velocity of, and/or dodge a moving object- suggest that it is practice, and not genetic inheritance, which accounts for greater visual-spatial ability in men. Of course, what might account for the difference in practice of these skills between men and women is still open to speculation. However, the differences in gender-based play and activities, from childhood on into adulthood, might provide a potential explanation for such differences.
In any event, even if visual-spatial ability is genetically inherited, Macoby and Jacklin point out that, just like verbal ability, gender differences in visual-spatial ability account for no more than 5% of the variance, which would not account for the wide disparity between male and female gamers in roleplaying games.8
In a game like Dungeons & Dragons, which routinely requires players to multiply decimals to determine average hit points, multiply ratios in order to determine 1 ½ Strength damage for two-handed weapons, and complicated addition for determining the effect of a 20th level fireball, it is certainly possible that a greater propensity for mathematical ability in men might account for the disparity between male and female gamers. It might also account for why there is a larger percentage of women participating in LARPing; an activity which involves fewer mathematical skills. Nevertheless, before we can determine if mathematical ability is a significant factor in the number of women participating in roleplaying games, we must ask the same questions that we asked previously about verbal, and visual-spatial ability.
It may seem surprising to many to learn that when we look at the studies of evolutionary psychologists, it appears that there is very little evidence to suggest that mathematical ability in women would account for any disparity in the number of female gamers participating in roleplaying games. For example, Geary points out that while boys and men often outperform girls and women in certain areas of math, girls and women typically outperform boys and men in areas involving complex arithmetic.9 Assuming that Geary is correct, and that women are better at performing complex arithmetic than men, it would seem that women, rather than being disadvantaged, would actually have an advantage over men in roleplaying games, since the math required typically takes the form of arithmetical functions. Therefore, it seems that there is very little evidence, even amongst evolutionary psychologists, to account for the lack of female gamers participating in roleplaying games.
Entertaining the idea for the moment that men are better than women in all areas of mathematics, what mechanism might account for this greater, genetically inherited ability? There are actually several possibilities that might account for this. The first is the favored theory of Geary, which is that genetically inherited behaviors are the result of prenatal exposure to sex hormones. Another possibility is that the genes involved are linked to the Y chromosome, which is only inherited by men. However, assuming that mathematical ability is genetically inherited, neither of these theories is able to account for why some women, who are otherwise normally developed, might also have a highly developed mathematical ability. To account for this, we must turn to a third theory, which is that mathematical ability is actually X-linked. For example, in a paper written by Dr. Robert Lehrke, entitled “A Theory of X-Linkage of Major Intellectual Traits,” he argued that many of the genes associated with mathematical ability might be X-linked, and that if such were the case, that any variability in these X-linked genes would most likely benefit (or conversely, harm) men.
In order to understand the theory of X-linkage, and how it affects genetic inheritance in men, it is important to understand some of the details regarding the genetic differences between men and women. It is fairly common knowledge that in addition to having twenty-two pairs of chromosomes, called autosomes, women have two additional chromosomes known as X chromosomes, while men have both an X and Y chromosome. Because of this difference, genes that are linked to the Y chromosome are only inherited by men. However, there are examples of metabolic diseases which are X-linked that primarily affect men. For example, the gene responsible for blood clotting resides on the X chromosome. However, in the case of hemophilia, this gene is mutated, and therefore cannot aid in blood clotting. In women, who inherit both an X chromosome from their mother and father, the mutant gene must be present on both chromosomes in order for hemophilia to manifest. Otherwise, the normal gene for blood clotting takes over. In the case of men, only one X chromosome is inherited. As a result, if the X chromosome inherited contains the mutant gene for blood clotting, there is nothing to prevent the gene’s manifestation. Therefore, if one assumes that greater mathematical ability is actually the result of a mutant gene residing on the X chromosome, women would actually need two of the mutant genes, while men would only need one. Conversely, mutant genes that code for a lesser mathematical ability would also disproportionately affect men.
What’s interesting is that this theory lends support to an earlier study done by Thorndike and Cattell in 1903, which demonstrates that men have more variability in mathematical ability than women do. In other words, while men and women, by and large, have the same average ability in mathematics, men score both lower and higher than the lowest and highest scores for women in mathematical ability.10
While Lehrke’s theories, and Thorndike’s and Cattell’s findings might be interesting, ultimately, they are unable to account for the lack of female gamers in roleplaying games. Because while their findings may account for greater genetic variability regarding mathematical ability in men, they admit that, by and large, men and women both have the same average ability in mathematics.11 Granted, the math involved in roleplaying games is often more complex than the math required for other games. However, I think few would argue that the math is so complex, that a person of average intelligence wouldn’t be capable of doing it. Therefore, while there may be some evidence to suggest that there may be more mathematical variability in men than women, this evidence cannot be used to account for the disproportionately low number of women currently participating in roleplaying games.
