Why don't "booth babes" get considered to be Women In Games?
I am not the first person to ask this question. Model View Culture's "Feminists in Tech: Please Stop Treating Sex Work as a Contagion" serves as a concise introduction to the topic. That article is a year old. This topic, and variations upon it, keeps coming up over and over again.
I've been trudging through the confusing swamp of cultivating my "professional nerd persona" for almost a decade now, and that trek has included a lot of different types of work, such as "professional cosplayer" in all of its confusing iterations. Guess what: the supposed distinction between "professional cosplayer" and "booth babe" is bullshit. There, now you don't have to read the next 8,000 words of text.
But you're already here, so you may as well.
Oh, and yes, you read that correctly: this story is 8,000 words long. And I still don't think I'm doing justice to the full complexity of this topic. This is the first time I've even tried to discuss it, let alone written about my experiences in the world of "professional cosplay," so please, bear with me.
I think that many Women In Games realize that in order to criticize "booth babes," they have to walk back that criticism by saying, "I understand those women are just doing their jobs." But they do not seem to realize that the use of the words "those" and "just" do more than enough to make the sentiment condescending.
I don't think very many people respect "booth babes," even when they use the word "respect" to describe their feelings. The problem with "booth babes," or so people will tell you, is that "they don't know anything about games." They're just paid to be there – they're not really nerds – they're not the same as cosplayers – and so on.
First of all, most people play games, so let's just assume that many "booth babes" do. Second of all, do you realize how many people "in games" are just paid to be there and don't have unwavering allegience to the "true nerdery" required of being "in games"? What about the people in marketing and HR and at the front desk and the call center? Oh, and usually those are low-paying jobs, too, and under-appreciated jobs – and often jobs that tend to get associated with women, by the way. But the women who have those jobs get to be "Women In Games." A dubious honor, to be sure, but nonetheless one that isn't afforded to promotional models.
How much does a "booth babe" need to know about what they're promoting before they meet your standard for working "in games"? Do they need to be a "real nerd" in order for you to feel comfortable? Have you also quizzed every other person on the convention floor about whether or not they're a "real nerd"? They're all wearing buttoned-up flannel shirts, so you probably didn't think to question them. They're performing "gamer" – and that is a performance, by the way.
There's a lot of confusion surrounding the supposed difference between "booth babes" (promotional models) versus "professional cosplayers" (also promotional models). Whether or not these performers are worthy of the public's respect depends on "where they come from" – who hired them, what their credentials are, and so on. From what I can understand, if they're from a modeling agency that also sends performers to boat shows and car shows – in addition to video game cons – then those employees are not worthy of our respect, because they're not "real nerds" and they don't "know enough" about the product they're representing. If they're a professional dancer who works with an agency, the same reasoning applies.
If they're a professional cosplayer, on the other hand, that's different! Then, they're a "real nerd" – but their work will still be met with extreme suspicion, since it's actually impossible to tell the difference just from looking at a person whether they're a "real nerd" or not. Also, professional cosplayers are often pressured into working for free. As soon as they start accepting payment for their work, or even using the term "booth babe," problems can arise – I'll cover that later when I discuss my own stints in the world of professional cosplay.
Sometimes, a "booth babe" is just a marketing professional wearing a fitted T-shirt and shorts, paid to smile and hand out pamphlets. But sometimes, a "booth babe" wears a costume from a video game, meaning that she thereby becomes indistinguishable from a "professional cosplayer." How, then, can attendees be expected tell the difference between the women they're supposed to respect and the women they're supposed to feel angry and suspicious about??? WE JUST DON'T KNOW, and that's supposed to be terrifying, apparently, because only one of those women is sexually available. The "real nerd" is the one who's supposed to want to have sex with you, I think, but if she doesn't, then she's a bitch and a phony and taking advantage of gamers. If she's getting paid, that's supposedly even worse.
Sometimes, women fall into both categories: professional cosplayer and professional dancer, depending on the day and the job at hand. But gamers only seem to have found room for an either/or situation: "phonies" and "real nerds." The "phonies" are the women who are just pretending to like you because they're being paid … and if they're also actually gamers, then why do they need to get paid? Shouldn’t they just do all this out of the kindness of their hearts?
That "kindess of your heart" and "real nerd" stuff is why a lot of professional cosplayers don't get paid, and as soon as they ask for money, they're ungrateful. This attitude arises in a lot of nerd spaces (e.g. games journalism), but once it's combined with sexism and the stigma against sex work, the response only gets more insulting.
If we're okay with conventionally attractive cosplayers working for booths, then we should be okay with non-gamer models working those same booths while wearing a costume that someone else made for them.
It doesn’t matter to me if you have never played a video game in your life. It doesn't matter to me if you're a part-time contract worker. If you’re working for a video game company, you work “in games.”
