Warning: This post discusses violence, transphobia, mental illness, and sexual assault.
Every now and then, I ditch my plans for the day because I have something I need to talk about right now. Rainbows and Dance Parties! was written on a day like that. This post was written on a day like that, too, but for very different reasons.
I believe we have a responsibility to treat other human beings with respect and kindness. Everyone has the right to live a life of safety – one where they can reasonably expect not to be physically, verbally, or sexually assaulted, one where they can find housing and work and raise families without being afraid.
Transgender people are one of the most endangered populations in the United States. Transgender people are at extremely high risk for physical abuse, sexual abuse, workplace discrimination, and employment discrimination.
And yet, the Creepy Crossdresser trope (as TVTropes calls it, closely related to Sissy Villain and Eunuchs Are Evil) is extraordinarily popular. Men who dress in traditionally female clothing are reliably depicted as laughable, weird, and dangerous. (Mey of Autostraddle, who is a trans woman, wrote an excellent article about her personal experience with this trope.)
Am I claiming that all trans characters should be Shining Paragons of the Light? Hardly. Trans people are people, and they should be depicted as people are depicted – capable of heroism, villainy, and everything in between. The problem occurs when there is one and only one depiction of a trans person in a given work, and that person is a villain. (Or when there are multiple trans people, and all of them are villains – though this occurs more rarely.)
And it’s not enough to handwave frantically and say “Not all trans people!” while still depicting a villain who can be interpreted as trans. Consider Silence of the Lambs, which does exactly that. Does anyone remember Hannibal Lecter saying that Buffalo Bill isn’t really trans? Or do they just remember the voice calling down “It rubs the lotion on its skin!”?
When trans characters are depicted solely and exclusively as dangerous, that tells the audience: You should be afraid of trans people.
The flight or fight response is well-understood. People respond to fear with violence.
When trans characters are depicted solely and exclusively as dangerous, that encourages violence against trans people.
And that means that game designers (and writers, and filmmakers, and all other artists) have a responsibility to consider what message our work is sending with regards to minority populations. We can make a difference – but it’s up to us to determine what that difference will be.
The Creepy Crossdresser trope is a serious problem, and I’m discussing transphobia because this subject is particularly close to home for me. But this responsibility extends across all minorities, and it covers far more than simple villainy.
Is the only lesbian sociopathic?
Is the only gay man a pedophile?
Is the only Muslim a terrorist?
Is the only black man scary?
This doesn’t just apply to fear-inspiring tropes – many other minority stereotypes are extremely harmful. But I wanted to focus on fear-inspiring tropes for a reason.
There’s a recently-popular game that many people have interpreted as depicting mental illness – specifically, dissociative identity disorder, also called multiple personality disorder. Many people also interpret this game as not depicting DID – but the author’s intent is unclear.
Why are people interpreting the game this way, if the author’s intent is unclear? Because the trope of Insane Equals Violent has been used far more often than it’s been subverted. One study showed that, in primetime media depictions of characters with mental illness, 60% were depicted as committing crimes or acts of violence. From Psycho to Borderlands to Batman villains, this trope appears everywhere.
I’m fully aware that mental illness is confusing and alarming to most people. (I read Sybil too.) But people with mental illness are far more likely to be the target of violence than the perpetrators. A meta-analysis of various studies showed that one in four people with mental illness experiences violence in a given year, a rate 286% higher than that of people without a disability of any kind.
I reject these depictions. People with mental illness aren’t boogeymen, or monsters, or demons. They’re people. And presenting these people as boogeymen actively endangers them.
In 2013 and 2014 (and, hopefully, 2015), a group of game devs organized a 48-hour event called Asylum Jam. The point of Asylum Jam is to create horror games that do not involve negative portrayals of mental health, medical professionals, or medical institutes.
As they put it:
[Mental illness] is something a great deal of the world live and cope with, yet are increasingly hesitant to reveal due to negative stigmatization in media, compounded by lack of general awareness about the variance and truth of suffering from a mental illness.
Horror is usually derived from the unknown and what we do not understand— and mental illness is one of these subjects where the general public lacks knowledge and insight. Many horror games use the negative portrayal of those who suffer from mental illness as extremely violent or sadistic, usually as the villain or antagonist, as an easy crutch to rest their story, characters and motivations on.
Asylum Jam is here to prove that we do not have to utilize a negative portrayal of mental health, medical professionals or medical institutes to create a good horror experience for a gamer!
People fear what they don’t understand. People commit violence as a response to fear. And the majority population of the United States does not reliably understand mental illness – or what it means to be non-white, non-heterosexual, gender atypical, on the autism spectrum, or physically disabled.
As human beings, we have a responsibility to treat other human beings with respect and kindness. As content creators, we have a responsibility to treat other human beings with respect and kindness.
Don’t create games – or books, or TV shows, or movies – that draw their villains from harmful minority tropes. Don’t create content that encourages a majority population to fear a minority population.
Because fear promotes violence – and we can do better than this.
Thank you to everyone supporting Sibyl Moon through Patreon!
If this post resonated with you or gave you food for thought, please consider becoming a patron.