One of the problems with attributing aggressive behavior to humans, is that evolutionary psychologists seem to use the term indiscriminately to describe any number of behaviors that could only generously be called causally related. Wilson, for example, in his aforementioned chapter on aggression, makes some incredible leaps in logic, saying first that “territoriality is one of the variants of aggressive behavior,” and later, that “the biological formula of territorialism translates easily into the rituals of modern property ownership.”12 By this definition, the act of owning a house would be considered a form of aggressive behavior, thus rendering the term meaningless. Therefore, before we can begin discussing the subject of aggressive behavior, we must come up with a meaningful definition of the term. For purposes, of this discussion, I will be defining aggressive behavior as any sort of violent behavior directed at another individual, or organism that may result in injury, and/or death. Granted, such a definition is still quite broad, and can be used to describe any number of behaviors that might only be loosely called aggressive (the act of slaughtering animals for food comes to mind), but again this is the difficulty in trying to apply the term to human behavior.
If men, by and large, are more prone to aggressive behavior than women, then it seems plausible that a combat oriented game, like Dungeons & Dragons, might disproportionately appeal to men. The same might be said for other combat oriented games, like Magic: The Gathering, and the Star Wars miniatures game. Similarly, if women are less prone to aggressive behavior, it might explain why more women are interested in LARPing, an activity that is purportedly less focused on combat. Of course, this depends on your definition, since typically, when I think of LARPing, I imagine people running around in the forest, beating each other with padded swords. However, I do concede that there are many systems that are far less aggressive, and that these systems may attract more women in general.
So what mechanism might account for the greater inheritance of aggressive behavior in men? While some studies have tried to suggest a genetic link to aggressive behavior (more on this later), the most popular theory used to account for the difference is prenatal exposure to the sex hormone testosterone. So far, the best evidence to support this theory involves carefully constructed experiments, involving male rats and mice who have been exposed to testosterone. These studies confirm that when exposed to extremely stressful situations (situations, I might add, that are often more stressful than the creature’s normal environment), male rats are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior than rats who have not been exposed to the hormone. Similarly, rats who have been castrated are less likely to engage in aggressive behavior, unless exposed to the hormone, at which point aggressive behavior again increases.13 However, evidence for similar patterns in humans, or even primates, is flimsy at best, and given the fact that behavior of rats and mice differ significantly from that of humans, many ethologists find it unreasonable to conclude that a higher level of testosterone in human males would necessarily account for a similar increase in aggressive behavior.
Assuming, for the moment, that testosterone does play a role in aggressive behavior, it is not necessarily the only determining factor. As was stated, the rats in the experiment were exposed to extremely stressful situations, suggesting that environment may have just as much of an impact on the development of behavior as biology. There is also strong evidence to suggest that psychological factors can have an effect. For example, violent prisoners often progress through four distinct stages before becoming violent. First, the person- usually a young male- is exposed to extreme abuse in childhood, usually within the family unit. Second, after brooding about the abuse, the person decides to attack the person originally responsible for the abuse. Third, the person carries out the attack, and if the person’s abuser surrenders, or concedes, the person feels invincible. Fourth, feeling invincible as a result of their victory, the person attempts to solve all of their problems through violence.14
Meanwhile, there are cultural factors that can also have an effect on aggressive behavior. For example, in a community in Kenya, where men typically engage in more aggressive behavior than women, and where villagers regularly make distinctions between both ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ tasks, there is good evidence to suggest that when young men from families without girls are expected to perform tasks typically assigned to young women, their frequency of aggressive behavior decreases by 60%.15 Conversely, in Cameroon, female gangs routinely assault young men, steal their money, and beat them if they try to resist.16 Taken together, all of these examples seem to strongly suggest that, even if testosterone is a contributing factor to aggressive behavior, it is not the only factor, and that many other factors can have an enormous impact on the development of aggressive behavior in both men and women.
So where does that leave us in terms of roleplaying games? Well first, even if roleplaying games appeal largely to people with an inclination for aggressive behavior, and even if the people in our culture that are most prone to aggressive behavior are men, it does not necessarily follow that this aggressive behavior is entirely genetic, but may also be affected by psychological, behavioral, or cultural factors. Second, if roleplaying games do, in fact, appeal to people with a higher inclination for aggressive behavior, then one would expect to see a much higher percentage of people playing roleplaying games convicted of violent crimes. Granted, I don’t have any hard evidence to suggest that this isn’t the case, but common sense tells me that there most likely isn’t any connection between gaming and a propensity to engage in aggressive behavior. If anything, I would say that the reverse is more likely true.
Evidence for Genetic Inheritance of Gendered Behaviors
So far, this discussion has largely been hypothetical, assuming first that the gendered behaviors described above are genetically inherited before determining what impact they are likely to have on the male and female demographics in gaming. Having examined these behaviors in depth, we now turn to the scientific evidence to support the plausibility that such behaviors are, in fact, genetic.
Unfortunately for the believers, the evidence to support these claims is ultimately pretty sparse. The best evidence I have found for genetic inheritance of gendered behaviors involves a study of one family from the Netherlands, with a purportedly high number of males prone to aggressive behavior. After carefully studying the family, researchers discovered a mutant gene on the X chromosome for monoamine oxidase type A (MAOA), an enzyme used for breaking down certain neurotransmitters in the brain, that had been inherited by all of the men prone to aggressive behavior. Based on this evidence, the researchers hypothesized that an accumulation of these neurotransmitters might account for an increase in aggressive behavior within the family. Nevertheless, the researchers were cautious in reporting their findings, since one individual in the family with the mutant gene had no purported history of aggressive behavior. This anomaly, combined with further studies that concluded the single gene could not account for an increase in aggressive behavior by itself, ultimately led the scientific community to dismiss the initial, promising findings of the study.17
Because of this lack of evidence, it seems highly unreasonable to conclude definitively that gendered behaviors are solely the result of genetic inheritance. It also seems unreasonable, given the insignificant role that sex differences have been shown to have on behavior, to suggest that these behaviors could have any meaningful impact on the demographics of male and female gamers participating in roleplaying games.