Three years ago, Patricia Hernandez wrote a piece at Kotaku titled "They're Attractive, They're Women, And They Play Games Live On The Internet. But They're Not 'Camwhores.'" The title of the article alone demonstrates how people feel the need to distance themselves from sex work. (The term “booth babe” has a negative connotation as well. As I've said, the job “professional cosplayer” involves a similar [if not identical] workload, depending on the event in question – but the difference in title changes the way the performer gets perceived.)
The Kotaku article starts by interviewing a woman who streams games for a living. She performs a certain type of "girl next door" identity online. That "performance" takes work, even if you are just "being yourself" – you have to be a pretty damn charming version of "yourself" in order to keep up viewership. This woman, and the other women interviewed in the piece, cultivated an audience of paid subscribers who nominally pay to watch her play games, but also, for the privilege of feeling like she’s their friend. Being charismatic, and undergoing the emotional labor required to put up with a paid subscriber who might be a jerk, requires a particular skillset. This woman in the first interview put effort into presenting her on-camera look in a specific way: she wore casual T-shirts and naturalistic makeup. I'm not sure if this is a phrase she'd use, but I would describe her overall aesthetic as “not like those other girls.”
And who are those other girls? Well! As the list goes on, Hernandez interviews several more women who also stream games for a living. Their chosen personas become more and more sexual. In addition to performing “friendship” with their subscribers, these women also perform "flirtation". At the end of the list, we get to a woman who, in addition to doing video game streaming, also supplements that with professional photos of herself in bathing suits and the like – paid rewards that are undeniably sexual in nature.
At the top of the article, and perhaps somewhere in the middle, people will usually still agree that these women are "real gamers" – they are allowed to be part of "games," "in games," and so on. But once we get to that final woman on the list, something has changed in terms of public perception. She is not "in games" anymore – she is a "fake gamer girl," she is "using her looks to take advantage of gamers," she is a "phony." It doesn't matter that the other women on the list are also performing a certain type of look and attitude for their audience's benefit. The woman who poses in a bikini is the one who has gone too far.
This is presented as her using an unfair "power" or "advantage" over her audience, but really, it's not power -- it's just that she's performing a role that a certain percentage of viewers will demand to see regardless. She's chosen to do what these viewers ask, in exchange for monetary subscriptions. Her subscribers have the power to give her money or not. She is the entertainer who must predict and carefully gauge which performances will work, and what she's capable of providing.
The other streamers are also performing something that their audiences want to see, as part of their business -- and it’s not that different, since in every case, emotional labor is a huge part of the job. Everyone in this scenario is performing, and all of the women involved are seen as sexual objects, even the one in the casual T-shirt. Some of them are performing the fantasy of "cool gamer girl who is your friend (or maybe more, if only, someday)." Some are performing "cool gamer Girlfriend Experience." Some of them may choose to flirt more or less as part of that persona, but that objectification and sexualization is something that will happen TO them, against their will. That is why they don't have power. That objectification happens non-stop regardless.
If you perform on a video game stream for a living, I don't care what that performance entails – to me, you work "in games." If you are a woman doing this, you are a "Woman In Games," and you get to attend every luncheon with that title – not that you would necessarily feel welcome doing so.
The fairest criticism that I hear about promotional models and dancers – such as at events like GDC's Microsoft party, at which dancers in sexy schoolgirl costumes got hired to dance and encourage party-goers to dance – is that the attendees didn't know ahead of time that "sexy dancing" would be happening at the event. So, they show up, and then there are the sexy dancers – reminding everyone that the intended audience for this party is "men who enjoy looking at women doing sexy dances." Thus, an event that was supposed to just be drinking beer in the dark while loud music played and sweaty people tried to "network" got interrupted by hired professionals who, ideally, would help that entire situation be less awkward. The dancers did not accomplish that intended effect.
Actually, that party was destined to be awkward from the jump, and adding professional dancers into the mix would never have helped the inherent problems of GDC "networking" parties.
Anyway, Microsoft should have provided information to attendees ahead of time about the tone and aesthetic of this event, so that people would know before they got there. Describing events as clearly as possible can help people decide whether or not they want to attend. This would not solve the entire problem, though. People would have been angry about the presence of these dancers even if they had known about them ahead of time and chose not to go to the party. So does that mean we should abolish "sexual content" from industry cons like GDC?
Ideally, "sexual content" would be something that people would consent to participating in before it happened. But we don't live in a society that comes even remotely close to respecting that as a concept.
