The Heart, The Pants, and The Wallet

A post on amatonormativity, compulsory sexuality, and consumption.

The pressure to partner up and do The Sex are part of an interconnected web of social forces, and Bioware’s Dragon Age series is a pretty good example of how this works.  Using that example, I want to unravel some threads on the topic — not because this is news, but because I want to explore how, in a way, this phenomenon could be almost cyclical.

First off, the basics of what I’m talking about: Dragon Age is an RPG in which (as a side feature) the player’s character has the option to “romance” certain companions.  Implied sex and references to it are a standard feature, with onscreen nudity sometimes being unavoidable.  In short, the game generally treats romance and sex as a package deal.  I won’t get into the exceptions because in-game dialogue clearly indicates how the writers feel about separating the two.  This is just background information.

Several months ago, someone asked a head writer about the issue and player options for celibacy, and this is how he replied.  We could argue over the significance of that “some,” but it’s very telling that he gave a “just enjoy the friendships then” type of response, given how the Dragon Age games routinely treat the significance of friendships.  Sure, you can make friends with your companions, but the treatment of those friendships is distinctly different from that of the romances.  A few examples, off the top of my head:

  • You can choose to romance someone, but you cannot choose to designate them a “best friend” or otherwise grant them a significant nonromantic status in your life, which matters because who you romance affects your epilogue.  Who you became good friends with does not, because there’s no particular way to track such a thing.
  • In some cases, romancing a character is the only way to get closer to them or learn more about them.  The potential for emotional closeness between you is limited otherwise.
  • The Dragon Age Keep, which meticulously details the choices available in the first two games, asks you about who Hawke and the Warden romanced.  It does not ask you who their good friends were, because that’s deemed unimportant.
  • Should I mention that the Keep’s symbol for “romanced no one” is a heart with a vine of thorns wrapped around it?  That’s relevant, isn’t it?

The developers of Dragon Age do not care enough about friendships to allow them to be prioritized at all.  “Just enjoy the friendships” as a replacement for nonsexual romances is laughable as long as romancing a character is the only in-game way to designate a character as being important to you.

In this context, strongly reciprocated emotional attachment is essentially constrained to romantic involvement, and romantic involvement necessitates sex.

Hence, the world created by Bioware’s choice of game mechanics manifests as an uncanny mimicry of what so many allos have said is the only way our world can or should be.

If you don’t do sex, then no romance, and if no romance, then you’re alone.

By “alone,” of course, I mean being without significant social support networks, as are expected to be provided by family and a spouse.  Understand, as a reminder, that I’m talking about social forces and what’s “supposed” to happen, precisely because of its serious effect on what actually does happen, but the former will remain my focus for now.

This rule — Pair Up or Be Alone — is particularly salient in White American culture (which I’m noting here as both a culture of its own and as a hegemonic force), in which the “nuclear” family unit consists of two romantically-and-sexually-bound parents and their children, the latter of which have to be blood relations in order to be “real”.  No one else matters as much.  Grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, good friends — these are all periphery, non-essential in a way that the other elements are not.  The American Family, under this lens, is cut down to only the most minimalist version of its productive components.

Also note that the romo/sexual relationship (configured as The One And Only primary relationship) is, under heteronormativity, configured to be hierarchical/adversarial.  More on that here, but I’ll give you an excerpt:

Male-supremacist heterosexuality is more than just the man-woman relationship – at its most basic, it is the subject-object relationship. To understand how compulsory heterosexuality affects non-heterosexual spaces, we must ask who are the subjects of the fuck and who are the objects of the fuck? Are the subjects masculine or assertive or enthusiastic or popular or experienced or on top or otherwise privileged? Are the objects feminine or passive or reluctant or unpopular or new to the scene or on the bottom or otherwise marginalised?

There is a reason why heterosexual people are obsessed with asking similar-sex couples, “So, who’s the man?” They want to know who fucks and who, as it were, is fucked. Because sex is power – specifically, the exercise of male power upon women – then any time power is exercised, it invokes the spectre of male and female roles. When sex is defined by power, determine who has the power in the fuck and who does not, or who gains social status in the fuck and who loses it, and you will discover who must compulsorily be fucked by whom.

The mental/emotional impact of this dynamic should be obvious.  Hierarchy precludes relating to someone as a peer; an adversarial dynamic begets adversaries, not healthy relationships.

In combination, these various forces create a setup of thorough social isolation, whittling down human connections.  You’re not supposed to passionately love with your friends unless you want to date them; you’re not supposed to date someone unless you’d want to have sex with them someday; you’re not supposed to prioritize any other familial relationships ahead of parent-child relationships and the romo/sexual relationship — to the point where all Happiness and Emotional Fulfillment is supposed to tie back to (hetero)sex in the end, and our ideas about romo/sexual bonding are saturated with unhealthy ideas of competition, tug-of-wars, and zero-sum games.  This is not a recipe for nurturing relationships, plural.  If anything, it’s a recipe for a cultural justification to the social isolation that abusers rely on.