Having thoroughly examined the effect that gendered behaviors might have on the number of women participating in roleplaying games, I think it important to place this discussion into a historical context. Because this is not the first time that questionable, open-ended, and/or inconclusive research, done in the name of science, has been used to try and explain theoretical differences in behavior between men and women in terms of biology. It also isn’t the first time that this research has been used in order to explain the absence of women from certain areas of society. For example, in Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man, he writes on the absence of women in the areas of the arts and sciences.
“If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on Hereditary Genius, that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.”
In other words, Darwin is suggesting that the lack of women in the arts and sciences is a sign of their lack of intelligence. He then turns to biology in order to try and account for this difference.
“It is a remarkable circumstance, that the difference between the sexes, as regards the cranial cavity, increases with the development of the race, so that the male European excels much more the female.”18
This belief, that women are intellectually inferior because of their smaller brain size, is one that was common during Darwin’s time, and it was often used to try and discourage women from engaging in intellectual pursuits. After all, if women are intellectually incapable of contributing to the arts and sciences, then there’s not much point in educating them.
Now this may all seem very amusing to us, and it may be seen as an example of how far we’ve come. However, keep in mind that these sorts of scientifically supported ‘demonstrations’ of male, biological superiority appear again and again, and always for the same reason. Take, for example, the book Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for the Girls, written by Dr. Edward Clarke in 1874, which tried to demonstrate that education itself can have a serious and debilitating effect on a woman’s reproductive system. In his book, he cites seven case studies- the most prominent of which may have been entirely fictional- of women pursuing medical studies that had developed severe menstrual cramping, and ultimately became sterile. This paper was written during a time when women began demanding to be allowed into the medical field, a trend that was seen as disturbing by many men in the medical profession.19 Meanwhile, the study written by Thorndike & Cattell, that I mentioned earlier on the subject of variability of mathematical ability in men, was written at a time when women were beginning to outnumber men as students at large universities, and was used to support an argument for the separate, vocational education of men and women- with federal aid being used to fund industrial arts programs for boys, and home economics courses for girls. This campaign was part of a deliberate effort to funnel women into lower-paying occupations such as nursing, and administrative assistant work.20 Bearing all of this in mind, it seems prudent that we should exercise the most cautious skepticism when approaching the subject of genetic inheritance of gendered behavior, because so often, we’ve seen science abused in order to support the premise that men are biologically superior to women, and that their behavior is a reflection of this biological superiority.
What About David Reimer?
Late in the conversation, Tweet brings up the subject of David Reimer, stating that it was this case that made him reconsider his previous beliefs on the subject of genetically inherited, gendered behavior. While I can respect the fact that this case caused him to reconsider his beliefs, I think there is another way of looking at the example of David Reimer in light of what has been discussed here.
For those of you who are unaware, David Reimer, whose original name was Bruce, is the twin brother of Brian Reimer. As a result of a freak accident involving an unorthodox circumcision procedure, David’s penis was excised. In consultation with physicians, and at the urging of a medical psychologist named Dr. John Money, the parents requested that the child undergo hormone therapy and to have constructive surgery done to reassign him as a girl, named Brenda.
This case, known as the John/Joan case, was touted for many years as a success story in gender reassignment. However, in mid-March 1997, a radio report revealed that the procedure had not been a success, and that after many years of struggling with her identity as a girl, Brenda’s parents finally decided to tell her the truth about her original gender and Brenda decided to once again undergo constructive surgery, to be reassigned as a male named David.
Sadly, the story doesn’t end there. When David’s story was released to the public, it was amidst allegations that Dr. Money had abused both Brenda and Brian as children, asking them to strip and to have their photos taken in various sexual poses. Dr. Money denies the allegations and insists that the pictures were taken purely for research purposes. Nevertheless, both David, and his brother Brian, were insistent that this was not the case.
Soon after the release of the report, David’s brother, Brian, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually died either as a result of suicide, or as a result of accidental overdose. A few years later, after several bad investment choices, and prolonged unemployment, David’s wife decided to leave him, resulting in David deciding to take his own life by shooting himself in the head with a sawn off rifle.21
Tweet mentioned that he first heard about David Reimer’s story in college. I too first heard about his story in college, in my Perspectives on Gender class. Like Tweet, I was forced to reexamine my beliefs about the subject of gendered behavior in light of what I had learned. However, in addition to getting us to reconsider our beliefs, I think the David Reimer story should also serve as a reminder of the dangers of using science to impose our definitions of gendered behavior onto society, particularly when our knowledge of the mechanisms involved are so imperfect. Because we don’t know how much of gender is cultural. We don’t know how much of it is biological. Given that this is the case, I think it’s important that we take the time to consider the many complexities of gendered behavior, and not be so quick to impose our own beliefs about gender on others, lest we become guilty of repeating the mistakes of those that have come before us.
