Anna Martin considers the diverse casting in three new CW shows, Arrow, Cult and Beauty and the Beast.
This season on the CW there is something I keep noticing: someone there suddenly seems to care about casting POC. While dramas have for some time been relatively racially diverse, genre shows have resisted diversity. This year, however, three new genre shows on the CW feature POCs as regulars: Cult has Skye, the female lead; Arrow has Diggle, the hero’s sidekick, and Beauty and the Beast has a lead (Catherine Chandler) and (at least) two supporting roles. Let’s take a look at what’s new. (Note: this article is not meant to be exhaustive as, sadly, I don’t have time to watch everything on the CW.)
Digg trains with Oliver in the CW’s Arrow.
On the surface of it, a black guy as a white guy’s sidekick isn’t big news. It’s pretty rare, however, that a black sidekick gets to call his white superhero on White Knight Syndrome, and yet that’s exactly what John Diggle (David Ramsey) did in the third episode of the series. Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell)—the eponymous Arrow, aka the Hood—has decided to open a nightclub in the “ghetto” area of town, the Glades, in order to cover up his nocturnal absences from home. He asks Digg, who is at this point Oliver Queen’s bodyguard and not yet the Hood’s sidekick, his thoughts on the project.
Oliver: So, what do you think?
Digg: Well, I’m here to provide security, sir, not a commentary.
Oliver: Aw, come on Digg, do me a favour. Speak freely. Please.
Digg: Well, this is the Glades, right? Your rich white friends wouldn’t come to this neighbourhood on a bet.
Oliver: I am Oliver Queen, right? People would stand in line for three hours if I opened a club.
Digg: And no one who actually lives in the Glades will see a penny of those cover charges.
Oliver: We make it a successful business, we gentrify the neighbourhood.
Digg: I was wondering when we would get to that. The White Knight swooping in to save the disenfranchised, and all by his lonesome, with no help from anybody.
Oliver: Wow. You don’t think very much of me, do you?
Digg: No, actually, sir, I have a very high regard for how perceptive you are.
Zing. Not only does Digg call Oliver out on what he understands to be his personal crusade, but he also clearly points out that wealth in Starling City is white wealth, and strongly implies that the majority of the impoverished inhabitants of the Glades are POCs.Read more...
Anna Martin reviews the 23rd Bond outing and finds it entertaining, but troubling.
To think about Skyfall, it seems necessary—and apt, for a film about origins—to go back to Casino Royale. Casino Royale is a film about the forging of the weapon. Bond, on his first double-0 mission, falls in love with Vesper, goes through symbolic castration (remember the chair?), and then, in the end, must reject that emotional, feminine, “castrated” side of himself (the line “the bitch is dead” isn’t just about Vesper) to become Bond, James Bond, the man who is the perfect phallic weapon, all guns and cock.
Which leads us to Quantum of Solace, a film so forgettable that no one I know can remember what it was about. (Something about oil? Was some of it set in Venezuela?) The problem Quantum of Solace faced was the fact that its hero was already formed, and now he was much the same as any other action hero. What is Quantum of Solace but an action movie in a sea of action movies? What is this James Bond but an action hero among ranks of action heroes? What is the point of Bond when he’s just the same as everybody else?
And this is what we owe Quantum of Solace: without its mundanity and ordinariness, Skyfall would never have had to ask, how is Bond relevant anymore? That’s the central theme of this film. How does an old man play a young man’s game? How do you make a relic from the 1960s interesting among modern action films?
Why It Apparently Really Really Sucks to be Christian
by Morgan Jones
Number 3: “Saved!”(2004)
OK, so this is pretty basic stuff for the teen-movies-about-why-it-sucks-to-be-Christian-subgenre; nice, Christian girl Mary (Jenna Malone) tries to do the right thing, i.e. straighten out her gay boyfriend Dean by sleeping with him, and it doesn’t quite work out, i.e. she ends up pregnant. Will her friends at her ultra Christian high school, not to mention her Christian pop girl group “The Christian Jewels,” turn on her? You bet they will. Will she find help, solace, acceptance, etc., among the school’s misfits (aka, the gothy Jewish girl and kid in the wheelchair)? You bet she will. Will they eventually triumph over Hilary Faye, the Christian Regina George of the school, and do some top notch hugging and learning? You bet they will.
