I am haunted by a defining of terms. Specificity stalks my sleep, and and I know clarity often comes from delineated things. Why is it so hard to find a single topic to write about? People have interests, they like them grouped together, I’ve been told. So often I find, though, that people section themselves into tiny pieces, present only this much, that little bit, and keep themselves clearly directed in their writings, in their interests, in their doings, and I wonder, is it people who do this, or their fear of how society will judge their whole-selves? I’ve been told recently by a friend who’s read some of the writings I’ve posted here that if I want to “appeal” to people, you know, “real people,” the ones who do specific things and want their topics all clumped together, I have to pick a single focus, stick with it, collect all my ideas into one little space. It’s a hard thing to do. Perhaps not just for me– even in things people consider trivial, I am all over the place, my identity is split between a thousand different subtypes, and I can’t say with any certainty that I’m a gamer geek, a goth, a hippie, a hick, a graduated anthropology student, or anything else, because… well, because those things limit you. You take one, you state it, and that’s the one thing that you are. Box, boundary, and check mark to match. To say I’m a Pagan rules out my skepticism. To say I’m a feminist rules out my BDSM. I imagine not everyone feels this way. I also imagine that I am not alone. How does it feel for you when “unacceptable” bits are locked away? How does it feel for you when you’re told that this excludes that, when this encompasses not only both, but so much more? What does it mean when you state “I am?”
You can be intellectual or sensual. Either you love knowledge, books, learning, or you crave experience, physicality, sensation. It’s that divide between body and mind, y’know? Or so I was told today. But I don’t understand. Because I love learning and thoughts and anthropology and thinking and silk and good food and that wonderful ache you get in your ribs when you laugh too hard for too long. Why can’t I be a creature of both? Why can’t I opt out and pick a third?
American culture, maybe even Western cultures as a whole, love dichotomies. The either/or. This or that. It seeps in around the edges. It’s present even in the inconsequential. In World of Warcraft, you can either play Alliance or Horde. You get to pick The Aldor or The Scryers. It bleeds into daily life growing up– in high school, you can either be a jock or a geek. They’re neat little check boxes that sound that satisfying scritch as the #2 pencil swoops down and then up to make its decisive mark. Is it a boy or a girl? “It don’t matter if you’re black or white.”
But it does matter. It matters because there are more aspects and identities than “either”s or “or”s allow. It matters because a check box doesn’t cover the gap between who you are and what I choose to see of you. I t matters because the world isn’t so neat and orderly. It matters because I like sunflowers and acid-etching the steel blades I make, and because she grew up Jewish and Catholic, and because he isn’t really “he” but that’s the pronoun they assigned to him at birth. It matters because none of us are the same. It matters because so many of us want to be seen as whole people.
I am not quite a turtle. I have had my head under a rock, but then again, when a new edition comes out of your favorite game systems, wouldn’t you go hide in the sand? I would. I always do, a least for a little while. It happened with White Wolf’s World of Darkness 2, and I was slow to adopt, yes, but the system has merit, as does the setting. I always eventually poke my head out, sniff the new binding, peruse the shiny new books, and settle myself in to find a gaming group. I am referring, here now, to the June release of Wizards of the Coast’s new 4th edition of D&D. I can say I don’t like the system; the books are very dry and video-gamy in their descriptions, which doesn’t suit a game which is in large part based one one’s imagination.
But now that I’ve finally made it out to the bookstore a couple of nights in a row and poured over the pages of these new tomes, I slowly realized something else was bothering me about them. It wasn’t the simplified pages reading like lists, no, that observation hit me straight off… mainly because I was reading for system. No, the something of which I speak was the artwork. Passing enough of these pages trying to figure out why they decided to limit skills so strictly by class, I realized I was flipping through page after page of cleavage, accentuated female figures, and female faces that screamed sex.
Anyone familiar with the history of fantasy art as a genre has probably seen Boris Vallejo prints, has likely experienced the visual of the chain mail bikini, and has almost undoubtedly stumbled upon an (all to common) image of a naked lady with a sword. I begin to wonder if she’s the same naked lady in every picture, just a different dye job and a different sword. I wonder if the pay is good, to be a model for naked sword lady pictures.
D&D was no stranger to this stereotype. I remember clearly the images in the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook, text printed in black and blue, with the occasional full-color, full-page picture plate. Rarely were women depicted. When they were, there was the (near) naked sword lady, but more often, her spell-slinging cousin was portrayed… also wearing next to nothing. There was one picture plate in all that which looked quite different. One of the earliest in the book, it depicted the carcass of a small dragon, strung up by its legs, surrounded by a party of adventurers. There were more men than women portrayed in that group, but the thing which made me stare at that picture until it was burned into my soul, the thing about that image which kept me from slamming the book closed and never learning the rules at all, the thing of it was that the women in that picture plate were fully armored, and there was no trace of sexuality about them. They had just helped down that dragon, for goodness sake! Who on earth was going to look “sexy” after that? But here these women were, looking tough, rugged, and above all else, competent, and I wondered to myself why weren’t there more portraits like these?
