Games  |  Features

Hyper Mode: How to Be Visibly Femme in the Games Industry

March 13, 2014  |  12:15pm
Hyper Mode: How to Be Visibly Femme in the Games Industry

This is a photograph of me attending Gameloop in 2011. I should be easy to spot. I’m the woman.

The outfit that I have on in that picture epitomizes the kinds of outfits that I always wear to games industry conferences, particularly when I want to be taken seriously as a journalist. I feel like I need to put “taken seriously as a journalist” in quotes to distance myself from that problem, to try to make it into a sort of joke, but the truth is that I can’t. It’s a very real problem for me. It’s gotten better since I started out; I don’t stick out like a sore thumb at games industry meet-ups and cons as much as I did back in 2009, 2010, 2011. But I still stick out just the same, and that outfit is part of my attempt to blend in.

This is the first year that I’ll be going to the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco, but I’ve attended Boston’s small games industry conference, Gameloop, every year since 2010. I used to go to PAX East every year, too, as a journalist, which meant I had to navigate between either cosplaying or dressing in a Professional Games Industry Person outfit. Even though this will be my first GDC, I have a feeling I know what other people are going to be wearing. I think it’ll be very easy to take a picture that looks a lot like my picture of Gameloop 2011, without even trying. I might even be able to take a picture with those exact same guys.

Presenting as professional at a games industry con is a little bit different than it is at other industry conferences, where one might expect three-piece suits or at least business casual. The games industry prides itself on its “coolness,” so that means you don’t have to dress like a corporate square. A game developer’s “professional outfit” at PAX East or at Gameloop (or at GDC, and so forth) would be a clean t-shirt, perhaps a clean hoodie or button-up shirt or flannel, and clean jeans. As long as everything’s been washed, you’re in the clear.

I do look a little different in jeans and t-shirts than my male counterparts, though, and that means I have a few extra considerations to make when I’m picking out an outfit. Before conferences, I actively go through all of my t-shirts and try to make sure to select one that fits just right. Not too tight. Not too short. If I lift my arms up, will my midriff be showing? That’s not acceptable. Are the sleeves too short? Should I wear something underneath so that my bare arms don’t look too lascivious? As you can see in the photo above, I’ve chosen to wear a long-sleeved button-up shirt underneath my t-shirt. The t-shirt in question just so happens to have a logo for a popular videogame on it, to prove that I know what videogames are and I’m not just “some PR girl”—but it’s not too overstated, so I don’t look like I’m trying too hard to prove myself. I’m also wearing jeans. You can’t see it, but I’m wearing sneakers as well. Always sneakers.

By now, you might be thinking, “wow, Maddy, you’re totally over-thinking this.” Maybe it wouldn’t matter if I wore a t-shirt that was a little too tight…or if I wore a shirt that was ill-fitting, baggy, and thus made me look “unprofessional.”

I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure it does matter. People care how women look. They care altogether too much, in my opinion, but there’s nothing I can do about that system besides attempt to work within it to my advantage.

Here’s my real problem, though…and I should warn you, it’s way, way, WAY stupider than the fact that I keep over-thinking which t-shirt I’m going to wear with which pair of jeans every time I go to an industry conference.

I HATE WEARING JEANS AND T-SHIRTS.

If you see me at any other outing or party, at any other time in my life, you’ll figure this out about me really fast. I love pleated skirts, especially with lace and ruffles. I own tights in every color of the rainbow. I have so many different knee-high socks that I have not one, not two, but THREE drawers of stockings alone. I have a whole other drawer just for slips. High heels? Uh, obviously. Tutus? Petticoats? Bloomers? In multiple lengths, sizes and colors, thank you very much. And don’t even get me started on hair ribbons. Eyeliner shades. Eyeshadows. I love it all.

