a jot about multi-generational romances + riverdale

It’s important to marry someone, she said. Not because you need them to complete you or because you ought to be someone’s wife by hook or by crook. It’s just that worlds want to combine, they want to marry, and they use people to do it, the way you mix medicine in with something sweet, so it’s easy to swallow. That’s why we have to have all those silly things: a frilly dress and something blue and a bachelor party and a priest. Just so that a boy and a girl can live together and make babies? Posh. Because the big worlds inside us are mating, and they need the pomp.

-“Kallisti,” in The Bread We Eat In Dreams, Catherynne M. Valente.

I knew I would like Riverdale, even before I found out it’s a retelling of Archie comics. Yes, there are shows I like that are provocative and artistic that I can comfortably advertise as an interest of mine – but often what I find myself watching, for pure fun, is often high-stakes teenage melodrama. I’m now nine years out of highschool, but life has never lost that quality of choice that these retellings of adolescence often underpin: that being the mean girl or the nice girl come with moral short comings either way; that love is not going to be simple; that you have to work on every area of your life at once. Maybe someone with a degree in psychoanalysis or fairy-tales could point to the adolescence of these characters as an archetype in every person; you’re still a beginner, even when crow’s feet start to spur down your cheeks, and it might be more palatable to watch someone with a decade less on them make a mistake than someone who ought to know better. Maybe that last clause explains why I had weaned off these shows. Give me thirty-year-old women, a little older than me, and give me a blue print for how to be them and be smarter. These kids make the same mistakes I do. Teach me not to make them, instead of slapping my fuck-ups on a focus-tested face.

I digress: I knew I would love Riverdale because I had loved Gossip Girl, a show about wealthy Manhattanites so different from myself that identification should be impossible, in the way that the wholesome perfection of Archie and Betty ought to be fictionally untenable but is not. But just like Gossip Girl, the show features an attraction between the offspring of former sweethearts, which always irks me, and I’m trying to work out why now. Now, doubtless there’s a lot of very meaty metaphor you can read into that; often these shows cast the stakes of romantic selections as a choice between destiny and freedom. ‘Freedom’ gets tagged with moral superiority, following one’s true heart or true self, despite the many eases that ‘destiny’ offers. Usually the aborted romance of the parents is because one of them (typically the female partner in a heterosexual romance) chose the safe-bet husband, and as their worlds collide again, their children face the same temptation, and perhaps make a different choice.

Archie Andrews meets Veronica Lodge and is instantly drawn to her; her mother and his father reference their bygone relationship, how Hermione Lodge chose “the rich guy” over Archie’s construction-company father. Had she not, she would have altered the setting dramatically, but she chose business as usual. Supposedly.

There are two obvious components to take beef with: that these sorts of stories seem to suggest genetic, rather than moral, destiny (as it’s never adopted children making eyes at one another); that these stories often cast the self-interested choices of women as wrong, often because of that self-interest, when the spurned men rarely stand to lose as much as they do. But I think what bothers me is the closed ecosystem of the worlds that these stories take place in. The romantic options are always known-quantities, the children of former romantic options. The world is so much stranger than that. And if Archie ends up with Veronica … what then? If that’s rebellion, it’s not one that fundamentally changes the ecosystem of Riverdale, or even the ecosystem of romantic options. Rich romantic options go on, remain tempting. Unless they fuck off to parts unknown, their children will continue to orbit a world of old flames and wealth families, and even then it’s not the romance that changes the game, it’s the choice to leave town, an option even open to a spinster like me. Their child comes to the same crossroads. I feel like that sort of drama bills itself as the possibility of a truly new choice, but it isn’t. It doesn’t change the world. When their worlds collide, they don’t produce anything new.

a jot about huniecam studio & specialization

A ‘flow state’ is an even match between the level of obstacle you meet and your ability to overcome those obstacles. Obtaining flow is unobvious at the best of times – overcoming obstacles often changes our ability to meet them, either increasing skill or depleting a resource, which then changes the level of obstacle we are next able to meet – but particularly when I want it most. Like every adult, I come home with a certain bored rage and want to snap it immediately with something sweet, something fun, something different. Usually what I look for is a good game. HunieCam Studio fulfills those criteria, but when I was burned out as fuck and playing it, I was just empty-tank afterwards. Part of that is that you need certain mental resources left over to enjoy something, period, which is part of the frustrating cycle of coming home and wanting to be happy immediately 1 without really being able to be. Playing anything might have been an undue drain on what I had left, but what struck me as I played HunieCam Studio is that this is the game I am playing all the time: resource management of stressed employees.

