At this point, the ‘Girlfriend Mode’ debate has well and truly made the rounds. You’re probably all pretty sick of it now, which is too bad because I’m totally not (yet) so I’m going to talk about it now. I’d actually feel fine letting it go as another empty controversy, except that my own viewpoint has been changed somewhat from participating in conversations about it, and I’d like to discuss that.
I could say a lot about how that happened but I won’t. Suffice it to say most of it emerged from a lengthy discussion on the Idle Thumbs forum. To proceed here, though, I’d like to first explain my initial mind-set regarding ‘girlfriend mode,’ along with a brief recap of the controversy for those of you not familiar with the issue.
Around the middle of last month, a Gearbox developer being interviewed about the upcoming Borderlands 2 shared information about a skill tree less focused on twitch aim skills and easier to play for someone without fps gaming experience. The actual name of this skill tree was ‘Best Friends Forever,’ but in describing it the developer said “I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree.”
Well. People were offended, let’s put it that way. At first I had a hard time seeing this as anything other than a kneejerk reaction– perhaps because I have friends who are trying to ease their less-skilled girlfriends into the game as we speak my viewpoint was biased but, nevertheless, I failed to see how the term was offensive to women. It was, I presume, a heterosexual unmarried man speaking about his significant other, ‘girlfriend’ seemed, to me, the only appropriate term for him to use– that is, without resorting to awkward neologisms such as ‘significant other.’
Yet many seemed to take it for granted that the use of this term was offensive, demeaning. The reaction was as though he had called it ‘girl mode,’ when there was, I believe, a substantial semantic difference between that and what he actually said. There’s more reasoning along these lines, and if you’re interested you can read the entire debate on the Idle Thumbs forum.
So here’s the thing: I still substantially believe in all of that, but I understand now that there’s more going on than just what’s being said. There’s an entire context built up around it which everyone is, to some degree, aware of. I am certain that the developer who was interviewed knew of gaming’s culture of sexism and sometimes misogyny, and if he’d be thinking more clearly he could have realized how his careless statements would be received by those who struggle against that culture– but he didn’t, which was callous and stupid. I still don’t believe it’s sexist, but it’s a shitty insensitive thing to say.
I think it’s worthwhile to make a distinction between things that are inherently marginalizing to say, e.g. get back in the kitchen, versus things that are ‘sexist’ in the sense that they’re simply horribly insensitive to the context that people actually live in. Telling someone they look nice is really a rather pleasant thing to say to someone, but in a culture where certain groups of people are told that their only value is in their appearance it becomes insensitive (as well as risking implying a belief system that is sexist).
These contexts are important. The arguments I’ve found most compelling against the invocation of rape in humor have cited how many people have experienced rape, and that horror one risks dredging up in their minds to get a laugh. As someone who wants us to be able to laugh at everything, no matter how awful, it makes me upset at the intrusion– not at those who, through their life experiences, have been rendered unable to laugh about some particular horror of our existence, or at those who advocate for them, but angry at those who inflicted that horror.
It’s the damn rapists’ faults that we can’t make rape jokes! What insensitive jerks!
As a white male, I do resent the stress that constantly having to keep privilege in mind during discourse and humor presents. However, this doesn’t make me want to deny that privilege or silence those who would decry it, but makes me hate that privilege and seek to dismantle it. Even when it’s advantageous, it’s shitty getting lumped in under a stereotype. It’s shitty to have to second guess your every instinct because you’re not sure it isn’t just something you believe because you’ve had it easy… even if it hasn’t felt very easy to you.
My ideal is equality to such an extent that these social contexts will never weigh down on our discourse when we speak. This is, of course, hopelessly naive, as all ideals should be. People generally don’t appreciate outsiders making jokes at their expense– there will always be problems within any given group, and people outside of the group will be hated for making light of those problems.
However, within that group? I don’t know. As a member of a privileged group, I have a limited awareness of how much people in other groups make jokes about the onerous structures oppressing them. Certainly I’ve observed and heard of many examples: For instance, during the Winter War of 1939-1940, Russia dropped bombs to Finland, but the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov declared to the outside world that they were dropping food to the (not actually) starving Finns. The Finns started calling the bombs ‘Molotov Bread Baskets,’ and shortly thereafter invented the ‘Molotov Cocktail’ to complete the meal. Also to combat Soviet tanks.
I don’t believe that it is an ethical transgression to make a joke about things which are serious and terrible, no matter their gravity and horror. However, at the same time, if you say things with no sensitivity to the greater context of our culture, then you are by definition insensitive and are also probably being kind of a jerk.