I stated in my first entry on this subject that the ultimate purpose of this discussion is to determine if either Tweet’s or my conclusions regarding evolutionary psychology are skewed. Having come to the end of this discussion, I have decided that this was ultimately a selfish, and foolish goal. Instead, I think the ultimate goal of this discussion has been to raise awareness about the complexities of gender issues, both in gaming and in other areas of our lives. I hope that if Jonathan, or anyone else from Wizards of the Coast, is reading this, that they will take a moment to consider these complexities, and will take them to heart as they move forward in their efforts to bring more women into the game.
The following is a list of books on the subject of evolutionary psychology and other subjects, both from critics and opponents, that I think are worth reading in light of this discussion.
As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, by John Calapinto. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2000
Biological Woman – The Convenient Myth, edited by Ruth Hubbard, Mary Sue Henifin, and Barbara Fried. Massachusetts: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., 1982.
Love of Shopping is Not a Gene, by Anne Innis Dagg. New York: Black Rose Books, 2005.
Male, Female, by David C. Geary. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.
Myths of Gender, by Anne Fausto-Sterling. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
On Human Nature, by Edward O. Wilson. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Why Men Don’t Ask for Directions, by Richard C. Francis. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.
1. Fausto-Sterling, AnneMyths of Gender, p. 25. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
2. Geary, David C. Male, Female, p. 288-290. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.
3. Geary, David C. Male, Female, p. 262-265. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.
4. Fausto-Sterling, Anne Myths of Gender, p. 30. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
5. Geary, David C. Male, Female, p. 284-301. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.
6. Geary, David C. Male, Female, p. 284. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.
7. Fausto-Sterling, Anne Myths of Gender, p. 34. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
8. Fausto-Sterling, Anne Myths of Gender, p. 32. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
9. Geary, David C. Male, Female, p. 312. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.
10. Fausto-Sterling, Anne Myths of Gender, p. 18-19. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
11. Fausto-Sterling, Anne Myths of Gender, p. 15-16. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
12. Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature, p. 107-109. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978.
13. Fausto-Sterling, Anne Myths of Gender, p. 147. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
14. Dagg, Anne Innis Love of Shopping is Not a Gene, p. 34. New York: Back Rose Books, 2005.
15. Fausto-Sterling, Anne Myths of Gender, p. 152. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
16. 14. Dagg, Anne Innis Love of Shopping is Not a Gene, p. 34. New York: Back Rose Books, 2005.
17. 14. Dagg, Anne Innis Love of Shopping is Not a Gene, p. 35-36. New York: Back Rose Books, 2005.
18. Darwin, Charles Descent of Man, Chapter XIX.
19. Walsh, Mary Roth “The Quirls of a Woman’s Brain” Biological Woman – The Convenient Myth, p. 254. Hubbard, Ruth, Mary Sue Henifin and Barbara Fried. Massachusetts: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., 1982.
20. Fausto-Sterling, Anne Myths of Gender, p. 17-18. New York: BasicBooks, 1992.
21. Sloop, John M. Disciplining Gender, p. 25-49. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.
Writer’s General Warning: The following entry may cause your head to implode from an overload of information. Head implosion is not necessarily guaranteed, but the writer wishes to warn his readers that the act of writing the entry certainly had this effect on him, and that he assumes no responsibility for any further head implosion that this entry may cause.
I find, sometimes, that it’s difficult to respond to something that someone says about a given subject, because it requires a level of knowledge that I do not, at the time, possess. Take for example, one of Jonathan Tweet’s recent blog entries, which was written in response to a discussion panel on the subject of “Why Does Gaming Appeal Mostly to Guys?” Here is what he has to say about the subject.
“Roleplaying, as currently construed, appeals disproportionately to guys because it’s mostly about the things that men evolved to enjoy: hunting and warfare. It’s about a group assembling to undertake (imaginary) risks for glory and dominance. It’s the same reason that team sports, such as basketball, are more male, whereas women compete to be judged beautiful and worthy (ice skating, gymnastics). TCGs are even more male-oriented than RPGs as they’re about direct conflict with little to no story or personality. When I was in Finland 5 years ago, the TCG players were typified as guys without girlfriends. LARPing has more female appeal because it’s more about personalities, relationships, clothing, and make-up. Finally, the quality of gamer men is a factor. A Finnish gamer I met said she got into gaming as a way to meet good-looking guys. The US gaming scene has less to offer along those lines.”
After some debate between Tweet and myself over whether or not men have evolved to enjoy hunting and warfare (or conversely, that women evolved to enjoy ice-skating and clothing), Tweet eventually made the comment that my “sharp questions, contrary evidence, and other challenges merely demonstrate that you and I come to this issue with very different premises, including, it would seem, what evolutionary psychology implies in the first place… at least one of us has a badly skewed idea of what evolutionary psychology means, and I won’t blame you if you think it’s me.”
Because of this, I have decided to try and get a better sense of what the premises of evolutionary psychology actually are (as well as sociobiology, and other scientific fields related to the subject). In so doing, I want to determine if the premises of evolutionary psychology are generally accepted by the scientific community, to determine if they betray any preconceived biases in regards to evolution, and finally, after having done this, to determine if either Tweet’s or my conclusions are skewed, and to see if they agree with anything evolutionary psychology has to say about women.