Where shall we begin when it comes to unpacking this problem? Do we start with the part where women are already viewed, by default, as sex objects – so therefore, any "sexual content" would default towards depicting women? Do we start with the fact that women are expected to perform emotional labor and socializing (not to mention sexual performance) for free, because they are supposed to “naturally” excel at these skills? And because those skills are considered to be women’s “natural” abilities, women face a stigma for charging money to do any of them? Meanwhile, women also face social pressure to distance themselves from sex work because Madonna and Whore are the only categories available to them. You’re either a Woman In Games or a Booth Babe, and that’s it! Rather than questioning the division, women just hurry to cast themselves in the Madonna category, which is a lot easier to do if you're only surrounded by other Madonna types.
The reason why outlawing “sexual content” entirely doesn’t make sense is because it feels a lot like trying to describe the difference between a "professional cosplayer" and a "booth babe." If they're both dressed like Ivy from Soul Calibur, then which one do we throw out for "making people uncomfortable"? The one who’s getting paid more, probably (the "booth babe"). Because ... the idea of her getting paid makes us all uncomfortable.
But she's a woman getting paid to work "in games" – isn't that what we wanted? But we don't like the job, because she's being treated like a sex object (she will be regardless) – the job isn't "respectable" enough, see. Still, we'll bend over backwards to defend the "respectability" of the cosplayer wearing the same outfit, because she's a "real nerd"! Her normative performance of sexiness is "empowering," because she WANTS to do it, as opposed to getting paid to do it, which is supposedly bad (???). We’ll also bend over backwards to defend the outfit itself -- which we can pretend is a separate argument, but it’s not. The outfit, much like the event, much like the entire industry, was designed by straight men, for straight men.
Society as a whole treats women like sexual objects AND tells them that this is a role that they don’t deserve any money or accolades for performing. If they perform that role and they enjoy it too much, that’s considered disgusting. If they perform that role, enjoy it, AND get paid? Then they're the worst of the worst!
Ironically, these performative roles are often the only ones that become available to women in games spaces. If you’re a gamer girl and you look around, here’s where you see people who look like you: they get to make cosplays. They get to be the video host. They get to "do marketing." They get to sit at the front desk, answer phone calls, talk to customers. They are "the face." They get to smile and hand out pamphlets. They get to be "the Mom" of the office, bringing in cookies, keeping track of important dates on the calendar.
Women make up 22% of the games industry workforce, but how are their paychecks? Are they cleaning up, compared to their peers? Nope, because the jobs they're doing just so happen to be the undervalued, underpaid ones. Art design in games attracts more women, but those jobs are undervalued; they're not as high-paid as the programming jobs. Programming used to be a feminized labor, too, considered similar to administrative or secretarial work – and it was underpaid and undervalued, up until men started doing it. Any time a job gets seen as "women's work," it pays less. As soon as a job becomes men's work, the wages go up (for the men), as does the job's perceived respectability. These days, lots of people assume that men are "naturally" better at writing code, even though that's not true.
Meanwhile, work that requires emotional labor gets gendered as feminine and is assumed to "come naturally" to women. These labors are not considered to be "real" work, nor are they valued as difficult or challenging. Neither is being "sexual" or performing "sexiness," by the way, which is also coded as feminine -- and it gets folded in with all the rest. You're supposed to want to encourage everybody to dance at the party, for free, because you want to be there … not because you were paid to be there!
I think Women In Games look at those professional dancers and they think, "This is it. This is what people think of me." They know that those dancers are seen as less-than by the games and tech industry – as decoration, like the cardboard standees featuring in-game bikini armor that show up at videogame booths.
The standees are allowed, by the way, but "booth babes" aren't. We're more okay with a piece of cardboard than a woman making a paycheck, because we want to believe that we can give women "better" jobs than that. How about we just pay them more, even for the completely shitty jobs? Would that be "fair"?
The role that is available to women "in games" is to be the marketing, the encouragement to the dance floor, the emotional and charismatic but also conventionally attractive object – alluring and almost-attainable-but-not-quite. And although Women In Games say they don't want to "blame these women" for "just doing their jobs" … they DO blame those women for "making us all look bad."
Being mistaken for a "booth babe" or a paid dancer at an event is often framed as the worst possible thing that could happen to a "Woman In Games." It's assumed that the paid dancer is brainless and contributes nothing to the culture – well, that, and she’s “objectifying herself,” as opposed to just accepting money for the objectification that happens to her.
Even the women with "real" jobs get assumed to be "fake geek girls" who don't know anything about their chosen profession and are assumed to have slept with someone to get it. Why blame other women for those assumptions, as opposed to blaming the men who make them?
Are we supposed to believe that people might "get confused" and "misunderstand" which women they're allowed to treat like garbage at these GDC parties? Those "confused" people already think women aren't worthy of respect, and they're just looking for an acceptable target to harass – someone who no one would defend. How about instead, we explain that actually, you have to treat everybody at the party like a human being – the bartenders, the party planners, the entertainers, everyone. You're still supposed to respect those people. There aren't any people who you're "allowed" to treat like shit.
