In this episode of Unfortunately, Required Reading hosts Amanda and Tori celebrate Amanda’s birth month by reading one of her favorite plays: Arsenic and Old Lace, drink some elderberry wine and discuss the merits of letting a mentally unstable person dig graves for you.
I started my video game journey in earnest with Pokemon back when I was a wee demon living in suburbia. Pokemon is well-known for its clueless NPCs and how invasive you can be in their lives. Now, let’s back up: an NPC is a non-playable character in a video game. Typically they hang out in the background and only provide things to move the plot along or are just random extras. Sometimes they’re given really fun lines but for the most part they are meant to let you continue on in your own quest for fame and in-game self-importance.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons has changed that for me in a way that I currently find unsettling and interesting. Animal Crossing is a game in which you (player and character) live on a land or island with villagers that are your neighbors and you help them out with mundane tasks and interact with them on a daily basis creating strange parasocial relationships with fictional characters. As stated, I started my journey with RPGs with Pokémon and for the most part the NPCs in any given region are pretty linear with their motivations and movements. Sure, they can walk around and move around but they rarely seem to exist outside of you. The houses don’t feel lived in, the parks don’t feel full, they are ghosts that fill a landscape for you: the hero of a Nietzschean wet dream. You walk into a house and rummage around the trash for goods and talk to someone, sometimes but for the most part, the unmoving digital eyes care little for your activities or actions. It’s perfectly normal within Pokémon to walk into someone’s home, steal their shit and leave.
Animal Crossing is not Pokemon and I didn’t think that fact would unnerve me until I tried to leave Rocco’s house without saying anything. I had entered in the hopes of giving him a gift to build clout, I mean because he deserved it for doing nothing, and when I found him working away at his workstation, I left without acknowledging him. I was shocked to see how he reacted to that. Of course he would react and not kindly but with confusion. I entered his home and said nothing; that’s deranged and rude. But Rocco was confused and that gave me pause for the first time in my decades of playing video games. NPCs are watching me. I never worried about that until recently. I never cared about how I dressed in-game or how I behaved but now playing Animal Crossing I feel like I have eyes on me all the time. Characters’ eyes follow me when I run around; when I enter their homes and greet them they are often interrupted from a previous task. When I don’t see them, they are disappointed and when I talk to them too much, they comment on that.
They have lives outside of me: something I rarely have had to think about for an NPC. I am part of their world, not a part of mine like most traditional narrative structure in games.My villagers are neighbors, on par and equal to me. While I am the main character, I am in many ways in service to them. I have to weed and water and pick up rocks and fill the museum and catch bugs and fish and keep the entire economy running by selling to a gaggle of capitalist tanuki.
It created along with it a strange short of shame to me that I rarely feel in video games: most games allow players to be shameless with their dress and actions. You are the ubermensch of this world and it bends to your will. So what if I break into someone’s house in Legend of Zelda. But in Animal Crossing the characters have a life outside of you. They leave their homes, they sleep, they fish, they do things where you don’t matter; where I don’t matter. I am as much an NPC to them as they are to me. They are people creatures who truthfully would probably be fine without me sans “missing” my character and things getting full of weed because someone has to do the damn work around here.
I’m a vain person, which is hilarious considering how low my self-esteem is. I’m image conscious even in games. I had this concern while playing Animal Crossing when Clyde, a horse I do not like, showed up on my island. I was told by friends that hitting him with my net and generally being a damn menace would encourage the horse to leave. I was fine with that, I’m used to being a sociopath in games and decided that I wanted to appropriate his land for my Japanese-themed garden on the island and proceeded to hunt the horse down mercilessly and hit him with my net repeatedly. I was then shocked to see the horse show visible frustration and sadness and when I spoke to him he said that his feelings were hurt and it was my fault.
This is a video game. This horse isn’t real. But I broke down over that. I hurt the horse’s feelings and hurt him. And while of course that makes sense because don’t hit random people with nets, for god’s sake, I was shocked that my actions had consequences. In video games, I am a lawless sociopath doing as I wish but here I did something that caused a reaction and one that was not positive. I was emotionally crushed in that moment (thanks, trauma) and I have left the horse alone for now to continue to mar my land with his existence but too afraid now to harm him.
An NPC’s gaze can be powerful, more so than I ever assumed before. Now, I am paranoid, anxious and scared with so many virtual eyes on me. It has affected how I dress, act and move in-game and now has me wondering if I’ll ever view NPCs the way I used to again.