Unfortunately, trying to get even a rudimentary sense of evolutionary psychology is an enormous task, one that I don’t think I was entirely prepared for when I started to write this entry. I have, therefore, decided to break this discussion up into at least two entries (possibly more).
In this first entry, I will discuss one of the fundamental elements of evolutionary psychology: The Baldwin Effect. Though this discussion has very little to do with women and gaming, I intend to show that the hypothesis itself is a highly disputed one that calls into question the very premise of evolutionary psychology. In future entries, I hope to tie the subject of women and gaming more concisely into this discussion. Hopefully, though, my readers can appreciate the process I’ve taken to try and understand the subject better, and will be patient enough to stick with me as I explore this subject further.
The Baldwin Effect: The Foundation of Evolutionary Psychology
The term “Baldwin effect” was first coined by a researcher named George Gaylord Simpson, and refers to a hypothesis simultaneously proposed by three researchers, Lloyd Morgan, H.F. Osborn, and of course J.M Baldwin himself, in the year 1896 . The hypothesis itself is presented as a challenge to the theory that natural selection is a blind process, and that the behaviors and movements of an organism play no role in the evolutionary process. Baldwin’s own treatise on the subject of the Baldwin Effect had the following steps.
1. Over the course of their life-cycles, organisms learn to adapt random movements and behaviors into habits that allow them to better interact within their environment. These habits might include learning how to walk, how to interact socially, how to acquire food, etc. Some are acquired through learning, some through imitation, some through reactions to environmental stimulus, some through reasoning, and so on. These habits, which are acquired over an organism’s life-cycle, are what Baldwin calls “ontogenetic adaptations.”
2. Ontogenetic adaptations further adapt instincts that have already been inherited. So for example, birds are born with a natural instinct to vocalize. However, they are not born with a natural instinct to produce the various calls used by their species in the wild. As a result, they must ontogenetically adapt their natural instinct to vocalize by acquiring a working knowledge of their species’ bird calls.
3. The more ontogenetically adapted an organism is, the more likely that it will be able to respond to environmental challenges, thus enhancing its life expectancy. For example, a lion who is unable to take down prey, will likely have a shorter life expectancy than a lion that is proficient at taking down prey, because it is not as well ontogenetically adapted.
4. Because of their increased life expectancy, organisms that are more ontogenetically adapted have a greater probability of leaving offspring.
5. In some species, ontogenetic adaptations are made more effective by social heritability. In other words, by imitating the ontogenetic adaptations of others within their species and/or social network, organisms are able to acquire ontogenetic adaptations at a much more rapid pace. For example, learning to hunt from one’s parents is an example of an ontogenetic adaptation acquired through social heritability.
6. If a socially inherited, ontogenetic adaptation is maintained long enough within a population, a corresponding, genetically inherited adaptation may eventually arise. When this happens, the ontogenetic adaptation can become a congenital instinct, or an instinct acquired at birth. For example, a dog’s herding instinct may be an example of an ontogenetic adaptation that has since been translated into a congenital instinct.
7. Newly evolved congenital instincts provide a platform for further ontogenetic adaptation. For example, the development of the Broca’s area of the brain in humans- the area of the brain responsible for controlling the motor functions needed for producing human speech- has further enhanced our ontogenetically adapted ability to use language.
These steps are part of a cyclical process that Baldwin, and others, have referred to as “organic selection,” and they form the very basis of evolutionary psychology. According to proponents, an organism “selects” the ontogenetic adaptations that are most beneficial to its survival, and then waits (in a manner of speaking) until a corresponding, genetically inherited adaptation comes along. It’s like a kind of “mind-directed” natural selection, where ontogenetic adaptations give an organism a certain amount of “breathing space” to survive until genetic adaptations can come in to take their place.1
Critics of the Baldwin Effect
If the process of organic selection sounds vaguely Lamarckian, it should come as no surprise. Baldwin proposes the idea of organic selection as a way to bring Lamarck’s theories of evolution into agreement with the prevailing theory of natural selection. And like Lamarckism, the Baldwin effect is not without its critics. Indeed, many have questioned whether or not ontogenetically acquired adaptations might ever be replaced by genetically acquired ones, since ontogenetic adaptations are more flexible in regards to meeting the challenges of a changing environment than genetically acquired ones. Also, there is nothing to suggest that ontogenetic adaptations are a necessary stage in the process of evolution. An organism may develop genetic traits that allow it to respond to a change in the environment without ever needing to develop an intermediary, ontogenetic adaptation. In addition, the Baldwin Effect assumes that in response to an environmental challenge, an organism first gets smarter, through ontogenetic adaptation, and then gets dumber again, once a genetic adaptation takes its place. Finally, the Baldwin effect presupposes a rapid, long term environmental change in an organism’s environment in order for it to occur. Since such changes rarely occur in nature, it is considered by most researchers to be a special case scenario, that likely accounts for very little in the normal process of natural selection.2
Waddington and Canalization
In spite of the criticism, there have been some verifiable examples of the Baldwin effect demonstrated in a laboratory setting. In 1942, for example, a researcher named Conrad H. Waddington published a paper called “Canalization of Development and the Inheritance of Acquired Characters.” It was in this paper that Waddington first proposed the theory that organisms have the ability to (as he put it), “respond to external stimulus by some developmental reaction… [that] must itself be under genetic control.” In other words, organisms have the ability to alter existing genetic traits in order to respond to environmental stimuli. To demonstrate this effect, Waddington refers to his experiments with fruit flies. By applying moderate electrical shocks to a few generations, Waddington was able to observe a change in the cross vein structure of the fruit flies’ wings that, over the course of a few generations, eventually became inherited as a genetic trait inherited by generations who had never been exposed to the initial stimulus.3
Waddington’s experiments were the first to demonstrate a form of the Baldwin Effect; where organisms, responding to environmental stimuli, are able to produce phenotypes that are eventually expressed as genetic traits. Nevertheless, while Waddington’s experiments reliably demonstrate an example of the Baldwin effect, they also call into serious question the validity of Baldwin’s initial hypothesis. For example, Waddington’s experiments demonstrate fairly conclusively that the inherited changes are the result of a rearrangement of already existing genetic traits that are simply not expressed, rather than the acquisition of new genetic traits that coincide with ontogenetic (or in this case phenotypic) adaptations. Also, the fact that Waddington’s experiments demonstrate only that an organism is able to produce phenotypes that are later expressed as genetic traits, still leaves the subject of whether or not an organism can translate learned behaviors into genetic traits open to debate.