It is fucked up that many GDC networking events have a sexual undercurrent. It is also fucked up that videogames are often sexual as well, with no real justification or explanation. It is fucked up that a female character's costume in a game, when worn in perfect replica by a human woman on a show floor, suddenly becomes "sexual" -- even if the game supposedly isn't sexual. It is fucked up that so much of gaming content, and even being "in games," revolves around demanding that women perform sexiness, while also punishing them and despising for doing so. It is fucked up that women are framed as sexual objects, and men as wallet-clutching onlookers – and that women get blamed for this framing ("stop objectifying yourself"). It is fucked up that this is already a deep-seated assumption that will be made by society, whether there are paid dancers present or not. The women – all of the women -- will still be fighting to be seen as humans, at GDC and everywhere they go. Dancers are not making it more difficult for Women In Games to be seen as human beings. MEN ARE MAKING IT MORE DIFFICULT.
I can understand how going to a GDC networking event and seeing women dancing in tiny outfits would be surprising, because it is fucked up to remember, at a supposed networking event, that some men are mostly here to ogle at women (including at Women In Games). It is disconcerting to think that perhaps a male boss would hire you for your looks, and you might not even know if that was the case. It is disconcerting to think that a person who pushes boundaries and makes sexual jokes towards you, against your protestations, might feel all the more encouraged by attending an event at GDC that had a sexual undercurrent. It would feel "safe" for this person, but not "safe" for you, to be there. By the way? It's not safe for the paid dancers to be around that person, either!
It is disconcerting to be reminded that this party is presumed to be attended by straight men, and that those men would feel more comfortable dancing if the person inviting them was a female professional dancer who's used to talking to strangers and charismatically convincing them to dance with her and even pretending that she is having a good time talking to them, whether or not she actually is. It would be disconcerting to remember that this is a form of labor that society believes that only women are fit to do, and if a man were doing this form of labor, it would be "gay" and perhaps humorous or even gross – because it is a feminized labor. So, even having performers at the party who range across the gender spectrum doesn’t solve the core societal assumptions that get made as soon as everybody walks into that room.
Those core assumptions don't just go away if you tell the dancers to leave, either.
Still, I can see why it might be disconcerting to be reminded of all of that garbage – the emotional labor that women are expected to perform, in every job they ever have, whether that job is sexual in nature or not. But those are things that I got reminded of at GDC, everywhere I went, all the time. I found all of GDC's networking events to be pretty damn disconcerting, the one year that I went – even though I didn't see a paid dancer in sight. So, I admit, it's hard for me to understand why we're pointing at the dancers like they're the problem. They're not the problem. The hordes of men in flannel shirts with matching beards -- they are the problem. Why aren't we sharing stories about them, photos of the sea of flannel, tweeting our shock and alarm?
CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW MANY GUYS, WHO ALL LOOK THE SAME, WHO ALL HAVE THE SAME SOCIOECONOMIC BACKGROUND, WHO ALL DRINK THE SAME BEER, WHO ALL PLAYED THE SAME GAMES GROWING UP, WHO ALL MAKE THE SAME GAMES NOW, ALL GAVE EACH OTHER JOBS? CAN YOU BELIEVE IT???
CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT GDC MADE THE EXACT SAME MISTAKE ALL OVER AGAIN?????? HOW MANY YEARS IN A ROW WILL THEY FUCK THIS UP?
I haven't been very "respectable" over the course of my career "in games."
For example, here's a gif of me as Princess Zelda in Triforce-bikini (something Zelda would never wear) dancing to Lady Gaga, which I did as part of a promotion for a nerd convention called ConnectiCon.
That was back in 2009. I had already been working as a games journalist for a couple of years by then, although I didn't start reading about feminism until 2010. In those early years of reading about feminism, I read a lot of essays that took firm stances against "booth babes," and it led to a lot of confusion on my end. Also in 2010, I appeared as a dancer on stage for an event at ConnectiCon, although video evidence of that doesn't exist anywhere, in part because it was so sexual that other staff members complained and removed our promotional materials from the con’s official feeds.
That event was PG-13, and we did check IDs at the door. We told the con attendees ahead of time that it would be sexual, which was a courtesy that GDC didn't offer (and GDC is a work/networking con, not a fandom con, so it's pretty pathetic that our policies were more comprehensive than theirs). That said, we definitely didn't warn people about the sexual content in the event's promotional materials – which is why those promotional materials got removed from all CTcon official channels. In subsequent years, we did a better job with that sort of thing.
In the years after that, we decided to go beyond boring ideas like “What if a bunch of women did a sexy dance while wearing costumes worn by already-objectified characters from nerdy media?” Still, I’m not going to pretend that idea didn’t get a lot of mileage while I was there. It got a lot of mileage.
