Master Thesis on Representations of Gender, Sexuality, and Race in Ex2

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Jutlander
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I recently handed in my master thesis which was a deep-dive into representations of gender, sexuality, and race in Exalted, second edition.

The thesis uses a method of multimodal feminist post-structural discourse analysis to look at female representation across 31 sourcebooks with special attention given to the Deathlords and Raksi.

You can find my work here.

Any feedback is welcomed. The defense seminar is public and I will post a link in this post once I have it (if there is any interest).

EDIT: If anyone want to see the thesis defense, it is 9:00 to 10:00 (CEST).

https://gu-se.zoom.us/j/65197463206?pwd ... tML0g1UT09

Meeting ID: 651 9746 3206

Passcode: 755532
Last edited by Jutlander on Thu May 27, 2021 4:04 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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andrix
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Ok, whoa. Thank you for sharing this! Can I ask what your masters is and what led you to picking Exalted for your thesis? The level of effort and thoroughness in this utterly sets it apart from anything I've seen in the discourse around the game before.

I also can't let that title go unremarked on 😆

You've done an incredible job laying out and supporting a lot of the potential issues with the representation and politics of 2e. What comes across is how you could have picked any one element of this from gender to race to sexuality and dug even further into it as a thesis on their own merits.

I've a few points/questions, not criticism because I realise that the scope of a thesis maybe doesn't let you go too far into them, but you've had a chance to analyse things academically so I'm curious where your thoughts are:

  • How much of the ideas here were thoughts you already had and how much came to the surface during your evaluation
  • You've focused on 2e, how do you think the conclusions here compare to 1e and importantly how 3e handles things
  • How much of this presentation do you think is due to clear intent to sexualise the line or have it presented the way you've laid out and how much do you think is subliminal/unintended?
  • How do you factor in the input of different creators to the overall product? A lot of the sexualised imagery that 2e is notorious can be attributed to specific reccuring artists for instance, or academically do you ultimately have to say that everything included is selected by someone with an overarching vision/responsibility and therefore has to be analysed as a whole?

And if we don't get to see the defence of this I'm going to be disappointed!
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First of all, congratulations of completing your thesis.

It seems pretty on-point, I've got maybe a couple more things I'd bring up when it comes to gender like the pigeon-toed women in the artwork or the differences in how male and female characters seem to age. Broadly speaking I feel Exalted 2nd edition decided that it was going to be "the anime game" and in pursuit of that title it ended up repeating a lot of ideas that were inconsistent with its purported values.
Jutlander
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andrix wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 4:54 pmOk, whoa. Thank you for sharing this! Can I ask what your masters is and what led you to picking Exalted for your thesis? The level of effort and thoroughness in this utterly sets it apart from anything I've seen in the discourse around the game before.

I also can't let that title go unremarked on 😆

You've done an incredible job laying out and supporting a lot of the potential issues with the representation and politics of 2e. What comes across is how you could have picked any one element of this from gender to race to sexuality and dug even further into it as a thesis on their own merits.
Thank you so much!

I am doing a master's in communication.

Originally, I wanted to do my thesis on gendered differences in sexual narratives in interpersonal communication, but with Covid going around, data-collection felt like too big of a challenge.

I mentioned doing something on Exalted in a conversation with one of my professors, and while I was dismissive of my own idea, not thinking that it was serious enough, he was very enthusiastic about it. So I went with it.

I realized that given how familiar I was with the dataset of Exalted, I would be able to cover a lot of ground compared to scholars not familiar with the game. Instead of familiarizing myself with something entirely new, I would be able to go really deep with this.

Initially, it was not my intention to include race, simply because I far more knowledgeable in the areas of gender and sexuality than I am in the area of race, but then my supervisor quoted Flavia Dzodan:

"My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit."

Especially in post-structuralist context, it would be weird to ignore race as an identity marker. And it turns out that there was a lot of stuff about race in Exalted that I had never noticed.
andrix wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 4:54 pmI've a few points/questions, not criticism because I realise that the scope of a thesis maybe doesn't let you go too far into them, but you've had a chance to analyse things academically so I'm curious where your thoughts are:

  • How much of the ideas here were thoughts you already had and how much came to the surface during your evaluation
  • You've focused on 2e, how do you think the conclusions here compare to 1e and importantly how 3e handles things
  • How much of this presentation do you think is due to clear intent to sexualise the line or have it presented the way you've laid out and how much do you think is subliminal/unintended?
  • How do you factor in the input of different creators to the overall product? A lot of the sexualised imagery that 2e is notorious can be attributed to specific reccuring artists for instance, or academically do you ultimately have to say that everything included is selected by someone with an overarching vision/responsibility and therefore has to be analysed as a whole?
I was very aware of the visual sexualization, and I knew that I wanted to do Raksi and the female Deathlords.

I was surprised to realize how much the LGBTQ representation had changed between editions; second edition does not state that the homosexual characters of first edition are heterosexual, but it sort of it implies it. I had never noticed that.