It was male gaze that made me realize that I was not entirely straight and not entirely female. My attention given to women and female-presenting people was always more hungry and carnal than the way more sapphic cis women did. I always appreciated the female body in a way that felt more masculine, more male, more physical and that was when I started to understand male gaze. I didn’t want to write poetry about women, I wanted to be with women. That was how I started to understand male gaze.
Male gaze is something that not many enjoy talking about and the ones that do like to talk about it tend to only approach it from the stance of “it’s bad”. Well, sure it is, but it’s complicated. Male gaze like most things is neutral but has a negative connotation. It is, in short, the way cameras and media tend to leer, frame and discuss the female body; often sexualizing things that are not inherently sexual or lingering on a frame or part of the body. Male gaze is best seen on film either from cameras or motion pictures and there are notable examples like Michael Bay and his determination to shoot women like cars (his background was in music videos and ads) or the way swimsuit magazines even exist.
Female gaze would be the feminist and female counterpart and not to say women don’t sexualize the female form or the male form, for that matter. But female gaze tends to be more nuanced, far more subtle and less focused on sexualizing the mundane. Female gaze is interesting and could really be its own topic but I was pretty sure I understood what male gaze was; I could throw it around like the very best of postmodern media critics. I thought I understood male gaze because I have seen a Michael Bay Transformers movie. But no, I was wrong. It was a music video that really helped me understand male gaze.
Call on Me is a song I’ve heard plenty of times but have never seen the music video that accompanied the song. Not that I’m from the generation that aged out of music videos, this one just somehow managed to slide under my radar for many years. What immediately struck me to the point of nearly delirious laughter was just how horny this video was. And by horny I mostly just mean the choices made. Every shot is an extreme closeup or perfectly framed around a female human form. It’s also a male power fantasy in that of course there’s only one man in this incredibly sensual dancercise class. Each shot is just…good, lord. I think the first time I watched I was just sorta stunned. I’ve seen the video a few times now and each time over, I’m still struck by how many choices were made that made what should just be an aerobic dance class into a voyeuristic orgy.
It’s a choice and if I was the director, not a choice I think I’d make. But it is indeed a choice.
And that’s the perfect encapsulation of male gaze. It’s easy to see why these decisions are made by directors: I’m still thinking about and talking about this music video in the way that we love to jeer and mock Transformers and still give Michael Bay money for some reason. It was a choice to film women the way the director did, a choice to time each hip thrust, each close up on breasts and each legging-clad woman’s ass. It was a choice to make something like exercise, something that human beings just do, incredibly sexy for no reason at all. There was no point making the video the way they did outside of a very tantalizing reason; one more tempting than the promise of sex despite being an inadequate man who doesn’t deserve the women who give him attention: money.
The female body still sells, sex still sells and even in a world that is trying its damndest to embrace a more gender neutral world and one that focuses more on women as equals; a woman’s body still brings in capital. Now, I do know this video is a few years old but the sentiment and feelings behind it haven’t changed much. The same ideas that went into making this video are the same ones that allow modern movies and music videos to be made and be profitable. And sadly, it works. When we still view women as a commodity and sex as a product, it works and I’m giving more attention to a music video that realistically could and should just fade into the background hum of the universe.
This month, we’re going to be talking more about gaze and while we won’t be discussing male gaze next time, I don’t want you all to forget the power and potency of male gaze. None of us are immune as even though we like to think we are beyond that in film and advertising, we are far from so evolved to not be swayed by the siren’s call of male gaze. The way cameras linger and leer on the female body and encourage you to follow its stare and the way women are put into clothes that can barely be described as; the fetishization of school girls, youth and why it’s gross to have your hair in a ponytail: all of that is an aspect of male gaze and it leeches in pervasive ways into day to day life.
I hope that you came away from this little discussion with a better understanding of male gaze; it’s a word I see thrown around a lot and like many of the Tumblr criticism terms is not one that is often defined correctly. Like people can get about half way there to a compelling argument about male gaze and then they take a wrong turn at toxic masculinity and the whole thing goes to hell.
Stay learned, dear reader.
In this episode, join hosts Tori and Amanda in a look at what is said to be “the first” lesbian novel for the end of Pride Month: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, talk about heteronormative behavior, gender as a construct and drink vodka.