For more great teen movie reviews, check out Morgan’s blog, All the Teen Movies a Girl Could Want!
By Anna Martin
After the splash of The Avengers, I wasn’t sure I was ready for Nolan’s trademark grim take on a superhero movie. But as time went by, I became excited again, and went to see The Dark Knight Rises with reasonably high expectations. And for the first hour or so, those expectations were met. But at some point—and I can’t quite pinpoint when—my interest waned significantly. Why should this happen during the final film of such an excellent superhero trilogy? I have a couple of theories.
Massive spoilers after the cut…
Mary Hamilton finds that sex, in fantasy RPGs, can get really, really messy…
Let’s get something clear right from the start. This article is going to contain references to anal circumference, being sexually aroused by candles, non-consensual sexual encounters, and copious use of the word “harlot”. I’m sorry in advance.
So, Dungeons and Dragons is a high fantasy role-playing game that’s played by groups sat around a table, pretending to be characters inhabiting a world of magic, taverns and mythical beasts. Random encounters and other interesting random effects are fairly frequent occurrences. The rule books are full of tables that let you roll a 20-sided die to find out how much treasure there is in a room, or what sort of monster attacks the players on their way through Gribbly Dark-wood, or what that mysterious magical artefact actually does.
In the first edition of D&D, along with wasp lobsters, owlbears and animated murderous bridges, there was the harlot table.
You enter a tavern. Your games master rolls two 10-sided dice, and you’re confronted with one of 12 harlot options. You can have a cheap trollop, a saucy tart or even, if you’re very lucky, a rich panderer. My personal favourite, the haughty courtesan, shows up on a roll of 86-90. The rulebook helpfully mentions that harlots have a 30% chance of knowing valuable information, 15% likely to make something up for a reward, and 20% likely to be, or work with, a thief - wouldn’t want you to think they were only there for one thing, after all. The game leaves it quietly up to you, the players, to work out how precisely you’re going to role-play the encounter if you do decide to try and have sex.
These days, now that it’s widely acknowledged that female gamers are not akin to unicorns, the harlot table is jarring to come across. It feels subtly archaic, representative of an attitude that women didn’t really belong in the D&D universe, or that when they did appear they were somehow special. Since these harlot archetypes were invented, we’ve had dozens of sex-at-the-gaming-table jokes, and the random approach seems kind of quaint.
Certainly, it does in comparison with some of the things that have followed it. FATAL, a one-man epic high-fantasy rules-packed game that manages to be entirely, 100%, utterly creepy and wrong in literally every way you can imagine and probably about 47 more that would never have crossed your mind.
For instance - the spells. Where D&D has fireballs and magic missiles, FATAL has spells that transform any bodily orifice into both an anus and a mouth at the same time, and spells that force women’s vulvas to swell and may make them incapable of standing up. Then there’s the series of complicated equations you use to work out the precise tightness - and hence pleasure - of any given sexual encounter. And the fact you can sacrifice people with mental disabilities in order to gain magical power. And the fact that the lowest possible score for vocal charisma in the game gives you a rating of “gay”. (I mean, it’s not like any gay men have ever been particularly charismatic. Whatever happened to that Graham Norton bloke, anyway?)
Issues of consent can get complicated at the gaming table. Sample thought process: would my character have sex with your character? I mean, I don’t want to have sex with you at all, but my character’s kind of pushy and a total ladies’ man and yours is a lady with, like, 18 charisma. But if my character comes on to your character and you say yes does that mean we’re going to be talking squelchy bits, because I don’t really wanna do that with you because you’re my best mate’s girlfriend …
But there’s nothing complicated about FATAL. Rape is part of the game - so much so that there’s a handy table that lets you check out the potential penis size of any given race, compare it with the possible anal circumference of your character, and decide precisely how much damage the random encounter did in physical terms.
