Sexism and Rape Culture in Pandaria

Mina Mudclaw dances for a Springtail Ogler.

TW: Some minor discussion of rape and rape culture.

And like a familiar tide, I find myself being pulled back out to the blogging sea, adrift on my annoyance and frustration.

I had planned to write a full summation of  Mists of Pandaria thus far, but I’ve been having too much fun actually playing it to sit down and blog. It’s been really intense to like an expansion so much that I rarely have time for other things, but there you have it. However, as you may have guessed, the new content is not without its problems. The specter of something sinister was already there waiting to greet me as I hit the shores of this new continent.

That something is sexism and rape culture.

It sucks, let me tell you. I’m really having fun and enjoying myself for the first time in a while and I hate myself for seeing this stuff. However, I hate it more for being there. It shouldn’t be. I shouldn’t have to be reminded of the real world, of the grotesque behavior of people, when I want to escape to the bright world of Pandaren and farming and oooh shiny. But unfortunately game developers are still dudes. They still add stuff like this without realizing that this hurts people or how it might come off. Much like Ji Firepaw, I suspect this is a decision to include things that developers see as “normal” — this only enforces my opinion that this stuff exists for many people as something humorous or positive. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit to say that this is unintentional. Maybe it is just a lie I want to believe more than the alternative.

When I was questing to 90 on my main, one of the first zones I really got into was Valley of the Four Winds. The serene music, the lightly falling rains on a verdant farmland looked like it was ripped straight out of a Miyazaki film. But one of the quests early on set the alarm bells a-ringing – The Farmer’s Daughter. Cuppy over at Borderhouse Blog went over this quest’s problematic elements in great detail, which is one of the reasons I felt like writing my own post. Mina having to dance with her furry feet while virmen pelted her with carrots may seem really lighthearted, but much like some of the other things I found later on in the game, it is floated really heavily on an entire set of stories and cultural touchstones that bother me. The idea of a farmer’s daughter (which was mentioned as being a common joke/trope) being kidnapped by sentient rabbit creatures (the mobs are called oglers, for fuck’s sake) to amuse them is weird. It obviously distressed Mina and so I find myself distressed as well. But I brushed it aside because I’m used to doing that. The first thing that anyone tells you when you speak up about something being sexist or part of rape culture is that “you are seeing things that aren’t there.” So I kept on questing (but not without taking a screenshot, incidentally.)

I got into farming at Halfhill in a really bad way. One of the dailies that you do at level 90 for Gina Mudclaw (a relative of Mina, incidentally) is called “Money Matters.” It is pretty obvious to anyone who spends any amount of time in the Heartland that the Mudclaws are a family that run the entire place. They have powerful positions on the Tillers in terms of voting (Gina and Haohan respectively comprise two of the five votes you need to enter your farm) and Gina herself runs the market as both the quartermaster and coinkeeper. She has a lot of prestige and money. This money gets loaned out (without the vig, even!) to various townspeople, and gets collected by you, the hired muscle. The quest has a circulating batch of responses from all of the debtors – some days they pay up, some days they do not. On the days they do not, you are given the option to either pay their debts for them (usually 1G) or beat them up. The first couple of times I did the quest, I paid for people because I felt sympathetic. I wasn’t really reading many of the responses people give, which are sometimes downright obnoxious about Gina. However, it is Spicemaster Jin Jao that takes the grossness cake.

“Gina? That girl down in the marketplace? Hah!

Tell that pretty little thing to come collect the money personally. I’m sure she and I can come to some sort of… agreement.”

His attitude and his desire to rectify his debts with sexual favors made my skin crawl. Despite the fact he owes her money, he still treats her like a frivolous child, but a woman he’s still attracted to and feels that he can “pay back” with sex because he desires her. Her money nor her power or agency are not even a concern here. It’s weird as hell. This one little thing really rubbed me the wrong way. Needless to say the only recourse I had for this was threatening him with violence.

However, that shouldn’t even be in the game in my opinion. Sexist crap shouldn’t be a short-hand (as someone people have argued with me) for “bad character.” You can show evilness or flaws without falling back on gross attitudes that women have to deal with in real life. Someone like Garrosh comes to mind in this instance — they are already priming him for loot pinata status by making him a fascist dictator but his part in Tides of War as sexist scumbag was so fucking awful. When he backhanded only Kelantir Bloodblade (the only major female Horde presence in the book, I might add) or referred to Jaina as “that Proudmoore bitch,” I winced. It isn’t sexism to make a point, it is sexism because that’s what you know as a writer or a designer to indicate certain things about someone. Very often, it isn’t even to indicate bad things. It just exists there because it is normal and natural for you. Garrosh might be getting painted as a super-bad character (because sexism is that last great bastion of evilness, apparently) but people like Spicemaster Jin Jao? Oh, that’s part of a natural stack of responses to a woman asking you for her money back.

