Two years ago I sat down to reread a webcomic called The Order of the Stick, probably the most popular D&D webcomic. At the time, I was apparently very depressed and anxious; I complain and get angry a lot about things that would hardly bother me today. I hope it’s a good thing to have chilled out a bit? But anyway…
Today I was rereading that liveblog, and I caught up to comic no. 244, about the end of my previous reread. Last time, I got very upset about the Girdle of Masculinity/Femininity subplot, and its Hilarious Transmisogynist Japes, and gave up reading the comic. Now, I feel like it’s more interesting to talk about it, and using it to illustrate some things, rather than just leave it at ‘it sucks’.
The comic that led me to write again was this one, comic #244. For reasons of Hijinks, Roy is disguised as a woman using the Girdle, and Belkar, the token party member representing the much-maligned ‘murder hobo’ attitude to D&D, is sexually harassing him.
We get this exchange:
- Durkon: …I can’t hold it in. Belkar, tha “hot piece o’ ass” ye found thar is really—
- Belkar: —is really Roy. Yeah, I know. I can tell by the scent.
- Durkon: Ye… ye already know? Then why…
- Belkar: Because it’s fun to make him that uncomfortable, and I’m secure enough in my manhood to go that far to embarass him.
So what’s worth commenting on here?
Well, we can ask, why does Belkar see it as worth noting that his ‘manhood’ is in question because he’s hitting on Roy, and why is he ultimately not bothered? And why should Roy find it especially degrading - is it just because he is being treated as women are treated (as in earlier strips), or something more?
In certain contexts - the ancient Greeks, and possibly (I struggle to remember) also the Norse - anal sex wasn’t/isn’t blanket stigmatised, but being the receiving partner as a ‘man’ was considered degrading.
This connects to a certain gendered position of ‘degraded feminised camab person’ that seems to be a common but not fully acknowledged byproduct of gender. In modern times, the word ‘faggot’ is sometimes used (Amy @birlinterrupted talks a bit about this here, as does Rani Baker here); we may fit into society as women, but also as monsters, as need of patriarchy dictates, and that tension kind of defines our lives I guess.
@apophenic-ocelles wrote a brilliant post exploring this about a year ago, looking at how this kind of dynamic relates to the anthropological gaze and ‘third gender’ analyses:
The article also notes that there’s a word (”halekon”, in the article) for the less-masculine/bottomy partners (who were by and large the ones at risk of punishment for deviance during the Taliban regime) but it doesn’t interrogate this deeply, referring thereafter to halekon as young men and boys here, while describing the observations of halekon without really noticing they’re often talked about in terms of a distinct social group.
The USUAL response by a Western, academically-literate queer reader, would be to understand halekon in anthropological terms, as a “third gender” – that is, as some culturally-specific role, clearly delineated outside of the usual man-woman binary, neither men nor women.
I think that’s… closer in some respects? In that it captures something of how people in those societies understand a certain class within their midst. But it misses other aspects, and is also Othering, with a purpose. Both the article’s mangling of things and the anthropological reading portray a supposed deviation from a universal human norm – externalizing it, rendering it a cultural curiosity. “Some cultures understand that sex is between your legs,” says this narrative “and that gender is between your ears, and they might recognize more than two defined roles. And some cultures just make it so hard for straight men to get sex that they’ll have sex with other men/third-gender people – otherwise, they’d be like us, with our 10% of the population who Are Homosexual and the rest mostly straight.”
It’s presented as inherently foreign and exotic behavior, and also exceptional - which is rubbish, because this pattern totally occurs in the West as well, and it’s just as institutionalized, however different the inflection is. Men are not automatically rendered “gay”, even just in the eyes of society, when interacting sexually with certain other AMAB folks – a group that messily includes a lot of people we’d call trans women and femme gay men. (And, speaking personally, seems to cover in practice a lot of what gets analyzed by anthropologists as “third gender” variance in non-Western cultures.)
Rani, along with some other folks I’ve seen on here, refers to this group as “faggots” – because that’s the figure that the slur refers to.
