Two years ago, I revived my old World of Warcraft Holy Priest and got her up to the maximum level (at that time) of 80. I immediately set about raiding and questing (for the uninitiated, raiding is where large groups of players take on the same set of challenges collectively, usually in a dungeon setting). Indeed, I hit the ground running. I got into a group for Naxxramas, an entry level raid at the time, just after reaching level 80 and donning some epic gifts bequeathed by friends. All was going well!
When we reached Heigan the Unclean, our raid leader—a man who’d been quite nice to me and effusive in welcoming me back to the server—was engaged in banter with his compatriots over a voice chat programme and the subject of Heigan’s clothing was broached. For anyone who has played Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) for a substantial amount of time you’ve probably guessed what’s coming: the likening of mage robes to dresses and the mockery that follows. The raid leader said he took pity on Heigan; we’d only make his day worse, he said, because after all he has to wear a dress.
I mention this because it’s a small, often overlooked in-joke among many gamers that actually betrays deep-seated assumptions about gender. At its heart is the misogynist distaste for anything associated with women being used, worn, or commented favourably upon by a man. Patriarchy constructs masculinity as something in violent, constantly threatened, opposition to the feminine; men are defined by what women are not, according to these stereotypes and gender roles. The defensive nature of this masculinity asserts itself in ways great and small: for our present discussion, we see it every time a male gamer asserts in strenuous terms, either jokingly or seriously, that their brightly coloured robe is not, in fact, a dress.
A fairly popular fan-made music video illustrates this trope quite nicely, its creator singing stirring lyrics to bolster the soul of any wearied masculine Mage:
So why, I ask, it just doesn’t make much sense
That a man of my stature should have to wear a dress
I mean what, may I inquire, were you thinking on that day
When you conjured up for a man like me a robe that looks so gay
Ahhhh sit right back and your troubles melt away
Ahhhh he uses fire but his robe looks so gay
Even my favourite WoW-themed internet cartoon, Illegal Danish, which is otherwise relatively unbigoted, tries to get laughs from one of its male characters. Because he likes to wear dresses, he is mocked by one of the other characters as a “crossdressing holy man.”
It is also worth mentioning that “man in a dress” is one of the transphobic stereotypes deployed invidiously against trans women. Just as the aforementioned male defensiveness clearly overlaps with homophobia (“a robe, that looks so gay”), so too does it connect to transphobia, which is, in large part, a fear of gender rule-breaking. A major source of transphobia is this defensive fear, sometimes expressed through humour, of gender variance. Pity the man who’s wearing brightly coloured robes, because he doesn’t get to be ‘normal,’ et cetera. It’s a reasonably safe bet that the people, men and women alike, who make these jokes would also be made uncomfortable by the presence of a trans or genderqueer person in their guild or voice chat server. That day in Naxxramas I had the good fortune of having a voice that sounded normative for a woman; more than likely that was the reason I was ‘let in’ on the joke in the first place.
This “man in a dress” mockery also arises from a particular set of misogynist ideas that are prevalent among some gamers. It’s assumed that ‘real men’ are strong warriors: more at home in a melee than wearing wimpy dresses and casting spells. In World of Warcraft this is reflected by the fact that the most prominent male heroes are nearly always people bashing their enemies’ heads in with hammers, axes, and/or swords, even if their class (say, Paladin or Shaman) enables them to cast damaging spells or heal; it’s not terribly often you see a male hero taking that role.
To be honest, it never made much sense to me. Mages/wizards/sorcerers are amazing, for one thing: the very nature of the class represents the power of the mind to overcome obstacles. It also challenges singular ideas about what constitutes ‘strength’. No shortage of people, men or women, recognise this. Secondly, robes have a long tradition of being worn by men; cross-culturally and trans-historically this becomes even more visible. Religious figures today often wear robes or very similar garments, regardless of gender.
“It’s only a joke,” is the usual response to cultural critiques like mine, but as with most prejudiced language, it can have a far deeper impact – joke or not. The “man in a dress” or “it’s not a dress!” trope is a small dollop of mortar that constructs and reinforces an interpretation of masculinity that works to the detriment of everyone. It reinforces misogyny by passively accepting that things associated with women are undesirable and have less value. People of all genders are at risk in various ways when we find that even the slightest hint of gender-bending is considered fair game for mockery and derision, which is then often followed by social isolation. This is a reminder – a subtle warning – to the gender variant that they are, at best, grudgingly tolerated. It’s one of those things that makes me wince with discomfort every time I hear it in a group or read it on a gaming website, and as the YouTube song demonstrates it is often explicitly paired with homophobia in a syllogism that goes: being gay is bad, dresses are gay, therefore men in dresses are bad.
I leave aside the technical, fashionista nit-picking of how robes are decidedly not the same thing as dresses because I think it’s more important to ask why it should be a problem if a man is wearing a dress in the first place. What does this say about how men view women? And where does this pernicious idea leave us as trans women who, in spite of being women, are often wrongly conflated with “men in dresses”?
By Katherine Cross
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