The point where your brain literally melts and falls out of your ears, though, is the table you roll on if you mis-cast a spell. Possible results include itchy buttocks, being sexually aroused by candles, being forced to try and fist-fuck the next woman you see, the appearance of a magical 3ft 10in dildo that tries to rape pretty characters, and your guts falling right out of your arse. Oh, and becoming a serial rapist.
The sad thing about FATAL isn’t so much its existence (which is pretty fucking sad, don’t get me wrong) but the fact that it’s possible for tabletop games to do sex well. The harlot table didn’t just spawn abominations made of rape jokes and fail - it also gave birth to the Book of Erotic Fantasy which, while schmaltzy as hell in places, manages to make D&D sex an interesting option without invoking the ick factor. And there are games like Boy X Girl, based loosely on anime conventions, where one player plays a shy high school girl and other players play 3-5 boys vying for her affections.
The harlot table managed to introduce sex into a fantasy world where magic exists, where spells can change the shape, size and appearance of a person. It also put sex squarely into the context of the gaming room, and gently nudged open the door that led to games that explore sexual themes gently, in interesting ways that push boundaries without involving giant ogre dong. And it’s paved the way for deeply upsetting monsters in horror games like Fear Itself, playing on themes of consent and motherhood and unwanted sexualisation. It’s enabled tabletop gaming to grow up and get some serious adult themes, and for those of us who love the medium, that’s definitely a good thing.
Shame we had to go through such a lot of ogre dong to get here.
Fighting crime - and monsters, zombies, time, space, and reality - isn’t just the remit of male characters. There are plenty of awesome women in the worlds of film and TV. But sometimes, the media’s idea of what makes a good, strong, kickass female character is, well, a little bizarre. Lucy V Hay finds examples of screenwriters getting it right - and wrong - sometimes even in different portrayals of the same character…
Crime scene investigators:
RIGHT: Catherine Willows in Crime Scene Investigation
Starting out as a Las Vegas show dancer, Catherine clawed her way out of the seedy club scene and knows full well the dangers that lurk behind the bright lights of the city. She’s strong, capable, and does her job well.
A single mother, Catherine feels guilty that her daughter Lindsay is brought up by babysitters as she works nights, but she’s proud she still manages to take Lindsay to school most days. Catherine is no saint; she has been badly affected by her life and is deeply flawed. She makes consistently poor choices with men and she’s still angry and bitter about Lindsay’s father Eddie’s betrayal years later, often letting her personal feelings get in the way of cases.
What’s more, Catherine can be cruel: she delights in baiting Grissom and has a big problem with his authority – not because he is in any way defective at his job, but because she simply doesn’t like him as a person. In subsequent series, however, she forms a grudging respect not only for his leadership, but for his personal integrity, especially when dealing with his deafness.
WRONG: Catherine Willows in Crime Scene Investigation
When Grissom left CSI, it was only natural that, as his right-hand woman, Catherine would step up and become supervisor. Remembering Catherine’s rich history of storylines that made her a three-dimensional and believable character, this was a chance for actress Marg Helgenburger’s role to really evolve.
Unfortunately, Catherine wasn’t to have her moment in the limelight at all. Instead, she was moved aside to make way for new character Langston, played by crowd-pleasing Laurence Fishburne. Before long, Catherine was more or less confined behind a desk or walking the corridors and occasionally yelling at someone, a shadow of her former self, her rich history ignored.
Cold hard killers:
RIGHT: Ziva David in NCIS
Ziva is that elusive character so many scriptwriters strive to get right: the ass-kicking woman with a heart. There’s no question that Ziva is dangerous: she’s a Mossad assassin. She’s frequently the one who goes into the room brandishing a gun first, and there’s no one – man or woman – she can’t handle. She even killed her own brother when she found he was on the opposite side to her. It would have been so easy to portray Ziva as ice cold as her deadly skillz – but the NCIS writers resisted this temptation and instead made her a rounded, believable character.