My job title at ConnectiCon was "staff performer," and the characters that I cosplayed got chosen by other staff members. Sometimes, I made and wore costumes for franchises that I had no interest in, because that's what I was told to do by staff, and I got a free badge in exchange for my work. Sometimes, I didn't even make my own costumes; another staffer would do it. Most of the time I did make my own costumes, but only because I happen to enjoy it. Several other "staff performers" never made their costumes; none of us were judgmental about it internally, but I can guess that other people would've been if they'd known. In addition to a free pass, I got a free hotel room for performing. I also got a lot of experience with marketing, event planning, video editing (occsasionally), and even creative-directing a performance or two.
It was a great gig – and, yes, some of that gig did involve me wearing a bikini and dancing. From time to time, that was part of the job, and it was an incredibly fun job. If it had paid actual money, as opposed to just a free pass, I’d still be doing it today – and I have no regrets about having done it in the past. Well, except for the part where I wish I'd gotten paid.
Cosplaying as characters that I didn't care about didn't feel so great, but it seemed like a fair trade, since I was getting kickbacks like a hotel room and a pass. For example, I cosplayed as Meg from Supernatural and performed in-character as her at the con after watching only a couple of episodes in which she appeared. I did the same thing with Brittany from Glee – I'm not a Glee fan, but I sure did wear that cheerleader outfit and do my best impression of her speaking voice. The irony of feeling like a "fake nerd" by performing a cheerleader character is not lost on me!
Remember the article Patricia Hernandez wrote about female video game streamers – the ones who wanted to stipulate that they weren't "camwhores"? Well, for a lot of convention staffers, the term "booth babe" has the same sort of connotation. That was something I ran into at ConnectiCon and at other conventions as well. We called ourselves "staff performers," which was a decent descriptor for the job we did, most of the time. However, I also helped "work the booth" for ConnectiCon – in my Samus cosplay, when CTcon toured at other conventions. We had a booth at Anime Boston, which we used to promote ConnectiCon. My job was handing out pamphlets about the convention and inviting people to come check out our booth, which sold everything from board games and dice and other tabletop items, all of which could also be purchased at the ConnectiCon Store year-round.
So, yeah, I was a "booth babe". But no one called it that – although I did try to call it that at the time, other people would correct me, because the term made them uncomfortable. "Professional cosplayer" is the term that makes people feel more comfortable. Or "staff performer." That way, it's not sexual – even though having a woman promote your convention in a Samus costume is pretty sexual. Or is it??? See, the line is not so easy to draw, sometimes.
I experienced this again when asked to work for a different video game convention and tournament (I won't name them here). I got recruited by their staff to be a paid cosplayer/performer, as well as to help them with con promotion. They described the job to me, and I said, "Oh, you want me to be a booth babe? I'd love to!" But as soon as I said the words "booth babe," they recoiled and rescinded their offer. Their reasoning? "We don't want you to get harassed on the job." Pretty strange reasoning, because it turns out that "professional cosplayers" get harassed too – it doesn't matter what you title the job!!! I explained that I was already used to getting harassed as a performer at CTcon, but I had already ruined my shot. Simply at my use of the word "booth babe," they no longer wanted my services – it was like they wanted to "protect" me from having to take such a "degrading" form of work, even though initially, they had wanted me there. They wanted me to be a "professional cosplayer," which was very different in their minds. Maybe they thought they could pay me less, hm?
You'd think after that experience, I would have learned my lesson about using the term "booth babe" to describe my job, but it took me a little longer before I fully understood why people hated "booth babes" but were okay with "professional cosplayers." It took me a long time to understand this distinction, because it doesn't actually make any sense.
As soon as you use a term like "booth babe," people realize that you're hiring a woman solely for her looks – and according to the dimmest possible understanding of feminism, this is seen as "bad," even though it's something that already happens anyway, constantly, unchecked.
Back to discussion of all the performances I’ve done while wearing silly outfits! Perhaps you recall my web series Samus and Sagat, which I did with Jonathan Holmes at Destructoid?
I think it would be a little reductive to say that I only got that part because of my looks. I'd like to think my comedic timing and the fact that I already had made a Samus costume helped. The show probably wouldn't have happened at all if I weren't already a relatively well-known Samus cosplayer … and I would also argue that Holmes’ existing fan-base as a Sagat cosplayer made the show a success, too.
Still, we both got to agonize equally about the embarrassment of wearing a skimpy outfit for the camera – and I got to learn that Holmes has a huge queer fanbase, which certainly made me feel less nervous about the scrutiny I was receiving from the straight guys tuning in. We both got creepy comments from men about our looks!