I realized that I wasn’t exactly my gender when I was in high school, around 16 or so. Then and even now, I was fine with my biological sex as female but the presentation of said biological sex and the presentation of the associating gender as woman was something I waffled on. I was mostly fine with presenting as female, using female pronouns and living my life as a female; but during those formative high school years there was a quiet storm starting to rumble, one that was not decidedly female or feminine. For the longest time, I thought I was transgender but I didn’t experience any dsyphoria. I didn’t feel wrong in my body; just not entirely a female. There was a male part of me that the longer I tried to deny, the more stark and apparent he became.
I found out what I was about a year or so into my journey: genderfluid. Gender fluidity is under the umbrella of being non-binary, rejecting a strict binary of gender slotting people rigidly into male or female. There is a distinct difference in every part of me while presenting as female and presenting as male and both sides are different but united under one roof being my human meat shell. But I still present as female almost every day of my life. I don’t have an issue with being seen as and perceived as a woman and those close to me know about the male side of me that I don’t hide when in more intimate spaces.
Recently I started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons; yes, I know I’m late to the party, I’ve been playing Pokemon Sword for hours in a fugue depressive state. When I finally started the island slice-of-life game, I immediately tried to win over my villagers through gifts (as you do); mostly trying very hard to fit gifts to their personalities. But I quickly started simply regifting gifts I had received or items that I didn’t want to keep but also didn’t feel like selling back to the capitalistic tanukis. I would give male characters dresses, tank tops, skirts and female characters all sorts of sports memorabilia and it was all okay. Rocco accepted lacy tanks, Sheldon was fine with dresses, Clay was okay with getting cute pink items and is perfect in every way.
I spent a great amount of time trying to get my house looking just right and for a while I was greatly troubled with how girly my home on my fictional island looked. Lots of floral wallpapers and pink and a galaxy floor for some reason. I worried that it wasn’t gender neutral enough or masculine enough but then I remembered something about my own gender: it’s fluid. I am both at the time, I am one or the other, a mix of the two, perfectly unbalanced and wonderful for it.
I am a lot of things that are in contradiction: a goth, a pastel girly girl; a charming prince and a doting princess. That binary, that duality has always been part of me and I’ve always found it beautiful. I’m no less a goth because I like pink and no less a masculine because of it in the same way Rocco is no less male-coded if he’s in a frilly dress. That’s the funny thing about gender; it’s all a social construct. Pink was a masculine color until society just one day decided it wasn’t. Dresses were for men until society just one day decided it wasn’t. Clothes aren’t inherently gendered; nothing really is. Humans decided what is gendered and the arbitrariness of it has impacted the lives of trans and non-binary people for far too long. Capitalism made gendered products and thus created this artificial concept that products can be for some or for others.
Animal Crossing has been a game that lets me be unabashedly girly while not feeling like I’m sacrificing any of my masculinity and reminding me that, in fact, such a notion is a fool’s errand. Liking pink and flowers and nice clothes and rooms to coordinate with a sense of flow and purpose is not inherently gendered. Liking men’s clothing and dresses at the same time shouldn’t be so revolutionary. And the fact that Animal Crossing is so gender queer is just wonderful, even down to the character design. Looking at my little avatar running around depending on the haircut; very few gendered clues are provided as all character models are flat-chested and without difference in hip shape. It means that building what we know as male and female is entirely down to filigree; decoration that is added to a human body but with a simple swap can mean radical difference.
For a while, I had attempted to strive for something that would look like gender neutrality: favoring lots of black and white, signing off letters and emails with a simple non-gendered “A” and thinking that despite the ample bust and wide hips that if I just tried hard enough I could pass for male and thus provide my gender fluidity. But even then all I was doing was trying to perform at gender. I was trying so hard to make people see something that truthfully, I didn’t need them to see. What matters is and forever will be, how I feel. Gender is a tricky thing; all at once very real and also very tenuous and fleeting and even though I am lucky enough not to feel much dysphoria ( I do sometimes when being labeled as female is used inherently as a means of condescension or with certain hormonal imbalances caused by the curse of being a biological woman); I have to give some thanks to a video game about capitalism, colonialism and terraforming for helping teach me a valuable lesson about my gender identity.
Happy Pride, everyone. Be open, be kind, be empathetic and most importantly; when applicable, be yourself. And never forget that gender is entirely a social construct.
I have been watching a lot of very easily bingeable media and one thing I really like are compilation videos: they can be hours long and I don’t have to skip around and they provide consistent noise; something I need while working either at my day job or the myriad of other projects I’m a part of. What I didn’t expect was that I’d find a very strange sort of serenity in watching the world at its most chaotic: during car crashes.
