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He, She, and V

September 17, 2009
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It’s a well-known narrative trope that only nameless characters die. Like an awful lot of narrative tropes, this one comes in for a ribbing in Order of the Stick: a nameless paladin, dying on the ground, is miraculously revived when he reveals his name. Thirty strips later, Daigo (the resurrectee) and the other formerly-nameless paladin, Kazumi, are getting married. When asked what name they want for their newly ennobled House, they choose to ‘save’ Daigo’s surname for emergencies and go by Kazumi’s, already revealed.

Because it’s seamlessly incorporated into the run of jokes about how only nameless characters die, it’s easy to miss the practical upshot of this: Kazumi is keeping her own surname. Daigo may or may not have changed his. And nobody finds this controversial enough to comment. The treatment of this as entirely mundane is just one example of the feminist sensibility to be found lurking in Rich Burlew’s comic, and the subtlety with which he approaches issues of sex, gender and egalitarianism.

Order of the Stick is based around the Dungeons and Dragons roleplay system: many of its jokes rely on the inevitable discrepancies between the way game-reality works and the way actual reality works. A lot of its humour requires at least a basic understanding of the core rules. So, before going back to focus on the strip itself, let’s consider where it’s starting from.

D&D, like most tabletop roleplay systems, is both stereotypically and conventionally mostly played by men (Renegade Evolution’s epic gaming post and its comments provides a lot more anecdata on the general marginal status of women in gaming, and the unpleasantness that can ensue.) However, a look at the sourcebooks proves that none of this bias is built into the system: the example characters are split pretty much 50-50, and pronouns for class descriptions alternate between male and female:

Unlike a bard or sorcerer, a wizard may know any number of spells. She must choose and prepare her spells ahead of time by getting a good night’s sleep and spending 1 hour studying her spellbook.

And:

At 2nd level, a barbarian retains his Dexterity bonus to AC (if any) even if he is caught flat-footed or struck by an invisible attacker. However, he still loses his Dexterity bonus to AC if immobilized.

In the SRD (open-source System Reference Document, the core rules) the rules for the druid, monk, paladin, rogue and wizard classes use female pronouns; those for barbarian, bard, cleric, ranger and sorcerer use male, and those for fighter (the class with fewest rules needing explanation) use none at all. The selections seem well-balanced; there’s no suggestion, for instance, that spellcasters are female and warriors male. It’s plain that the team who wrote the rules went out of their way to be inclusive, which I love.

In light of this, perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that Order of the Stick’s presentation of sex and gender is admirably right-headed: it’s starting from a pretty good place. The sourcebooks, however, stick to the standard gender binary, whereas Order of the Stick notably doesn’t. Having opened with an instance in which OOTS subverts traditional gendered norms within the binary framework (here’s another one, also involving Kazumi), I now want to talk about what happens when the binary refuses to be applied.

Ah, Vaarsuvius.

So many brilliant things crystallise in V. It’s one of the running jokes of the series that nobody knows whether V is male, female, or something else, and Mr Burlew would seem to have gone to some lengths to fog the issue whenever the possibility of revelation comes up. Consider V’s family: the full name ‘Vaarsuvius’ may sound masculine in a cod-classical sort of way, but so does the name of V’s life partner Inkyrius. Conversely, the nicknames they use for one another, Suvie and Kyrie, both look and sound feminine to Western ears. Their children are adopted and address their parents as ‘Parent’ and ‘Other Parent’. There’s absolutely nothing one can point to and say “that settles it”.

Throughout the strip, various secondary characters read V as male or female and speak accordingly: here’s an instance of Sabine treating V as a fellow-woman, for example. The other party members, however, don’t do this: they avoid gendered pronouns, usually refer to V by name, and it’s simply never an issue. The only one of the party who seems really interested in V’s sex is Belkar, and it’s fairly clear that the main reason he wants to know is precisely because V won’t tell him, not because he’s particularly interested in the answer.

If anything, I think this non-issueness of V’s sex is more revolutionary than foregrounding it would have been: spotlighting people who don’t fit conventions can still be a form of exoticisation or othering, even when the intention behind doing so is to say “look, this is okay.” It violates the old writer’s maxim of ‘show, don’t tell’. Treating V’s ambiguous presentation as mostly irrelevant shows that it’s not a problem, without Burlew’s needing to tell us so.

OOTS reaches a massively wide audience. It’s been enshrined in the BuzzComix Hall of Fame after the volume of reader votes broke the server, the forums are bustling, and it’s well enough known to have its own “Which OOTS Character Are You?” Facebook app. It makes me happy to know that the message all these people are getting is one in which how V’s identification and presentation are far less important than intelligence, talent (in this case magical) and possible genocidal impulses. It’s a message that needs to be heard as widely as possible, to which end I encourage you to recommend OOTS to everyone you know.

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