While I did Samus and Sagat, I felt a nagging back-of-my-brain anxiety about how I got perceived by Destructoid's audience, in terms of my job status. Was I a comedian? A journalist? An actor? A professional cosplayer? A "fake nerd" wearing a Samus costume for "attention" and to "take advantage of nerds"? Something something "attention whore"? I would have said "actor," if asked (no one asked). The fact that I was a "games journalist" the rest of the time did seem to confuse viewers' perceptions a bit, though.
The line between "journalist" and "performer" got even blurrier when Holmes and I went to PAX East and I interviewed a bunch of game developers in-character as Samus. I had the opportunity to ask the Shovel Knight guys, to their faces, why they still hadn't gotten around to putting female characters in their game, as they promised in their Kickstarter so long ago -- but instead, I made some jokes about how they should put Samus ("me") in the game. That’s it. That’s all I did. I didn’t do any hard-hitting journalism in those videos. I wasn't doing "games journalist" that day – I was doing "comedic actress wearing a sexy leotard." There's a difference.
But I didn't necessarily expect viewers to be able to tell the difference. I'm not sure they can, or ever did. In the video we did with Tim Rogers, for example, we planned out the entire scene ahead of time and filmed it over and over to be sure to get it right. It's a sketch in which I, as Samus, am very rude to Tim Rogers. People did not understand that it was a joke, that it was planned, that Tim was in on it. They just thought I was an asshole.
It's funny to look back on that, but that misunderstanding says a lot about how much trouble people have with separating the character I play with the other personas that I do. It also speaks to a much larger problem of how little people understand that my job online is performing, for them, as a cooler version of myself. None of this stuff is real, but it's part of my job to make it seem real. I'm just FAKING all of this to GET AHEAD!
At PAX East, I was working simultaneously as a journalist (for Paste Magazine) and as a performer (for Destructoid, which is also technically a games publication, but I wasn't working as a journalist for them – confused yet?) and as part of the talent (I appeared on a panel). To maximize confusion, I kept on my Samus cosplay while doing all of the above. But it shouldn't be that confusing, because all of that stuff is a "performance." Even in my capacity as a journalist, I'm still performing a specific type of voice that people expect to hear – I'm still trying to be compelling, captivating, entertaining. The "real me" doesn't have the benefit of multiple rewrites.
It's worth pointing out, I think, that the main reason why I've gotten anywhere at all is because I'm very good at "faking" these different personas, almost to a point of actively disappointing the people who learn that I'm just a person, not Cute Donut Joke Gamer Girl 24/7.
Why do people follow me on Twitter? I would guess that it's because I'm good at writing short jokes, and encapsulating and promoting my creative endeavors in short, memorable info-bites. That is not "me," that is the person I perform on Twitter. Why do people read my articles? Same reason, except in long-form. They like the personality, the "voice" that I've spent my career cultivating. That's also not "me," because "me" isn't nearly so well-edited. And why do people watch my videos? My looks – but oh, I have to pretend I don't acknowledge them, right?
So, let's just say they watch them because I've been studying and practicing theatre and performance for my whole life. I know how to be charismatic in front of an audience. As a teen, I wanted to be a rock star or maybe even an actor or a comedian. As an adult, I'm a journalist, but I still do those other things, where applicable. Oh – and the fact that I've taught myself some great methods for blow-drying my hair and applying makeup can't hurt. Plus I've got built-in privileges like pale skin, straight teeth, blue eyes … I would go on, but it would just seem like I'm bragging, which is considered uncouth for a woman to do.
I'm not even supposed to be admitting that I'm aware of how I look. I mean, I wouldn't want anyone to think I've used my looks to "get ahead," which would be a "Fake Geek Girl" thing to do. No, instead I should pretend that I have no idea that I look good at all – like it's all some sort of accident, a genuine "girl next door" happenstance, the just-rolled-out-of-bed-with-a-dusting-of-concealer-and-eyeliner-and-put-on-this-perfectly-snug-flannel-and-tight-jeans. The NATURAL look, like a girl who REALLY plays games … because hot girls don't play games.
Sometimes I bother to remind people that I wasn't hot in high school, but it shouldn't even matter. I mean, I wasn't – and my bitterness about having been bullied as a kid certainly contributes to the person that I am today. But I think it would be disingenuous for me to act like I don't know I'm conventionally attractive now. I clean up well, at least for the moment, and that's something that will help me out in my career. It's not the only thing that matters -- performing all those personas requires skill, too -- but the way I look does seem to be a depressingly important thing. It shouldn't matter, but it DOES matter. And it's also something that will make men "in games" will resent me, because they'll figure out that I'm not going to sleep with them and that'll make them angry right off, but also because they'll feel as though I'm exploiting some sort of "trick" that they don't get to use.