There are countless hours of dashcam footage from cars all over the world. Some of it records aliens, meteors, space launches, ghosts and most importantly: car crashes. Car crashes scare the hell out of me; like most people, realistically. I’ve been in a few accidents but very few actual crashes, to which I know I am quite fortunate but my anxiety around cars has stemmed from a pretty nasty accident I got into when I was just starting to drive. I’ve never felt entirely safe or secure in the car, especially if I’m driving; it’s still one of my least favorite things to do. I much rather be a passenger and let someone else do the driving. I never found it freeing, relaxing or anything; it’s always been a chore to take up with a sacred solidarity because as someone operating a car, you are in fact in control of a two-ton death cage careening at high speed. When I was in driver’s education, the deadly aspect of driving was really hammered home and that’s a fear I’ve taken with me some 15 years later. And to be perfectly honest, dash cam culture is a fascinating look into people who trust no one (valid) and record everything; sparking some interesting conversations about surveillance culture, consent to be filmed and just what is one to do with literal hours of footage.
But in my hunt for content that I rarely need to engage with as a means to minimize distractions in a world full of them, I’ve found dashcam footage from car crashes, brake checks, road ragers and more and; well, let’s talk about it.
Car crashes are horrifying but much like train crashes; it’s hard to look away. A mangle of metal, a tangle of tires, a barrage of bumpers. It’s all a horrid and profane symphony and honestly, some of them are just beautiful. The force required to turn a car into a crushed soda can is immense but also can be so random. I’ve watched hours of crash content and the things that have caused accidents are vast and capricious: just like the things that can endanger real human life as well.
I noticed something odd, though, when I would watch these crashes often during hours-long segments as some means of horrible crunching white noise: I would relax. My body would ease, sag into the sofa, I would become at ease and let out a held breath. I could finally be rid of the tension held in my shoulders and just let a small wave of endorphins and calm crash over me. I could finally relax and it immediately caused a dissonant type of concern for my brain chemistry and my sanity once I came back to my senses. When I realized that such a thought process was not only not normal but also a little worrying, I started to examine just what about literal disasters was so damn soothing to my anxious brain. And that was the key; there it was: my anxious brain.
Anxiety is a perversion of the brain’s typical defense system and desire to shield our flesh prisons from danger. The world is a scary place and if you think of our ancient ancestors, the upright apes, they were surrounded by threats to their lives from literal giant eagles to sabertooth cats and direwolves. Being anxious and weary of the world around them was a vital aspect to survival; it was the unwise that ran ahead into the option field that got yoinked out of existence by a giant bird. Anxiety is a fear of the unknown in every facet of the word and a sense of dread about a threat that one cannot see or feel yet. It’s being on edge about the car that could hit you or the person that could kidnap you. It’s the call that might be about the death of yet another family member or the fear that one mistake at work will end your entire career and leave you homeless and destitute. That’s what it’s like living with anxiety; it’s all build up with no climax, it’s constantly living on a razor’s edge waiting to finally fall and never actually falling.
I’ve been honest about my struggle with depression and generalized anxiety and I realize now, I’ve had this condition for most of my life. There’s something about facing loss and grief so early in your years and experiencing trauma that leaves the mind on edge and hypervigilant. My mind is always assuming that if only and if I had just would be enough and could have in fact changed the directory of my existence despite the futility of such thinking.
That’s why car crash videos felt so good to my brain that is already constantly braced for impact and prepared for the collision of metal and flesh. My brain finally registers that the crash has happened and I can finally let go of my breath and relax. Once I’m free from the fear of the crash coming I can then move on and process the rest of the trauma. In this instance, with just videos, I can come back down and recognize the damage done and gawk or gasp accordingly.
I did talk to my therapist about this and he mentioned wanting to see the dopamine release that clearly I’m getting from this via MRI and I agree with him. I’d also love to see the obvious chemical reaction I’m getting from watching literal car crashes. I’m sure it’s likely a little scary to admit but so is living with general anxiety.
This week, hosts Tori and Amanda cover Virginia Woolfe’s gender-bending novel: Orlando in honor of LGBT+ Pride Month while discussing gender as a social construct and shamelessly shill for LookHuman’s bisexual pride merch.
In this episode, hosts Tori and Amanda discuss the merits of found family, read The Outsiders and rank the best and worst colas in America.
Well, this was a video I was never planning on having to make.
In this episode, hosts Amanda and Tori discuss Sandra Cisneros’ coming of age story: The House on Mango Street, discuss childhood trauma (again) and go over the benefits defying your local HOA.