Thursday, October 10, 2013

[IF Comp 2013] Second thoughts on "Dad vs. Unicorn"

I've been thinking more about the competition game Dad vs. Unicorn, and I want to write another blog post about it. Here is the earlier post. Spoilers, as usual, after the break.

Dad vs. Unicorn is evidently a piece that wishes to explore gender stereotypes. Its claim is that the father cannot love his son, because he expects his son to be like the stereotypical male; and when this turns out not to be the case, he is disappointed and stops loving his child.

In my original post, I suggested two reasons why the game's exploration of this theme isn't particularly successful. The first is that the father is an unloving egotist, and we do not believe that he would have been capable of loving a more stereotypically male son any better. The second is that the game's use of the unicorn -- evidently meant to symbolise stereotypical male violence -- changes the message to something it was never meant to be: namely, to the message that men need women to function properly. The unicorn is a symbol of male power that can only be tamed by a female virgin; Dad vs. Unicorn goes out of its way to portray the unicorn as untamed male power, and emphasises the destructiveness of such power; and thus we cannot avoid the interpretation that what is missing in this dysfunctional family is the metaphorical virgin. Without mum, dad cannot become a loving person. Traditional family values, and therefore gender stereotypes, are reaffirmed by a game that sought to question them.

I still believe that all of that is correct. But I now think that I've actually been too easy on the game -- for it is more, and more explicitly, sexist than I originally thought. Its treatment of dad is, of course, an affirmation of precisely the gender stereotype that it wants to question. And when we get to the unicorn ...

... but I need to discuss something else first. What do I mean when I say that Dad vs. Unicorn is sexist? I do not simply mean that it contains sexist claims; I mean that it contains sexist claims in a way that affirms these claims. To clarify the difference, I'll make a comparison to my own game Nemesis Macana. (Using one of my own games as an example of how to do things right is perhaps the epitome of arrogance; in my defence, let me just say that I believe this game to be particularly suited for making my point. Perhaps that is a flimsy excuse. Or perhaps it is a good excuse, and I'm still a monumental egotist. Who knows!)

Nemesis Macana is full of sexist claims, stereotypes, and whatnot. At one point the narrator/author, Herman Schudspeer, has told us that his girlfriend doesn't always do the morally right thing, namely, abstaining from all sexual activity (including masturbation). But, he condescendingly explains, we shouldn't blame her too much:
It is harder for women. They are so physical.
You can't get much more sexist than that. But Nemesis Macana doesn't affirm anything that Schudspeer says. On the contrary, it portrays its fictional author as delusional and neurotic, as addicted to totalising theories, and as unable to enjoy life precisely because he cannot overcome his loathing for sex and his fear of the feminine.

It is clear that Dad vs. Unicorn contains some sexist content that it does not affirm. Dad's thoughts, which are full of gender stereotypes, are evidently not affirmed by the author; on the contrary, the loveless portrayal of dad, and the suffering of his son, are meant to undermine the believability of those thoughts.

But it also contains sexist content that it does affirm. In portraying dad as the stereotypical male -- unable to create real relations, unable to really feel anything -- it affirms that stereotype. For we are not meant to believe that dad is impossible, or even unlikely to exist. We are merely meant to believe that he is wrong. But that wrongness, at least where emotional matters are concerned, is part of the stereotype.

The game's sexism is even clearer when we come to the unicorn. Here, maleness and unremitting violence are non-ironically equated -- thus affirming the worst of all stereotypes about men. There is no doubt that the violent unicorn is meant to symbolically stand for masculinity:
Your deadly forehead penis is your scepter!
Now, in my previous post, I said I loved that sentence. But I was reading it ironically; I was reading it as if Schudspeer was saying it. Now that I have thought about Dad vs. Unicorn some more, I have come to realise that the game does not contain a framework that makes this statement ironic. On the contrary, if we take the game's theme and message seriously, it seems that masculinity really is violent. Dad is violent (in a non-physical) way; the unicorn is violent; and the son is only saved from being violent by not partaking of stereotypical maleness.

(Which, incidentally, seems to make him totally passive. Violence vs. passivity is not a particularly compelling choice, but it is a choice that fits stereotyped thinking about gender, and especially about sexuality.)

And if the portrayal of masculinity as violent is not meant ironically -- and again, I do not see how it could be meant ironically in this game -- then it is deeply insulting. The suggestion that there is an essential relation between being a man and being violent is unacceptable.

Using the penis as a metaphor for violence is, unfortunately, quite common. Many feminist writers have done it, linking a biological fact to a moral fact in a way that we must object to. Much pornography goes further, and attempts to make the metaphor as literal as possible ("she gets her pussy destroyed by a big dick!"); but then, much pornography is insultingly sexist.

Within this cultural context, a context that Dad vs. Unicorn is part of and affirms, I have to consciously remind myself that what the cultural stereotypes suggest to me is false. I have to remind myself that my penis is not an instrument of violence.

Because it's not. It is an instrument of love. Its rightful use consists in achieving that kind of physical union that is at the same time emotional and spiritual union. And when I'm doing that, I am not overcoming my essentially violent maleness; I am celebrating my essentially loving maleness. Because all men were made for loving. Just like all women.

I guess that what I'm trying to say is this: I never want to see anyone use the "penis = violence" metaphor non-ironically ever again. We're not doing anyone any favours by keeping that association alive. On the contrary.


  1. I have to remind myself that my penis is not an instrument of violence.

    Because it's not. It is an instrument of love. Its rightful use consists in achieving that kind of physical union that is at the same time emotional and spiritual union.

    I think this is... an aspirational definition, rather than a descriptive one. Like 'if he really loved you he wouldn't hit you', or 'no Scotsman would ever do such a thing', or 'lying is unChristian', it expresses the speaker's desires for how love, Scottishness or Christianity should work in an ideal world, without considering the world's abundant supply of actual abusive lovers and lying Christians. And I'm queasy about combining rightful use and biological fact in the same argument, particularly where sex is involved.

    But I think... well, I hesitate to call Unicorn sexist, really, even if I think it's not exactly a great final thesis, because I think a pretty common stage of sorting out your feelings about gender is a sense of pretty brutal alienation from both masculinity and femininity, and sometimes that's a necessary part of the process before you can sort through the rubble and rebuild. Nietzsche would have been totally into it, if he had actually been able to think about gender without bursting several blood-vessels.

  2. Now that I look at it, I note that you said your penis. I of course recognise your right to define the existential purpose of your own penis in whatever way you see fit, and if you wish to determine that its rightful use is to lift heavy weights in the circus for the delight of the young and easily-amused, I will respect your decision and only question and ridicule your life choices in private to my closest friends.

  3. My dick cannot lift the heavy weight. ( )

    Anyway -- yes, I agree with your point that this would be an aspirational definition if it were a definition. I'm not sure I meant it to be one. A penis doesn't stop being a penis when you do inappropriate things with it. But that doesn't mean one can't formulate standards of appropriateness. To speak philosopher-speak for a moment: ethics doesn't need to be analytic.

    I can understand why you would feel queasy about normative statements concerning bodily functions; such statements have often been harmful, and, from your perspective as well as mine, narrow-minded and wrong. I suppose that is why I chose the first-person perspective here. There are normative statements in the vicinity that I wouldn't mind defending, though. (Some of them totally obvious and non-controversial, like "rape is bad".)

    I'll have to think more about your statement about sorting things out and alienation. Perhaps I need to write third thoughts on Dad vs. Unicorn at some point.