Hinton and Nowlan’s Model
In 1987, Geoffrey Hinton and Steven Nowlan created a computer model, known today as the Hinton and Nowlan Model, designed to simulate the Bowlan Effect. In this computer model, the researchers assigned 20 genes to computer generated organisms, each with an allele labeled 0, and 1. In order to survive, the computer organisms would have to correctly express all alleles as 1’s. With a population of 1,000, and with the program giving each organism a set of randomly generated alleles, it was determined that a fit individual would arise about once in 1,000 generations. Unfortunately, because of the effect of sexual reproduction, the optimum genotype of 20 1’s would be lost upon mating, and so the relevant genotype would never evolve. On the other hand, if a learning mechanism was introduced, where an organism could learn an ontogenetic trait that would allow it to survive, it could then reliably pass that trait onto the next generation, thus allowing the correct genotype to appear in as few as twenty generations.
The problem with the Hinton and Nowlan model is that it is extremely abstract. For starters, the “learned traits” that the researchers ascribe to the computer generated organisms could easily be the result of a rearrangement of already existing genetic traits, similar to the ones discovered in Waddington’s fruit flies. As a result, Hinton and Nowlan’s computer model fails to show that the Baldwin effect is necessarily a mechanism independent of natural selection, and therefore fails to show that behavior has any effect on genetically inherited traits.4
Terrence Deacon, a vocal proponent of evolutionary psychology, suggests a third mechanism, separate from Baldwin’s and Waddington’s, that may be able to successfully reproduce the Baldwin Effect. According to this mechanism, ontogenetic adaptations within a species, and not the environment, provide the selection pressure necessary to induce the Baldwin effect. In this case, if an ontogenetic trait proves to be an advantage to certain members of a population, and the behavior becomes common amongst a given population, then the individuals who are unable to acquire the newly learned trait, will ultimately be less likely to survive to produce offspring. Under these circumstances, any newly acquired genotypes that either improve an organism’s cognitive ability to acquire the skill, or which lower the demand on the organism’s cognitive abilities, or both, will make it more likely that a particular individual will survive to produce offspring. Finally, as individuals become more and more proficient at acquiring the skill, individuals with greater proficiency will have an evolutionary advantage over others, and the process will begin again.
Unfortunately, an intriguing idea without evidence is exactly that, and while Deacon expounds upon a number of ideas, including the idea that the early primate habit of sharing of meat, led to the acquisition of language, and the creation of the first marriage-like contracts*- he fails to relate any of his ideas back to this earlier described mechanism.5 As a result, there is no data available to verify his earlier claim.
The Baldwin Effect, in many ways, serves as the foundation for the field of evolutionary psychology, and yet it remains a hypothesis that is still highly disputed. This leaves me feeling skeptical of any argument that relies on the claims of evolutionary psychology, at least until its most basic tenets can be better substantiated.
*I can’t say for certain that Deacon’s argument is flawed here (not having had an opportunity to do much reading on the subject). However, the premise of the argument is based on the theory that primates use meat as a kind of currency for sexual favors; a supposition that appears to be refuted by recent studies involving Ngogo chimpanzees, which show that hunting patterns are in no way affected by the presence of female chimpanzees who are in oestrus.6 Even if this weren’t the case, however, the underlying message of Deacon’s argument is essentially that prosititution, and the systematic exploitation and devaluing of women, is the result of genetic inheritance. In other words, men simply can’t help themselves when it comes to exploiting women sexually, because it’s simply part of their genetic makeup. I’ll leave you to decide what you think of such an argument.
1. Depew, David “Baldwin and His Many Effects.” Evolution and Learning, p. 6-8. Weber, Bruce, and David Depew. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.