Ziva’s English isn’t great, especially her use of idiom, which her colleague DiNozzo takes delight in correcting (it’s the only time he’s better than her at something). Like many women in real life – and Catherine Willows before her in CSI – Ziva’s taste in men is shocking, largely because she still feels like an outsider, and just desperately wants to be loved. Ziva questions her father’s judgement in raising her to be a Mossad agent, while still believing there could be no other life for her.
A storyline in which she was almost murdered while undercover was particularly well handled: she didn’t just shrug off the experience, but suffered flashbacks to the traumatic event. And not just because she almost died, but because for a brief moment she had hesitated – and crucially, she had never hesitated before.
WRONG: Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day
This incarnation of Sarah Connor is often celebrated (especially by men) as the iconic strong female character. And certainly she’s got some things going for her. Back in 1992, there hadn’t been any female Arnie equivalents, so we can thank Sarah for putting kickass females on the map. But scratch the surface and the issues with Sarah Connor’s character soon become glaringly obvious.
Planning for the apocalypse? Whoops, you forgot a contingency plan to stop your (very important to the survival of humanity) son being taken into care when you get carried off by the men in white coats. Worse, even though she knows her son is basically the Messiah, she treats him like a commodity while he pleads for affection. Not very inspiring.
While some contradictory elements are desirable in a character, Sarah takes a swinging jump from one side of the scale to the other in the story – why does she even need to go through all that training to get bulked up, when she knows full well she’s already dispatched one of the Terminators through her wits alone in the first film?
And what’s Arnie doing helping her, if she’s so capable? After all, Kyle Reece didn’t need any robot help when he rescued Sarah in the first film, yet even with all that military training, Sarah apparently needs a helping hand from Arnie against the melting guy. Because she’s a woman?
Whatever you think of Sarah Connor, let’s not forget just how she is remembered: in that pose in military combats, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses: not a woman, not a mother, not a saviour, but every inch the killing machine.
RIGHT: Lex in Alien Versus Predator
Plot-wise, AVP was rubbish, but we all watched it anyway, because the idea of a Predator getting into a scrap with an Alien was too much to resist. The surprise bonus is that Lex was actually a pretty decent character.
Lex has an inflated sense of responsibility, just like her predecessor Ripley (or descendant, if you want to get technical) and draws on Ripley without copying her move for move. She has strong opinions and reasons for doing what she does, reminiscing about her father’s untimely death during a mountain climb – yet she never succumbs to sentimentality.
Even faced with horrifying, shocking monsters, she’s clever and resourceful, realising not only that the Predators are only after the guns the group have taken, but that the Predators might help them survive, too. She accepts she may not ever get out of the pyramid, but tells her colleague they simply cannot allow such creatures to get to the surface.
Had the actual story of AVP simply hung together better, Lex could have been celebrated as a strong female character.
WRONG: Isabelle in Predators
Isabelle is another Mossad agent: she erupts into the Predators jungle, pointing a gun at protagonist Royce and his dubious friends. She seems capable and even lets slip later she has some knowledge of the creatures, so at least in the first half she looks like maybe she’s an action heroine to be reckoned with. But alas no, it isn’t to be. In fact, her fall from grace in the second half of the movie is so spectacular, you immediately begin to pick holes in her performance from the off.
Considering Isabelle is so keen to describe herself and the other humans as ‘predators’ as well, there doesn’t seem to be a single solitary predatory thing about her. In fact, she has the ultimate predator failing: compassion. While she’s certainly consistent, it’s a strange character choice. Remember that other famous female Mossad agent Ziva is ruthless in the field; she does not compromise her own safety or the safety of her team, even if it makes her feel bad. Yet we are asked to believe Isabelle will, in the name of a ‘greater good’ – and at the same time, we’re asked to think of her as a ‘predator’, the best in her field, which is why she was chosen for the mission. The two simply do not add up.
Add to the equation that embarrassingly obvious plot “twist” regarding the fallen comrade she goes back for and suddenly we realise that actually, Isabelle isn’t a serious character at all but stuck in there as the “token female”. Thanks a lot.
