Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thoughts and reflections on the "weaker sex"

On one of the pages of fellow role-player and blogger, Merry, I found some musings about women in Second Life role-play that gave me pause to think, for it raised in my mind some of my own thoughts and reflections about the selection of roles in historical rp sites, especially for women!

She comments:

"Recently I was reading reviews of the PBS show "Frontier House. In that show, three families from various economic and social backgrounds were forced to live for months just as the settlers did....

"Their inability to submit to authority, constant determination to be top dog of the community, and stubborn refusal to compromise resulted in making the experiment even more difficult. In the case of the Colonial House, such behavior endangered the entire community.

"What is fascinating about the failure of the participants is that they were most often adult female cast members. This compares similarly to my experiences in the historic role play of Second Life. Females seem unable to accept and enact the truth of the era.

Modern women see only the limitations of the role, viewing their foremothers with disdain. Her historical counterpart is put down as weak, ineffective and helpless. Nothing could be further from the truth. For women to have accomplished as much as they did given the restrictions in their lives is heroic."

How true that last sentence is! However, I would have to respectfully disagree on the generalizations about "females being unable to accept and enact the truth of the era" and "Modern women see only the limitations of the role, viewing their foremothers with disdain." This may be true of a few lost souls, but I am very thankful I stumbled into role-play in Deadwood, a historical sim where I do not see among the women I regularly role-play with any disdain of the women whose lives are used to recreate the times!

What I have seen sometimes among newcomers to historical role-play is a difficulty to find or create an appropriate role for a female character, balancing the reality of the times with expectations of fellow players while making a role that is still interesting to play.

Those who role-play historical women may be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Those who choose the “historically correct” path have the challenge of creating and developing interesting characters from a reality that was not glamorous or earth shatteringly noticeable.

Those who decide to play more exceptional women of the times may be criticized for playing women who seem more like a modern woman set back in the 19th century.

In Deadwood during those times (1876-79), women (respectable ones anyway) were in the minority. Many of those who were there were a tough bunch, or led short lives. Most could not be independent and had little access to their own finances. Bound by family expectations, legalities and the need for marriage to secure their place in the world, the position of the majority of women were more to be pitied than envied. Those who worked in their homes, in the fields or on their backs 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days a year were incredible women.

That women made any "accomplishments" as defined by today's terms would have been amazing! High falootin' big payin' careers, Masters degrees let alone PhD’s, ownership of large businesses, political lives, world travel, a carefree single life -- dream on!

The average woman’s measure of success back then might have more to do with who her father was, how powerful and wealthy her husband was, how many children she had born him, how well she managed her home, or – in some cases – how she managed to keep herself out of prostitution in Deadwood – rather than her own personal academic or business accomplishments.

If they want to be “historically correct”, role playing women in Deadwood, as with their real life counterparts, often have few roles to choose from that are also enjoyable to play.

Men, as always, have more choices. We’ve had a flood of men who wish to play powerful bad guys or wholesome heroes. But we also have a lot of men stepping up to be Mayors and Sheriffs, Union leaders, thieves, robbers, entertainers, Homestead manager, Saloon owner, drunken doctor, mortician, hotel or store owners, farriers, miners, bankers.

Realistically, women would not have had most of those roles except as supporters - entertainers, nurses, bank teller - saloon owner perhaps. Add teachers, parlor girls, shopkeepers, cooks, midwives, mothers, wives.

These are all interesting role-play opportunities, offering a chance to really go back in time and live a woman’s life. These women would have been second class citizens, many living lives of quiet desperation, perhaps exhausted, depressed, using laudanum or alcohol to numb themselves. If single or widowed, they may have been quietly or frantically seeking a husband, not as a love match but as a pratical solution to what could turn into a frightening situation.

A rich possibility for role-play – Jeni Trefusis comes to mind as someone who got deep into her abused prostitute role, then killed her character off in a fairly historically correct style murder. Dio Kuhr’s character is another whose history is convincing, having lived a rough life then pulled herself up by her @#$%&* bootstraps (ah, that I could curse like Dio does!) Widow Hannah Shinn, left in debt to raise two children found herself in deep despair, indentured to shady businessman (aka killer) Blackjack Lander.