2. Godfrey-Smith, Peter “Baldwin Skepticism and Baldwin Boosterism.” Evolution and Learning, p. 58-59. Weber, Bruce, and David Depew. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.
3. Scharloo, Willem “Canalization: Genetic and Developmental Aspects.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 22, (1991), p. 65-93.
4. Downes, Stephen M. “Baldwin Effects and the Expansion of Explanatory Repertoire.” Evolution and Learning, Weber, Bruce, and David Depew. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.
5. Mitani, John C. and David P. Watts “Why Do Chimpanzess Hunt and Share Meat.” Animal Behavior, Vol. 61, No. 5, (2001), p. 915-924.
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a documentary, called Killing Us Softly 3. This documentary, created and narrated by Jean Kilbourne, is the third in a series of films dedicated to discussing how women are portrayed in advertising and media, how advertisements affect the way society views women, and also how women view themselves.
Soon after I saw the film, Wizards of the Coast came out with a new image for the cover of the upcoming, Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook. Immediately, the image reminded me of the film, and I began remembering lines from the movie that spoke to this image. I therefore want to dedicate this entry to talking about the image on the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook, and how it relates to Jean Kilbourne’s film.
Before I get into discussing the image itself, I want to talk a little about why I think it matters how a woman is portrayed on the cover of something like the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook. After all, it’s only one image on the cover of a single book. However, while the image may be only one example of how men and women are portrayed, it is not the only example. Rather, it is part of a larger, systemic concern that affects all areas of media, and advertising, including other products and images produced by Wizards of the Coast. It is important to keep this in mind, for while this entry primarily focuses on the artwork on the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook, the concepts discussed here can be applied to many other images, both in Dungeons & Dragons and in the mass media in general.
The first thing I want to discuss is the purpose of the image on the cover of the Player’s Handbook, and what it does to achieve that. First, the purpose of the image, first and foremost, is to sell a product. In this case, the product is not just the Player’s Handbook, but also other roleplaying products, such as additional core rulebooks, supplements, miniatures, dice, etc.; all of which are products used to play the game. However, the image does much more than just sell products. It also sells concepts of fantasy adventure- of magical creatures descending into worlds of darkness, armed only with a bit of magic and steel to defend themselves. It sells a hobby (possibly a lifestyle), that is centered around fantasy gaming, where both men and women gather together to participate in a shared, roleplaying experience. Finally, it sells an idea of what kinds of characters normal gamers should aspire to play; how they should act, dress, and feel. In short, the image on the cover does exactly what Kilbourne says all advertising does: “Advertising tells us who we are and who we should be.”
So what does the image on the cover of the Player’s Handbook tell us about women? One of the things that it tells us is that one of the most important aspects about a woman is how she looks. As Kilbourne states “the first thing the advertisers do is surround us with the image of ideal, female beauty, so we all learn how important it is for a woman to be beautiful.” In this case, the female sorcerer is quite beautiful, according to American standards. She is tall, large breasted, tan skinned, dark haired, and has pronounced cheekbones; a perfect image of the all-American beauty. In fact, it is striking how much the image of the female sorcerer on the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook resembles the image of the all-American beauty depicted on the cover of the September 1994 issue of Mirabella Magazine. This image, created by photographer Hiro, is not a picture of a model, but rather a compilation of features taken from six models used to create a single image. In other words, the image of the all-American beauty is an image of a woman that doesn’t actually exist.
Remaining on the subject of ideal beauty for a moment, Kilbourne states that “a body type that statistically 5% of American women have is the only one we ever see as desirable or acceptable… the models are very tall, genetically thin, although they often starve themselves anyway, broad shouldered, and usually small breasted, so when the models have large breasts, almost always they’ve had implants.” So like the image on the cover of Mirabella magazine, the tall, thin, large breasted image of the female sorcerer on the front cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook is also an image of a woman who doesn’t exist. Yet as Kilbourne points out, this image is “the only one that we ever see” as a representation of feminine beauty. We see it on the cover of the Player’s Handbook, we see it on the cover of Mirabella magazine, in fact, we see it in media and advertising virtually everywhere in our society.
As part of this image of ideal beauty, one of the attributes that is largely focused on is breasts. In fact, Kilbourne points out that breasts are used in media and advertising to sell ‘absolutely everything,’ the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook being no exception. Here, the female sorcerer has quite large breasts, the size of which are further enhanced by the leather bodice she is wearing. This focus on breast size enhancement actually ties into another cultural message frequently conveyed in media and advertising. Kilbourne states that, in American culture “[Women] are told to wear uplifting bras such as the Wonder Bra,” in order to further enhance the overall appearance of a woman’s breast size. In other words, our culture’s obsession with breasts and breast size, has caused women to always feel uncomfortable about their breasts, and to believe that there breasts are never okay the way they are.