This is some real bullshit, though. Because my "trick," while seemingly allowing me to get ahead, also forces me onto a plateau from whence I can never proceed further. “Hot video host” doesn't really seem like that great of a gig to me, to be honest, and that's one of the best ones that a gal can get. Regardless, I'm still going to spend my career, and my lifetime, justifying my "nerd cred" to everyone I ever meet, just as I had to do every day up until now. I didn't "look" like a girl who played games even back when I had acne and braces, because I was still a girl back then, and that was enough for me to not "look" like I knew about games. I definitely don't "look" like a girl who plays games now, but also, I've actively stopped trying to "look" like one, because I realized that no matter what I wore or how I acted, I would NEVER be deemed "real" or worthy of respect.
This authenticity argument – this "fake geek girl" argument – it's the same argument that has surrounded Olivia Munn throughout her entire career, since her early days wearing a maid costume and jumping into a vat of whipped cream on G4, to the present day. And Olivia Munn isn’t the only one who fights that battle daily, although she’s the most recent example of an alleged “fake nerd girl” to pop up in the news lately.
To be a woman "in games," or tangentially in tech but associated with games, you have to walk an impossible tightrope. I've called it "The Cool Gamer Girlfriend" myth before, on this very blog. Ever since I first started learning about feminism, around 2010 or so, I've had a lot of confused thoughts about this topic, particularly as it pertains to "booth babes," but also as it pertains to women like Olivia Munn, whose work has ranged from professional journalist to actor to model (in Playboy, no less) to cosplayer to comedian to "Woman In Games" to "Fake Geek Girl."
Olivia Munn has had so many different incredible jobs – and yet she still, even now, gets criticism for her career. For example, I got a press release from someone at CNET explaining to me that I should definitely read the feature story they did about her, because it would serve to refute Cliff Bleszinski's tweets about how Munn is "appropriating geek culture." His tweets about that are extra-bizarre, because he wrote a post defending Jessica Chobot from the exact same practice three years ago. Bleszinsk gets to decide which gamer girls are "fake" and which are "real," and his designations seem to rely on whether or not it's a woman he has befriended. Be nice to Bleszinski, ladies – your respectability depends on it!
I don't think the CNET story was meant as an actual response to Bleszinsk's tweets; the story followed so close on the heels of his statements that it probably just seemed like a nice coincidence to the publication that Munn was suddenly "in the news". Regardless, the story itself focuses a lot on Munn's interest in tech and gaming. This is how most stories about Munn go; she has to prove herself to be a "respectable" and "real" nerd, over and over and over and over. It doesn't seem to matter how many times she does it; her Google image results are still filled with bikini shots and whipped cream. That’s what people click on the most, so that’s what gets served to the top of her search results -- and she’ll get shamed for that for the rest of her life. "She used her looks to get famous," "she took advantage of nerds," and so on.
People may judge her for what she's done. But I don't see why. She accepted so many amazing opportunities that I, personally, would have taken in a heartbeat. Honestly, I'd probably still take them. Jumping into a vat of whipped cream? Sounds fun. If that means I have to give up my "gamer cred," that's just fine, because no one took me seriously in this space even when I did try to meet their bogus “respectability” standards. Not that I tried particularly hard, since most people know me as a Samus cosplayer first and journalist second.
Like I said, the whole system's rigged, so you may as well have some fun out there.
A lot of the stigma against “booth babes,” and any labor that could even be construed as similar, is thanks to early groundwork laid by the Penny Arcade guys. Back in 2010, Tycho wrote why he didn't like "booth babes" as follows: "I have the run-of-the-mill, God given shame that naturally accompanies interactions with women who are being paid to endure me." All of the PAX conventions across the world have banned "booth babes." However, the vague circumstances surrounding this ban have caused problems for women who work at PAX booths.
That's what happened to Jessica Nigri at PAX East. Nigri isn't a "booth babe" – she's a "professional cosplayer" – but that still got her kicked off the show floor, because it turns out that the difference doesn't really matter or make any sense.
Jessica Nigri got the job of official Lollipop Chainsaw model, by the way, by participating in a contest at gaming website IGN. She had already worked as a "professional cosplayer" before she won that contest in 2012. (She also worked as a pro-cosplayer for Gears of War in 2011. She appears to have passed Bleszinski's "fake gamer girl" test, then, since she promoted his game, and the two of them have an ongoing joke-flirtation that they perform online – emphasis on "performance" here.)
Because Nigri had been a cosplayer, and later a professional cosplayer, a lot of people viewed her as the favorite to win during IGN's contest. She was the "real cosplayer," or so the arguments went at the time. The rest of the girls were "just" professional models (?!). In the end, "real" geekdom prevailed; Nigri won the contest and the opportunity to perform as Juliet Starling at all the booth promotions for Lollipop Chainsaw. And then she had the dubious honor of having to justify her "true" nerdery, over and over, for the rest of her career – and she still got kicked out of the PAX East show floor, due to wearing the outfit that she had to wear for work.
