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In mid-October, one of SL's most successful skin designers released a set of skins that stirred up tremendous controversy. Gala Phoenix of Curio launched her Battle Royale skins, which feature her usual fabulous shading and high quality textures, adorned with some equally high quality dirt, bruises, blood, scratches, scars and gouges. Reactions were mixed, to say the least; in fact, they often verged on heated. Is a woman with a bruised eye presumed battered, or could she be battle-hardened? I've got a few thoughts on the issue after the cut.
This isn't the first time that there has been a struggle between those in favour of a little scarring and those vehemently opposed to it. Several years ago, Munchflower Zaius of Nomine released a sets of wounded male and female skins, and while I was very fond of using them as much as I could (even in a summer fashion article) there was a bit of backlash, though for some reason the Battle Royale skins are getting it much worse. In part, I wonder if this is because Gala is a much more "mainstream" skin designer, making skins exclusively for females, while Munchflower makes skins for males and females and caters to a goth or S/M niche.
Why is this relevant? Well, I showed Gala's skins to my mother (an avid SL user, as I've written about in the past), and asked her what she thought of them. She said that if she saw them on someone she knew was into roleplaying in SL, then she would see them as a "roughed up" character, but if she saw them on someone she didn't consider a roleplayer, she would assume they were portraying a battered woman.
I was actually very surprised by that. It had never entered into my mind that anyone would ever want their avatar to reflect such a thing. In my experience, our avatars in SL usually tend to embody things we are proud of or that we would be proud of if we had them-- things we envy or admire in others, even. Blonde hair, a fluffy tail, even a cigarette to some. I can't fathom anyone being proud of being abused, so I never considered that someone would wear or even make a skin for that purpose.
The way I interepret Gala's skins, and the other cut up skins I've seen, is that they represent someone tough, battle-hardened, and capable of holding their own in a fight. I see a real statement of feminism in the virtual world. Let me explain. Traditionally in the gaming world, female characters are either uninvolved in the action, or keep action at a distance by fighting with magic powers. Even Sonya Blade, one of the staple female characters in the Mortal Kombat franchise and a member of military-based special forces. Still, one of her special attacks is the heavily magic based (and sparkly pink) kiss of death. Even in games where physical combat is equal between the male and female characters, they are always picture perfect, polished in the same ways a heavily Photoshopped centerfold might be. I love these mangled-looking skins because when I wear them, I see my avatar as someone who does a lot of damage, but at the same time is not somehow magically immune to taking some damage herself. Even though Gala released these skins in the weeks leading up to Halloween, and even though she named them Battle Royale-- after a cult classic Japanese film about a group of high school students fighting to the death-- many people still accused her of glorifying the abuse of women.
What bothers me most is that no one would question a male skin with cuts and bruises as simply being "tough", and that's the true sexism in this entire debate. The natural response of many is that men aren't abused by their spouses, so of course that association doesn't exist for men's skins, but that's simply not true. Many men are abused by their partners, and while they are fewer than women, the numbers are also less reliable, as few men are willing to seek help or even admit what's been done to them. Many women still feel entitled to slap a man for saying something provocative. Frankly, being a male victim of abuse is a lot like being a man with breast cancer: you are a minority, you might be embarassed about it, and most of the support in place is not really meant for you. If you're going to say a bruised female avatar has been abused, be prepared to say that about the bruised male, too.
So in the end, maybe the controversy over avatar bruises just exposes our double standard over real life abuse.