Video game heroines:
RIGHT: Alice in Resident Evil
If the plot holes in this movie were cracks in the wall, director Paul WS Anderson would paper over them, and when the cracks split through regardless he’d move a bookcase in front of them and hope no one would notice.
But Anderson’s saving grace in this film (not so much the others in the series) is Alice herself. Alice doesn’t just look great in that red dress: she actually has a goal, and problems, and a mental struggle — and none of it relates to a man! Nope, Alice’s inner turmoil relates to morality: has she betrayed her contact inside The Hive? Is the zombie outbreak her fault? If it was her fault, was she motivated by greed?
Happily, it emerges that Alice is an activist, not a money-grabbing capitalist; better still, the antagonist (and money-grabbing capitalist) turns out to be none other than Alice’s fake husband, so we get to see Alice get her bloody revenge (“Missing you already”) just like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. If anyone is the female version of Arnie, it’s Milla Jovovich.
WRONG: Lara Croft in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Lara Croft has been compared to Indiana Jones, but that’s a stretch. For one thing, Indie was a three-dimensional character: he is capable and educated, yet at the same time afraid of snakes and slightly hysterical about everything he does. So it’s not hard to believe Mr Jones can get himself into such scrapes - but we also believe he can get himself out of them (bar perhaps surviving a nuclear blast by getting in a fridge).
Lara, by comparison, feels like Indie’s half-sister, brought up by another mother in a different country, who only sees him once a year at Christmas. We’re told she’s well educated, well travelled and privileged, but we see very little evidence of that side of her. Instead, there’s a rather embarrassing encounter with Jolie’s real-life father Jon Voight, spelling out for us that, yet again, this is a female character with issues about her father and his premature death (yawn).
RIGHT: Ripley, Alien and Alien 3
There is no doubt Ripley is a seminal character. We’ve heard a lot about how Ripley was originally a male character, but comparatively little about the fact Sigourney Weaver originally auditioned for the part of Lambert, a character she conceived as a wisecracker, rather than the hysteric that Veronica Cartwright very successfully played her as. Looking back now, Sigourney Weaver would have been the wrong choice for Lambert – not just because of film history and the void it would have left, but because it was the relationship between these two female characters that made the film, and also made Ripley so compelling. Had she been the only woman on the ship, Ripley would have had to tough it out with her shipmates, and might have seemed less three-dimensional; with another woman on board, the problems that arise between two women who clearly don’t like each other can be brought to the fore.
And let’s face it, problems between two women are very different from those that arise between two men, or between a man and a woman. There’s the sniping (“That’s not our system.” ”I know that.”), the stark looks and averted eyes across the dinner table, and even the catfight in the director’s cut. Small moments, but they all added to the characterisation of both female characters, turning Ripley into something really special. After all, though she had no love for Lambert, as Lambert began to unravel, Ripley grew stronger. When Lambert announces they should all take the shuttle after Dallas’ death, it would have been very easy for Ripley to snap at her, yet Ripley soothes her. As the stronger person, Ripley knew she could afford to be charitable – which is why we love her so much.
Alien 3 is much maligned by critics and audiences alike, and it’s not difficult to see why: there’s some embarrassingly clunky dialogue; the CGI monster was way too ambitious for its time and looked dated even when it first came out; there was some poor acting; there’s a near-rape scene for Ripley and there’s some static directing. But this is Ripley returned to her position in the first film: alone and up against it, forced to make unpalatable decisions, and, even better, she’s the only woman fighting an all-male establishment like a human metaphor for feminism. Dallas is replaced by Dylan, a reformed rapist and murderer, who sacrifices himself in the lead mill for Ripley in the same way Dallas goes into the vent when it should have been Ripley in the first movie. The character of Eighty Five was an inspired counter to Lambert in the first movie – he too is the weakest link, but in a completely different way.
And finally, Ripley dies rather than give the Company the creature – a fitting end for her character. Even the Alien Queen bursting from her chest isn’t enough to kill Ripley, who grabs the creature and holds it with her as she falls to their mutual destruction.