As the title suggests, you are managing the women who work in a skeezy web-cam studio, trying to balance their level of stress with their ability to produce profit. You drag your cam-girls between buildings that represent different ways to spend their time and thus your money. You can accessorize them to cater to niche patrons. You can make them more skilled, though then they demand more money. Same with increasing their style. Someone has to provide for their vices, or they stress, and if they work for long enough, they need to retire to a spa to get mani-pedi’d and mud-masked until they’re refreshed enough to get back in front of the blinking red light. There is almost no titillating content beyond the premise, but even so it’s an extremely absorbing process of dragging between buildings and checking on timers and making sure the books are above the red each night. My first several times through, I played it without even achieving the limpest trophy2, and partially that’s because I selected girls based on brief backstory bios, and partially that’s because I went for as much diversity and skill as possible in my cam-girls. Not really a successful strategy.

After repeated failure, I eventually looked at a guide, which offered the simple and nearly always applicable advice: specialize. One person attracts with full style, everyone else c’s with full skill, everyone has the same accessory to attract a shared audience, with one poorly paid girl who ran around convenience stores to attend to the crew’s respective vices. Simple. Smart Industrialized. I want to think about specialization as a strategy, and I want to talk about reading game guides.

Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things…

In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking…

Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class who value books as such; not as related to Nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.

– “American Scholar,” in Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson3

One of the things that games can teach you is the situations where your intuitive strategies succeed and fail. I love to diversify: do something different; read something different; my Spotify playlists are more about left-turns than discernable themes; I typically view nothing quantitatively but rather as a series of categories. Similarly I develop soft-spots almost instantly for particular characters that has nothing to do with their quantities contributions to strategy. None of these are winning intuitions in a typical game. “Specialization” may be overbroad as term, but I intend it to describe selecting development in a very limited amount of sectors, in contrast to the number of opportunities to develop others. My cam-girl’s were doubly specialized, for example: they had extremely limited functions that that they were highly skilled in, and attracted a niche audience that I created by giving them all the same niche.

Sometimes I think of my refusal to specialize as a kind of cowardice. ‘Specialize’ involves taking something in particular as special – i.e. to choose to value one thing over another. HunieCam Studio is like my life in that I am constantly flitting between tasks, where the resource being managed is myself. Modulate your level of stress against how much you have to work, to get more money, to survive, to buy things that modulate stress, so that you can work more. Specialization is like making choices at all in life. After all, it’s just the one lifetime, hardly long enough to do a few things, much less everything. Which things do you pick?

Yet life is not so neat as to reward a single strategy, even if that’s sometimes what we want behind our moral story, a clean way to make choices in any situation. Worse, it often feels supernaturally dull. That’s half of what I hate in my work life, that it involves such a limited use of myself.

Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.

― John Dewey

Dewey4 claimed that the feebleness of human infants is in fact a complicated evolutionary strategy. It puts us immediately in a situation where a vast amount of motor failure is likely before we meet with any success. This outfits us well to approach many, many different circumstances, because in the process of failing to do what we intend (pick up a toy, for example) equips us with incidental knowledge about how to accomplish other sorts of things, even if they were not things that were initially wanted to do.

Even so, there’s a limited circumstance where failure feels interesting. Babies have all their needs met. If they want something, pick up a toy, say, that’s usually not for mere self-maintenance, but because of the brute nature of wanting things. Theoretically, I have all my needs met (tie my own shoes and everything) before I game on a Friday night, but it might be something more akin to where you are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.5 If you can’t tell, I ain’t that high up on it right now. It might be difficult to find repeated failure in a silly little cam-girl game interesting if you feel you are going nowhere in your life, for example; maybe it feels like too much of the same terrible thing. I think often about which games are actually going to give me something back at the end of the day. Something purely exploratory, with no sense of success or failure, imputes a sense of time wasted to me, for reasons I don’t like. Even if it’s only fake money, it’s nice to have seen my clicking go somewhere.

Yet success isn’t all you want – you want to figure it out yourself.

From Yayification’s brilliant Steam guide.

I still struggle with whether or not I should read a game guide, the same way I sometimes wonder if I ought to see a therapist. Anything they can figure out, I should be able to figure out for myself. Besides, if you take out the puzzle part of a game, it just becomes a matter of clicks and keystrokes, rote activities which produce no joy on their own. You want to click with purpose, ha. You want to have figured out exactly what you need to do and then done it. That scales from games to life choices.

And yet wanting this does not preclude outside input, I have to remind myself. Usually a guide tells you that if you look at a puzzle this way, the solution becomes obvious. You can cross-pollinate that knowledge by trying to apply previously successful perspectives on fresh problems, seeing how they fare, what features are shared and what aren’t between two sets of circumstances. You can get interested, in other words, in what your failure has to do with your perspective – and this doesn’t make you less thoughtful. Refusing to specialize is sometimes John Wayne nonsense; it is a way of refusing to engage with others in shared projects. Some people have the right intuitions to approach particular problems, but cannot describe them in terms clear and abstract enough to realize that a different set of problems can be approached successfully in the same way.