My question is why it has to be there at all? Why do we have to use things that make us as woman players feel uncomfortable and reminded of real life in order to strew character development here and there? Why do characters in a video game have to participate in the same shit some of us deal with every day?

One of the final things (so far) that really bothered me was brought up to me by a guildmate. She was doing Golden Lotus dailies and got to the single-time quest that you do when you get to Honored. The quest called “The Secrets of Guo-Lai” and has you entering the Guo-Lai halls with He Softfoot (the worst rogue in the world) in order to find out what the Mogu are planning in Vale. He inevitably gets caught by Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter, who starts crushing the life out of him by a Jade Statue proxy. The quest has you futilely trying to save your friend but you end up both caught.

Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: How noble, rescuing your friend from certain death…
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter yells: …and all for nothing. Take them!
The adventurer and He are both trapped in nets.
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: Your struggle is pointless.
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: You are ignorant to the powerful secrets contained within this vale. I will take them, and then I will destroy all of your kind.
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: Throw these prisoners in the cages. Let the men have their way with them.

source, last emphasis in red is mine

I feel like Fox Mulder when I say that “I want to believe.” I want to believe that the quest designers forgot that the most common insinuation with “have your way with someone” is rape. Granted, it gets prettier terms like “ravaging” or “ravishing” but let’s get down to brass tacks, it means rape. It is never consensual. I want to believe that meant that the Mogu were just going to beat you and He up or feed you to a pack of quillen or something. However, as a woman, this quest chilled me a lot. It bothered quite a few women in my guild and for good reason. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of stuff that’s happened to women in both our fictional worlds and even real worlds. Get taken prisoner, get put in a cage, be left to get raped by your captors. This stuff isn’t the fancy of someone’s imagination, it is stuff that’s happened to real people. This is why it bothers me so much to have it turn up in my video game. Yes, I get that it is a war game. Warcraft is chock-full of rape if you look close enough at the dragonflights, at Draenei/orc relations. But to have it be a part of the player’s own peril just brings it a step too close for me.

The fact that it came up in an interview with Dave Kosak goes to show that Blizzard feels that this is a part of their storytelling, their quest design. And the fact that I keep finding it turn up in unexpected places goes to show that sexism and rape culture is alive and well even in this new continent of Pandaria. It bothers me wholeheartedly that I have to put up with this in my video games, even in one that has been making strides including more varied and strong women in their quests. So I’ll keep being bothered and talking about it. I hope that Blizzard, like with Ji Firepaw, realizes how much it affects their player-base and moves away from it. I don’t want to deal with it anymore.

Let’s Get Rid of “Slut Plate” Forever

Draenei women in sassy plate and mail transmog outfits.

Ah-ha, I’ve skewered you with my provocative title.

It’s true that it was a just a ruse; I’m not here to talk about abolishing the many, many sets of  evocative armor in World of Warcraft. I’m here to talk about getting rid of the disgusting language and thoughts that surround them! As I’ve discussed before, I’m a big proponent of the idea that the words we choose to express ideas with inform many of our feelings. A word that encompasses an entire disgusting ideology: slut. Sluttiness is both a term used to denigrate female sexuality as well as denote when it occurs in a way that extends beyond what the judgemental person feels is “respectable” “healthy” or “acceptable.” You can be a slut if you do X, Y, or Z. You can be a slut if you do something X number of times or have X number of partners. In that vein, I feel the landslide useage of “slut plate” in the WoW community puts that same unhealthy/sexist perception around even something as fun and aesthetic as transmogrification/roleplaying gear. The very term itself makes my mouth pucker up in my characteristic sour sneer. It makes me legitimately angry.

Unfortunately, this kind of gear has existed for a very long time in Azeroth, if not other game universes. There’s been no end to blog articles and topics that revolve how women in World of Warcraft, particularly while leveling, are subject to a very different appearance to their male counterparts. Simply put: anyone playing a female toon, particularly if you wanted to play a mail or plate class, has put up with gear that left almost nothing to the imagination. It feels very objectifying and caters to a very specific audience. This is not new territory. The crux of it is the lack of choice and the lack of consideration. It says that the designers do not always think about anyone other than themselves or a segment of the consumers for their game. Given that this segment has historically been straight, young males, it is no surprise that this stuff has been dubbed the aforementioned “slut plate” (or sometimes “stripper gear”, etc.) It is gear that is designed to make female characters look sexually appealing rather than clad in functional items that would provide some measure of protection. Making this the only option while making your way through pieces of armor disallows the player’s feelings to enter into the matter.