WRONG: Ripley in Aliens and Alien Resurrection
A lot of attention has been paid to Ripley’s maternal side in Aliens, so let’s deal with that first. Ripley’s lost daughter on Earth and subsequent attachment to Newt is a great start, but the exposition here is so bone-crunchingly on the nose, it’s just embarrassing. Do women really talk to little girls like that? The extended edition adds even more of this dross: by the time Newt is asking about where babies come from in relation to the aliens, I just wanted to jump out of a window.
That aside, what else drives this version of Ripley? Well, not much. For about three quarters of the movie she defers first to Gorman, then Hicks, only making her one big decision - “Save Newt” - once her knight in shining armour has been despatched by acid and can’t do anything else for her. How’s that for girl power? Ripley is relegated to the sidelines for most of this movie, which is a colossal shame.
Fast forward 200 years and Ripley’s been dead for a long time in the bottom of that fire pit, yet somehow scientists have managed to scrape out enough of her DNA to grow her – and the alien foetus inside her – in a lab somewhere. It’s a good thing we want to suspend our disbelief for the sake of another Alien movie, or that’d be a tough one to swallow.
Alien Resurrection looks great for the most part, it even has that nightmarescape feel more in keeping with the others, rather than the war games action of James Cameron’s version. But Ripley has changed. Everything we loved about her – her steadfast resolution, her compassion, her warmth – is gone. Instead we’re asked to empathise with Annalee, who turns out to be an android – a nice reversal, but an own goal in terms of taking yet another female character seriously (the half-arsed reference to the sexual revolution - “We burned our modems” - is just embarrassing).
The whole point is that the Alien movies mean Ellen Ripley, and this just … wasn’t Ripley.
Georgina Voss recommends four of the best autobiographical comics by women
Every comic book superhero has an origin story. They tell the reader - this guy here? This is what made him into the flying/surly/razor-clawed dude bent on revenge/fighting/tea that he is today. Origins can be surprising: gentle James Howlett grows up to be the burly, cigar-smoking, adamantium-skeletoned mutant Wolverine (with a little help from the US military).
Origins also show how important key events can be in shaping a life: while both Anthony Stark and Bruce Wayne are raised in rich metropolitan families, it takes a terrorist kidnapping and family murder to steer their lives towards high-tech crime fighting as Iron Man and Batman respectively.
Most importantly, though, origin stories let readers identify with the protagonists of extremely long-running series. Outside of the realm of spandex-clad crime fighters, autobiographical comics let us enter into the world of another person for a little while – something that can be vitally important when it comes to telling the stories of real women’s lived experiences. CONTINUE READING.
Re/Action talked to Peter Dolving, frontman of Swedish metal band The Haunted, about the power of music…
Do you think music can work to change the world?
I believe music works as a magnifier, something to empower the listener. If a group of people feel strongly about something, music that expresses those emotions makes them feel relieved and empowered, showing that obviously they are not alone in feeling what they feel. In this way I believe music is integral in all and any motion to social change. However, music alone won’t do the job. It’s merely a wonderful emotional medium that helps us swim rather than sink.
What musicians do you think have succeeded in getting across a positive message?
Fugazi, Prophagandhi, Nina Hagen, Queen, Henry Rollins, Billy Bragg, Ani Di Franco, Radiohead, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Tegan and Sara, Ministry, Salt n Pepa, Talking Heads, The Swans, The Cure, Siouxsee and The Banshees, Throbbing Gristle, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, The Melvins, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Jesus Lizard…
I could go on forever, but it’s a combination of words, music, roles and specific actions at specific times; intentionally or unintentionally. The attitude of non-conformity is not exclusive, it is around in every genre of music, wherever an artist expresses a hunger for liberation, the decision to go against social conformity, to be motion rather than stagnant. It’s about gender, social status, physical conditions, drugs, sex, family ties or purely political rants. There are of course artists who do the opposite, who sell the neoliberal chauvinist hyper materialistic world-view. Look and listen. Always listen to the words in context to the music and the actions of artists.
What one prejudice do you think people should take more time to examine?
