The Identity Game

“Did the costumes make it good?” Laurie (Silk Spectre) Juspeczyk asks Dan (Nite Owl) Dreiberg, in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. The two are reclining nude at the time, although their lovemaking began after a dramatic rescue in the full gear of their superhero identities. Dan’s answer — and the reader’s, if he or she is honest — is an emphatic, Molly Bloomian Yes.

Watchmen deconstructs the sexual component of costumed roleplaying in the same manner it deconstructs everything else about the practice. If Fredric Wertham was a crank, it implies, he also wasn’t far wrong. Because masks are in our nature; it’s externalizing them that’s deemed unnatural.

That’s part of why superheroes are special: they can do many things we can’t do, and among these is the expression of their inner selves through an outer costume. “Normal people” would never do that.

Except normal people do, all the time. Leaving aside those couples who keep their kinks entirely in the boudoir, this element of the forbidden is the driving force of any number of fetish subcultures, all of which grow more mainstream every day. If costumed sex weren’t becoming more acceptable, it’s doubtful Batman and Catwoman could do what they’ve apparently done in the latter’s self-titled series, rebooted to issue #1 in the DC Comics New 52 line.

The mask needn’t be visible. Simple roleplaying (something as commonplace as “Call me ‘Ashley’ tonight”) is a component of many people’s sex lives. We toy with this bending of identity precisely because it carries a component of danger.

The young man leaned toward the window, rolled it down, smiled, and asked, “Where are you headed, miss?” “Are you going to Bystritsa?” asked the girl, smiling flirtatiously at him. “Yes, please get in,” said the young man, opening the door. The girl got in and the car took off.

The young man and the girl know each other very well already, of course. Motoring off on a shared holiday in Milan Kundera’s short story “The Hitchhiking Game” (1969), they are simply pretending unfamiliarity to enliven a long car trip. As the miles roll on they drift farther and farther from their daylight selves, as unnamed to each other as they are to us, free to take on any identities they choose.

In freedom lies release, but also torment.

“… I’m getting out at Bystritsa.”
“And what if I get out with you?”
At those words the girl looked up at him and found that he looked exactly as she imagined him in her most agonizing hours of jealousy. She was alarmed at how he was flattering her and flirting with her (an unknown hitchhiker) and how becoming it was to him. Therefore she responded with defiant provocativeness, “What you you do with me, I wonder?”
“I wouldn’t have to think too hard about what to do with such a beautiful woman,” said the young man gallantly and at this moment he was once again speaking far more to his own girl than to the figure of the hitchhiker.

They are trapped, just like superheroes are — trapped by expectation, by their own strangeness to themselves, by the new power dynamics they create. And by the thrill of it all.

There’s no escape from a game. A team cannot flee from the playing field before the end of the match, chess pieces cannot desert the chessboard: the boundaries of the playing field are fixed. The girl knew that she had to accept whatever form the game might take, just because it was a game. She know that the more extreme the game became, the more it would be a game and the more obediently she would have to play it.

Self-concealment can yield a feeling of power. Call it the Great and Powerful Oz effect. You speak from behind a mask, and it’s someone else speaking, someone stronger, with less to lose. Like a superhero. That is a thrill on par, and perhaps intertwined, with sex.

Nick Yee, who has studied the psychology of MMORPG for 10 years, has found that gender-bending is a frequent phenomenon. According to his findings, which came from self-selected surveys conducted among Everquest players in 2001, men were more than twice as likely to gender-bend as women. Nearly 50% of men tried a different gender, as did nearly 25% of women. In fact, in the popular game World of Warcraft, a female avatar is more likely to be played by a male than by a female—the odds are 1 in 1.82 (54.9%) that a female in the game is being played by a male in real life. —

Sometimes the mask we wear is us.

(UPDATE: I’d be remiss at this point not to link to Laura Hudson’s thoughtful piece on the kind of objectification and disempowerment some of the New 52 works represent. There’s a way to discuss sexuality and identity play that’s healthy and forthright; in my view, “Catwoman” #1 is not that way.)

Mari Wilson — Dance With A Stranger
Elvis Costello & The Attractions — The Imposter 

What else is going on: Over at Film Freak Central, my dual Blu-ray review
of Vera Cruz (1954) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) is online.

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2 Responses to The Identity Game

  1. Moff says:

    Man, I liked it better when the Batman/Catwoman thing was confined strictly to the asterisks between passages. Or whatever passes for asterisks in comics. But you know—classy.

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