“Nowadays,” Kilbourne continues, “[women] are supposed to have plastic surgery… Most women who have had breast implants,” Kilbourne explains, “lose sensation in their breasts, so their breasts become an object of someone else’s pleasure, rather than pleasurable in themselves. The woman literally moves from being a subject to an object.” Granted, the female sorcerer may not have had plastic surgery, but the fact that her breasts have been artificially enhanced to appear larger still conveys the message that a woman’s breasts are objects that exist primarily for either the visual or physical pleasure of someone else, and it’s this objectification of women’s bodies that is perhaps the most chilling part of Jean Kilbourne’s documentary on media and advertising. “For one thing,” she states “[objectification of women] creates the climate in which there is widespread and increasing violence against women,” and while she is careful to point out that advertisements are not the direct cause of violence against women, she does state that they are “part of a cultural climate in which women are seen as things, as objects, and certainly turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person. We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia; it’s always the same process. We think of the person as less than human and violence becomes inevitable.” So while the objectification of the female sorcerer’s body may not directly contribute to the escalation of violence towards women, it nevertheless contributes to the cultural message that women are simply objects, existing for the physical, or visual pleasure of others. Because of this, “the violence and abuse [that is directed towards women] is partly the chilling, but logical, result of this kind of objectification.”
Now this is not to say that gender stereotypes only affect women. As Kilbourne states, “a much more serious problem for men is that masculinity is so often linked with violence, with brutality, with ruthlessness.” We certainly see how this masculine-labeled quality is conveyed in the portrayal of the male dragonborn. Here, the character is portrayed as an aggressive, fearsome, and inhuman warrior, with all of the emphasis placed on his ability to engage in physical violence. Meanwhile, there is no emphasis place on other qualities, such as compassion, nurturance, empathy, or sensitivity; qualities that are typically labeled as feminine. In Kilbourne’s opinion, this polarization of masculine and feminine-labeled qualities “causes men to devalue not only women, but also all those qualities that get labeled feminine by the culture.” So while women may be victims of gender stereotypes, by labeling violence as a masculine quality, it creates a cultural environment in which not only women, but also men become the victims of violence.
There are many other issues addressed by Kilbourne in her documentary, many of which are not necessarily issues inherent in this image, but which are certainly conveyed through other images created for Dungeons & Dragons and other forms of mass media. For example, Kilbourne states that “often violence, hostility, and dominance is presented as erotic, as attractive, as appealing in ads.” While many people on the Astrid’s Parlor messageboards have noted that the male dragonborn is standing in a position that suggests he might injure the female sorcerer if he actually swings his sword, it doesn’t necessarily suggest (though it could certainly be argued) that the artist is trying to portray violence towards women as sexy, or erotic. On the other hand, the image on the back of the Forgotten Realms supplement, Champions of Valor- where a female fighter lies in a submissive, prostrate position, her lower torso slashed and nearly fully exposed- certainly contains elements that eroticize violence and hostility towards women.
Kilbourne also states that “women are acceptable only if [they’re] young, thin, white, beautiful, carefully groomed and polished, and any deviation from that ideal is met with a lot of contempt and hostility.” While the absence of dark-skinned, and/or older women from the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook isn’t necessarily an example of such contempt, there are certainly examples of artwork that do carry this message. For example, the character from Heroes of Horror, known only as Grandmother, is an older female character, whose desire to cannibalize young children, makes her thoroughly repugnant and unsympathetic.
Meanwhile, the female drow, whose dark skin is the only trait that deviates from the media’s concept of ideal beauty, are nearly always portrayed as vicious, insane, power hungry women who have nothing but the most bitter hatred for their male counterparts. In fact, the portrayal of the drow speaks to another concept expressed by Kilbourne which is that “women of color… are often literally shown as animals, dressed in leopard skins, and animal prints.” While the drow may not be dressed in animal skins, their close association, and identification with the spider certainly conveys the same, chilling message- which is that women of color are “not fully human.”
Now of course, this isn’t to say that there are no images of strong, or sympathetic women portrayed in roleplaying games, or even that the artist who created the artwork for the cover of the Player’s Handbook hasn’t created artwork that is sensitive to women. In fact, this artist is responsible for some of the most woman-sensitive, awe-inspiring artwork ever produced for the game. For example, the female rogue portrayed in the cover artwork for the campaign supplement, Sharn: City of Towers, is a wonderful example of a strong, capable, female character, who exhibits virtually none of the negative traits typically attributed to women by the mass media.
Meanwhile, an image on the cover of one of the recent Pathfinder issues portrays a beautiful, strong, black woman, dressed in sensible armor, to be used as a player character. So while there are certainly problems with much of the artwork produced for the game, there are also examples of artwork being produced, both by this artist, and by others, which suggest a growing awareness of and sensitivity towards how women are portrayed in the mass media.
Nevertheless, while these images are certainly commendable, laudible examples of how women can, and should be portrayed by the roleplaying industry and the mass media, there are still many changes which can and should be made to the way women are portrayed. As Kilbourne states, “the changes have to be profound and global, and what they will depend upon, more than anything is an aware, active, educated public, that thinks of itself primarily as citizens, rather than primarily as consumers.” The more that we demand these kinds of positive images of women, and refuse to purchase products that contain degrading images of women, the more likely that the media will change.
“We need to get involved,” Kilbourne concludes, “in whatever way moves us to change not just the ads, but these attitudes that run so deep in our culture and that affect each one of us so deeply, whether we’re conscious of it or not.” I was moved to blog about these issues and how they relate to Dungeons & Dragons. How will you be moved to get involved?
Incidentally, if you are interested in viewing the film yourself, you can do so here.