The findings about race surprised me too.

First edition and third edition are definitely more sex positive. And third edition in particular seems very aware of what it is doing in regards to representation.

It would have been interesting to cover all three editions in one paper, but that would come with challenges of its own due to the restrictions I had on time and word count.

One possible solution would have been to do a quantitative study in the style of Garcia's (2017) study of Dungeons & Dragons, but given that third edition is still very limited in its number of titles that opens up the question of whether to look at all the books, only the corebooks, or some third option. Also, I am better at qualitative analysis than quantitative analysis, though both approaches have their merits.

One thing that my supervisor has hammered home a couple of times is that discourse analysis does not particularly care about intentions. The discourse is what the discourse is regardless of intentions. Certainly, some authors and artists have more of a responsibility than others, but from the point of view of discourse analysis that is not in itself super interesting. The discourse does not represent a vision, necessarily, but it does reflect an ideology; not of a single person necessarily, but of the overall game.

Do I personally think that it was intentional?

Absolutely not.

I think Exalted and other RPGs reproduce unfortunate tropes because it is really hard not to do so. I think the game sincerely tried to be something different and that it then failed to do.

But I also think that the Bonus Experience podcast hits the nail on its head when they say that White Wolf has always been progressive in a very transgressive way. White Wolf has always wanted to be the sexy-bad-boy-grown-ups of the RPG world and that carried into Exalted.

Oh, and one or more authors must have noticed how second edition was a lot less gay than first edition.
andrix wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 4:54 pmAnd if we don't get to see the defence of this I'm going to be disappointed!
It will be around June 3rd. I will let you know when I know for sure.
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Lioness wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 5:03 pmFirst of all, congratulations of completing your thesis.

It seems pretty on-point, I've got maybe a couple more things I'd bring up when it comes to gender like the pigeon-toed women in the artwork or the differences in how male and female characters seem to age. Broadly speaking I feel Exalted 2nd edition decided that it was going to be "the anime game" and in pursuit of that title it ended up repeating a lot of ideas that were inconsistent with its purported values.
Thank you very much.

As for age, I do have a note on how Lilith and Mnemon and a third character all look like they are in their twenties despite being extremely old.

I am not sure what "pigeon-toed" means.

Your note on anime very succinctly sums up something I only scratched the surface of in the section on infantilization. I will definitely bear it in mind going into the defense.

In general, these questions and comments are a great exercise for me going into the defense. Thank you both for that.
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Pidgeon toes is a condition when the toes turn inwards sometimes but not always bringing the knees uncomfortably close together, it's mostly observable in children before they grow out of it and present in some anime because it's considered cute. 
Image
And well, here's an example of it on page 223 of Graceful Wicked Masques. 
Jutlander
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Oh.

Oh, that would have been a good catch.

I never knew that it was a thing.
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Lioness wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 9:50 pm Pidgeon toes is a condition when the toes turn inwards sometimes but not always bringing the knees uncomfortably close together, it's mostly observable in children before they grow out of it and present in some anime because it's considered cute. 
Image
And well, here's an example of it on page 223 of Graceful Wicked Masques. 
It's also kind of a real world thing. When your feet aren’t parallel, your legs supposedly look slimmer than they actually are. Thus, some women actually do stand like that for photos and the like.
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andrix
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Jutlander wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 9:23 pm "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit."

I'd never heard this quote before but I love it.
Jutlander wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 9:23 pm One thing that my supervisor has hammered home a couple of times is that discourse analysis does not particularly care about intentions. The discourse is what the discourse is regardless of intentions. Certainly, some authors and artists have more of a responsibility than others, but from the point of view of discourse analysis that is not in itself super interesting. The discourse does not represent a vision, necessarily, but it does reflect an ideology; not of a single person necessarily, but of the overall game.

Do I personally think that it was intentional?

Absolutely not.

I think Exalted and other RPGs reproduce unfortunate tropes because it is really hard not to do so. I think the game sincerely tried to be something different and that it then failed to do.

But I also think that the Bonus Experience podcast hits the nail on its head when they say that White Wolf has always been progressive in a very transgressive way. White Wolf has always wanted to be the sexy-bad-boy-grown-ups of the RPG world and that carried into Exalted.

I can certainly appreciate this take on intentions etc. And the observation BExp have made about the trangressive progressivism is one I've seen a few other places too and definitely agree with. I seem to remember hearing someone recently describe it as exactly the sort of boundary pushing you'd expect from some 90/00s midwestern white guys, which seems both a little unfair but also not far off the mark.

How entrenched do you think some of these issues are in the hobby and what do you think tabletop as a whole and Exalted in particular can do to genuinely progress this stuff in 2021, if anything?
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Jutlander
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andrix wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 10:21 pmHow entrenched do you think some of these issues are in the hobby and what do you think tabletop as a whole and Exalted in particular can do to genuinely progress this stuff in 2021, if anything?
I think it is extremely entrenched not just in RPGs, but in geek culture as a whole.