I do want to say one last bit about specialization and choice, though it’s wandered off from the point. I do worry that sometimes it’s really existential angst about choosing things that prevents me from taking specialization in any circumstance seriously. I’m an American of a particular political alignment that clashes deeply with the recent election, however, and I want to include one brief excerpt regarding compromise. It involves the protagonist, a witch, being confronted with an assassin masquerading as a middle school teacher.

“How about you, Miss Delfine? Do you think the occasional witch burning helps to weld society together?”

Patricia lost a breath. Then she found it again and looked up, regarding Theodolphus with a steadiness that he couldn’t help admiring. Her thin lips pushed out.

“Well, Patricia said. “A society that has to burn witches to hold itself together is a society that has already failed, and just doesn’t know it yet.”

All the Birds in the Sky,6 Charlie Jane Anders

The most thrilling part of games is realizing a new way to think that allows you to abstract amongst strategies Often that abstraction hops all the way to the top level, life or something like it, but also between games and puzzles. Games do test strategies, but the results are only hypothetical imperatives: if you want this, do that. For the strategy to be worthwhile, you have to want something it gets you. You can look at certain kinds of puzzles and decline them as worthy of pursuit. You can cut the Gordian knot. You can refuse to compromise; you can specialize. I’ve always thought of specialization as deeming one thing unworthy and thought little of it accordingly, out of a moral allergy to labelling anything unworthy plus an intellectual arrogance. How belatedly obvious that morality often involves labelling something ‘unworthy.’ Better check that intellectual arrogance.

halls of mirrors

As is the case everywhere else, we must, in the novel, distinguish between making tools and reflecting on the tools made.

– “Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov,” in Critical Essays (Situations I), Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Christopher Turner, 2010.

I had the pleasure of asking a teenager a difficult question. My former university hosted an Ethics Bowl, where high schoolers and college students compete by responding to contemporary ethical dilemmas using moral philosophy. They’d noted John Locke as defending the preservation of as many rights as is possible. I asked them if they could justify the preservation of rights secularly, as Locke had rooted his defense in the Garden of Eden. They looked at one another and repeated their point.

The pleasure of being a judge in these sorts of competitions is the opportunity to play mouthpiece to the doubtful part of yourself. I don’t know how to justify the preservation of rights as much as possible, but what I hoped to find, in the students’ answer, was a recognition of the applicability of a question like that. Regardless of the availability of an answer, the question makes sense to ask.

Much later, I came across Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel,” referencing books I haven’t read and terms for literary canon that I am not familiar with, but found a familiar refrain. The two paths seem to deal primarily with what a person can control, and what she can’t. The first path, presented by Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, seems to affirm that there is some hope, for control, or clear thinking, such that one can make choices in the world, such that it makes sense to go on being in the world. The second path, presented by Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, is either a cynicism about that interaction between you and what you can’t control, or a denial of that interaction being ‘settled’ in favor of either party. Both paths involve a self-consciousness of being novels, and accordingly take a stance on what novels can do.

The first path seems obvious to me. Looking back over what I’ve written, so often how I’ve defended (even only privately) a piece of art rests upon how it reinvigorates oneself. Notably, the kind of invigoration I’m talking about doesn’t involve selling everything you own and sailing around the world, but rather getting up, just as you did yesterday, and giving it one more day. And like my difficult question to that teenager, there is an obvious question with applicability here: why is it good to keep on giving it one more day? Surely it must be the case that, sometimes, it isn’t. Someone I met briefly in a sweaty Colorado hostel once told me it boiled down to food and sex and compliments.

At the very least, this sort of art makes sense to make. At the very least, it makes sense to write novels that are optimistic about the writing of novels, such that a good novel can keep you going. Work on the second path is less clear to me. Reviewing Nabokov, Sartre might have said it best:

Mr. Nabokov (whether out of timidity or scepticism is not clear) is at pains not to invent a new technique. He mocks the artifices of the classical novel, but ends up using them himself, even if it means suddenly foreshortening a description or a piece of dialogue by writing, more or less, ‘I’m stopping now, so as not to lapse into cliche.’ This is all well and good, but what is the outcome? First a sense of unease. Closing the book, one thinks what a lot of fuss over nothing. And then, if Mr. Nabokov is so superior to the novels he writes, why does he write them? You would swear it was out of masochism, so as to have the pleasure of catching himself redhanded in an act of fakery. And then, lastly, I’m willing to admit that Mr. Nabokov is right to skip the big novelistic set-pieces, but what does he give us in their place? Preparatory chatter (though when we are duly readied, nothing happens, excellent little scenes, charming portraits and literary essays. Where is the novel? It has dissolved into its own venom: this is what I call a literature of the learned.