Along with these, we’ve had our hotel manager/owner and her cook (Cookie and Coodnank), newspaper writers, successful shopkeepers and small business owners, teachers and (ahem) “entertainers”, some resourceful women who moved themselves out of the “business”, becoming wives or madams (Miss Wilder, owner of the Bella Union; Lola McGinnis Kanto, who married out) and a handful of women who were wives of successful businessmen. In reality, the women these characters are based on may have led lives that were fulfilling but undocumented, details and stories forgotten after the last of the grandchildren died.

In Deadwood roleplay, there have been many more of these characters, most gone, not all forgotten.

Many players of females seem to prefer to start from templates of modern day success for women for their Deadwood characters. Since I’ve been there, we’ve had female Mayors/Town leaders, lawmen (including a great Sheriff), bank robbers, murderers, physicians, lawyers. We’ve had an endless supply of females claiming degrees from Ivy League colleges, widows with vast wealth, heiresses of royal blood and fortune.

These roles are somewhat based on realities of the times, albeit a tad stretched, and the popularity (perhaps due to the familiarity) has resulted in a heavy flood of strong females, ironically making the historical accuracy of the sim doubtable. No doubt, there were successful female outlaws back then. There were a few female doctors and the first woman mayor in the country,Susanna Salter, was elected in 1887 (a stretch but close enough for most of us). In fact, there were a lot of real women for players to base their characters on – though many were successful for work that in our times (and then) was illegal.

Of course, we are merely human, and when we come to role-play we may not want to play an average woman, we may want to be exceptional, someone different than the person we might have been had we been born back then. (Or maybe we think though we are ordinary today, back then we would have been born with all of our 21st century liberated woman thinking set firmly in stone and would have been extraordinary!)

That is all well and good except if you multiply that times 10 or 100, you can end up with an overload of powerful or successful women in a time period where it is not historically correct or realistic to have more than a handful (if that) of important women.

We cannot seem to drop entirely our modern selves as we enter into role-play, no matter how good a player we might be. We try, but it may be virtually and realistically impossible for a role-playing woman (or man) to fully grasp the second class citizen position a nineteenth century American woman (or foreign woman in America) would have encountered, regardless of her marital, economic, and social status, no matter her education, intellect, beauty or psychological superiority to the males with whom she interacted. It would be the rare and exceptional woman who would have had any noticeable power or access to her finances.

There is some stretching and accepting that has to be done. It would be something if more people would be willing to be ordinary people and grow their characters from there. Perhaps that’s why I prefer being a child – children would be backdrop to the adults around them, with few expectations. Most adults if they cared for my character would only want her to grow up to find a good husband and would have fit her education to do the same. She wants to be a mortician (don’t ask) but I don’t have to play that or realize, as a child, how unrealistic a future that is for a little girl in 1878. We are there to have fun and we do!

Like those PBS shows, role-play in Deadwood is not reality – it is a sampling of life in a times that looks appealing from afar. We get to play around with some of the realities that would make us want to tp home if we found ourselves really in Deadwood in 1876 -79, having to live as the folks did back then.

I cannot resist adding I watched both of the PBS shows when they first came out. Frontier was fascinating to me, psychologically and historically. Of the 13 participants, only one, who did happen to be a woman, was credited with nearly ruining the operation and possibly her marriage through her behavior -- the other 12 which included 2 other women, 3 men and several children -- did their best. Karen Karen Karen… I wonder where she is today?

Colonial life was memorable to me not for women being unable to work with others or desiring to be in charge, but for a whole group of people, male and female, who found it difficult to impossible to play by the rules of the times -- refusing to go to church on Sundays, a young man coming out to pilgrim fellows and receiving no time appropriate response, leaving the set to walk into town (men), etc. These were harsh times, and as I recall there were servants, pilgrims and Native Americans (uncast real ones) adding to the mix. The difficulties were shared pretty equally by men and women, one couple in particular being quite the “pill”.

