Magic jokes, often not funny

I’m going to meander into Magic: The Gathering territory, right now.

A few months ago, a new website cropped up with an article about Elspeth, Knight Errant. The analysis of the article is rather sound, at least at the time. Elspeth is awesome and I would make the argument that she is the best Planeswalker. (Fans of Jace, The Mind Sculptor may disagree, but invariably, they’re paired at the top of the heap.)

The problem with the article, since corrected, was the opening paragraph, which reduced Elspeth from the awesome, army leading character she is to a supportive housewife. She makes the dude babies and I’m pretty sure there was a line in there about baking him pie. I think he promised that he would explain that so it made sense, but the article never did.

The writer was called out for the blatant sexism, the most offending paragraph was removed, and everyone moved on, right? (The article still has the problematic “My Knight Errant”, which brings up possessiveness and objectification all in one, but it was a drastic improvement.) I’m sure the writer wasn’t too broken up over it, despite the site claiming it was a joke that fell flat, I knew I wasn’t going to keep reading, but I’m one reader and not an influential one. I mostly forgot about it and moved on.

But this past week, something happened. I was at a PTQ making some trades and chatting with a few Elder Dragon Highlander players. I got it in my head that I’d like to build a deck of my own in the format (which is by all accounts incredibly fun) and I happened on Khemba, Kha Regent as the general for the deck. This gave me a couple of easy themes to build on: cats and equipment. Khemba’s ability to generate more creatures can be pretty huge, especially if you can get her with a few pieces of equipment.

Awesome. I trade for one, went home, and started pulling out cards from my meager collection to get a deck together. Then I checked out some forums to get some ideas on where to go from here.

Unfortunately, I ran headlong into more sexism. See, Kemba’s got a rather prominent chest, such that some players have apparently nicknamed her the Titty Kitty. Juvenile, but somewhat apt, given the art for the card. I could have ignored that as yet another vaguely sexist element of gamer society that crosses gender boundaries. It’s not really that bad, in the grand scheme of things and from a lyrical perspective, it’s even kinda funny.

Then I happened upon the following series of comments:
"From a woman's perspective, I'd be interested to hear what you think of the sexual stereotyping on Kemba."

"What sexual stereotype are you referring to?

"Come on, you didn't get the whole social commentary going on with Kemba?

"Add her boobalicious kitty art to her mechanic and she screams "Give me bling: I'll whelp you a new kitten. Give me lots of bling: I'll whelp you lots of kittens." You're pretty much paying her to provide progeniture."


I’m sorry, what? What social commentary? Sexual stereotyping? The art is a bit over the top, yes, but I don’t see anything in the design that screams stereotype. And it can’t be commentary unless Wizards intentionally meant for that interpretation.

They make a fucking card game. They aren’t in the social commentary business, and as intelligent as most players are, given how blind gamers tend to be about social nuances, I doubt they’d expect any reasoned response to any commentary they put in games.

No, the only commentary here is what we can make in response to comments like that.

But now it got me thinking. There are a number of cards that can generate creature tokens. They often do so in different ways, but I wondered how many are like Elspeth and Kemba. I’m looking for something directly comparable: a creature (or card that otherwise has a recognizable “face” whether human or closely anthropomorphized), that can bring multiple tokens into play, either upon entry to the battlefield or gradually over time.

And how many of these could possibly be construed as “making babies” rather than, oh, inspiring troops to follow them?

To save myself from dredging back into the great nether history of Magic, I’m just going to keep this to cards currently in the Extended environment.

Cards that depict a clearly female character:
Captain of the Watch
Dragonmaster Outcast
Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Elspeth Tirel
Emeria Angel
Imperious Perfect
Kazandu Tuskcaller
Kemba, Kha Regent
Oona, Queen of the Fae
Rakka Mar
Sharding Sphinx
Wort, the Raidmother
Wren’s Run Packmaster

Clearly male:

Kalitas, Bloodchief of Ghet
Knight-Captain of Eos
Lich Lord of Unx
Lullmage Mentor
Master of the Wild Hunt
Nath of the Gilt-Leaf

Pawn of Ulamog
Puppet Conjurer
Rhys the Redeemed
Siege-Gang Commander
Stonybrook Schoolmaster

Turntimber Ranger

Boggart Mob
Cemetery Reaper

Cloudgoat Ranger
Grave Titan
Mirror-Sigil Sergeant
Patrol Signaler

Springjack Shepherd
Weirding Shaman

There’s also Ant Queen which isn’t anthropomorphized, but is clearly female.

Okay, that’s a fairly hefty list of cards. A number of them could conditionally be ignored since the creatures generated are sufficiently different than there isn’t a real possibility of assuming the tokens are babies (elves generating wolf tokens, for instance.) Still, from a broad standpoint there are 14 obviously female characters and 12 obviously male. Of the 14 female, 7 generate functionally similar tokens. 8 of the male do the same. I’ve bolded all of these above. Of the 8 ambiguous characters, 5 generate similar tokens.

I’ve also italicized three of the female characters which generate different creature types, but could be construed as a birthing process in some fashion. For instance, Emeria Angel has wings with feathers and generates birds, which also have wings with feathers. Maybe birds are immature angels?

Rakka Mar I probably would have ignored, except I remember a recent comic which seemed to have a character with a volcanic vagina. So Rakka spitting out fire elementals didn’t seem too far gone.

Now, granted, I don’t think Wizards has been deliberate about any of this. Certainly, the breakdown between male and female characters is close enough that I don’t think we can take any trends.