What happens though when you are suddenly allowed to dress up how you want? Enter transmogrification. What was once the sole realm of roleplayers that eschewed PVE practicality for storytelling aesthetics while chilling out in Silvermoon City is now everyone’s game. Choice is back on the table in a big way and with that, it stirs up a lot of feelings. Not only can you buy your way OUT of a terrible outfit that makes you feel weird or gross, but you can buy your way into being scantily clad full-time. Not only that, but it is a hunt and a big business. These sets fetch quite a high price on the Auction House and I see many flesh-baring outfits around Stormwind when I’m standing around. I feel that this is one of the reasons why I’ve seen a big resurgence of posts that include the term “slut plate” and a lot of nose-sniffing at “toons that look like they belong around a stipper pole.”  There is both the glee of booty-watching and the derision of game-supported dress that echoes “disrespectful” expression in real life.

I feel that the term “slut plate” represents the problematic elements of both of these opinions. Calling it “slut plate” even mean in jest or in a seemingly positive way, or even just as a “neutral” descriptor implies that being scantily clad indicates a certain character point, one which is tangled up a very harmful word from our society. A harmful word that reduces a woman’s expressed sexuality into an ever-shifting, very narrow definition: one that has little to do with her feelings or choices in the matter. Using it in a negative way or expressing that people that choose to dress like this need to cover up is one facet of that narrow definition of feminine sexuality. Both opinions basically reduce the choice to wear such armor to a simple message: “This is bad, except when I feel it is good.”  All of this over vanity armor in a video game, no less. However, we are naive if we think that the problems with how women dress in real life don’t have unintentional parallels to gaming spaces, especially when one can choose to be female and scantily clad (most of the time.) Much how people should be allowed to express themselves via their clothing in real life, I feel that should cross over into gaming.

Choosing to wear something skimpy in real life or World of Warcraft should be because someone wants to, because it makes them happy, and should not indicate anything other about a person’s personality or sexuality other than what they wish it to indicate. It should not give you carte blanche to use sexist terms, reduce women to sexualized figures for your pleasure, or to shame women or make jokes about having jobs in the sex work industry (Sex workers are human beings too.) All of you who use this term frequently should really step back and think about what lead you to using this and how it shapes your views on characters running around in Azeroth looking like this. Break down the relationships between revealing armor and what it “says” about someone. Stop thinking of other’s expression of sexiness or fashion as solely for your consumption or derision. The world does not spin on what you feel is appropriate for dress or mannerisms when it comes to non-harmful behaviour, especially in a video game!

How do we combat this term though? If I was better learned in linguistics and sociology, I could probably pull out several sources on a reasonable solution. Alas, I am but a lowly communication grad. In my experience, the best way to unhook deeply entrenched relationships between thought and language has been to abolish or replace, preferably with corresponding concepts that are better suited for everyone and less derogatory. Therefore, I think we should get rid of “slut plate” as a term and replace it with words that more precisely define what we are talking about in a positive or objective way.

Want to wear something pink and skimpy?

Sassy plate!

Platekini!

These are both fun ways of addressing the same kinds of armor without the added baggage of shame and sexism. You could also just use descriptive words like “revealing” “bare-it-all” “scantily clad” with a minimum of fuss. Personally, most of my characters are fairly battle-ready in dress but in the interest of being honest to this piece, I felt like that maybe I should dabble in a little bit of sassy mail. I have tucked away pieces in my bank over the years, maybe it is time to be fierce!

Shaman poses in sassy plate in Blackrock Mountain.

I look pretty badass if I do say so myself. Even if I un-transmog my gear tomorrow, I feel like I’ve made an important statement though. Our choice in in-game armor shouldn’t be a way of defining us, especially in a shameful way. We have to deal with this problem in real life, why does it also have to extend into our fantasy lives too? Half the point of a fictional world is that we get do the things that we might not be able to do outside. When we still live in a world where people believe wearing a short skirt is “asking for it” – why can’t we wear skimpy armor while running around on toons that can kill people with several fireballs or a well-swung axe? Expression in a fictional world should be a lot more fun and a lot less guilt-inducing than what we have to suffer through in our day to day lives.

Let’s embrace the sassy plate, people. It might just create a better World (of Warcraft.)

Note: If you want to discuss this post on Twitter, or just get the “sassy plate” train going, use the hash-tag #sassyplate.