Of course, nobody was forced – this was a choice the people made to participate – it must have seemed a good idea at the time. I can relate to their inability to live in the reality of the era they were set in – we have a lot of comforts we take for granted, not just those we remember when the power is out for more than a day or two.

In Colonial life, one of the men quit when faced with the emotions of life as a black indentured servant. I have a hard enough time as a liberated woman in 2009 submitting to the authority of the IRS, doctor’s orders, and those who determine who can get the swine flu vaccine. I’d be a miserable failure trying to follow the rules for a woman prior to the 1960’s.

And I’m not sure I’d want to do my historical role-playing on a reality TV show, exposed to the world on DVD forever!


  1. I'm honored that you not only took the time to read my blog, but that it actually led to such an excellent piece of your own.

    A small disclaimer---I don't claim Deadwood on my blog because I rp in many Western/Victorian sims and I wrote that at a time I was fresh from a few visits. The Deadwood players you named (and you may include yourself) have not only impressed me with their characters, but often helped me solidify my own. Deadwood stands alone in its historical representations, as I've often proudly proclaimed in other areas of the internet.

    Unfortunately, outside of DW the 'viewing their foremothers with disdain' is very common and I find that shameful. I do believe that if more rl women had to walk a mile in those Victorian boots, they would find a greater sense of gender pride then they have previously experienced.

  2. To some extent Marrant, I think part of what went wrong with the "house" series wasn't so much the fault of the participants but was most likely consciously set up by the shows' producers, casting people, and directors.

    Remember that in the minds of the spit-dribbling assholes who create most television--especially "reality" television--they think that "good TV" requires, conflict, some "fish out water social interaction," and people being theatrical, smarmy douchebags.

    They chose their "casts" on that basis.

    If they had picked living history specialists, amateur and professional historians, and reasonable rational people who would try to really make the premise work, they would have had far different shows.

    Yeah, you would have still had drama, but it probably would have been more like the "you're wearing the wrong kind of glasses" conflicts that you get at most reenactments.

    I think in general what we have in Deadwood is more like the drama you get at a reenactment than some of the nonsense you see on "Frontier House" type shows.

    Yeah, you have people who come in without having thought too much about what it is going to be like, but on the whole the people who stay seem to really think about what is going on and make a pretty good effort to have some kind of reasonable rationale for the nature of the character they play.

    For that matter, the more in-depth research some of us have done into the roles that women, men, children, immigrants, people of color, etc. took on in the 19th century American West, the more it seems that the situation was not as absolute or black-and-white as we may have been inclined to think.

    It was the frontier, after all--it was a place where conventions and"the rules" got stretched and fudged and outright broken an awful lot.

    It's like the whole thing about "oh, respectable women would never go in a saloon."

    Well, yeah, mostly that is true to some extent...yet there is archaeological evidence from saloons that were excavated in Virginia City that indicates there were many different kinds of saloons in that historic mining town: among these there were in fact ones that only served men, but there also were others that included families and respectable women and children among their customers. And one of the best saloons among those that were excavated was one that was owned by African Americans.

    Go see this blurb for more info:

    Sometimes we assume we know how things were, and we say, "oh that would never happen."

    Maybe. Or maybe before we say "never" we need to do a bit more research. But then that has been much of the fun of playing in Deadwood--all the things we have learned together.

  3. Another thoughtful post, Miss Vita.

    If I could add my two cents' worth, it seems to me that the degree to which stretching historical reality matters depends on the reasons for role-playing in the first place (which, in turn, defines the partciular RP arena for those individuals).

    I'm no expert on historical accuracy in any period before, say, 1975, and drama of the "those glasses aren't accurate" sort would drive me crazy, but if like-minded people want historical accuracy, and are entertained by it, that's great. On the other hand, if like-minded people want to entertain themselves and others by creating dramatic episodes through role-playing in a certain period, it may be the case that the drama is heightened - or that it's just more entertaining for all - by allowing some elements that are not strictly accurate. Too much "life how it was lived" may well be deadly dull.

  4. I think it's fascinating how many strong women there have been that have come and gone in DW. I can't think of too many that were unrealistic... the pioneer women in my family were all extremely strong women, opinionated, hard working, and uncelebrated. Those women were in part the basis for my own character.

