by Alex J
Lately I’ve been engaging a long-lost passion of my youth. Every Saturday night for the past few weeks, a couple friends and I have been gathering down in Portland Towers for an evening of good beer, good music and a few games of Magic: The Gathering. Now, of course this is academic writing (informal as it may be) and not strictly a forum to wax poetic about embracing one’s inner geek, but fortunately for me, Magic has some interesting things going on from a cultural perspective.
For example, it’s rather heartening to examine gender representations in the cards artwork. Fantasy, as a genre, hasn’t historically been known for portraying women as people with a lot of agency—there are obviously exceptions to this, especially once one starts looking in the literary canon—but for a long time, the generalization of fantasy looked more like this:
Even in more more current terms, a lot of modern fantasy still falls into this trap of rendering women, even strong female characters in other terms, as the object of male gaze by putting them in impractical and overtly sexualized clothing:
However, Magic takes great pains to avoid exactly this sort of issue. Some of the general guidelines for Magic artwork, laid out by longtme artist Matt Cavotta, include taking pains to be sensitive to this exact issue, portraying different races, genders, body types and ages. He further adds as a guideline for artists “Feel free to paint beautiful women, as long as they’re shown kicking ass. No damsels in distress. No ridiculously exaggerated breasts. No nudity.” Women make up a significant number of the series’ major characters and are depicted in unconventional and counter-stereotypical ways:
Magic is also an interesting example of cultural bricolage. It’s broader narrative is primarily based on the standards of post-Tolkien high fantasy—elves, goblins, the tropes of sword and sorcery. But in addition to relying on these standards, new sets incorporate elements from all sorts of different world mythologies, whether they’re African, Japanese, British, Norse, etc. There’s a debate to be had about this—how faithful these representations are to their sources, whether they’re exploitative, appropriating cultural artifacts into commercial product, or embracing, providing a linking experience for the surprisingly wide community of international players—a debate that fits into the larger conversation about multiculturalism.
Not that the exploitation claims are entirely without merit. One of the major criticisms of the game is that it can be a remarkably expensive hobby—all official games are restricted to newer cards, with dedicated players spending upwards of $100 every three months for the release of new sets. This exemplifies the idea of corporate media—that our cultural experience promotes corporate ideology and that the content of that media is as advertisement for itself.
I suppose the point that I’m going for here is how even something that can be hard to take seriously—a bunch of nerds sitting around a table talking about +1 counters, mana screw and enchantment triggers–can still provide a context for some of the theoretical concepts we’re talking about. Plus, I just wanted to geek out a little on you guys.