The New Frontier

26 Jun

In preparation for a co-authored piece on Tomb Raider and Red Dead Redemption, I’ve been doing some reading about frontier space and American masculinity, and something I read yesterday in Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America struck me as particularly pertinent to a lot of the sexism-related issues we’ve been seeing recently online.

Kimmel’s discussion of the West and the Western genre of novels (and films) suggests that part of the allure of the West is that it offers an escape from the drudgery of everyday life that is seen as feminized and emasculating. He writes,

As a genre the western represented the apotheosis of masculinist fantasy, a revolt not against women but against feminization. The vast prairie is the domain of male liberation from workplace humiliation, cultural feminization, and domestic emasculation. The saloon replaces the church, the campfire replaces the Victorian parlor, the range replaces the factory floor. The western is a purified, pristine male domain. (150)

In addition, Kimmel suggests that any new space was first and foremost considered masculine space, or at least space in which to prove one’s masculinity: “Finally, other men sought to revive manhood in the real jungle. If the frontier was closed, some reasoned, why not extend its boundaries beyond the borders of the continental United States and create new frontiers where men could test and prove their manhood?” (111).

In our increasingly globalized – and therefore shrinking – world, there are no new frontiers for us to explore (we haven’t yet gained the capacity to go into space, “the final frontier,” although I will bet anything that we’ll see a revisitation of the masculine frontiersman in the “space cowboy” when we do). This means that the only space left for us to treat as a frontier is digital space – the frontier of the internet and of digital gaming.

For a variety of reasons, the tech industry has become increasingly a male domain (there are a lot of books that deal with why this may have happened, even though the first programmers were actually women), which has marked digital space as masculine space in our social consciousness. As such, games, which occupy digital space, have also become marked as masculine space.

It becomes an issue when men – no, not all men – become defensive about digital space as their sole purview and domain. This is a long-standing pattern that appears to be symptomatic of Western civilization; men become highly defensive of space when they believe it is about to become “sissified” (to use Kimmel’s term) and attack those they perceive as encroaching on that space.

The inherent problem seems to come back to this idea that there must be a distinction between men and women beyond basic biology. Kimmel’s book lists a historic trajectory of trends that includes things like the fact that originally pink was a masculine color and blue was feminine, high heels were for men, and other examples of cultural gendered tropes that have been inverted over time. Given this, it becomes nearly impossible to say that “boys just like X,” or “girls don’t like Y”; the masculinization of digital space is as socially constructed as pink or blue. The whole idea of having “male” or “female” space is silly, and our social pressure for men and women to embody certain traits is equally detrimental to both.