As for genuine progress, I think that indie games are here to show us the way.

Crowdfunding and PoD have changed the RPG industry in many ways, but one of the more positives changes is the plurality of voices it allows for:

Consider games like Swordsfall, Coyote and Crow, Dungeon Bitches, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Bluebeard's Bride, and A Cosy Den.

RPG publishing has been democraticized and people who did not to tell their stories previously, now do.

The Bonus Experience podcast credits the many women and queer people working on Scion third edition and Exalted third edition for the progressive strides forward made by these games. I think that they are on to something.
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LefferDP wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 10:20 pm
Lioness wrote: Sat May 15, 2021 9:50 pm Pidgeon toes is a condition when the toes turn inwards sometimes but not always bringing the knees uncomfortably close together, it's mostly observable in children before they grow out of it and present in some anime because it's considered cute. 
Image
And well, here's an example of it on page 223 of Graceful Wicked Masques. 
It's also kind of a real world thing. When your feet aren’t parallel, your legs supposedly look slimmer than they actually are. Thus, some women actually do stand like that for photos and the like.
True, I was focused on the most likely explanation why Nlassa is standing like that.
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I once spoke to Hatewheel at length about the game's poor representation in places. Some points I addressed were.

-Exalted's relationship to South Asia/India was culturally appropriative using Sanskrit words to give a sense of exoticism and leaning into Hindu mythology for the Fair Folk.

-The appropriated manga aesthetic lead to a lot of characters occupying a space where they could simultaneously be seen as asian or white depending on the biases of the viewer leaving dark skin to be a deviation from normal. This means that the circle the comic put together to operate in Chiaroscuro looked like this- 
Image  

- "Half Caste" was racist as shit, my brother and I are both 1/4 Moroccan and we associate that term with elderly relatives who don't like our father and think we should spend less time in the sun, so seeing that term used in the Player's Guide blew our minds to the point that years later he no longer plays Exalted but occasionally asks me as a joke if beastmen have been renamed as mulatto or quadroons yet.
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Congrats on wrapping up your Masters!

If you were to put a % on it, how much the negative tropes of Exalted 2E comes from the visual depiction versus textual source? Like 80% visual/20% text? 

The Anime/Wuxia of the 80s & 90s don't seem particularly progressive along the lines of "heterosexual, cis-male viewpoint, drawing up and reproducing stereotypes and tropes that are inherently misogynist, homophobic, and racist". By leaning into those those non-Tolkien source materials, did Exalted 2E just perpetuate their failings?




 
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Huh, for some reason it seems my post got ate. I must have missed hitting the right button. Anyways what I wanted to say was that this is some great stuff. Some of this stuff had already kind of occurred to me. Like the choice to make the one Deathlord who is all about being hot and sex into a woman didn't happen by accident. Since you said feedback is welcome I do have some thoughts that came up from your touching on the Tya and the west.

When you were writing your part about the Tya you didn't seem to touch on the in setting why the Tya even exist in the first place. The reason why they exist, in setting, seems very inline with some of your earlier parts. Specifically the reason the Tya have to become men seems to have less to do with what they want and far more to do with the fact there is this entire race of ugly gods called Storm Mothers who just hate other prettier women. The first woman to be Tya scarred her face to live as a man, which ties into the whole beauty and women angle you mentioned. She also didn't do it to be a man though as noted in the truth part of the west book. She wanted to sail and a Storm Mother wanted a messenger so they cut a deal where she had to self-mutilate and more of she would be destroyed for trying to tail. The Storm mothers, a group of universally ugly women gods in setting, are jealous about pretty women and happen to also like child sacrifice which touches into the angle of beauty and goodness. The male sailors watching her on her first voyage fully expected the storm mother to wreck her. Oh and also the goddess of sailors in the west is also jealous of other women and won't protect them. They become men because they have no choice if they want to be sailors or escape what their culture says they have to be not because they want to be men. The Tya exist because in the west other women are so spiteful and jealous they would be killed for it. Even more it seems like everyone views this as a fiction rather than the Tya are men. The only men who would sleep with them mostly do it out of perverse curiosity and their marriages to local woman are usually just a business arrangement according to the west book. So it feels like not only do they go into it not really wanting to be men but the main thing is more that they just aren't women. No mention about gay as male relationships. Would this be Othering maybe?

A woman can't be a sailor in the west because another woman would be so jealous of her looks she would kill her and every person around her. The solution to this was literal self mutilation so the other women wouldn't be jealous anymore. Like that seems really messed up and seems a uniquely female issue in the setting that goes far deeper than just they were drawn like sexy ladies still. Sorry if I made a bigger thing about this than maybe intended but the west and the Tya never sat right with me and this definitely made me re-examine some of why.
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I'm surprised you didn't mention the sidebar (Abyssals, P67) suggesting that He Who Holds in Thrall cursed FaFL "to feel an obsessive lust for Princess Magnificent" while placing "a burning contempt" for him in her.
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