There are a lot of directions you could take this from here.  Where I intend to proceed with it, for now, is a connection that hadn’t occurred to me when I first started planning this post, but as I thought about the interweaving wires that create the cage of isolation, it reminded me of something we learned about in a media and marketing class: the cultivation of “brand identity.”  Or, in other words, human-identity-through-brands.

The idea of creating consumer identity-packages around a product is a standard, well-acknowledged marketing strategy that’s been in use for decades, not some fringe theory among the resentful.  Think about Apple, Nike, or Abercrombie & Fitch, for instance.  Powerful, successful brands provide not just a product, but idea of what kind of person consumes their product.  And the creepy thing is that it kind of works.  Perhaps not always in the way that their marketers intended, but we do end up with identifiable subcultures around certain brands, offering social status, identity, and community.  Marketing is the hand that beckons to say, “be one of us.”

Consequently, what consumption can nurture is feelings of belonging.

Again, this isn’t fringe speculation.  This is a standard strategy in the industry, one that’s pretty easy to see if you look for it, and the reason I haven’t bothered to link to anything yet is that it’s such a basic idea with a lot of consensus, but I can provide some further reading if asked.

Anyway, if we note how cultural forces limit our connections to each other, and if we place consumption in a context of encouraged social isolation, and recognize consumption as a means for exchanging credit for relationships, then, if you can grant some leniency for my radical wording, perhaps you can see how amatonormativity and compulsory sexuality appear taxing in more than an emotional sense.

One thing I’ve neglected to mention thus far, however, is how much that media class stressed the centrality of narrative in the creation of (or even comprehension of) identity.  We are nothing less and nothing more than the stories we can tell about ourselves.  Marketing, then, has to use narrative to create identities around its products, the better to sell them with.  While I was pondering this in class discussion, I brought up something that had occurred to me just then, which is that if marketers try to sell a product by framing it as a narrative you can insert yourself in, then it seems as if video games should be the best product for this strategy, since many of them are literally made of stories that you can play as a character in.

And recall, if you will, that one of the ace community’s most long-standing complaints has been that our media (particularly our entertainment media) is hypersexual.

I’m not saying it’s all a conspiracy, but I am saying it’s important to think about what’s useful to who.


9 responses to “The Heart, The Pants, and The Wallet

  • notunprepared

    It’s the same in the Mass Effect series too. I originally wasn’t going to romance anyone (because the sex scenes in the games are SO AWKWARD for me to watch, and romance isn’t much better), but then I discovered that you miss out on stuff if you don’t. I was like “Well that’s shit”.

    I hate it, I hate all of the hetero-centrality and amatonormativity.

    It’s also degrading to friendship as well, these marketing and gameplay strategies. Like, my mum (who has been happily heterosexually married for 25 years), has several best friends who are so close to her that I consider them my aunties. But you never, ever see relationships like that in media, despite the fact that they’re incredibly common.

    • Siggy

      Well if everyone treats their protagonist like a self-insert, then somebody’s going to miss out on part of the content no matter what.

      This is part of the reason why video games so often reflect the tastes of the majority, even in disproportion to the size of the majority. It’s because the majority is so afraid of missing out on some video game content, never mind that there are vastly more video games than anyone has time to play.

    • Siggy

      Sorry, I think I came off as more critical than I intended. Being effectively blocked from video game content sucks, I feel the same way. Although I’m not sure that’s the reason to advocate more diverse video games.

      • Not unprepared

        Video games are about escapism, and when we’re facing the ame annoying crap we get in real life…it’s alienating. Sometimes that can be a good thing (like when you’re put in the shoes of someone who is oppressed in something you’re privileged in). But when romance and sex is something I fight with regularly, I don’t like having to go through it in my games as well. (I spose I should add that I’m ace and mostly aro too, hence why romance bothers me).

        Having said that though, I always romance Garrus when I replay them. Mostly because their relationship is based solely in strong friendship, which I find easier to cope with than all the other relationships. Because they’re all based in the love interest having a crush on you. Which is, yeah no thanks.

        • Kappamaki

          Garrus is the only romance I’ve ever played in Mass Effect. I thought it was pretty great – an awkward and emotional romance built around a friendship between two renegade soldiers fighting injustice and blowing stuff up wherever they go. As for the implied sex scenes, they usually looked more like they were literally sleeping together and those scenes were really about the two supporting each other emotionally through difficult times – a moment of support and vulnerability so they could face the galaxy and be strong.

          Contrast Mass Effect 1 where Liara and Kaidan both suddenly started hitting on Shepard out of nowhere. No, I was not “giving off mixed messages,” Kaidan, I was TALKING. You and Liara are GROUNDED and don’t get to go on any more missions.

    • Victrix

      I didn’t even see the romance thing coming in the first one. I kind of haven’t gone back to the 3rd one as I can’t be bothered having to deal with the romance thing when I’m only really interested in their background. So then I’d have to reject someone to get out of it somehow. I playing this to escape real life not have the same issues shoved in my face…

  • Linkspam: January 16th, 2015 | The Asexual Agenda

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    […] a few days ago, I wrote this post regarding the Dragon Age romances and how practically all of them feature sex.  I didn’t go into detail evaluating each one, […]

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