The idea of normality. It is a completely irrational construction built on generalisations and self justification. The concept and word itself is only about a hundred years old, and was created by early sociologists who needed a term when fumbling for reference points in writing. However, the actual concept will always be a completely subjective perspective of a generalised group and their mechanisms. For example, heterosexuality - if it was ‘normal’, we’d have no rock ‘n’ roll, we would have no abstract art and design. We would have no Tom of Finland, etc. Personally, I believe that with time expressions like this will simply fail to be a part of contemporary language as knowledge and understanding in society as a whole grows. There is no general normativity. It’s merely a bat we wield to justify ourselves.
What does playing in a band mean to you?
I love the process itself. Everything in it. It’s like being a Shaolin monk, but I learn to dance instead of having swords to my neck. With time, the discipline is recreating me as a human being on every level radically, sometimes terribly painfully, sometimes through the sheer immensity. At this point I am completely annihilated by it. I have surrendered to the fact that reality, from the perspective I have now, is nothing whatsoever like what I believed it to be. I am very happy and hopeful.
What inspires and provokes you?
Money, violence, religion, sex and love.
How do you imagine your way into the mind of a person with schizophrenia if you’ve never suffered from mental illness yourself? What about depression, or a phobia? Mary Hamilton looks at how role-playing games deal with mental illness…
One of the most enjoyable bits about pretending to be somebody else is playing with the nature of humanity. Tabletop games - the sort where you get out funny-shaped dice and character sheets and tell everyone what your persona is about to do - are a great way to escape and immerse yourself in creative, vivid worlds. They’re also brilliant ways to explore issues and ideas you’d never go near in everyday life.
But they can be hugely problematic. In these games, groups of people sit down together and play characters, normally exploring situations devised by a storyteller and inventing their characters and the game world as they go. The core mechanic of most tabletop games uses polyhedral dice to resolve conflicts, within systems that model human behaviour, actions and personalities. Some are gorgeously elegant mathematical models that lead to natural resolutions. Others are clunky, messy, weird or downright offensive - especially when it comes to the tricky question of what makes our brains go boom.
Fantasy worlds, real ignorance
Mental illness isn’t an easy subject to tackle for anyone. Seasoned writers, directors, producers and all sorts of other creative types crash and burn when it comes to sensitive, non-horrendous portrayals of people dealing with depression or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. So it’s no surprise that games designers also have a tendency to, well, fail in this area.
Some tabletop games - like the ubiquitous Dungeons & Dragons - simply steer well away from the subject, sticking to tried and tested areas like hitting big monsters with swords and firing magic missiles at the darkness. Others - like World of Darkness - manage to offer a fascinating, if upsetting, insight into the stigma against the mentally ill.
World of Darkness is an interlocking series of games that have a central core: supernaturals exist and the world is a horrid scary place. The core game includes character creation and gaming rules for humans, with add-on books about vampires, mages, werewolves, changelings and a variety of super- or ab-human things your human character could become if he encounters something horrid.
One fundamental thread in the second and current edition of the system is Morality - a 10-point track running from utter immorality and depravity up to glorious goodness of a saintly level. Basically, if a character commits a ‘sin’ of some kind - murder, theft, mocking small children - the player rolls dice to see whether they feel remorse and retain their Morality, or whether they think it’s absolutely fine and hence lose some Morality. The less moral a character is, the more unpleasant the sin has to be before it has an effect - and the less guilt they feel about other things. Morality turns up in other games in the World of Darkness series skewed slightly to reflect the prevailing social norms of the supernaturals using it - in Vampire, for instance, it’s recast as Humanity and tracks how much a vampire loses their soul after the change.
But, as well as losing the ability to feel guilt, characters develop derangements - mental illnesses - on their way down the Morality track. Mental illness, specifically including schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, phobias, fixations and a host of other problems suffered by real people every day, are explicitly included as a sort of punishment for doing bad things. It even includes hysteria - an illness originally believed to be caused by women’s wombs wandering around their bodies - and defines it, system-wise, as one step worse than a phobia.
