Today, a guest post from indie game and larp designer Julia Ellingboe, on the design of her game “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby,” for the #Feminism anthology of nano-games. You can pledge to support this game, and all the others in this international collection, until January 4, 2016, on Indiegogo.
My first game idea for the #Feminism anthology was about the virtuous woman trope vs. women indulging in traditionally male dominated vices such as smoking, and how society’s reaction is similar to women working in “legitimate” and male dominated fields. I was inspired by the Virginia Slims cigarette ads of my youth when Big Tobacco could advertise their wares in print. Virginia Slims had the best slogans and my favorite was the genius “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” For better or worse, they featured models from a variety of cultures. And for worse, Virginia Slims was a huge advertiser in black fashion and lifestyle magazines like Essence and Ebony. Almost all cigarette and alcohol ads were quite good at showing racial diversity. Six words linked smoking to feminism without so much as a hint of irony. Those six words, paired with images of black models like Beverly Johnson and Iman, made the phrase “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” apply to us, too. Big Tobacco did a better job at representation and intersectional feminism than, well, second wave feminism.
So intersectionality. I am often the only woman of color and almost always the only Muslim in any given setting. Feminism without intersectionality isn’t feminism for me, even when I can’t find my intersectional voice, which was the case as I tried to write about the virtuous woman. It didn’t work the way I wanted it to. The scenario was too long and too preachy, and eventually the idea evolved into gender swapping the Bechtel-Wallace Test. It shows how we have not come very far at all when it comes to non-male voices in media. Over the past few years, the concept has been used to critique cultural and ethnic representation, and again shows how we have made even less progress in representing and giving agency to non-Western, non-white people, especially women. I think about Nancy Lee Grahn’s response to Viola Davis’ recent Emmy acceptance speech, how Homeland likely passes the Bechtel-Wallace Test on a flying carpet of Islamophobia, and The Association of Black Women Historians’ response to The Help (as well as my US History professor mother’s rant about it), even with its phenomenal cast of black actors.
Ultimately, I wanted the game to be fun, and uncomfortably so. Gender swapping is a common tool to illustrate the imbalances of gender representation. We’re accustomed to seeing an unattainable standard of the female body in positions that invite sex, even during battle or when conjuring dark forces. Put a male body in the same position or armor and the absurdity pops off the page. We can easily see the diversity of gender expression just by looking at images of our friends and family. But if you only know one Muslim (or one Omani, one Ghanaian, one Korean) person in real life, it’s hard to recognize media’s negative representation as negative or absurd. So I decided to challenge players to play the ethnic stereotypes with the assumption that we’ve all been deceived by the media.