Crossdressing and cross gamers


Earlier this week, Chad Concelmo revealed that he had taken offense to a line in Space Quest IV in which a man buying female clothing is reprimanded as a "sicko." A portion of the Destructoid community dogpiled on him, hurling a litany of insults his way for daring to be offended by something. 

This is to be expected from any online community. When somebody reveals a sensitivity to something, they must be ready for that weak spot to get attacked by the army ants of the Internet. After all, when we saw the evil brain's shield go down in Shinobi, we hit that raw meat for all we were worth. That instinct seems to carry from games to reality with some people.

Fair enough, but is Chad wrong to be offended? Is crossdressing a "sick" thing that should be mocked? Have other games handled the situation better? I find it all pretty interesting, so I felt like jotting down my own thoughts.

I used to be very bullheaded about offensive humor. My line of thinking (and you can likely find Destructoid articles that state it) was that offense is pure choice. Human beings can choose when they're offended, and anybody who gets upset at a joke should grow up and shut up. The more I experience the world, the more I realize that was simply a way of dodging accountability.

Offensive humor is one of my favorite things, and I tell some pretty horrible jokes -- be it on Podtoid, via Twitter, or on the pages of Destructoid itself, and I've learned one thing -- when you tell an offensive joke, you need to accept that people will be offended. You can't act hurt or shocked when you tell a potentially insulting joke to find that you've insulted part of the audience. I have grown to realize that getting offended isn't always a choice. Due to experiences, ethnic or social backgrounds, and simple emotional wiring, some people are going to find themselves upset by something. 

However, choice does come into play when reacting to anything offensive. You can choose to walk away. You can choose to accept that a joke is a joke and leave the joker to his laughter. Many choose instead to attack with the full force of emotional rage driving them -- which is often a very self-destructive path that encourages others to grow less sensitive. Chad Concelmo chose a route I found very respectable -- he didn't attack Space Quest IV, he didn't demand an apology or accuse the writers of being bad people. He said, "I have a problem with this, and I might even be a little overdramatic, but I wanted to share." I thought that was quite productive, incredibly respectful, and a nice jumping point for debate. It's a shame many chose not to follow his lead. 

The crux of the issue is this -- is it wrong to call a crossdresser a sicko? Personally, I am quite sensitive to the subject matter, and very sensitive to alternate lifestyles in general. Hell, I've even defended furries before, despite having no interest in that particular activity myself. I'm very much of the "If it harms nobody, do what you like" mold and believe that if you can't offer a reason for disliking somebody's way of life outside of, "I don't like it," you probably shouldn't judge them. With Space Quest IV, I can't say I am exactly offended, but I definitely find it sketchy and I don't think anybody would be wrong if they took offense to it. The choices a person makes after getting offended could be wrong, but simply taking offense to something isn't inherently bad. If Chad, for example, had screamed and wretched and told the Space Quest developers to die in a swarm of acid wasps, that would have been histrionic and I would probably join the readers in mocking him. 

I noticed some comments earnestly agreeing with the Space Quest IV joke -- not actually taking it as humor, but sincerely expressing the opinion that crossdressers are sickos. At the risk of disappointing you, many crossdressers -- whether their reasons for doing it are for sexual or comfort reasons -- are pretty ordinary people. Let us not forget that clothing is by its nature a rather unnatural thing, let alone the designation that some clothes are for boys and some clothes are for girls. There are people who just feel more comfortable wearing women's clothing, and if I'm to make a confession, I think I probably would be as well. I wouldn't do it right now, because nobody wants to see John Candy in a dress, but if I were a better looking guy, I'd bound up to E3 in a miniskirt and military boots. In any case, I think Eddie Izzard at least demonstrates that fans of crossdressing can be intelligent, witty, very successful people. 

To bring this (thankfully) back to videogames, I wanted to point out that a few games have tackled the subject and managed to do a far wittier job than Space Quest IV. My biggest problem with Space Quest IV's little joke is that it simply wasn't funny, and when evidence of humor is lacking, a joke comes across as far more spiteful. I doubt the developers do have much of an opinion on the subject, but such an unfunny, lazy little jibe looks hateful. Strangely, however, that famous hub of naive cultural insensitivity -- Japan -- has provided one of the best alternatives I can remember. 

Final Fantasy VII involves a very similar plot thread to Space Quest IV, as protagonist Cloud Strife needs to dress like a woman in order to infiltrate a sleazy nightclub and rescue his friend Tifa. Aided by Aerith, Cloud partakes of a fun little fetch quest in order to get materials, makeup and a wig from various denizens of Midgard, and he encounters a range of reactions from non-player characters along the way. The tailor making the dress expresses surprise that such a "tough looking guy" like Cloud wants to look like a girl, but considers it an interesting challenge. There's a joke about the local gym being full of guys "like Cloud." People laugh about how "cute" Cloud looks, and the whole thing is played for laughs, but it's completely different from Space Quest's handling of the topic. 

The genuinely lighthearted and affectionate nature of this sidequest makes it far more funny than the offhanded insult seen in Space Quest IV. The NPCs are all genuinely accepting, even if they're a little weirded out, and that in turn makes the game itself look very open minded. While it might not be realistic that Cloud's fictional alternative lifestyle would be so readily welcomed, it at least makes for a very fun plot element that shouldn't offend anybody at all. It's a beautiful moment in a classic game, one that has stuck with me for a very long time. It's clear the writers had genuine fun, and cared to craft something entertaining. That's why Space Quest IV's joke looks malicious, and Final Fantasy VII looks surprisingly progressive. 

Another great example, to me, is Saints Row II. This game has actually received praise from more feminist-minded gamers due to portraying female custom characters exactly the same as males ones. While this does impose latent lesbian tendencies on the character whether the player intends it or not, it's still a fantastic example of a game with an open mind, because as well as men and women, players can make both crossdressers and transgendered characters by playing with the in-game settings. Want to slap a dress on your thugged out gangster? Feel free! Want to create a female character with a male voice? Go wild! You can approximate almost any lifestyle that reflects yours, and Saints Row II won't judge you for it. That such a crass and tasteless game could be so culturally open is pretty encouraging, I think. 

Am I saying all games must accept crossdressing as a perfectly acceptable way of life? Of course not. Developers are free to make whatever they like. However, if they insult a cross-section of their audience, they need to be prepared for some people to take that insult personally. If they want to crack offensive jokes, they need to understand that people will get offended. How those offended people process their feelings is up to them, but the simple act of saying, "I am offended" is not a bad thing. When approached sensibly, the expression of offense can be used in a productive way, to help change minds and evolve our cultural understanding. When used wrong, it can simply inflame communities and encourage others to be even less sensitive than they were before. 

Space Quest IV's little crack at transvestism wasn't very good. It's probably not worth getting upset over, either. However, it should be used as a nice debate point and an examination of how crossdressing, transgenderism, and wider lifestyle issues can be used in videogames. As games grow up, there will be increasing opportunities to explore all manner of cultural issues, and I sincerely hope we're all grown up enough to accept that and deal with it intellectually, if for no other reason than the potential for some fantastic and enlightening discussions. 

And if you don't like that, you're a sicko. Obviously. 

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Jim Sterling
Jim SterlingThank God   gamer profile


Filed under... #Controversy #Destructoid Originals #Top Stories



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