– “Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov,” in Critical Essays (Situations I), Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Christopher Turner, 2010.

The marker of a philosophical education, like any education, seems to be well-surveyed nescience. You know that you do not know so very many things. The same seems to go for a certain kind of novel, amounting to a criticism of writing novels, and the way that novel-writing may represent a deep, generically human desire to make sense of our lives, and have that making-sense have value. You read novels and start to see the yawning gap of what novels cannot do. Accordingly, you may find a yawning gap between your life and your ability to make sense of it. You may press the snooze button repeatedly.

The tempting answer is that the optimistic path can at least account for its selection. It makes sense to write novels that defend why one ought to write novels, and less sense to write novels that do not. But the temptation of this answer is lessened if its defense requires a defense — perhaps that optimistic novels make sense of the enterprise of writing novels might lead to the question of, well, why fucking write novels?.

Worse, when artistic works seem to exclusively focus on artistic works, or what artistic works in general mean. They start to seem as meaningful as a hall of mirrors. My friend Cotton and I would bat that back and forth. He defended this by stating that art is about life, and isn’t art a part of life?

A diary entry about navel-gazing wouldn’t be complete with considering why I would even write such an entry. How clever of me to refrain.

a jot about neon icon and because the internet

The Adventures of Twisp and Catsby - Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade put a classic artistic issue well.1 There is a question about how to determine the meaning of a work of art, often of who gets to determine it. “Death of the Author, Birth of the Reader” is basically a platitude among college sophomores, such that citing any intentions at all from the originating artist gets you side-eyed. The trouble with an authority on meaning doesn’t just happen in museums, of course: “That’s not what I meant!” “Well, that’s what you said.” Exchanges like this persist even among the philosophically innocent. What you mean is not just up to you.

Enter Riff Raff’s Neon Icon, which begins with an imitation:

“Bro, bro, the Neon Icon album is so serious — it finally came out today — it’s so — brah — crank the windows down brah, I’m about to — shades down, bro. Bro I don’t even like rappers, it’s just this damn Riff Raff, he’s just fucking off the chain, I mean he knows damn near everything in the book, what are you going to do about it? Bro, did you see Jennifer last night? She was like smoking hot, bro. She had a total nip-slip. Yeah. It’s like she doesn’t even grow hair on her body, she’s just this tan beauty-queen that came from the Eastern Peninsula.”

– from “Introducing the Icon,” Riff Raff

This is an album aimed towards critics, but with what ammunition? A friend and I wondered if we would love the album as much if it didn’t begin with that ironic self-advertisement of Riff Raff as the best rapper of all time with a a serious album — the superlative briefly recognized before moving on to beautiful hairless women. This introduction and other lines (often a reference to his whiteness, “white Gucci Mane with a spray-tan,” “white Wesley Snipes,” “white Chris Rock”) seem to pointedly recognize the easiest ways to undercut Neon Icon as an album to take seriously. One way to confront criticism would be to counter it as wholly unfounded, to present himself as utterly serious, whatever that might mean. Phrased differently, one way way to confront criticism is to demonstrate invulnerability to it. But the two best tracks on the album seem fraught with the kind of human honesty that could serve as further ammunition to dismiss Riff Raff: ‘VIP Pass to My Heart’ is an autotune refrain and an earnest invitation, “You get the VIP pass to my heart, you get the key with lock on it, it’d be a shame if you don’t open it”;’Time’ describes the kind of culpable loneliness those of us who are not perfectly loving have, “In this life I live, my dad is my best friend, but it seems like I never call him, unless I need some money.” Both songs fold around arguably the strongest and most usual song on the album, ‘How to be the Man.’ Initially, I thought it was rather clever of Riff Raff: he never says that he’s the man, but can teach you the performance. I was wrong, but the actual citation is still telling.

“Mark my words, I don’t need acceptance.
I’m catching interceptions on you innocent pedestrians. (Touchdown!)
Suckers keep on flexin, I’m bringing out the rice,
Jody shaking dice watching Miami Vice,
syrup in my slice (that’s a given).
Now I’m the man but I’m crawling like a kitten, teach him.”

– ‘How to be the Man,’ Riff Raff

Before catching that, I thought ‘How to be the Man’ was the challenge of the album. That is, Riff Raff can talk the talk that marks serious rap — beautiful women, drug dealing, substance abuse, sports analogies — and it would be up to the audience whether or not being able to make these claims was enough.2 Is this enough to be worth consideration as an artist? (“It’d be a shame if you don’t open it.”) Now that I’ve caught it, I think I’m still convinced that’s the right read. If there’s something that marks him for unseriousious, it’s his inability to omit ‘crawling like a kitten’ from a claim that he doesn’t need your acceptance anyways.