I didn’t always love that stuff, though. Back in high school and college, I cared so deeply about fitting in with my gamer guy friends that I wore men’s clothes, bound my chest and wore camouflage for paintball matches, and thoroughly invested myself in male avatars in all the games I played. I’d happily be taken for a teenage boy rather than the grown woman I was on-mic in-game…or even in person, in paintball matches. I saw myself as one of the guys, insofar as I could, and I was totally cool with that. None of my guy friends ever asked me for “a girl’s perspective” on anything during that time because they knew I wouldn’t know a thing. They’d have to find a “real” girl and ask her for advice.

I don’t actually have any regrets about not being more “feminine” during that time. I don’t feel like I missed out on some important part of my teenage years. I dressed the way that I felt during that time, and I felt comfortable about it back then. The only thing I regret was that I also condemned femininity and femme presentation during that time, and I was a total jerk about it. I thought I was cool for being “the only girl” I knew who liked games…never mind that I was dimly aware that there were other women gaming, some of whom were also pretty cool, and some of whom were even into presenting in more feminine ways. I wanted to feel like I was somehow exempt from the “weakness” of being female, because unfortunately, I did see it as a weakness at that time. Dressing in masculine attire was part of that, and while I don’t think my doing that was a bad thing, I think my being an asshole to other girls and women was a big problem, and it’s one that I’ve still had to fight to undo retroactively. Unfortunately, hating and condemning femininity is a big part of the culture of teenaged masculinity…but that’s a whole other can of worms.

Eventually, I got a little older and began to realize that there was some nuance to be had in nerd culture on the matter of femininity. It started out with cosplay. One of my first costumes was the extremely feminine outfit that Songstress Yuna wears, which I wore to my first-ever con; I had always like role-playing games and theatre, and I began to realize that gender roles could be a “performance” as well. I soon bought a sewing machine and began constructing Princess Zelda’s extravagant pink-and-white ball gown, and I realized in the process that I enjoyed constructing Zelda’s armor just as much as I liked sewing and flouncing around in her dress.

In 2009, I made friends with some women my age who were into the lolita fashion scene. I began to realize that femininity didn’t necessarily have to be about sexualization (and, by the way, if you think lolita fashion is about sexualization, then you’ve been reading the novel Lolita too many times and not talking to enough people about the actual fashion). I participated in a lolita fashion show with other young women of all shapes and sizes and ethnicities, and I spoke at length with the organizers privately about how I was trying to find my own version of a feminine self. I felt excited, like I was unlocking a piece of myself that I had never known existed before.

But when the day of the show came, and I put on all the pieces of my lolita outfit, I didn’t feel good at all. I had never seen all of the pieces in one place, on my body, before, and…I felt like an impostor. I didn’t feel like I was embracing femininity. I felt like I looked “cute,” but that…that was a word I had worked hard to avoid for my entire life. As a small-statured woman who had desperately wanted to be seen as intimidating, important, intelligent and worth listening to—a woman who had been talked down to for her entire life, in her professional career, in gaming spaces, everywhere—walking out on a stage while wearing a pink wig, a pink dress covered in printed cupcakes, and gold sparkly shoes felt like a huge mistake. As I sat in a chair being made up for the show, with the organizers flitting around me and adding more and more barrettes and strokes of blush to my cheeks, I felt my body getting stiffer and stiffer. It was all I could do not to stand up, tear the outfit from my body, and scream “get it off!!!” But, somehow, I didn’t.

The other models and I walked downstairs to go to the stage. People that I knew passed by me without even recognizing me. All of a sudden, a male friend saw me and did a double-take. Then, he burst out laughing.

I punched him in the nose.

This is one of the only times in my life that I’ve assaulted anybody. It probably looked hilarious, but it was a real punch, and it wasn’t hilarious or the right thing to do at all. I feel bad, to this day, because I know how much I actually wanted to hurt him in that moment. He managed to duck out of the way in time; there was no blood; everything was fine. This story ends in laughter. Continuous laughter. From everyone I know.

Except me, of course.

I wish that I hadn’t felt embarrassed and ashamed about wearing that outfit (here’s a horrible picture of me wearing it, by the way.) I wish, somehow, that I had owned it no matter who laughed at me. Not because I feel like it’s what I wish I could wear everywhere, but because I saw that outfit as the extreme opposite end from my decked-out paintball gear camouflage. It was something that I wore to prove to myself that I could do it. And yet…it was just seen as funny.

