Your Sister Is In Another Castle: Gender, Gaze, and Gone Home

At the heart of their narratives, Gone Home and Braid (like Super Mario before it) are both driven by a missing girl. More generally, of course, this device comes up all the time, across media: the protagonist loves a woman, the woman is in peril, and everything else follows from there.

But what happens to this formula when the story is told from a female point-of-view? What happens when the girl-in-trouble is not a wife or a girlfriend but a sister?

I bring up this comparison as a way in to a larger conversation about what Gone Home is doing with gender. It would be nice if women and female relationships were so widely represented in the media that a game like this could be no big deal, but as things stand now, Gone Home is set apart just by its characters’ demographics. Writes one reviewer who strongly identified with Sam: “It feels embarrassing to say, but I could cry—did cry—with the relief of knowing a game like this even exists.”

The femaleness of Gone Home is particularly interesting in that this is essentially a game about looking. Occasionally you’ll come across images of and references to your avatar, and in small ways you interact with the objects throughout the home, but for the most part, your role is to observe, sometimes voyeuristically. That this observing occurs through the eyes of a girl upsets the traditional gender dynamics of looking, as put forth by Laura Mulvey et al. In one room in the house, you find a Sassy-esque teen magazine bearing the cover line “THE MALE GAZE: How to Subvert It”; on one level, this is a throwaway gag about nineties pop feminism, but on another, it could serve as a winking nod toward what the Fullbright Company might actually be going for.

Sam’s characterization also strays from what we might expect from the missing-girl archetype: she is the driver of the plot rather than a device thereof. Women in fiction so often exist as motivators for other (male) characters’ development and actions, while Sam is the one doing this most developing and acting in Gone Home. In a game like Braid or Super Mario, the pursued princess exists only in the context of her relationship to the player’s avatar, but Katie is largely beside the point in thinking about Sam. It wasn’t until the final scene, when Sam apologizes for not saying goodbye to Katie in person, that I became conscious she in any way belonged to me, and vice versa. (Let’s all pause and take a second to call our IRL sisters, just to check in.) It’s also worth noting that through all these letters to Katie, Sam exerts control over her own narrative—we learn about her inner life as she herself chooses to portray it.

Were you all as struck as I was by the gender dynamics of the game? For the guys in the class, what was it like being asked to step into the shoes of a female avatar (a task that surely happens less often than the other way around)?

The Work of Play

True confession: when I saw on the syllabus that the homework for this past week was “just” playing video games, I assumed the time and effort required to prepare for class would be minimal. My thinking, I suppose, was that people play video games for fun, and fun things aren’t work.

I was quickly proven wrong, of course. I found a couple of these games to be more challenging and frustrating, at least on some level, than any of the readings I’ve encountered thus far in the course. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kinds of effort, patience, and engagement that different kinds of media demand of their audience.

Something that particularly comes to mind is the notion of “getting stuck.” When working with a written text, you might metaphorically get stuck on a dense passage you can’t make sense of; in a video game, this phrase can take on a more literal sense (in Braid, for example, I kept finding myself in pits with seemingly no way out, until I finally figured out how to time travel). With a book or an essay, you can choose to untangle a difficult paragraph through brute-force rereading or by enlisting outside help, but you can also cut your losses and move on, skipping to the next section and hoping for the best. Skimming sacrifices comprehension, but readers are still given a choice: pass through a text quickly and shallowly, or take the time to deeply engage.

But with games, particularly for a relative novice like myself, you have less control over the rate with which you move from beginning to end. You can’t skim a game: you can consult walkthroughs for tips or spoilers (might this be analogous to using SparkNotes in an English class?), but it’s ultimately up to you to extricate yourself when you get stuck. You can’t skip over an unpleasurable or difficult level and keep on playing afterward. 

All this may be a little simplistic. One thing that complicates matters is the variety of possible gameplay experiences in the likes of Braid (you can search for the stars or just ignore them) and Passage (you can enter the maze and seek out treasure chests, or just walk straight ahead until you die)—in these cases, the player can choose to make things easier or more arduous, but can still finish the game either way. I’m also interested in hearing the thoughts of more experienced gamers: was anyone able to “phone it in” doing this week’s homework, or did everyone feel frustrated or confused at some point or another?

“Tell, Don’t Show”: Innovation, Tropes, and In Treatment

In Treament‘s premise opens the door for all kinds of experimentation. Certainly its format is innovative: premiering in a year whose other TV debuts included concepts like “singing and dancing lawyers!”, “sexy Greek gods living among humans!!”, and “Christian Slater with a very high-tech case of Dissociative Identity Disorder!!!”, the program’s stripped-down structure is actually very novel. 

That said, the actual content of In Treatment feels pretty standard to me. Most of its storylines could be easily translated to a more traditional TV format, and in fact plots like Laura’s (sultry-yet-troubled woman inappropriately comes on to conflicted authority figure) and Alex’s (tough-talking military man swallows guilt and family angst) appear all the time in other shows. The characters all have Big Problems, with dramatic events occurring weekly in their lives, and, as Bea’s post this week points out, their sessions feel artificially action-packed and to-the-point. 

The narrative style of most TV calls for these big, splashy plots: under the “show, don’t tell” philosophy, it’s hard to explore a character’s inner life except through external actions. In Treatment‘s therapy office setting could allow for a reversal of this maxim—”tell, don’t show,” if you will—but still ends up doing a whole lot of “showing” through expository dialogue.