Childish Gambino’s feature on ‘Lava Glaciers’ could be about either rapper.

“By heart, my art, I don’t wanna explain it.
I knew it, he bullshit, he up his own anus.
Instagrams with his fans, man, he wish he was famous.
Stop talkin’ about your heart, we give a fuck, entertain us.”

– ‘Lava Glaciers,’ Riff Raff featuring Childish Gambino

It’s a fantastic combination of artists, both stuck with the stigma of unseriousness,3 both producing work frequently about emotional vulnerability, and both creating albums that seem for the critics. Yet Gambino’s Because the Internet seemed to respond differently. Riff Raff’s critical ammunition seemed to be stringing the usual serious markers with his admissions of, well, humanity. In contrast, Because the Internet seems to be mostly about taking on the public image of Donald Glover as a “rich-kid asshole, paint me as the villain”4 and still making a fucking great album. (It is that.) The difference in countering critics is interesting. Neon Icon is about full disclosure, with a sense that the decision is up in the air. Because the Internet seems to be an exercise in making do. Rather than correcting perceptions, Gambino’s work is to work within them and demonstrate sufficient skill anyway, despite the additional challenge.

Though the latter is dense and nuanced, I inevitably prefer Neon Icon as the more interesting album, because it offers a more cohesive response to critics. While both albums have diverse subjects and pacing, I think only the Icon delivers a challenge that cannot be ignored, and I think it does so in part by the directness with which it acknowledges that there is something not simply up to Riff Raff, yet also an attempt at honesty. I think that’s ultimately what makes Because the Internet more common fare. The use of that kind of artifice is not as interesting to me. This might be one way of making sense of the difference:

Later on in Ways of Seeing, Berger considers classical paintings of women in varying states of undress and makes a critical distinction between the female subjects who are naked and those who are nude. “Nakedness reveals itself,” he writes, “Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one’s skin turned into a disguise . . . Nudity is a form of dress.” With the nude, the woman addresses herself to the viewer. She watches herself being watched. She “offers up her femininity as the surveyed.”

– “Against the Nude,” Jordan Kisner

Neon Icon is naked. Because the Internet is nude. Of course, even that distinction is less than easy. Riff Raff’s album is not a leaked set of basement tapes, it is something he prepared at great personal cost for public consumption, and it is something that he did with a specific bent towards criticism. Yet he does seem a little more naked. Mary Cassatt’s paintings often seem like the best blend of the two. To be painted, her subjects had to be posed, and that might mean artifice, and therefore nudity. But there is an intimacy in those portraits that seems not to be a result of the careful choice of bodily position. They were arranged, but the feeling of the pose, between the subjects and the kind of eye required to see that position as a specific pose, “reveals itself.” To make an obvious connection, nakedness, or authenticity, or whatever you want to call it in art, is not just up to the arrangements required to make it.

The nude are bold, the nude are sly
To hold each treasonable eye.
While draping by a showman’s trick
Their dishabille in rhetoric,
They grin a mock-religious grin
Of scorn at those of naked skin.

The naked, therefore, who compete
Against the nude may know defeat;
Yet when they both together tread
The briary pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometime nude!

– excerpt from “The Naked and the Nude,” Robert Graves

Because the Internet might really be naked, in the end. I feel the emotionality of it. Sometimes as a direct result of the loneliness he often describes, but more often because the album seems so very aimed towards critics; what an immense feeling Gambino must have had as a result of criticism, to have crafted this work as a response. That’s the nakedness. Maybe that makes Neon Icon the nude-er. Criticism is referenced, toyed with, admitted. He begins the album with his expected audience of stoner bros. That was an admission of the truth. But so was the painful brevity of the conversation about him, before moving on to Jennifer’s nip-slip. Ultimately, it’s that feeling of admission which makes the work seem ultimately naked to me.

Naked and nude might be stupid terms. Apt for portraits of odalisques, but increasingly metaphorical and so increasingly unclear with other works. But rap is a genre often openly obsessed with the pursuit of authenticity, where that authenticity determines meaningfulness. Nudity describes a state of affairs in artistic works where one can see, perhaps fall in love with, a particular story that someone is trying to present about themselves. Nakedness describes a state of affairs that is not strictly up to the presenter. Something like whether or not the story rings true. Whether the story works. Whether it is interesting. You can aim for interpretation, but you can’t muscle your way into one. And it’s that sense of muscling, absent from Neon Icon but riddled through Because the Internet, which makes it more interesting. Admission, as I said. The feeling that he’s put something forth for your consideration. It’d be a shame if you don’t open it.