Part of that joke, I suppose, was that I was the person wearing it, and I had spent my life cultivating a “masculine” persona. But I had worn feminine outfits before, by that time, so that wasn’t it. It was the extremity of the pink, the sparkles, the cupcakes. It’s not “serious.” It’s got to be a joke.

After the fashion show in 2009, I spent the next several years of my life deciding how feminine I wanted to appear, day to day. I figured out how to make my hair look the way I wanted it to look, what kinds of makeup I actually enjoyed. I began to accrue more and more pairs of stockings and dresses and garments that I liked and felt comfortable in, until I had collected the extensive closet that I possess today. I’m no “lifestyle lolita,” but I wear a lot of lolita-inspired fashions when I’m out and about in the world, and I feel very comfortable in them. At this point in my life, I feel just as comfortable wearing a petticoat as I once did when I wore men’s clothes back in high school.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel that my typical fashion choices belong at the industry events that I attend and cover for my job. I’ve worn cosplay while covering conventions before; usually I choose something understated, however, and nearly always I’ll choose a male character (what does that tell you?). I’ve seen journalists that I respect coming down hard on any other journalist who wears cosplay while covering a conference, so I already know I’m being judged by my peers for daring to go outside the t-shirt-and-jeans box. I also know that a lot of the lolita outfits that I love to wear in my day-to-day life would be considered even more ridiculous and unprofessional to wear than any of the cosplays I’ve chosen to wear to conferences.

So, I wear jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe a hoodie. Maybe a button-up. Always a pair of sneakers.

At one time, those clothes were what I wore and felt comfortable in. Now, they are not. But they are the clothes that I feel I have to wear in order to be “professional” according to the standards of a male-dominated industry. The more ruffle-centric outfits that I wish I could wear aren’t skin-baring, by the way—they’re simply feminine. They tend to involve lace, ruffles and the colors pink and purple.

So, I’ve decided that at GDC, I’m going to wear clothes that actually make me feel comfortable. I don’t mind jeans and t-shirts…but the thought of wearing them for a week straight makes me feel bored and depressed. I’d much rather wear clothes that make me feel like myself. Will I look “professional”? Probably not, according to your standards. But I don’t really care.

One last thought, though.

I have mixed feelings about the word “cute.” Okay, no, I don’t have mixed feelings—I hate the word. I know a lot of women who like to use it in a positive context to describe themselves, and I’ve done my absolute best to get on board. But in my case, the word’s been used against me for too many years, and I think it’s too late for me to love it or embrace it now. Maybe eventually I’ll be able to reclaim it, as some women have managed to reclaim “slut” and “whore” and “cunt”...but I don’t actually like any of those words either, because I didn’t like being called them by men in my formative years and hearing them now, even as a joke, takes me back to the worst parts of high school and college, the parts of my life that were all about policing femininity and seeing it as a negative force to be squashed downward.

“Cute” was the word that men used to disarm me when I wanted to play games against them. “Cute” was the concession prize I got when men told me that I’d never be “hot” or “sexy.” “Cute” meant that I was being patronized, settled for, pitied. It means “non-threatening.” It means “powerless.” I’m not sure I can disassociate the word from that meaning and turn it into something positive.

But, as a small woman who wears tutus, likes pigtails, wears Mary Jane shoes and opaque stockings, aren’t I leaning into a childish, cloying, “cute” manner of dress? And isn’t there something wrong with me for even doing that, because it’s kind of messed up for a Grown Woman to dress “cutely” (since even though I don’t call it that, society will)? And if I do dress that way, then don’t I deserve to be treated like a child, since all of my fashion signifiers are screaming “child child child”? How can I possibly expect to be taken seriously by an industry dominated by men when I’m wearing a big pink flower clip in my hair?

It’ll be a challenge.

I just hope I don’t have to punch anybody in the face.

Hyper Mode is an occasional column by Paste’s assistant games editor Maddy Myers. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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