This can be challenging – I feel like, if you’re younger than about 40 and from the US, and your queer scene exposure is recent, that word is understood as a more insulting way of saying “gay man.” Occasionally, it’s treated as a reclaimed slur by both gay men’s communities (though less so as gay assimilation grows, it seems to me) and a lot of lesbian/transmasculine communities (where it’s more like an aesthetic).
What Rani’s saying in essence, and what I feel is probably true, is that the “gender/sexuality” split and the “cis/trans straight/gay” split, mask an already-existing material reality in Western culture, one that defies our narratives: specifically, the ones that state there are biologically-rooted categories of male and female, who “Are” straight, gay or maybe bi, and who Are those things in an essential sense – oh and also, there’s some occasional rounding errors, ones that can be resolved by treating gender as something seperate from sex, rooting one in bodies and the other in behavior and identity, whatever the fuck that is.
Basically, the patterns we see (”there’s men and non-men, and non-manhood is broader and happens to more people than just those we’d understand as cis women, and socialization of non-men starts early and shares common features, as well as local differences, regardless of birth assignment”) are more comfortable to Western viewers when they’re situated outside of modernity, or firmly in the depths of our own history (see almost any academic discussion of eunuchs/gallae/etc). But they exist here too; they aren’t situational deviations from some underlying, more universal human norm (which is supposedly better reflected in how Westerners are taught to think their cultures handle gender). And they also aren’t like, a case of totally-separate cultures inventing suspiciously similar ways of constructing gender, totally independently, by nothing more than sheer coincidence. Rather, there’s something else going on here, and any attempt to account for gender relations is going to miss huge chunks of the picture if you exclude an important and revealing aspect of how the system actually works.
In this context, the European colonisers who laid the foundations for our present capitalism were fascinated by this kind of gender variance, even as they worked very hard to destroy it. For some more on that kind of thing, and (possibly contradictory) things on the coloniality of gender, check this one.
Tangentially, it occurs to me having just read Federici’s book, that this relates to broader efforts to use gendered violence to produce people as disposable in order to get that colonial extraction going. Federici, drawing on Silverblatt and Parinetto (who I haven’t read), describes how the witch hunts were not remotely just a European phenomenon, but their efficiency in destroying existing forms of power was found very useful to colonisers in the ‘New World’:
…also in the New World witch-hunting was a deliberate strategy used by the authorities to instill terror, destroy collective resistance, silence entire communities, and turn their members against each other. It was also a strategy of enclosure which, depending on the context, could be enclosure of land, bodies or social relations. Above all, as in Europe, witch-hunting was a means of dehumanization and as such the paradigmatic form of repression, serving to justify enslavement and genocide.
Witch-hunting did not destroy the resitance of the colonized. Due primarily to the sturggle of women, the connection of the American Indians with the land, the local religions and nature survived beyond the persecuation providing, for more than five hundred years, a source of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist resistance. This is extremely important for us, at a time when a renewed assault is being made on the resources and mode of existence of indigenous populations across the planet; for we need to resthink how the conquistadors strove to subdue those whom they colonized, and what enabled the latter to subvert this plan and, against the destruction of their social and physical universe, create a new historical reality.
She also talks about the intimate cross-pollination of the images and ideas of the witches’ sabbath etc. and the lurid descriptions of the ‘cannibals’ whose genocide needed to be justified. I feel like one thing I would want to know more about is how the ‘men’ and ‘women’ killed in the witch trials in Europe, and in European colonies, may have been gender variant? I remember oooold discussions about that on Tumblr.