Transistor, Elvis Costello, Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Game?

And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good rock and roll did—challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.

– from The Essential Ellen Willis, by Ellen Willis

One of the most instructive parts of watching Mad Men is noticing how the men and women change their minds, particularly on socio-political matters. There is a fashion to opinion, even those on race and sex. Suddenly hemlines are higher; suddenly racism is something Pete Campbell is against. There are few instances where characters confront their beliefs and revise them, even though those beliefs seem to change. Sometimes I wonder similar things about the vogue that environmentalism and food politics currently enjoy. Right now, I wonder that about feminism. Is it a very good time, or a very bad time, to be a feminist? Those who are vocal about social justice no longer seem to be underdogs, even if those meant to be served by social justice still are. Joss Whedon, playing Joss Whedon and someone interviewing Joss Whedon,1 asked himself, So, why do you write these strong female characters?, and responded, Because you’re still asking me that question. It’s a significant response to a significant question, and it is also significant that this question is only imagined. And yet: Gamergate. And yet there are so many moments when playing a game, or reading books, or walking by bars in the dark, when I find myself unable to do anything except think of myself as a woman and unable to be comfortable with that fact.2 And yet I found myself unable to listen to Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True.

Before I heard a word of it, I was blown away by the album, and I spent a solid week waking up to “Waiting for the End of the World,” loosely grasping a connection between the percussion and the title and my own sense of a doomed summer. But loving it led to listening to it, and listening to it led to growing discomfort. The album is named for the repeated chorus of ‘Alison’, quoted below:

Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.
I think somebody better put out the big light,
cause I can’t stand to see you this way.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
My aim is true.

– “Alison,” Elvis Costello

It’s an ambiguous double entendre: He’s got good intentions; his gunshot won’t miss. A perfect mixture of menace and sympathy.3 But it is ambiguous, so perhaps it’s unfair to put murder on Costello’s mind here — but note that his contempt for Alison is unambiguous, unambiguously combined with her sex appeal. Hearing this contempt, I looked for it elsewhere, and found it: the album begins with “now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired,” then narrator laughingly hopes that the working week, perhaps as a prostitute, perhaps as a sad career after some kind of stardom, doesn’t kill the admired woman; in “Miracle Man” he declines any disapproval about his abilities because he doubts the judgment of the woman in question; the loss of the narrator’s anger in “I’m Not Angry” occurs when he ceases to expect anything but disloyalty from this woman (perhaps all women), and in fact admits to snapping pictures of her liaisons behind her back; in “Sneaky Feelings” he confesses that, against his better judgment, he finds himself caring for this partner, willing to have sex where “You can force me to use a little tenderness / White lies, alibis, anything but say that it’s true. / Now we could sit like lovers, staring in each other’s eyes / but the magic of the moment might become too much for you”. The album is strung from vignettes of loneliness and unskilled sex, and closes with “Watching the Detectives,” which details a femme fatale’s callous observation of legal proceedings, “she’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.”

If there are helpless processes of identification, such that we search out those that are the most like us in a story and understand how they are treated as ways we would be treated in similar circumstances, then the people most like me in My Aim Is True were women who were pitied, dismissed, or morally repugnant, often some combination of these.

Ellen Willis, a fantastic rock critic in working largely in the sixties and seventies, was conflicted by whether or not her feminism contradicted her love for the Rolling Stones. Her resolution was that the ostensibly more ‘feminist’ offerings suffered from the very timidity that feminism ought to counter, and so she found herself feeling more feminist, powerful and unhesitant about the validity of her thoughts and feelings, when she rocked out to Exile on Main Street instead of the more womanly folk-singer strummy types.4 This could save My Aim Is True. It might be that the honesty in rock-n-roll prompts your own, regardless of whether or not the honesty in question is about you, in particular whether the honesty in question is about you as a pitiable, bad, dismissible but perhaps fuckable. Sometimes I listen to the album. There’s toe-tapping, but there is also always a point where I can’t do anything but listen. Which, if the lyrics are anything to go by, is roughly what the women described are doing throughout the album: listening to Costello tell them how it is, and if they object, they do so in the silliest ways. Excepting of course the murderess at the album’s close, but then Elvis notes that “Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay / it only took my little fingers to blow you away.” A gun metaphor again. This is not honesty as an invitation.

Enter Transistor.

