What cute little blue feet this boob has!

This week sees the simultaneous release of pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts, and the release of a Counterpunch article on how a feminist Assistant Professor should be allowed  to breastfeed in class. I think everyone is roughly aware of how the debate is proceeding vis a vis the Duchess’s breasts – they’re a private and sensitive part of her body and should not be revealed in public. A nice debate on the Assistant Professor’s breastfeeding can be found at Crooked Timber, and in my opinion shows the lengths people will go to defend people in their in-group, and I commented there a few times to make note of the nature of the Prof’s bullying of a younger woman, and how strange it is for a self-described “militant feminist” to be using the full powers of authority against a young woman.

There’s an interesting and entertaining element to the feminist response to these two topics, though, which I would like to explore here. The palace’s (and, presumably, Kate’s) uproar over the publication of the pictures is only partly based on the fact that she didn’t give permission for a photo to be taken (this happens to royals all the time); it’s specifically about her breasts. I presume there is a feminist response to this based in women’s control of their own bodies, which would observe that breasts are sexual and private parts of the body and to publish pictures of them without permission damages a woman’s agency; but at the same time quite a few commentators on the Crooked Timber thread are arguing that breasts should not be seen as anything special and no one should distinguish between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding in public. Quite a few of the commenters there, presumably feminists, criticize the student journalist and others for suggesting that there might be anything inappropriate about whipping a breast out in a lecture, and suggest that the students who might have been discomfited need to grow up.

But here’s the thing: if Kate Middleton is made uncomfortable by the thought that her breasts can be viewed publicly by strangers, presumably it is also reasonable for her to be discomfited by the sight of a stranger’s breast in public? She might not, but given she sees her own breasts as a private and sexual area of her body she must have some generally applicable boundaries as to when and how they can be displayed, and presumably at least on a personal level these boundaries would be generalizable to the behavior of others. So how do we reconcile her (and many other women’s) feeling that their breasts are special, with a feminist position on breast-feeding that says they aren’t?

I don’t think we can. Because breasts aren’t just bottles, and everyone – male and female – has feelings about them that are not the same as feelings about bottles. This is why feminists will be outraged by the publication of pictures of Kate’s breasts in a way they would not be by pictures of her elbows. So, if you’re going to argue for the right to breast-feed in public places, I don’t think an argument on the basis that “we all need to get over how special breasts are” is going to work unless we are willing to logically extend that to “there’s nothing wrong with publishing unauthorized pictures of the breasts of public figures.” Julia Gillard, Margaret Thatcher, Kate Middleton, Paris Hilton: it’s all the same, we can publish their breasts with the same ease with which we publish their elbows and knees.

Of course, you can paper over the issue by objecting to the publication of any unauthorized photos of public figures, but that horse has bolted. The issue now is strictly over what is acceptable. Upskirts? No, those parts are sexual. Breasts? No, those parts are private. Breast-feeding by a professor in class? Yes, because there’s nothing special about breasts. Doesn’t work does it? Similarly sneering at someone for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts in a breast-feeding role in class, but lauding them for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts on a newspaper … doesn’t work. And this latter contradiction applies even if the person in question is well capable of understanding the non-sexual context of breastfeeding.

I think there are lots of other ways to justify the Professor’s decision to breastfeed in class, and lots of other arguments for public breastfeeding. But I don’t think they should be leavened with “they’re just breasts.” It’s a lactivist meme that I think contains a lack of respect for the importance of sexuality, contains an unhealthy natalist view of what women become when they are mothers (i.e. non-sexual) and reduces an important part of human culture (the aesthetics of the body) to a mere triviality.

For the record: I am entirely in favour of women being allowed to breastfeed publicly, but I also think it’s good for women to consider whether they can find alternatives, and society should (as happens in Japan) provide proper rooms for this activity, so that women can breastfeed comfortably without worrying about being in public, and those members of the public who are uncomfortable with public breastation are not required to see it. Worse still, a society where it is expected that women can, should and will breastfeed in public is going to be hell for women who feel uncomfortable so doing: they will be unable to find spaces to do so, and will be made to feel like bad mothers for not behaving in accordance with accepted fashion. So more breast-feeding rooms are always good. Incidnetally, my view used to be more militantly lactivist, but the reserved nature of life in Japan has mellowed it slightly.


Rugby league is the one that’s like American Football played backwards, not the one with the awesome haka, i.e. not the one that’s actually engaging to watch. Rugby league is also a game that’s been plagued by image problems, and is suffering from onfield and off-field violence, both by players and coaches in the professional and amateur world. There are also significant problems in children’s league, involving bullying parents, high expectations, and the (huge) problem of fielding children of vastly differing sizes against each other.