    My maternal grandmother, as an example, was born on a farm in North Dakota in 1910. She didn't want to be a farmer's wife, and booked out for teaching college as soon as she could. When that wasn't enough adventure for her, she got on a train and came out to Seattle during the Great Depression, found herself an office job, and shared an apartment with another single office girl. She only hinted at the wild times they had as single girls in what was still essentially a frontier town in the 1930s.

    She didn't marry until she was in her 30s, and didn't have my mother until she was 36. She started a business with my grandfather and they traveled the world.

    She was not a typical woman of her times -- indeed, she was ahead of her time in many ways -- but I know she was not the only woman of that time who took that unconventional route. And while *her* mother took the traditional route of becoming a farmer's wife, my great-grandmother was an interesting character too, and is the one who instilled in my grandmother that thirst for adventure (which she passed on to me).

    So I would have to agree with Dio in that we can't generalize about what the typical experience was for a woman on the frontier. I think if anything, a woman had to be damn strong willed to survive there, regardless of her social position or marital status.

    And I agree with Rhianon's comment about "Too much 'life how it was lived' may well be deadly dull." In an RP environment, you need to have the unconventional character or scenario surface every so often. Like RL, it's the unexpected that happens which throws us out of our safety zone. It's what makes life worth living not only in RL, but in RP, too.

  5. Dio, Rhianon and Asto, y'all are such strong women, I'm cannot tell if you are in agreementw with me or if you're disagreeing with my post!

    Perhaps I need to proof more before I hit the Save key :) but it was my intent in my posts to be making many of the points you've stated, along with others.

    Although in Deadwood within SL, I believe we do have an excess of strong and "successful" women compared to what would have been realistically found in the real Deadwood, in no way was that meant to be a criticism.

    There is some stretching (i.e. acceptance) that has to be done in order for us to have fun.

    I'm in agreement with the potential dullness of "life how it was lived" -- for me some of the interesting characters, however, are those who have taken those ordinary characters and used them for short or long vignettes, with role-play stories that are as good as a novel to read.

    The Mrs. Slade series comes to mind -- she was not an exceptionally rich or powerful woman -- but that story....

  6. Well I just lost my lengthy reply, which is just as well, because some of it involved a euphemism that evolved from the Mrs Slade storyline. But I digress.

    I'll try to stay focused (unlike my previous comment)to say that I agree with what you say about the most interesting characters being the most interesting.

    Hopefully without sounding like a suckup, the best RP I have seen in DW has involved some combination of Dio, CarrieAnne and Elizabeth. Those ordinary moments you generate so organically are what make me strive to be a better RPer.

    I've seen a lot of melodrama in the western sims I've RPed in, and I tend to think it's inexperienced RPers who lean toward its use -- I'm no saint in this case, I've certainly succumbed to the temptation to be a drama queen in my time... but the more experience I gain, the easier it is to resist the soap opera storylines.

  7. A great post I'm a little late in coming upon (I shall tweet it and drive more RPers here!) sp all my points are covered. I will say that it takes a very particular RPers to want to persue an ordinary role and I would think that most people's desires to make their characters other-than-ordinary is what lays behind most RPers historically unlikely (although proabably more fun that the real thing). Take Steelhead - we have a werewolve for sheriff, evil kitten as town industralist, elf as mayor & dragon as barkeep - all in an 1890s Oregon coastal town :-D

    An additional point linked to Dio's comment about raelity TV. I agree totally! We have it here, of course, and I hate it because it always focuses on the negative and on the conlicts. We had a series here with great potential called "Surviving the Iron age" ( whoich was ruined by people just complaining and fighting throughout until the show became more like Big Brother. Contrast that waste of time with the excellent Victorian Farm ( and you are a world away in terms of commitment and interest. The former used real people who wanted to push themselves, the latter acedemics who knew there stuff and wanted to live it, learn and share. The other difference? Conflict in the former drew inches of press coverage and bumped up viewers, the latter modest viewers and no coverage. Sigh.