As a child I loved being called a tomboy. Before the age of 12 I refused to wear dresses or skirts unless I absolutely had to (my aunt’s wedding, for example). I ran and shouted and traded Pokémon cards with my male cousins and little sister. What no-one called my rejection of all things feminine was early-set internalised misogyny.
Growing up, my sister and I were absolutely obsessed with video games. One of our older cousins had a Super Nintendo and we spent our school holidays watching him lead Mario and Yoshi to two-dimensional, pixelated glory. At home, we devoured the adventures of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, relishing in our control over how the story panned out. The thrill of unlocking a new world is something I still believe is one of the greatest joys a gaming-inclined person can ask for.
These games are meant for kids. Crash is a regular bandicoot who is whisked away from his home by an evil scientist, Dr. Neo Cortex, who carries out experiments on Crash but — surprise — they go wrong, and it’s up to Crash to travel through mythical worlds to bring the doctor down. Spyro is a young dragon who witnesses his entire kind be frozen into statues by an evil villain called Gnasty Gnorc, and makes a similar pilgrimage to save the day.
Both Crash and Spyro are the underdogs. They’re both a bit scrawny and boyishly rough-around-the-edges but it’s up to them (you) to step up and restore order. While these characters certainly don’t communicate toxic narratives of masculinity they are allowed the male privilege of neutrality; of being a blank canvas.
Female characters always came with baggage. You could be Crash Bandicoot’s sexy sister Coco, who only appears as a rightfully playable character in the third installment of the series (in the first two she is apparently accessible via some obscure cheats). Either way, Coco is never really in the thick of the fight against evil. If she doesn’t show up, Crash will handle it.
Spyro the Dragon II features a female character who acts as a guide — she’s a beautiful faun called Alora, who needs Spyro’s help to save her kingdom. She provides him with intermittent advice and support, nurturing him along his journey to save her. Mario Brothers II lets you play as Princess Peach who uses her pink dress to help her hover at the top of a jump, making her the easiest character to play with. Lara Croft bravely lead and starred in her own adventures but she was always incredibly sexualised. I didn’t like her because I felt like a fraud playing as her.
I often rejected the opportunity to play as a female character because I didn’t believe in them.
Playing the woman in these games means accepting the baggage that comes with their character. This affects your experience of these virtual worlds, kind of like a simulated version of what it’s like being a woman navigating the patriarchy in real life.
All of this validated the reasons why I identified with the tomboy label. It felt like a get-out-of-jail-free card from the ridicule women face for presenting in feminine ways. Just like cheats allow you to bend the rules of the game, I felt I’d found a way to hoodwink the systems of identification that govern who has power and who doesn’t.
In high school I wore — and continue to wear — baggy clothes to de-sexualise myself. I rolled my eyes at girls at parties who wore high heels and avoided pink at all costs. I made a point of talking about things like obscure rock music and English football — accepted as cool in the Australian high-school boy world I knew — rather than anything that could be construed as girly. When, in year 10, a male friend in a new group I’d become a part of said “I think we’ve finally found a cool girl,” my heart ran aflutter.
The social capital attached to being the cool girl made me feel safe. I was likeable because I didn’t pose much of a challenge to the status quo of either the boys or girls. The patriarchy leaves space for tomboys and cool girls who uphold their hatred of anything that expresses femininity.
I behaved this way because I had learned that playing as the female character doesn’t allow you the full experience of the game. I didn’t want to play that way.
Now I have learned the words and concepts to help me isolate these feelings and trace them back to the gendered power structures I came to exist within. This is both parts terrifying and a privilege, but identifying with Crash and Spyro was the early act of resistance that lead me here.
Featured image: YouTube