The consequence of these problems, of course, is that children try the game and hate it, so drop out; and mothers – the prime determinants of what sport children are allowed to play – send their children to the (in my opinion) vastly superior sport of Aussie Rules Football (AFL), which has been growing where league is floundering. AFL has already introduced significant changes in particularly its childrens league, has spent years trying to mellow the off-field antics of its players, and is also targeting girls. Rugby Union, soccer and AFL all understand that the key to a good adult competition is having a large pool of children from which to select talent, even though most of that pool will be second rate and of no value. This isn’t a problem for soccer in, say, the UK or Europe, because (outside of France) there is no challenge to the supremacy of “the beautiful game.” Not so in Australia, where 4 football codes are engaged in a vicious war of attrition for fans.

Rugby League’s traditional response to this has been a resounding “fuck it!” They haven’t wanted to change the way the game is played at junior level because they have been following the worn out traditional idea that you can only damage the game by changing its image, or changing its training and development practices to suit children or (heaven forbid!) women. There has not historically been any recognition that the elite level of rugby is not attractive as a participation sport for 99% of people who play it, and that you can’t get people into this by just slapping them in the face with a rugby ball and saying “smash ’em!” You need to make the game appealing to a wide base of people, and from them draw your intense and elite players.

Recently the role-playing blogging world has had a few kerfuffles about women in the game, with a common idea put forward that changing the game to encourage women’s participation would a) weaken the game and b) not work anyway. I find proposition a) particularly frustrating, because it contains so many misogynist ideas about the effect of women joining in a male activity; and I find b) frustrating because it pre-supposes there is no way girls would want to participate in a hobby that doesn’t involve ponies and pretty clothes. I have previously written about this issue in kickboxing, which (in Australia at least) is booming amongst women through a few simple representational and practical changes, which in the end benefit beginning male players as well as women. I wrote there that I think kickboxing’s approach to attracting women to the hobby presents a good model for how you can change the means of participation in the sport without changing the sport itself; you can draw in a wider range of people willing to try the game, and from amongst them you can channel people into various types of participation. I don’t see why the same can’t happen with regards to women in gaming (and, by extension, actual minorities like e.g. migrants, gays, etc.)

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald Phil Gould – who by all accounts is not the most charming of representatives for the game – has a column on reforming Rugby League to encourage participation and prevent drop out. It turns out that the macho old ideas of “just grin and bear it” haven’t been working so well for retaining young players, because enjoying the game as it is played is not a sufficient condition for remaining engaged when, for example, the people you play against are bigger and rougher. He has solicited suggestions from parents and coaches and got huge feedback, and the common feedback has been to find ways to manage the violence inherent in different sizes of children playing against each other. i.e. parents and coaches all want to get rid of the idea that the only way you can play the game is being dropped into the game-as-it-is-played-now and expected to sink or swim. There is explicit recognition amongst participants of this sport that clinging to a single definition of the way of playing the game is destroying its acceptability. But you won’t find any of these people arguing that the game in its elite form should change.

The column is long but the final part, entitled “My Awakening” is particularly interesting because it shows an example of a group of children working this stuff out naturally for themselves. There’s also a real hint of “old school” style in the way the kids house-rule the game of rugby to suit their circumstances. These are the enthusiasts who know the game and want to get it to work; anyone who falls into that group is going to be fine. The problem is that the majority of people aren’t going to fall into rugby through that group, but through the professionally practiced juniors game Gould contrasts them with. This, he sees, is the problem – those kids are suffering for the game and will put it away, because they are being forced to bend to the game, rather than the other way around. I think this is true in our hobby as well, that the majority of people will enter the game through an accepted channel (a gaming shop, or through joining an established group that shares many of the inflexible ideas I saw in the blogs about women’s participation in gaming); or they will just pick up the game books themselves and find nothing that encourages them to join, nothing that appeals to their understanding of how a game should be played or what is necessary for fun to be had. Those people might in turn move on to the “elite” gaming that many of us nerdy bloggers are used to; but we won’t be able to pick up those potential recruits if they get turned off by their first experience of the game, by the nerdy equivalent of being put up against someone bigger and rougher than them who really, in reality, wants to be playing a different game.

There’s also a few comments at the end of the article about how professionalization has ruined the enjoyment of amateur participation. I wonder if anyone at WoTC is reading it? I doubt it…

And a final note: a lot of the people talking about women in RPGs seem to be American or British, and I get the impression that they have very different stereotypes of women than Australians have. When I raise the example of sports adapting to encourage women, they seem to not understand. I think this is because American and British women are much less sporty than Aussies or Japanese women, and thus male gamers from those countries are not familiar with the idea that by changing a few details of the representation of a sport you can get women into it in droves. It seems to  be a secret that only Antipodeans (and Japanese) understand. Maybe this is because the dominant games of those Northern hemisphere cultures are so obssessively macho, yet simultaneously insecure. Or something. But – as is usual in all matters of importance in this world – I think those Northern hemisphere cultures could stand to learn a lot from the Antipodes…

I have posted before on my opinion of why women don’t play RPGs very much, and recently there is some debate doing the rounds on RPG blogs about this topic. Debate about this topic seems to founder on two rhetorical points, viz:

  • Women are biologically different to men so won’t ever get into RPGs (or, in a softer form, it’s going to be hard to design imagery for RPGs that can appeal equally well to men and women)
  • Changing the way RPGs are presented so that it appeals to women too will render the RPGs shit, because it will involve changing their content for reasons of political correctness rather than style

The former objection is common throughout the blogosphere, it appears, e.g. in comments on this question of Trollsmyth’s about how to sexualize men; and the latter is put particularly forcefully by Zak at Playing D&D with Porn Stars. The former is a debate I don’t want to enter into on this blog, as I feel it’s been done to death over the last 70 years. But the latter I think is not a problem, because changing the representation and culture of a hobby does not require that its fundamental content be changed. I have an analogy from my experience in kickboxing that should help to illustrate how this works.