That’s how respectability politics work. It doesn't matter that Jessica Nigri used to be a cosplayer before, or that she plays games, or not. It does not matter whether a woman who is paid based on her charisma and physical appearance has played the game or heard of the character that she's playing -- although I can promise you that they've pretty much all heard of the character, at the very least, because that's the sort of information that you get when you take on a marketing gig.
If you don't really think about the implications at all, PA’s no-booth-babe policy seemed progressive, and it was referred to as such by many people after the fact, often held up as the reason why the Penny Arcade guys should be forgiven for their many other missteps. However, if you actually think about their reasoning, it falls apart. Every single marketing person working any booth at PAX East is "paid to endure" Tycho and every other attendee. Every person who Tycho meets in a retail capacity is "paid to endure" him. Every single one of his own employees is "paid to endure" him!!
The response to Penny Arcade's ban, by the way, was not to stop hiring female marketing professionals at booths – but, rather, to put those marketing professionals in T-shirts, which was lauded as progressive at the time (here's a description of the effects of the con's "booth babe" ban from back in 2011).
But Maddy, you will ask me, shouldn't we be fighting against the fact that these are, apparently, the most visible jobs available to women in games? Yes, we should be infuriated that labor is gendered and that certain positions are supposedly "for" women, and that these just so happen to be the most under-paid jobs, and also jobs that are widely viewed as somehow disgusting and reprehensible rather than lauded as difficult, skill-based work.
But Maddy, you will say next: shouldn't we also be fighting against the oppressive and absurd body standards placed upon these women – they all have to look a certain way in order to get hired as performers at all! Yes. But shouldn't we theoretically be fighting against those standards in everything, without just condemning women who work in performative fields? Because it turns out that there's actually a double-standard for women's looks when it comes to everything else, too!
Men who work in games don't typically have to deal with these same attractiveness standards (nor should they; nor should anyone). Look at the difference between male video hosts and female hosts on any popular gaming website for evidence of this. Look at the comments, too. How do you think Felicia Day or Veronica Belmont or Jessica Chobot or, yes, Olivia Munn get treated by the commentariat? People assume that they only got their jobs because they are conventionally attractive, except that any time a female video host isn't conventionally attractive, the comment section will fill to the brim with mockery about her appearance. It's significantly easier to make a living as an unattractive male video host in games than it is to make a living as an unattractive female one; viewers need only look around for evidence of that. Yet the audiences who make fun of unattractive women who work in games will also turn around and claim that attractive women are "phonies" who are "taking advantage of gamers." You can't win, really – either way, women's appearance ends up under constant scrutiny.
The games industry wants to be inclusive to women in theory, but people in games don't actually respect women who take advantage of the opportunities that are made available to them in the field.
How about we pay people for the work they do? Even if that labor is something you want them to do “naturally” and for free. Unpack why it makes you uncomfortable that women are getting paid for certain types of work.
Are you uncomfortable when you walk into a retail establishment or a restaurant and realize that the employees are paid to be nice to you? What is the difference between the emotional labor they perform, versus the emotional labor of a “booth babe” who patiently takes pictures with fans all day long? Why is one form of labor worth a paycheck, but not the other?
Have you thought about the fact that women are often cast in front-facing desk jobs, hosting gigs at restaurants, and HR work? Have you thought about how women are assumed to be “naturally” good at those roles? Have you thought about how their appearances get policed in these other front-facing jobs? Have you thought about how those roles also tend to be the most undervalued and underpaid?
Why do you assume that "booth babes" are "objectifying themselves" – when actually, they are just demanding payment for something that already happens to them, and would happen to them in any other front-facing job? Why are you putting the onus upon women to stop this objectification from happening to them, when they are not the ones doing it – they are merely demanding payment in return? Why are you punishing women?
"In a perfect world, 'booth babes' wouldn't exist." False!
In a perfect world, "booth babe" wouldn't be considered a feminized labor. In a perfect world, all forms of labor would be respected and valued. In a perfect world, anyone could do this labor, and do it well, without fearing mockery or disrespect. In a perfect world, the systemic objectification of women would not happen – and women would not be blamed for "letting" it happen to them. In a perfect world, people could decide the work they want to do based on what they actually enjoy and excel at doing. They could operate in safe, consent-oriented work environments. "Sexiness" and sexual performance wouldn't be considered inherently feminine, nor would sexual activity be framed in terms of "onlookers" (presumsed to be men) and "performers" (presumed to be women). "Sexiness" would be opt-in, not an experience thrust upon us by people who never saw us as human or equal or worthy of their respect.
It's hard to even imagine that perfect world, though, because it's so different from our world. Why are we blaming women for that? Why are we expecting them to fix it? And why does that "fix" require them to stop earning money for their work, as opposed to instead creating a world in which they could be respected for doing their jobs?
It all makes no sense.