Of gaming, boob armour, and smutty 13th century French fabliaux

(Content note: almost definitely NSFW)

A bit of a silly, non-political post for the weekend!

This article on designing better women in computer games hit a bunch of my favourite topics at once:

We put our perceptions of gender on our designs of characters before the pen hits the paper, before the brain has concocted a vision of them, before they even have a personality or a soul. Before we even understand that we’re doing it, we create gender for our characters. Now only that, but we feel we must outwardly show this decision through sexualization, instead of physicality, through subtext instead of text.

We, as designers, do this every day to every character we ever make. Even when we think we aren’t doing it, we still do it.

So, let’s stop doing it. Let’s create characters that can speak for themselves. Let’s make physicality work alongside our characters, not for a male-gaze agenda or some notions of “people just won’t understand so let’s just keep the design as-is”.

First because it tripped my nostalgia for City of Heroes, a MMORPG which my partner and I spent many, many hours defending the streets of Paragon City and confusing the hell out of people who assumed I (the hotheaded one) was the dude and he (the patient, strategic one) was the woman.

CoH had a tremendously open character creator – probably the best outside of Sims 3 for offering a truly wide variety of options and possible body shapes. The “huge” body type was still coded male, there weren’t many skirt options for the “male” body type and the “female” body type always had a bit of a nipped-in waist, but beyond that it was amazing, and I don’t know why other games – especially newer ones which push the boundaries in terms of character development, graphics and creativity – have never matched it.

Secondly, because in reminding me of the hilarious existence of boob armour (sexist and technically impractical) the article prompted my brain to recall one of the great epiphanies of my life: when I realised that the reputation Middle English and Old English have as stodgy, boring topics which only total nerds would pursue (especially to postgrad level, cough) was utterly erroneous.

Because our Anglo ancestors were smutty as all hell.

You get an early taste of this in a lot of 101-style English Lit courses where you study a grab-bag of works – one Shakespeare, one modern novel, something gothic, something really-old. A popular choice is Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, which begins:

3187         Whilom ther was dwellynge at Oxenford
There was once dwelling at Oxford
3188         A riche gnof, that gestes heeld to bord,
A rich churl, who took in boarders,
3189         And of his craft he was a carpenter.
And of his craft he was a carpenter.
3190         With hym ther was dwellynge a poure scoler,
With him there was dwelling a poor scholar,
3191         Hadde lerned art, but al his fantasye
Who had learned the arts curriculum, but all his desire
3192         Was turned for to lerne astrologye,
Was turned to learning astrology,
3193         And koude a certeyn of conclusiouns,
And he knew a certain (number of) of astronomical operations,
3194         To demen by interrogaciouns,
To determine by scientific calculations,
3195         If that men asked hym, in certein houres
If men asked him, in specific (astronomical) hours
3196         Whan that men sholde have droghte or elles shoures,
When men should have drought or else showers,
3197         Or if men asked hym what sholde bifalle
Or if people asked him what should happen
3198         Of every thyng; I may nat rekene hem alle.
Concerning every thing; I can not reckon them all.

… which is fairly intimidating even if you are a big ol’ language nerd. The actual tale, which involves the Miller’s wife cheating on him with a handsome tenant and conspiring to get some alone time by telling her husband that God is planning another Great Flood, which is foiled when another dude who’s in love with her rams a red-hot poker up the tenant’s ass (long story) is beautifully juvenile, and takes most people by complete surprise (“I thought this was a treasured piece of English literary history! Why are there fart jokes?!”).

But I wasn’t thinking of the Miller’s Tale – which is itself a fabliau – in the context of silly sexist boob-armour. I thought of the glorious tale of De Bérangier au lonc cul – that is, Sir Berenger of the long arse.

Another foolish husband – and boy, were fabliaux a wonderfully misandrist genre – lords it over his good lady wife, and is vanishing into the forest each day to rub dirt on his armour and bash a few holes in his shield so she’ll think he’s a tough guy. One day she follows him – having donned somebody else’s armour – and confronts him, declaring he must either joust against her (and probably die because she’s badass) or kiss her – or rather, “his” – arse.

He’s a chickenheart, so he agrees to kiss the strange anonymous knight’s arse.

The lady would grant no respite
But immediately put foot on ground
And raised her robe
And bent over in front of him.
“Sir, put your face here.”

And he looked at the crevice
Of the arse and the quim, and it seemed
To him that it was all one.
He thinks and says to himself
That he has never before seen so long an arse.
Then he kissed her with a hearty kiss,
In the manner of an evil cowardly man,
Right at the hole there;
She has well brought him to what he deserved.
Straightway the lady turned around,
And the knight cried to her:
“Good sir, I beg that you tell me your name,
And then you can leave here entirely satisfied.”

“Young man, my name will never be concealed;
But such a name was never found;
None of my family bears it but me.
I am called Bèrenger of the Long Arse,
Who puts all cowards to shame.”

Yep, dude’s such a prat he can’t even consider the possibility that a woman in armour has defeated him. He returns home, where his now un-armoured wife awaits to inform him that her good friend Berenger popped by for a cuppa and told her all about it. And lo, her husband learns his lesson and stops being such a douche.

Now, in a world where we assume women’s armour is essentially a metal catsuit (and illustrators don’t really understand how those work, either) this kind of hilarious smut could never take place.

So don’t just think of practically, historical accuracy, or challenging sexist gender norms next time you see ridiculous armour on a female character. Think of what our culture would be missing without poems about douchebag men being taught humility by kissing their wife’s quim.

(Also, bring back the word “quim”.)

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