Pilot Versus Ballerina

Sometimes, if you are not a cis white dude, life will up and smack you in the face for not being a cis white dude. Even if all you are doing is sitting around typing crappy prose on your laptop.

I was doing just that when the love of my life started scrolling through the updated avatar clothing selections on Xbox Live. "Hey!" he said. "They have a cool jobs section!" And for a moment we delighted in the stereotypical avatar costumes: astronaut, farmer, doctor, pilot, professor.

They were so stereotypical that I was suddenly worried. "Switch to my account," I directed. "I bet you can't be an astronaut if you're female."

"Why would they be different?" he responded. "I bet they are the same."

We checked. They were not.

Astronaut was the same. Professor had been switched to scientist -- in a pencil skirt and lab coat with sassy red flats, rather than a tweed suit and black dress shoes. That raised an eyebrow slightly.

And then, we found ballerina. Ballerina, it seems, had replaced pilot.

You tell me what that plane looks like. Amirite?

And not just one pilot: a male avatar allows you to be either a commercial pilot (spiffy navy blue uniform) or a private pilot (spiffy brown leather bomber and khaki pants).

A female avatar means you can be a ballerina, but not a pilot.

Is this reflective of real life? Maybe if you are a girl and also five years old. But I kind of wanted to be a pilot at age five, so clearly the omgballerina desire is not innate to five-year-old girls.

Let us visit the website for the US Department of Labor! That's where they keep the statistics.

The number of dancers, male and female, employed in the US in 2008 was approximately 13,000. And this is without knowing how many dancers are specifically ballerinas (as opposed to modern dancers, belly dancers, nightclub dancers, etc.), which is undoubtedly a smaller number still.

The number of pilots and flight engineers, male and female, employed in the US in 2008 was approximately 116,000. That figure is higher almost by a factor of ten.

Exaggerated scenario one: if we assume both professions split evenly on gender lines, then you still have nearly nine times more female pilots than female dancers. It is much more likely that you are a female pilot than that you are a female dancer.

This is not a thing just anyone can do to their spine without years of expensive training.

Exaggerated scanario two: assume all dancers are ballerinas, which is clearly ridiculous, but bear with me. Where is the statistical point where you have a better chance of being a ballerina than a female pilot? In short, plug 13,000 into 116,000 and see what percentage comes out.

11. Eleven percent. You have a better chance of being a ballerina if less than eleven percent of pilots are female.

Of course, these statistics are just an illustration, because the avatar costumes are not about reality. They are about social norms, and policing gender boundaries. Girls should want to be ballerinas, because ballerinas are super feminine. They shouldn't want to be pilots (and boys should want to be) because pilots are super masculine.

Feminine, in this case, means: cultured, graceful, thin, and sexually unobtainable.

Masculine, in this case, means: gruff, rational, arrogant, and aggressively sexual.

In addition, as the love of my life pointed out, pilots make a significantly higher amount of money than ballerinas, with a significantly lower chance of on-the-job injury. (According to the BLS, professional dancers have one of the highest chances of being injured nonfatally at work.) So women are expected/encouraged to choose a profession in which they must conform to an impossibly high physical standard, with very little monetary recompense.

I have flown planes. I have taken ballet. Flying is much more fun. I would love to dress my avatar in a bomber jacket and black boots -- like I dress in real life.

But apparently that's not very feminine.


Some facts we learned in the course of tonight's research:

  • Googling "female pilot uniform" brings up quite a bit more porn than you would expect. Yes, even more than that.
  • Googling "male pilot" brings up a lot of whales (oh, I get it) and no porn. At least, not before I got tired of scrolling down.
  • Googling "manly pilot" introduces you to early aviation pioneer Charles Manly. So that's pretty neat. No porn, though you do get a cartoon of shirtless anime guys kissing.
  • Googling "man" does not bring up Don Draper in the first three pages. We kinda thought it would.
  • Googling "men" gets three images of Don Draper on the first page alone.

Prostitutes, Villains, and Video Games: A Rant

Let's talk about video games, and the ladies in them. And by ladies, I mean prostitutes. Back in 2008 (Ye Olden Dayes, it seems), Rockstar Games took a lot of heat on account of Grand Theft Auto IV, particularly the fact that within the game, you could hire a prostitute, have sex with her, kill her, and retrieve your cash. To many people it felt -- oh, what's the right adjective -- heartless. To many other people, it was hilarious, and titillating.