Anyway, another, somewhat different historical example (I’m doing that “keeping it firmly in the depths of our own history” I notice), responding to a Twine I’ve been writing, Jackie @baeddel told me about the Canon of Theodore, a penitential from the 8th century…
we dont really know how ppl like us were referred to in history or how they saw themselves. ‘baedling’ is sort of interesting because its a male suffix - -ling is male gendered - but then goes 'for she is soft, like an adulturess’
it has like, an interesting passagewhere they talk about the different penalties a man needs to perform for different like, sexual immoralities or w/e: so it saysi f a man sleeps with another man, then he must do this; if a man sleeps with livestock, then he must do this; and then,if a man sleeps with a baedling, then he must do this
and then there’s a bit where he says, if a baedling sleeps with another baedling, they must fast for a year - 'for she is soft, like an adulturess’
'soft’ is like, a very specific concept in saxon culture. men were 'hard’ and women were 'soft’. obviously we retain this in some sense, but thats something that was important to gender discourse for saxon people.
so like, the -ling suffix + being listed apart from men and apart from women (and apart from livestock, they were kind enough) + being called 'soft’ is like, extremely strong evidence for it referring to tw
oh yeah the other thing is both ‘baeddel’ and ‘baedling’ are derived from ‘baedan’, which means 'to defile’
in a different post on the same text, we find the punishment for a man sleeping with a ‘baedling’ was ten years fasting, and also gives ‘soft, like a harlot’ as another translation.
I’m sure people more familiar with ancient and medieval history could make this narrative more complex, or furnish more examples.
So like, it can probably be said, the simple, clear cut between ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’ is really quite a modern invention, more modern even than the foundation of the colonial/modern gender system: It’s Still More Complex Than We Let Ourselves Think. For a more recent example of how things are complicated, there’s an old quote from Marsha P Johnson. She speaks to how she was treated as a ‘transvestite’ by (in modern terms, cis) gay men and lesbians:
Once in a while, I get an invitation to Daughters of Bilitis, and when I go there, they’re always warm. All the gay sisters come over and say, “Hello, we’re glad to see you,” and they start long conversations. But not the gay brothers. They’re not too friendly at all toward transvestites… . [because] A lot of gay brothers don’t like women! … And when they see a transvestite coming, she reminds them of a woman automatically, and they don’t want to get too close or too friendly with her. (Jay 1972: 115)
None of this is to say that trans women are not women; rather there’s additional dynamics that apply to ‘us’ and shape who the ‘us’ is exactly, and the ‘class dynamics’ and function of transmisogyny as a social force may be more complicated than who can immediately be recognised As An Obvious Woman. Amy @birlinterrupted touched on this recently in a post on socialisation. (She later wrote a followup.)
Post by Amy (birlinterrupted) on July 26th, 2018
arguments around how gendered socialization is this completely binary and completely individually determinative, cross cultural and transhistorical process have a lot more problems than can be solved by trying to make them “trans inclusive”
One of the issues that I’m thinking about that is very rarely addressed is that most uses of the term ‘socialization’ on here heavily imply that having a certain identity (or gendered experience) will necessarily lead to having a certain understanding of social systems. So like, and example of this is something like “I might be a man, but i was socialized as a girl so I understand about the social system of misogyny” or its converse “You don’t know what it’s like to be a Real Woman, because you didn’t spend [whatever age the arguer wants] being socialized that way and therefore have male privilege (or whatever).”
The problem is that we already have so much evidence that there are women out there who have been socialized female, who clearly have no good grasp of how misogyny works in this world. You have your Michelle Bachmanns and various pro-life women and the state representative where I grew up (she believed that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, go figure), antifeminist women. And really, none of us have a *complete* grasp on how exactly it is that misogyny functions: even women don’t have the full picture from their experiences. This is exactly why ‘consciousness raising’ was seen as necessary in feminist circles.
So what this ends up being is an incredibly shallow form of identity politics - the idea that everyone with some hypothetical form of oppression or experience will all come to the same conclusion, even when we have plenty of evidence that that isn’t true. This chain of “I’ve had X experience” (what experience? it’s never quite elaborated what specifics actually matter) to “I understand X social system completely” is based on the idea that these are just obvious intuitive, inherent connections. So to hear someone say that they ‘understand’ or what is going on with a social system, because of experiences they had in the *past* that even some women currently undergoing those experiences dont necessarily understand is to me just self-assured arrogance, or a desire for a carte blanche of their own personal purity (which obviously doesn’t actually come from those experiences - there are plenty of women misogynists who experienced this mythic socialization).
