Opinion: Cultural junk food gets less respect when it's girly

Consider the difference in cultural regard between spy novels and romance novels; it doesn’t take a genius to see why Ian Fleming's schlock is more respected than Stephanie Meyers' schlock.

Intellectual junk food is an important part of your media diet.

Perhaps most especially in these times, it matters to have access to media that allows you to switch off in a certain way--so long as one doesn’t turn it into a permanent IV drip at least. And yet not all junk food is created (or at least regarded) equally.

Where manly junk food of the Die Hard vintage is considered an acceptably good time at the movies, something like Twilight is regarded as an abomination fit only for a cleansing flame. A more muted but still omnipresent sneering accompanied the release of Jupiter Ascending as well. Or consider the difference in cultural regard between spy novels and romance novels; Ian Fleming is worthy of the Vintage Press special edition treatment, despite his undeniably schlocky writing. It doesn’t take a genius to see why, of course. 

The common denominator is gender, of course. Low art, like much everything else in our world, carries gendered signifiers--with things perceived to be masculine considered more valuable (or at least less loathsome) than those seen as feminine. 

This has implications for games, of course, many of which are meant to just be a good time at the console/PC/table; what wells of inspiration are we allowed to draw from? 

Inspiration matters at least as much as the end result in a few cases.

I wouldn’t call the work of Nina Freeman or Avery Alder junk food per se, for example. They aspire to and achieve something a ways loftier. But their work owes a great deal to things that might well be considered low art or mindless indulgence. Alder’s Monsterhearts, which I discussed in my previous column, began life as an attempt to make a Twilight RPG. Alder remains unapologetic about her love of the film/book series and correctly points out that schlocky rubbish aimed at girls is held to an unfair double-standard. Stephanie Meyer is no Virginia Woolf or Arundhati Roy, but she doesn’t have to be in order to provide a fun adventure for the reader.

"Twilight is not my cup of tea, But then, Monsterhearts is, and therein lies the magic of inspiration’s alchemy."

It’s not my cup of tea (my preferred vampire/romance trash is of the academic, time traveling variety provided by Deborah Harkness, if you must know). But then, Monsterhearts is, and therein lies the magic of inspiration’s alchemy. This seems an obvious point, but if that RPG were marketed chiefly as “Twilight: the game” I suspect the response to it would’ve been rather different in some quarters, up to and including the queer and feminist ones that comprise Alder’s target audience. 

Inspiration of just this sort gave rise to the litany of genre fiction in gaming libraries. Imagine what Perfect Dark owes to James Bond, for instance, or what Mass Effect owes to both Star Wars and Star Trek. Eclipse Phase owes quite a lot to everyone from Kim Stanley Robinson to William Gibson. And yet, transmutation renders each product a distinctive property that adds to the whole rather than merely retreading what’s gone before. What are we denying ourselves when we think “girlier” sources of such genre inspiration are untouchable or undesirable?

Nina Freeman’s work draws less from a specific form of media junk food than a way of life--that of the nerdy teenage girl for whom “ship” is a salacious verb indeed. Her worlds make a bit of literary magic with the pastel coloured universes of early aughts girlhood. Moody poetry, digital crushes, selfies, fan pages for the hottest bishies, fics, debates about ships; that parallel world of young women’s nerd culture, yet one that is rarely the subject of onanistic nostalgia trips a la Ready Player One. 

In both Cibele and Lost Memories Dot Net (which is free to play) that often unexamined world is put up in lights to tell involving stories that take over your computer. To some observers, the story of a teenage crush that unfolds in a Final Fantasy-style RPG, or of relationships built through networks of fansites, may seem frivolous beyond words. But if that is, then so is wargaming; so are Heinlein novels; so are superhero comics.

At GenCon this past week, I was heartened to see there were more than a few examples of tabletop games big and small on display that weren’t afraid of a bit of glitter, even amidst the “Real Vampires DON’T SPARKLE!” t-shirts. Sarah Richardson’s new Powered by the Apocalypse (PbA) game Velvet Glove is a period piece about being in a girl gang in the 1970s. The cover of the slender sourcebook is made to look like a purple notebook with hearts and doodles in the margins; it all seems rather saccharine until you see switchblades and cannabis leafs in among the cute sketches.

"At GenCon this past week, I was heartened to see there were more than a few examples of tabletop games big and small on display that weren’t afraid of a bit of glitter, even amidst the 'Real Vampires DON’T SPARKLE!' t-shirts."

To the sound of songs like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? your gang gets into scrapes and barely gets away, eking out life on the margins of a society whose fatalism about the future seems to rival our own. But it also provides a quick, intriguing sketch of what those margins were like for young women of the period. One of the PbA-style Ties that can link your character to another PC at the table reads “You took ______ for an abortion. How did their mom find out anyway?” Another reads “You got ______ out of a bad situation with a man once. Why haven’t you told the other girls about it?” Your PbA moves are labeled Girl Moves and include such delights as “Brick House” or “Pussy Power!” (each of which add +1 to your Pussy stat). 

There’s a delicious irony to the fact that I’m holding this book open with my hotel room’s Gideon Bible. 

“I chose teenage girl gangs for a reason,” Richardson writes in the manual. “These are stories that don’t get told very often.”

When “girl” is synonymous with ‘everything that doesn’t matter’, it’s not hard to see why. It’s worth considering how and why we deny useful sources of inspiration, however. We’ve hardly exhausted all the storytelling possibilities of our lives as women.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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