It’s the kind of game which seems to aim for a particular comment. You are Red, a young woman and popular singer in the city of Cloudbank, rendered mute by a bizarre attack by a cult of tastemakers. The game begins directly after this attack, the body of Red’s boyfriend laying lifeless, a glowing sword stuck in his chest. Turns out that the boyfriend’s personality has been stored in the sword, the titular ‘Transistor,’ and his voice guides you throughout the game, narrating the circumstance, naming the various computerized monsters that you encounter (things like “Creep” and “Young Lady”), but unable to do anything beyond that narration and naming. As you dash around Cloudbank, the city is being remade into a blank slate by a digital force called the Process, and as details about this become clearer, the nature of Cloudbank as a virtual place becomes clearer. Red’s goal is to save her boyfriend and the city. She cuts her dress, puts on her boyfriend’s bomb-ass jacket, and gets on a motorcycle against the initial protests of her sword, who begs her to escape with the rest of the citizens of Cloudbank.

These are various ingredients of gender and video game tropes. In A World…, a film about that ubiquitous beginning to movie trailers, ended with dialogue about the power of narration and gender, about how it matters who is telling the story, perhaps more than the content of the story. Here, perhaps as usual, a male voice narrates the circumstances, the female lead being unable to speak. Perhaps as usual, the story is a combination of save-the-world and save-my-romantic-interest, though less-than-usually, it’s a girl trying to save a boy. There are various clues about the sexual orientations of the few characters you encounter, though these things are not stated outright and do not feature prominently in their characterization. These clues suggest a happy marriage between two male cult-members, and an attraction to Red by a female cult-member, who planned to attack her that night knowing that her boyfriend would attempt to get in the way. All in all, there is a feeling of play to the ingredients of the game, the spare plot and the lonely, rapidly disappearing world, the girl who never speaks and the man’s voice which serves as the only real guidance through the world. When I said that they seemed to aim for a particular comment, it’s due to that sense of play, where a particular bedrock template has been adjusted just so.

Do me a favor; don’t let go

Of course, the mere presence of these ingredients does not guarantee that this work is feminist or aesthetic success. Bissell puts the aim of video games brilliantly in Extra Lives:

So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that points not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.
– from Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell

For a video game to be an aesthetic success, then, playing that game indicates something deeply about the player. Transistor‘s various ingredients seem to be poised for that sort of indication, and I find myself wondering if it’s poised for feminist aesthetic success. That ‘play’ I mentioned? It might be those elements of the narrative can be distilled into feminist success or failure, but that sort of interpretive work, and the squabbles surrounding them, sometimes is sometimes discouraging to everyone, participants and non-participants alike. By squabbles, I mean the various pieces, on Tumblr and in textbooks, arguing back and forth about whether or not Ariel’s choice The Little Mermaid film was a feminist one, or not, the sort of articles that spring up around blockbusters, sometimes about skin-tight suits, sometimes about Bechdel tests. “If there’s not some fact of the matter,” a critic of such squabbles might ask, “why not always interpret something feminist-ically? Why problematize?” There are lots of things to say about what might motivate feminists, and others, to problematize works. These thinkers might suspect that a lot of quite real issues begin as unquestioned statements about certain kinds of stories, certain kinds of importance, certain kinds of character given to various kinds of people. By making room for alternative interpretations, a thinker can weaken the claim that a work must be taken this way, that a certain interpretation is The One with the capital T. And sometimes simply the act of speaking up is powerful enough.

This essay began about identification. In video games, when one plays as a character, that playing-as seems like an invitation to identify. Here’s what it would be like, if you were, say, a young woman with a sword that spoke with her boyfriend’s voice, wandering around an empty Art Deco city, trying to confront an apocalypse. This partly explains the vast preference to play as ‘Good’ in games that offer good-or-evil choices, because we want to be Good. There are fewer female characters one can play as in games, and feminists sometimes point to this as a failure of identification. Young women who play these games can only see themselves as men, usually white, saving the world and, often, a girl along with it. If they identify themselves with characters based on gender, and not just who they play as, these young women are likely to find themselves in damsels in distress, in love interests, in various kinds of leather-and-sex villains.

Red fails to save her boyfriend or the world. At the end, in an empty city, with a weapon that can make that city any way she wants, she flicks her sword up and kills herself.5

Transistor Ending / End

What is interesting about Transistor’s Red is that the game presents a moment where identification is impossible. I pressed every button I could, watching the transistor rise, hearing the voice inside it go no no no no — in short, I was abundantly aware that Red’s suicide was not my choice. It was hers. Regardless of whether that choice was foolish, wise, virtuous, feminist, or misguided, the game presents in its last moments a woman as a chooser.

That’s your first hint that something’s alive. It says no.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, Catherynne M. Valente

In some sense, this lives up to Bissel’s claims that games point a finger at the person playing them. I think this game points a finger at the person playing Red in those final moments, namely, that she is a character whose choices are ultimately independent of my preferences. In one guise or another, combating one source or another, feminism’s primary motivation seems to be eroding the temptation to not see women as choosers. If there is a such thing as a feminist aesthetic, it would be an aesthetic that promotes that, and I think you can find it here.

