Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Friday, January 02, 2009

First Rant of the Year!

Warning: As customary, this rant is likely to be incoherent, irrational, and probably not make a whole lot of sense. You are duly warned.

Okay, so one of the many things I like to do in lieu of anything productive or worthwhile is play computer games. I really like Neverwinter Nights, mostly because there's so many fan-made games that it's like having a never ending library at my fingertips. I'm not very GOOD at the games generally, but well, I'm earnest and that counts for something.

Anyway, the most recent module (game) I played was a really neat ninja-type story with a female main character. I thought the writer did a magnificent job with atmosphere and it was neat playing in a world that was influenced by Japan and China rather than the usual pseudo-Europe that seems most common. The story was really interesting too.

One part of the story involved an act of sexual violence against the player character. This would have probably been upsetting, but the author clearly warned any player of this occurrence in the documentation as well as the place I downloaded it from, so well, I was warned. And to be fair, it made sense in the story development.

While it may occasionally appear otherwise to a reader of my blog, I'm not completely adverse to stories that involve rape or other sexual violence. I do tend to think it can be overused, and is often a crutch for lazier writers as an easy means to add drama or angst to a (usually) female character. But that's not always the case. And sometimes, like in this module, it doesn't bother me.

So why am I ranting?

Well, I read this interview with the author in which he says:

12) I get the feeling that no matter how strong or skilled a woman is; ultimately she is still a victim in your modules. Is this what you intended, and if so, why?

Yes, that was intended. The PC has to realize that being a woman in this time and place, life is tougher. She has to prove herself way more than a man would to get the smallest amount of recognition. In the late feudal Japan, women were seen as mothers or servants. The PC has to face discrimination, disrespect and contempt. I want the PC to work awfully hard to become a heroine. Just a few decades ago, women didn't have the right to vote and if they wanted more rights, they were just seen as hormonal - frustrated beings... I wanted everyone to feel how unfair and ridiculous it was.

I don't think I have to express how irritated this answer made me.

There are many things wrong with that answer. Now, I don't believe the author was necessarily thinking of female players when he answered, but as a woman myself, I do not feel as though I need to be reminded of the power imbalances and "ridiculous" treatment of women that tends to pervade history. And as sexist as this probably sounds, I certainly don't feel I need to be reminded of it by a MAN.

I won't continue on this track of ranting, mostly because I have to acknowledge that the author's first language isn't English I believe, and it's possible that he didn't intend his response to be quite so...presumptuous. Certainly I've said things that came out a lot more offensive than I meant, and I AM a native English speaker.

The part I WILL bitch about is how, to me, the answer contains an argument that I've seen a lot by authors who use rape or sexism as a plot point. It's what I call the "realism" argument. Basically it's when authors bring up the status of women in a real world historical culture as justification for the treatment of their female characters in the fictional universe.

I think the most recent time I recall seeing it was in a Q&A by Mercedes Lackey* somewhere (sadly, I do not remember the URL), where she was asked about why both her heroines Tarma and Kethry had rape in their backstories. In this case, she made lip service to rape and the role/treatment of women in medieval Europe. And I won't say she's wrong. Certainly in medieval Europe, the standard base for most fantasy worlds, rape was not uncommon against any woman. And certainly Feudal Japan wasn't very enlightened about women's roles either.

(* I admit, I totally have a secret weakness for Lackey's Valdemar novels. They're like the fantasy equivalent of popcorn. They're not very substantial and the kernels tend to get caught in your teeth, but they're a fun way to pass time without needing to think too hard.)

But it's still a bullshit excuse. For one thing, it doesn't MATTER ultimately how women were treated in late Feudal Japan or in medieval Europe when you're talking about this game or those books. You know why? Because this game and those books DON'T TAKE PLACE IN THOSE TIME PERIODS.

These are not historical games. They're FANTASY. They might be inspired by those time periods, but the settings are not those time periods. They have magic. They have cultures that don't and have never existed. Kunoichi (the game) has dwarves and elves. The world of the Valdemar books have sorcerers and gryphons, and I'm pretty sure one of the books has some sort of pre-industrial version of a fucking SHOWER.

Medieval Europe also had plague, dysentary, cholera, and other fun and icky diseases, none of which I've seen in ANY Valdemar novels. Or if they are there, they NEVER strike any of the main characters. All of whom conveniently take baths in winter (not terribly common in Europe back then, if I'm not mistaken), NEVER suffer vermin, have beautiful well-kept hair, all of their teeth, and correspond to a modern concept of beauty.

Japan at least had regular bathing and generally better tooth care, but it also did not, as far as I am aware, actually have a seekrit ninja "scorpion clan" training up beautiful women in order to plague villages, temples and daimyo. So there you go.

As I said, the realism excuse is bunk because these stories aren't SET in Feudal Japan or Medieval Europe. They're set in worlds inspired by those periods, but in each case, the authors (rightfully) picked and chose what parts of those periods that they were going to include and what parts they were going to discard. They CHOSE to include sexual violence, not because it's "realistic" but because it was part of the story they wanted to tell.