It seems to me that In Treatment is using new techniques to tell old stories, rather than using its innovative narrative style to open up the kinds of subject matter we see on television. I’m envisioning an alternate universe version of the show that would explore the complexity of people living regular, uncinematic (untelevisual?) lives, with problems rooted more in the inner workings of their minds than in dramatic, life-altering events. Take the character of Sophie, for example: the show roots her maybe-suicide attempt in trouble at home and at the gym, but what about a Sophie who tried to kill herself because something in her brain told her to? A more conventionally structured program about, say, a person with depression would be hard to pull off, but In Treatment‘s unique format makes it possible to delve into its characters’ minds rather than just the who-what-where of their relationships and actions.

Do you all think the show would benefit from these kinds of changes, or would nobody ever tune in to a program like the hypothetical In Treatment I just described? (Moving away from any question of artistic merits, I do think there would be great value in expanding and improving media representation of mental health issues, which this show has a great platform to do, but that may be a story for another day/post/class.)

Interesting in places!

As we’ve discussed a bit in class, David Foster Wallace sneaks in various digs at the humanities throughout The Pale King. For me, the most incisive (and the funniest) of these appears in Chapter 22, when Chris Fogle describes turning in a shoddily thrown-together midterm paper and getting back a B with a comment like “Interesting in places!” (189). 

Part of the humor of this “meaningless bullshit response,” as the narrator puts it, is that it also works as a shallow-but-not-inaccurate review of The Pale King itself. The novel is “interesting in places!” (In fact, poking around Amazon’s customer reviews for the book, this sentiment seems to come up a lot.) This sort of comment represents the easiest way to think and talk about a text of this magnitude and complexity: clearly there are all kinds of insights and ideas floating around in Wallace’s writing, but to name them would require untangling the messy structure and boring passages enough to parse what’s actually going on. 

While this moment is worked into the narrative as a snarky aside—sort of a tangent to a tangent, spinning off an exposition of Obetrol’s effects which is in turn meant to explain Fogle’s path to the IRS—it speaks to a lot of what Wallace is getting at with respect to dullness, attention, and information throughout The Pale King. The binary notion of “interesting” as a virtue and “boring” as a failure just doesn’t hold up here. “Interesting in places!”  means nothing as a compliment or a criticism in the worldview Wallace presents in the novel, which upholds dullness as an opportunity for undistracted reflection.

A term that often gets tossed around in a similarly watered down way to “interesting” is “thought-provoking,” which is typically used to the effect of, “this seems like it may raise deep and critical questions, but I’m not going to engage with what they actually are.” Oddly enough, The Pale King is thought-provoking in an entirely different way. As we talked about it class, some of the book’s dry, lengthy passages about taxes and sweaty backseats provoke all kinds of thoughts—thoughts like, “hey, what’s happening on the Internet right now?” Many of the dull moments in the novel are conducive less to the structured, high-minded academic thinking associated with, say, reading for a college English class, and more to the accidental, free form thought Chris Fogle describes as being most important in his life.

What do you all think?

Tone, Technique, and Content in “E. Unibus Pluram”

After yesterday’s discussion of the main arguments in “E. Unibus Pluram,” I’m interested in looking more at how David Foster Wallace’s rhetoric interacts with these claims. Since he is essentially writing about writing, the text itself can serve as an interesting case study for how Wallace’s ideas can play out in the wild.

 

Initially (maybe shallowly) I felt a disconnect between the piece’s assertions and its structure. Wallace takes issue with a cultural trend in the U.S. marked by “a transition from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative instantiation of devious from bogus values” (178), but the essay devotes considerably more time to explaining the problems with TV and its literary legacy than proposing how to fix them. In the last few pages, Wallace gestures toward the possibility of a new generation of literary rebels—who, perhaps, will “treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction” (193)—but this short section feels nebulous and speculative compared to the thoroughly developed arguments that appear earlier. Granted, Wallace is talking particularly about problems in fiction, not theory, and the point of critical texts like this is to criticize, but still: where can we find “real values” put forth in this 40-page takedown of “bogus values”?

 

Looking closer, I think the answer lies largely in Wallace’s rhetorical technique. His tone here provides an antidote to a TV landscape where “sincerity and passion [are] ‘out,’” replaced by “bad-boy irreverence” (178). He writes of media-saturated culture in which “the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expression of value, emotion, or vulnerability” (181), but this essay’s style is distinctly sunglasses-off, sincere and candid over aloof and snarky. He positions himself among the TV-viewing masses rather than claiming to be above it all; he writes at length about loneliness and anxiety and self-doubt rather than copping poker-faced detachment. This talk of feelings is more than just part of the piece’s aesthetic—it’s crucial to the argument. Wallace’s take on TV here is built on an examination of Joe Briefcase’s emotions from up close and personal. And faced with this sadsack, cringe-y portrait of a television consumer, we are invited not to scorn him but to identify with him—and to identify Wallace with him. While commercials unite viewer and advertiser in a private pact of individualistic superiority, Wallace lumps us all together in communal loserdom: “And we, desperately trying to appear nonchalant, perspire creepily, on the subway” (155) reads the end of the first section.

 

“E. Unibus Pluram” shows how ironic detachment is more than just a tone or a tool for rebels and advertisers to get a point across—this brand of cynicism is now a cultural value, an end in itself. In a similar vein, the game sensitivity and affect in Wallace’s prose seem like an extension of the piece’s content as much as they are stylistic devices. With all this in mind, I’m looking forward to seeing how the ideas discussed in the essay manifest in The Pale King next week.