And because this sort of argument appeals to the more basic prejudices and intellectually 'easy’ answers to complex questions, you’ll have people who rail against 'identity politics’ just completely cosign it in its most blatant (and obviously incorrect) form when it comes to this specific conversation.
This all kind of raises the question of - why should this be so? Why would there need to be this class of people, why does it show up so often in so many different places, even as gender itself twists in response to the broader forces of capital?
I think @morphodyke had one part of the answer:
patriarchal society needs its sacrificial hypersexualized disgusting living sex-objects, and transmisogyny is how it tries to turn a human into that. i keep thinking abt this 4chan thread i read ~2013 shortly after i came out, in which a chaser talked about how he specifically liked dating trans women because “they have such low self-esteem that you can make them do anything”. he went on to talk about how he specifically looks for trans women with “dead, lifeless eyes” (aka dissociated from ptsd) because “they’re like a doll you can mold into whatever you want, then discard when you’re done, and there will always be more desperate for love”
that’s what transmisogyny is: a systematic pattern of abuse applied to a small sacrificial portion of the population to create a class of women with no claim to community or personhood, who will never be defended or avenged, who can be safely sunk into the attrition of patriarchy’s darker desires to protect the cis women, who after all could one day be mothers or some other kind of person. we are the class sacrificed to men’s violence and cis women’s violence. the socially unimportant. the weird and ugly. the punching bag. the blowup doll that talks. the mad artist that produces something great and then must burn out cause who could support that eccentric through life? the activist who makes huge steps for the better but stumbles on a community that would rather rape and abandon her than admit that it needs her. the queen of the dance who gets beaten with sticks as she’s leaving it and no one helps.
Another answer is this one by @drc4ble, on sexual and emotional labour. Another is regulatory, to make sure men continue to act as men and the system continues to be reproduced.
So how does all that stuff relate to a silly D&D comic from more than a decade ago?
Belkar’s actions do I, on the face of them, seem to be in any way contrary to maleness - in fact he’s acting out masculinity to an extreme, exaggerated degree.
One way that things are different now is that the idea of how cis men who have relationships with trans women should be seen has become much more important to men as trans women become more prominent. You see that in so many media depicitions of trans women, of course, and murderers of trans women often appeal to the reprehensible, horrifying notion of ‘gay panic’ to justify their killing; their own manhood is under threat for having relationships with a ‘man’. (Even more appalling is that this was, and possibly in some places still is, considered a valid legal defence).
One way of viewing this, I think, is associating with the revolting figure of the ‘defiled man’; unlike the Greeks or Anglo-Saxons, this ‘defilement’ can extend also to the top (lol).
(In very recent times, look at the ‘trap’ culture on imageboards, and the way people turn themselves inside out over whether ‘traps’ are ‘gay’. To be ‘gay’ is to have that precious, precious masculinity ‘defiled’, like the ‘traps’. Part of the reason trans women are monstrous and must be destroyed is that we call into question that category of maleness.)
So Roy, by donning the Girdle, has temporarily been thrown into this monstrous, ‘defiled’ position, or at least close to it. He’s so uncomfortable, and the other party members are taking such glee in mocking him, not just because he’s being exposed to misogyny for the first time in his life, but because there’s still that latent understanding of how absurd/disgusting/monstrous it is for a ‘man’ to appear or behave as a ‘woman’. If he did not show that exaggerated discomfort, what would that mean?
Roy is soft, like an adulturess. A soft target...
This short arc of OotS, played very much for jokes, is not yet the kind of abuse that Morphodyke describes, but that unacknowledged but crucial part of patriarchy is kind of apparent there. OK, maybe it’s not the best example I could use to illustrate this (after all there’s no shortage of wacky genderswap comedies or ‘revolting trans woman’ jokes in media) - but I was reading OotS and it occurred to me, and this has turned into an excuse to dig up a bunch of posts I think are interesting about gender.