It's well within any author's right to include something monstrous because it's part of the story they want to tell. Certainly some folk (including me) may complain and criticize sometimes, but that's par for the course. I just wish these authors would have the balls to be honest when questioned and say "That was the story I wanted to tell" rather than trying to distract the topic with the practices and customs of the original, non-fictional culture. It strikes me as a little cowardly.

That said, I really did think the game was a lot of fun. :-)


  • At January 02, 2009 6:59 AM, Blogger Saranga said…

    Agreed. For a genre which by it's name would seem to indicate a requirement of imagination, lots of fantasy authors seem to fail at actually using theirs.

    Re the author's comments: "Yes, that was intended. The PC has to realize that being a woman in this time and place, life is tougher."

    Y'know, that reads suspiciously like 'women, know your place!' Because we should be punished for wanting something more than our given lot.

  • At January 02, 2009 7:13 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Y'know, that reads suspiciously like 'women, know your place!' Because we should be punished for wanting something more than our given lot.

    I can see where you're coming from there, but I think it's probably another unfortunate English-as-second-language effect.

    I don't get the impression that that's the intention behind the modules themselves.

  • At January 02, 2009 8:12 AM, Blogger Saranga said…

    Ok, that's fair enough. Your view wins out over mine as you know the whole material!

  • At January 03, 2009 10:56 AM, Anonymous Rich said…

    Interesting. Does the author talk about the fairly high incidence of homosexual rape in historical Japanese settings at all? There's some evidence (I'm uncertain about how accurate it is) to indicate that both men and women (and children of both sexes) were quite likely to face a sexual assault at some point during their lives. The "samurai culture" seems to have tolerated, if not encouraged, an egalitarian attitude toward rape.

    On a lighter note:

    "Japan at least had regular bathing and generally better tooth care, but it also did not, as far as I am aware, actually have a seekrit ninja "scorpion clan" training up beautiful women in order to plague villages, temples and daimyo."

    If you aware of the program, it wouldn't be very secret now, would it? You *never* know what ninjas are up to if they're any good. :)

  • At January 04, 2009 6:12 PM, Blogger Dane said…

    Hmmm. I see where you're coming from, but what if part of the story the writer wants to tell is to be realistic to the era the module is based on? I don't think just because there's magic and fantasy in the module that a story can't be just as realistic in other areas as the era it's based on.

    I gleaned from the interview that the author did a lot of research into Chinese/Feudal Japanese culture and clicked that all into the DnD storyline and rule system. Instead of just "LOL ninjas" he seemed to want to move the scale of historical realism over to reflect the culture, politics and social roles of that era. I've seen how things like rape and abuse can get overused as plot devices, but this guy seems to have done it for the "right" reasons of consistency in my eyes (I loved his answer for question 8, for example). Much like you, I felt like he was addressing male players in that part of the interview, who start up a woman paladin or whatever and she gets treated the same as a male in most modules, and the players don't think much of it. And hey, rightly so; maybe gender isn't an issue in that module. The creator clearly stated that this isn't that module, and I don't think the fact that there are dwarves in it detracts from his message.

    I say all this because one of the things you request at the end of your post is that you want authors to have the balls to say that sadism and rape is part of the story they want to tell. While that's certainly true, it just doesn't seem like such an either/or case to me. Part of telling a story requires putting rails down to establish a sort of internal logic to the world, and borrowing another era's template greatly helps, followed then by adding to that era or taking away things that would dampen the story, like the examples you used. However, just because they do this to establish their themes and plot lines and they don't say that outright doesn't strike me as cowardly or absurd. Yes, even when they have a shower in a world that reflects Medieval Europe's social norms.

  • At January 04, 2009 11:28 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Sorry, Dane, I don't buy that.

    ADK clearly did a LOT of research about Japanese culture for his module, but he outright admits that it's not based on any one particular era of Japan and includes a lot of Chinese elements too at his choosing. Even granting the idea that the presence of magic or elves or whatnot don't necessarily make the module less conforming to realism in other ways, the fact that he's using late feudal Japan as a specific example and yet the module is NOT based on that time period without a lot of additional cultural alteration.

    The treatment of ninja, samurai, geisha, and general culture is very creatively done, but it's no more late feudal Japan than Middle Earth is medieval Europe, and thus the realism argument still feels like an excuse to me.

    It IS true that he might have argued something like "I was inspired by what I'd read about the treatment of women in certain eras of Japan and chose to incorporate that because my module is based mostly on Japan and I think it makes for a dramatic story" and I would have accepted that. And granted, perhaps that's what he meant to say. But as it is, to me, the interview comes across as him using the "realism excuse."

    It's a shame, because in a certain respect, I think he uses the sexual violence aspect very well in the story. It's scary, violent, the player has some opportunity to avoid it (especially if the character is supposed to be apathetic or evil to the plight of others), and the player can choose as the game goes on the effects of the act on the character and her relationships. I don't think the author gained anything by bringing up feudal Japan or realism, when he has the strength of the story/module to fall back on.

    Your Mileage May Vary of course. :-)


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