Kickboxing has been slowly opening up to women over the last 10 years, and in fact not just to women, but widening its scope to include just generally people who aren’t crazy thugs. To do this, they’ve had to change the culture of kickboxing, but unfortunately the sport is always going to attract crazy thugs, because it involves hitting people, and you can’t change that element of the sport. So instead of changing the sport itself, the martial arts association connected with the sport in Australia attempted to change the culture of the sport – that is, the way it is run, the way it is presented to the public, and the teaching methods and club environment so that people could train safely and would be willing to enter a world that has long had a bad image. This wasn’t just being done to encourage women to join – there was an increasing fear that bad behaviour by some trainers was bringing the whole sport into disrepute, and also a recognition that while it retained a certain culture, the sport would remain a niche hobby for a few people.

So, first of all the martial arts association introduced a training accreditation program. This is entirely voluntarily, but after a few bad scares, a lot of schools, scout halls and other hire venues have starting shying away from non-accredited coaches. This accreditation program holds the teachers who do it to a higher standard than used to be expected of a martial arts club, and this higher standard works primarily to make the sport more appealing to a wider range of students, as well as enabling current participants of the sport to lengthen the period of time they are able to continue participating, diversify their skills and enjoy a wider range of activities. The main changes are:

  • Teachers have to learn first aid
  • Teachers have to not only learn, but also encourage, safe training practices amongst their students – wearing of appropriate safety gear, use of proper scientific warm-up and cool-down regimes, and awareness of how different people (e.g. beginners) need to have different training regimens
  • Clubs need to be clean and hygienic, with proper toilet facilities, segregated changing rooms, and education in hygiene for all participants
  • Teachers need to learn to understand what bullying is, and to stamp it out both in their own practice and in that of their senior students
  • Teachers need to have some rudimentary idea of how people learn, what sorts of things need to be done to encourage or discourage a good education, and how to help people enjoy the sport
  • Teachers need to understand that different people have different reasons for wanting to participate, and treat students accordingly
  • Teachers need to understand sexual harrassment and the kinds of activities that make women uncomfortable in a training venue, and try to eliminate this behaviour from their club

The result has not been just that kickboxing has grown fast amongst women, but also that the general quality of kickboxing has improved rapidly over the past 10 years, so that now Australia performs above its weight on the world stage. Lessons in how to do this have been learnt from rugby and Australian Rules Football, both of which have a strong and loyal female following in Australia, and a surprisingly large number of female participants, even though they are the quintessence of contact sports. Nothing has changed fundamentally about the sports themselves; all that is different is the way that they are presented and the culture that surrounds them.

Obviously role-playing has different conditions for the admittance of women to these sports, and different things need to change; and there is no teacher-student dynamic or central association to change them or influence an overall culture (which doesn’t exist, in any case). But I think the general lessons are the same. When the Australian martial arts world started down the road to opening up their sport to women 10 or 15 years ago, many people said it was a waste of time, because women are not designed for this kind of sport, they are biologically unsuited, and “feminization” of the sport will weaken it overall, or drive away men. Many even claimed that people cannot truly learn to fight if the bullying and macho practices of the past are eliminated. However, the exact opposite effect has been observed. These improvements in the style and manner of teaching have widened the available pool of talent from which fighters are drawn, and the general quality of Australian kickboxing in the last 10-20 years has improved enormously. Not only that, but the increase in popularity and wider range of available class types has ensured that teaching kickboxing is now a much more viable business prospect than it was 30 years ago, ensuring more stable, more professional and better equipped gyms that are better able to subsidize the development of fighters through the funds of more casual students. In fact, had Australia not gone down this path our kickboxers would have been left behind, as the Dutch and Japanese professionalized their own kickboxing worlds and began to demand higher and higher quality of training and preparation from their opponents. And, of course, with the penetration of the art into the middle class and its popularization amongst women it has become big business, which further guarantees its viability as a hobby. So much so that, if one visits a K-1 tournament in Japan now, one can be a witness to the charming spectacle of lines of pretty young women crying and screaming the name of their favourite fighter at the end of the tournament – a sight that 20 years ago would have been impossible to imagine.

There’s no reason to suppose that the fundamental violence and adventurism of role playing needs to change for it to attract women, anymore than happened in kickboxing. What needs to change is the culture around the hobby, and the image that is presented to its potential entrants.

A question for my reader(s): what is stranger? That my blog gets the top hit on a google search for china mieville “curvaceous women” or that yesterday two people did that search? Strange.