3rd edition D&D answered that a little. There were suddenly more and more women painted, drawn, and rendered like people who had just gotten back from a long day’s ruin-raiding rather than a night as a Las Vegas show girl– not that there’s anything wrong with being a show girl, but the job description includes being a girl for show. Last time I checked, being a adventurer in a D&D campaign did not include that kind of language in the list of skills and specializations required of female PCs. But here they were, a growing number of fully clothed women portrayed in D&D books. Correspondingly, there were more and more scantily clad men, the kind without the huge rippling muscles, the kind that set this woman’s heart a-flutter. It wasn’t a perfect balance by a long shot, but as nods at inclusion go, it went a long way.
So what to do with 4th edition now? The cover art for the Player’s Handbook is only the tip of the iceberg. There is more cleavage within. The men are thoroughly muscled. The women are petite. There are dwarf boobs. There is a plate mail bra on a female dragon. And through all of this ogle fodder, I kept thinking, “Where are the images of the characters I might like to play?” I could only find one. In the section on player character races, there is one fully armored halfling woman, dark skin, locked in a dual-wielding death dance with some foe standing where the viewer is.
Now, this doesn’t even get into the issue of the term “race” in a fantasy setting, or the fact that this halfling is the only non-white person portrayed– which are all glaring problems with every edition of D&D I’ve encountered. With the release of 4th edition, they’ve told me something with big, bold brush strokes. Wizards of the Coast told me that I don’t matter. That I, as a female gamer, don’t have tastes, don’t bear marketing-to, and in fact, don’t exist. Black, Latino/a, Asian, Native American/First Nations gamers all don’t exist either. We’re all mythical. Like gaymers. And lesbians in general. Is it really so much to ask for a few images that actually look like the people I know, some pictures of competent-looking women, and a Hennet thrown in for good measure (sexiest sorceror ever)?
But I keep returning to this one fact that stealthed up on me like a rogue with a sap: in a whole book about roleplaying in a fantasy universe, there was only one image I could find of a woman after whom I’d like to pattern my own character. At least in that 2nd edition picture plate, there were two women standing there.
Coney Island. The light leaned low and golden, and after my friend had left to go home, I stood alone in front of a funnel cake stand and leaned myself against a metal barrier. The music lifted around me, a siren’s call, quite literally. I wanted to linger, after the sideshow, after the Cyclone, all the lights popping on, and the rides flashing and glittering. I had wandered by clam bars, hot dogs, the smell of trash and cotton candy rising in the air. The midway games. The boardwalk. The look of things, like carnival sprung up overnight, it believes in its own impermanence.
This will not be here, soon. This will all be gone, not just because the mayor has no sense of history, no sense of culture; no, this will be gone because it is heavy on the world. The garbage is mounded– it goes somewhere. The port-o-lets must be emptied in a place. The days of $1.50 gasoline are well over, and this cannot stay.
It rode through rounds of optimism though, like the spinning of the rides blasting music to clash with that which poured form the stage. There was a futurism that rested here, a trust that stretched forward for a promise of a better tomorrow. It never came. It never will… because we are here now, and all we have is this moment.
I savor this moment. The grime, the sound, the smells, the setting of the sun on a yellow-sand beach turned under with trash, this moment of childhood shrieks of delight and the constant badgering of the game barkers, the bells, the buzzers, the big stuffed animals, it is all here in this moment. And this moment is holy.
The sun sort of stretched out to lie down after the Met and the Jewish Museum. The sun sort of yawned and pulled a cat-like claws-to-the-earth, tail-in-the-air stretch, tongue unfurling all the way, with those long lanky Abyssinian flanks quivering golden. The sun sort of flushed golden instead of red on Cleopatra’s Needle, and we wandered Central Park.
The profiles of skyscrapers peeped in through gaps in the trees, and Flamenco dancers stepped with poise within the shelter of the band shell. Forget the horse drawn carriages. Forget the ice cream carts, the throngs. Forget Shakespeare in the Park, the eager crowds already assembling. I was a child again not for any of these. I was eleven again for the fireflies.
I saw one blink on, then off, and slowly its neighbors awoke. Then there were five. Sixteen. Thirty faery flashes in the dimming dusk. I squealed and cupped my hand just under one, hoping she’d alight.
(My grandmother’s garden was a rich jungle of Japanese lanterns and tiger lilies. As daylight faded they were bronzed in the light, and then the pallor of the evening set in, and then a firefly blinked on, and then off. Slowly its neighbors awoke. Then there were five. Sixteen. Thirty. Eighty-two. A thousand tiny lights glimmering in the gathering dark.)
Six small legs rested on my fingertip, as the firefly rested. My friend and I leaned in to watch as she flashed on again in my hand.
(The whole garden was glowing and I held still, held my breath, waiting for the gates of Faery, waiting for it to stretch into eternity. It never came, it never opened, and I was packed up into a car by my parents and driven off to Connecticut, staring after sparks more numerous than stars.)
The glacial rocks, the grassy lawns all glittered in the twilight as the fireflies greeted each other. All I could do was stand there in two times, two places, holding a firefly on my fingertip and feel the tears behind my eyes.