And, even among the playerbase, other than these two instances, I haven’t heard any commentary. Indeed, I don’t think we can draw any positive conclusions that Wizards is intentionally making any sort of correlation between creature creation and having babies. The aforementione Ant Queen is an obvious exception, but it’s also completely without sexual overtones. Unless you go for ants, I suppose.

So the commentary has to come from a subset of the playerbase. As I’ve noted, I’ve only seen two examples, but I’m sure others exist.

Why these two, though?

The Elspeth issue I find easier to explain. The player really likes Elspeth as a card. Indeed, both versions of her are fantastic Planeswalkers. The original, Knight Errant, is one of the best released, and the newer one could be at that level, but hasn’t been broken just yet.

The viewpoint, and joke, that he made about Elspeth being in the kitchen, making him babies and pie, speaks of a sort of 50s-era husband and mindset. His deck is his household, his castle and he is king. Elspeth is his wife, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, supportive and he’s certainly willing to admit making his every success possible. (Jokes about his better half and all.) But she’s still subservient to him.

It’s a bullshit viewpoint. A sexist, bullshit viewpoint. Not only does it undermine what sort of character Elspeth is supposed to be (because she’s fucking awesome), but it really doesn’t speak well of the writer. He said it was a joke. It wasn’t a funny one.

Ironically, it’s because Elspeth is such a strong character that the situation arises. It’s rather similar to any action undermining a woman in a position of power, real or fictional. Invariably, someone will make a comment that she’s only in that position in some fashion related to her sexual or reproductive capabilities. She has sex, then she slept her way there? She doesn’t, and she’s frigid. Able to hold her own, then it’s time she got back home and made her man some babies.

Disgusting, but it doesn’t quite adequately explain Kemba. See, as fun a card she is, Kemba isn’t especially powerful. The desire to subject her subconsciously doesn’t seem to play into it.

The card art is one obvious reason, of course, but I think there’s a deeper issue at play: this is a racist, sexist depiction.

See, Kemba is a cat character. Given her Leonin race, I think we can surmise that she’s supposed to be an anthropomorphized lion. That scans as African, for the most part, which means Kemba can be considered to be black.

She wants bling and she’ll be your baby-mama. Right.

Honestly not sure how you could come up with a more offensive interpretation. A sexist, racist, bullshit viewpoint. It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke or not.

This really highlights one of the major issues with the Magic community. It’s not homogenous, but the strata of people you get by examining it tend strongly toward male and fairly heavily to white or Asian. This sort of geeky, boys club breeds a certain viewpoint, which isn’t healthy and doesn’t engender a welcoming environment.

Recently, Wizards has taken some actions which have been designed to increase the support and presence for the local game stores for players to play at. On one hand, this is a very good thing, because supporting local businesses, even if they’re largely selling a single product for a multi-national corporation, is good for the economy, and it does engender a positive atmosphere for players.

On the other hand, this will probably be ultimately harmful in any effort to spread Magic around to a wider audience. Many (but not all) game stores suffer the same problem as many (but not all) comic stores. It’s the dungeon problem. Now, many of both types of stores are fine. My chosen comic/game store is actually wonderful. But then I’ve also checked out places that make me feel claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and unwelcome.

And I’m a geeky, white dude. I’m about a privileged and into that group as you can get. I’m really wondering what a non-white woman is going to feel. Wizards, by eliminating support for non-game store tournament organizers probably set back some efforts to spread out the game. This, even if only passively, supports the idea that Magic is a game for guys only, and any girls (like Lauren Lee) are going to be seen as anomalies. And thus there’s a vicious cycle to view it as a “boys club” environment where certain things are okay.

When I went to Grand Prix Portland, I met up with a friend in the area for Sunday breakfast. She’s geeky, and really into comics, but I was surprised when she told me that she has played Magic on occasion, mostly because she’d made previous comments that it was something she wanted to avoid. I didn’t press much, mostly because we had many other, wonderful topics of conversation and I’d already spent a day thinking about Magic, but I wondered if it was more then environment and less the game that put her off.

Ideally, there’d be a way to reach out. I’m actually happy when I’m at a tournament and I see women playing, although I’m simultaneously disappointed that they still seem to be at only a few percentage points of the field. I think EDH, with its somewhat enforced casual atmosphere and focus on many things besides outright winning, could be a good stepping stone.

I’m just disappointed that there’s still so much to overcome.

2 thoughts on “Magic jokes, often not funny”

  1. When you get a lot of testosterone laden men in the 13-25 age range, who don’t have relationships with a lot of women (outside their mom and porn collection), put them in a competitive environment with other men, you end up with this sort of attitude towards women. It’s nothing specific to Magic, it’s just usual male behavior.

    Still, you’d find if half the players were women, men would clean up their act. (And if more were non-Asian/White, it wouldn’t be so racist.)

    To some degree, it’s like this with every game and sport. I do road cycling, and women just haven’t had much success in professional road racing. Women have become more famous through cyclecross and in triathlon. There’s a lot to be said about the differences here, but I would say cyclecross and triathlon are a lot more accessible.

    I’m surprised Wizard’s hasn’t tried to expand out their market to females. They could do ladies-only events or have promotions for ladies, such as free cards. This would help, but I don’t see this ever happening.

    Nintendo has tried to get more women to play video games, e.g. use Beyonce to promote “Rhythm Heven”. But not a lot of game companies market to women: Are they short-sighted, or is it a waste of money?

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