At the time, I was mostly indifferent. There are so many other issues with the Grand Theft Auto universe (racist stereotypes, the Madonna/whore complex, gratuitous violence and destruction), that it felt like the only proper response was the same one you see when you look up the goofs for the disaster movie The Core on IMDb: "Since almost all of the 'science' in the movie is entirely erroneous, we are prepared to accept that the movie's universe *must* have entirely different rules - it's the only possible explanation. It's just for fun."

I shrugged and went on with my life. And recently, Rockstar Games put out a very impressive Western, Red Dead Redemption. The critics have been gushing. And one of the things you tend to see as you explore this world is a man abusing a prostitute (wearing a white corset and black stockings, because she's Ye Olde-Tyme Hookere) and threatening to kill her. You then have the option of killing the guy, in which case your honor rating goes up, which means nuns might later hand you amulets that prevent your enemies' bullets from doing too much damage. (There's that Madonna/whore thing again!) You also have the option of killing the girl, but you lose honor for doing so.

It felt as though this was a clever way for the gamemakers to atone for the offense their earlier game had caused. And then, I learned about this:

This is much, much worse, even if you watch the video on silent and miss all the little catcalls the two narrators throw at this totally fictional, voiceless, doomed woman ("That's some hot stuff going on there"). Even when you realize the narrators are much more upset at the death of their equally fictional, equally voiceless, equally doomed horse than they are at the death of the woman they dragged out here to kill.

The primary reason this is much, much worse than killing prostitutes in GTA is very simple: this is now an Xbox Achievement.

Gamerscore is a fascinating phenomenon. Achievement points are accumulated by playing games: finishing a story, a part of the story, getting a certain number of kills, or anything else the gamemakers thought to include. Getting an achievement does not actually earn the player anything except a digital badge and an ever-increasing score, visible to the other players on Xbox Live. It is about pride, and competition, and a mark of enthusiasm. And since the number of achievement points possible on a given game is public, there is a strong drive to get all the achievements possible within the scope of a particular game.

Watching a woman die in an explosion of blood and splatter is worth 5 points. This is the lowest Xbox achievement value it is possible to have, except for one brand-new, snide achievement in Split-Second that is worth 0 points. (Reminds me of this post on the ever-amazing Tiger Beatdown.)

In GTA, you can kill the prostitute, but you have no real incentive. The cash values are pretty small, and there are plenty of other ways to earn money. You have no incentive at all that extends outside the world of the game.

But with this achievement in Red Dead Redemption, the gamer's pride is at stake. Completionists are going to throw that woman LITERALLY UNDER THE TRAIN for five measly points just so they can say they've got every achievement in the game. This woman is now a sacrifice.

But she's fictional! you will say.

You do not get the achievement if you hogtie a man and throw him under the train. It is very specifically gendered.

But the achievement's called "Dastardly!" you will say. Obviously it's a reference to Snidely Whiplash! It's funny!

You know what would have been funny? If you tied the woman up, put her on the train tracks, and a heroic blond Mountie rode up and rescued her and carried her off into the sunset. But no, this is a dark game, a game about justice and violence and killing people who deserve killing -- so the woman has to die.

And this is an important and not-yet-perfectly-untangled knot in the history of narrative. When you read a book whose morality is questionable -- Lolita, for instance -- you might get so put-off by the story that you can't even finish the book. If you do finish the book, you still cannot be held accountable for what happened in the course of the plot.

With a sandbox game, like GTA IV or Red Dead Redemption or Fallout 3 or to some extent my beloved Fable 2, you are definitely responsible for some (though usually not all) of the main character's choices. The protagonist's morality reflects back on you in a way that movies or books can't, not even books of the Choose Your Own Adventure variety.  Now, with Fallout 3 and Fable 2, being evil comes with an in-game cost: in the latter, for instance, you can sacrifice 10 people in the Temple of Shadows and get a corresponding achievement, but there is also an achievement for NOT sacrificing at the Temple of Shadows and for saving the Temple of Light instead.

There is absolutely no in-game cost to the Dastardly achievement in Red Dead Redemption. If you pull out your shotgun and shoot a townsperson, the law pursues you for a little while; same if you steal a horse. But hogtie a woman and leave her to be squished by a train -- nobody bats an eye.