Playing woman – Part 1: Gender performativity

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An exploration of gender performativity as a backbone to a future study of the theatrical nature of gender-play in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG).


We suffer from an overwhelming need to label everything. If we can’t identify it, pin it to a chart and attach a name to it, we get confused, frustrated and sometimes angry. In online spaces, there is no label more consistently enforced than gender.


Throughout social networks, dating sites (unless they are sites specifically catering to trans communities), and e-commerce stores, users are frequently required to identify themselves as either female or male. But if we examine what gender actually means, its importance as an identifier diminishes and the rigidity of the female/male binary begins to break down.


Feminist scholar Judith Butler argues that gender is a performance; a cultural construction adhering to a set of historically established rules (Butler 1999). Gender is a character we play and not dictated by biological necessity. The reason why one child is given a Barbie doll to play with, while another gets a Spiderman figurine, has little to do with the children’s sex at birth, and everything to do with the social norms which encompass our lives. Butler writes, “that gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex and a true or abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character and the performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality” (Butler 1999, p. 421).


We are constantly bombarded by instructions on how to successfully perform ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Through advertising, popular culture, fashion and even our parents, we learn how to be a ‘real woman’ or a ‘real man’. Sociologist Eve Shapiro illustrates Butler’s point and demonstrates just how ingrained our concepts of femininity and masculinity are:


“Consider, for example, a prime marker of femininity in North America: the high-heeled shoe. Women wear them as a symbol of femininity, men do not*. Although high heels are not regarded as biologically compelled attire, most members of our society do see wearing them as a trait of being feminine. […] Over time, wearing high heels will change the shape of a woman’s feet and the arch in her back, alter her gait, and strengthen particular muscles in her legs. These changes result in a body comportment that highlights breasts and buttocks, a gait that incorporates swaying hip movements, and legs with long, lean muscles. In other words, following this social norm (there is no gene for wearing high heels, after all) changes women’s physiology and produces some of the feminine characteristics we attribute to biology” (Shapiro 2010, p. 4).


Butler’s use of the word ‘performative’ deliberately conjures up imagery of a theatrical act: every day we put on costumes, recite lines and act out behaviours fitting for our assumed gender. Tina Fey quipped at the Golden Globes yesterday that in comparison to the two hours it took for actor Steve Carrell to be transformed in the makeup chair for his recent role in The Foxcatcher, it took her “three hours today to prepare for my role as ‘Human Woman'” (YouTube).


When we perform well, we are applauded. However, when we deviate from the norm, we are punished. Judith Halberstam elabourates on some of those punishments in her book Female Masculinity. In the segment “The Bathroom Problem”, a butch walking into a public “ladies” room is confronted not only with the question of her legitimacy in that space, but she is also subjected to derision and even the threat of security being called (Halberstam 1998, p. 20).


In online spaces, gender performativity can be observed in all its theatrical splendor in MMORPG environments. Here players construct the identity of the characters with which they will play the game, often choosing race, class and abilities, and in many games also gender. It is acceptable and in fact typical for players to choose not to play as the same gender they identify themselves with offline.


Male players have reported playing as female game characters for a variety of reasons, including for the aesthetic pleasure of watching a woman fight on screen (Yee 2014), as escapism (Nakamura 2000, p.3), and because female characters sometimes have different skills or abilities (MacCallum-Stewart 2008, p. 27). Women may play as men to avoid conflict (see my essay on Women and Gaming from last year), to benefit from what they see as ‘masculine’ abilities, such as strength and confidence (Todd 2012, p. 105 – 106), or for other reasons I have yet to uncover in my research.


And what of those who do not subscribe to either ‘male’ or ‘female’? What about those who are in-between or someone else, who are unable to tick one of the two boxes which have for so long standardised our identity? If “genders can be neither true nor false, real nor apparent, neither original nor derived” (Butler 1999, p.421), then what does this mean in terms of performativity in games? Over the coming weeks I hope to uncover some clues about what gender play in MMORPGs says about players’ gender performances and the impact of these performances on their online identities,  and perhaps even on their offline lives.




*Shapiro’s statement does not necessarily ignore or invalidate the very many men who do wear high-heeled shoes for many reasons, but rather demonstrates why the culturally constructed image of the ‘real woman’ should not be viewed as something essential or biological.




2015 Golden Globes – Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, YouTube, <>


Butler, Judith 2014 (1999), Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, 10th edn, Routledge


Halberstam, Judith 1998, Female Masculinity, Duke University Press


MacCallum-Stewart, Esther 2008, ‘Real Boys Carry Girl Epics: Normalising Gender Bending in Online Games’, Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture, vol 2. no. 1


Nakamura, Lisa 2000, Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet


Shapiro, Eve 2010, Gender Circuits: Bodies and Identities in a Technological Age, Routledge


Todd, Cherie 2012, ‘”Troubling” gender in virtual gaming spaces’, Department of Geography, Tourism and Environmental Planning, University of Waikato


Yee, Nick 2014, ‘The Surprisingly Unsurprising Reason Why Men Choose Female Avatars in World of Warcraft’, Slate, <>

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