I think some of this lies even in the game mechanics. You gain abilities throughout the game that can be combined in different ways, allowing for different abilities; as you fight, however, some abilities are ‘overloaded,’ requiring you to attempt new combinations constantly.

My first introduction to video games and the internet was through Final Fantasy games (and the character shrines they inspired online, websites chock full of essays advocating for that character’s specialness). Looking back on those games, in fact looking back on my gaming history, I wonder how much those games affected me. They are games primarily beaten through leveling. When you come across a boss you can’t beat, you grind for a few more hours and come back and voilà, you can beat him now. To win, you change the character you’re playing. You level up. But more and more I find myself playing games where characters don’t level up at all. You’re given a set number of abilities, which you, the player, have to combine to appropriate effect. I think that young women can get tempted by the level-up mentality. They acquire something that lets them be adequate to their challenges. I suspect this is half of why I went to graduate school, to level up, so that I would then be able to think through the problems that kept hitting me at three AM. In contrast, the do-it-now mentality presents a confidence about personal ability, without a new level, without becoming something else. Here’s a version of the same issue, put Simone de Beauvoir style:

… every human being by definition struggles with what she calls ‘ambiguity’: she is both a subject (a selef-conscious being capable of moving beyond what nature and the world give to her, including her desires as they stand) and an object (an embodied being with characteristics, a style, appetites, and a history, all of which invite the judgment of others. It is fashionable these days to reject the dualistic, Cartesian metaphysic of the human being. But both Beauvoir and Sartre — convincingly, in my opinion — understand the subject/object split not as a mere fact of ontology, as Descartes is at least ordinarily taken to have argued, but more as a phenomenological dilemma. In other words they are interested not so much in claiming that the dualistic picture is true as they are in drawing our attention to the fact that our experience is one of dualism, or more precisely, of a tension between our drive to transcend ourselves and our drive to cement our identities in ways that we and others will find ceaselessly praiseworthy.

…Beauvoir claims that from time immemorial human beings have on the whole found a certain satisfaction in exploiting inherently non-normative biological facts to split the difference when it comes to the painful existential fact of human ambiguity: men, according to this way of thinking, will be the subjects and women will strive to be objects. I put the idea in this odd way to bring out what Beauvoir identifies as the incoherence of this plan: to “be” something, once and for all, is precisely not to be a subject; and to strive to be an object is precisely to demonstrate that you aren’t one.

– Nancy Bauer, “Beauvoir on the Allure of Self-Objectification,” in Feminist Metaphysics, ed. Charlotte Witt (New York: Springer, 2011), 125, 126.

Perhaps antecedently to playing video games or perhaps partially because of what I found of myself in them, I’ve had the level-up mentality. It strikes me as just what Bauer is attributing to Beauvoir here, as tapping into the way in which a person is fixed. When I play do-it-now style, however, I find myself exercising more of that part of myself which is a chooser. That is, I see myself capable of choice, at present, without addition or permission or adornment. No doubt there are counter-examples, but thinking of what I can do in a game as largely stat-based, rather than player-skill based, evokes that same old phenomenological fixation.

Transistor is has lovely mechanics, different from the old level-up kind.6 The way you win encounters is through constant adaptation. No stats, although combining your powers in interesting ways reveals the majority of the information you get about the world, but not information necessary for the game’s completion. If mechanics can advocate a certain mentality, then I think this game can present something quite friendly to Beauvoir’s claims.7

I finished the game and sobbed while the credits rolled, then googled like a madwoman to see how I had gotten the ‘bad’ ending. I’ve realized that I only ever cry out of a wish not to be some person. The martyr on the screen, or, in moments of self-pity, myself, now or in the future. There is a pinch in feminism about whether, when you make claims about what all women’s lives are like, you are silencing them in the process. One of the great things about philosophy is that it always involves making claims about something you have a stake in, such that you cannot remain neutral. You buy the argument or you don’t, and you ought to say something either way. This is trickier in feminism, a subset of philosophy, where a traditional issue has been the difficulty women themselves can have in seeing themselves as capable of that kind of assertion. This would be a trick in a feminist game, too. If it involves presenting a woman as a specific character, how do you present that woman in such a way that women who have differing races, classes, dental histories, sexual orientations will see themselves in her specific choices? Oddly, I think it is powerful to present a woman who defies identification. I cried because I didn’t want to be her, but I couldn’t be her. If the problem with identification is that you extrapolate the specifics of a character you identify with in harmful ways, then I think the ultimate characteristic Red offers, as said, is that she is someone, and to be someone is to have a specific life all your own. It is an invitation in a way that My Aim Is True is not. This is an excellent point for everyone to learn and relearn about women. Women included.