It’s also possible to develop mental illnesses as a linear result of trauma, but by far the most common use of the mechanic is for a character to - for instance - decide to steal something, then not to feel bad about it, and then to suddenly become a kleptomaniac. Loss of morals is intrinsically linked to going nuts – and getting better means getting well by being a better person.
There’s a huge stigma against mental illness in modern life. The stereotype of the violent schizophrenic who kills because of his (it’s always “his” not “her”) condition is alive and well in the minds of many – even though schizophrenics are more likely to hurt themselves than others. Other mental illnesses are seen as signs of weakness, narcissism, or other personality defects, or indications that a person is somehow fundamentally broken. World of Darkness as a system reinforces this view of mad and bad being permanently linked, and of mental illness as a scar on a person that can – and should – be healed by behaving well.
This is, to put it mildly, not the most sensitive way to handle mental illness. It’s also utterly ass-backwards in terms of characterisation. Playing a schizophrenic character is a very, very serious decision that needs a lot of thinking through - and forcing someone into it because of a casual character action is a recipe for player discontent and an inconsistent portrayal. Not everyone is suited to play a mad character - certainly not everyone who wants to play a bad one. So, in many gaming groups, madness is played as badness, as frothing lunatics or evil serial killers, or it’s played for laughs – the funny schizophrenic is depressingly common, especially in World of Darkness Vampire, where there’s a whole family of the fiends who are completely mad (in that oh-so-amusing wacky way that turns life-threatening illnesses into one big joke).
A better way
But including mental health systems in a game can bring depth and intrigue to the world and give players the opportunity to create something truly mesmerising - as it does in Unknown Armies. World of Darkness and Unknown Armies fill the same niche: noir realism, grim supernatural scenes, the chance your character might have to do something horrendous and the near-certainty that they’ll experience something awful.
This is a game that’s creepy as hell when you play it well, all about postmodern magic and urban mythologies and genuinely weird shit. And mental health plays a big part in it - it’s a fundamental element of the game. Everyone is a little bit screwed up because of their past, everyone has personal triggers and bad memories, and every character deals with the reality of what their world is becoming in wildly different ways.
Authors Greg Stolze and John Tynes list five areas of mental stress: isolation, violence, helplessness, the self and the unnatural. Exposure to things that cause stress in these areas means your character makes a stress check to see how well they cope – and both failing and succeeding have consequences.
Let’s say you’re trapped in a lift for 48 hours – that’s an isolation stress check. If you fail, you start to be slightly scared of being alone. Not much, but it adds up over time. And if you succeed, you get better at coping with being alone – but you start to get worse at relating to other people. Both effects are cumulative, and take real time to build up into something that has a serious effect on your character – which makes them much easier to play out than a sudden on-off switch that gives your character a derangement. Often a character will end up with effects from both failing and being hardened against stress checks, leading to complex, ambivalent reactions to in-game situations. The system not only forces you to think about how mental health really works – a sliding scale with cumulative self-reinforcing effects, in which anyone can slip into unhealthy patterns of behaviour – but also gets you to think about how to role-play the effects of trauma sensitively and intelligently.
And what of schizophrenia and multiple personalities? That’s where Unknown Armies really shines - because it tells you not to do it. Deliberately. It even says, “A great many people have misperceptions about these disorders, and we don’t want to reinforce any incorrect information out there.” Although the authors were writing before the term ‘dissociative identity disorder’ became current, they treat multiple personalities as a serious issue, and firmly suggest to players that they should do the same, avoiding caricatures and asking them to research conditions before considering playing them.
Playing with ideas
In the end it’s down to the players and the storyteller of any tabletop game to create the experience they want to have. Lots of folks are fine with mental illness played for laughs – including those of us who’ve dealt or are dealing with mental health issues – but lots of others aren’t, and a system that builds in cavalier treatment of such a serious issue pushes people away. But more importantly for me, in a system that’s about realism and horror and features elegant models for physical conflicts, I want an elegant model for mental ones too - something that lets me play with ideas and play out difficulties and perhaps, in the end, come to a better understanding of how mental illness works.
Illustration by The Alchemy of Art.