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Ophelia's Gaze: Bruised Avatar Skins -- Stylish, Or Sexist?

Bruised_002

Exclusive to NWN, Iris Ophelia's ongoing showcase of all things stylish in SL

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.

Bruised_005

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.

Battle_004

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.

Mixed_reality_irisIris Ophelia has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

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Arcadia Codesmith

Context matters. I wouldn't think twice about seeing a bruised or bloody skin on somebody sporting medieval armor, Roman gladiator gear, boxing gloves, or post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" trappings. Nor would it give me much pause on an "alley-cat" neko avatar or some schoolgirl waif with a sword twice as big as she is. It fits. The ensemble says, "I am a warrior", and that's a fine thing to be.

But devoid of context, decked out in contemporary clothing and dancing at a club? Without other contextual cues, perception shifts from "I am a warrior" to "I am a victim".

That might not be the message intended, but it is the message perceived. If your intent is to make a statement of empowerment, you need to reinforce it or the point will be lost.

And honestly, it's not that much different with a male avatar. Show me a man with a battered skin and a tux, and I'm left wondering whether he's a gangster, secret agent, some form of undead, or merely "accident-prone". It's an ambiguous statement.

lucretzia

does everyone use SL avatars to present an idealized version of themselves? maybe someone wants to use theirs to confess or confide something they can't express with their real selves. someone who'd hide battery in reality may be committing an act of defiance in SL by allowing their injuries to show in the virtual. maybe it's their way of asking for help.

as with any form of self expression, instead of judging people's choices from afar, users should discuss them with one another and see what story people are hoping to tell about themselves.

'why would anyone want to look beat up?' why not just ask 'em?

Sapphire

I think you're missing a vital point here, which is that it's sad but true that there are quite a lot of people out there who find images of battered and bruised women a sexual turn on.

Otenth Paderborn

Whether sexist or not, whether victim or warrior, the one thing these skins do NOT say to me (for either male or female avatars) is "stylish." I could see them being used really well, actually, for RP--especially in the context of other avatars, male and female, doing the same.

Worn for fashion? Blech. Even worse than heroin chic.

AnnOtooleInSL

It is personal choice. Get over it.

Intolerance is a clear cut violation of the Second Life Community Standards.

Angel Slocombe

Very interesting article and a good day to post it too. It's the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. For the record I think avatars should wear whatever they want in order to reflect whatever THEY want to reflect, how it is interpretted by others says more about that other person than anyone else.

Suzanne Aurilio/SL Aurili Oh

I find these skins utterly offensive and naive. To "live" in SL as if it, and one's life, were somehow devoid of the physical world, socially, culturally and materially, is to exist in a kind of fantasy SL critics thrive on. No Resident is only a Resident; everyone is always occupying a physical and virtual location simultaneously.

The social and material reality and virtuality of the lives of many women are riddled with sexist violence. It's sad to me that woman designed these; and yet I get how she could, because that's how hegemony functions--the oppressed are complicit in their oppression.

There's nothing empowering, or fashionable about decontextualized representations of violence, victim or perpetrator.


AnneOtooleInSL "Personal Choice" rhetoric is just that, rhetoric. It's propaganda. It's part of the American individualist ideology that fails to account for the ways our socio-political context defines our choices.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_hegemony

Arcadia Codesmith

Nobody's questioning a resident's right to present themselves as they choose.

From my perspective, at least, it's a question of whether your presentation is effectively communicating what you're trying to say.

Of course, if you want to wear whatever appeals to you and disregard what it says to other people, I'm not unsympathetic with that viewpoint. That pretty much describes how I dress most of the time, both in SL and RL.

But I recognize that even the refusal to make a statement is in itself a statement. And if you're walking around with a shiner, I think that's a pretty strong, literally "in your face" statement.

So the question remains, what are you trying to say, and are you saying it effectively?

Tristin M

Sexist?... I think its more tactless and mugly really...

Fogwoman Gray

I look upon these skins the same way I look upon the slave collars and lack of personal pronouns that I encounter. If I am visiting your RP sim, more power to you.
But this is crap I deal with in RL as a healthcare provider and it frankly turns my stomach. So if you are visiting my places, I would request that you leave these things at home. Because I have a right to enjoy my inworld experience too.

Scylla Rhiadra

So many people have already made intelligent comments on this issue that, in a sense, I don't feel the need to do much more than amplify what has already been said.

As Arcadia points out, "context matters." The context within which Gala is selling these is that of "fashion" skins. Go to Curio, and you'll see the Battle Royale line there, lined up right next to all of the other beautiful skins. No context is provided by Gala at all: they are presented as simply another line of fashion accessories.

Context is important, too, in another sense. You are correct, Ophelia, in noting that there are other skins like this, or, indeed, much worse. But, as you also note, Gala is a popular mainstream designer, and this line takes this kind of skin out of the "niche" market, where (again) context clearly indicated what the skins were intended for, and into a much wider milieu of fashion. Just as we have had "heroin chic," now it seems we are to be treated to "abuse chic."

Sapphire's point about people finding images of battered women a sexual turn on is sadly all to true . . . even of those who represent themselves as women. Indeed, I could point you to public blog in which a (putative) woman has proudly proudly an assortment of grotesque and brutal images of a female avatar flayed, dismembered, and disembowelled. Yes, Vore and Dolcett represent the extreme end of this trend, but there is no shortage of instances of sexualized violence elsewhere, in world or off.

Finally, Suzanne's superb post highlights an important point: free choice is never as "free" as we think it is. The whole POINT of the fashion industry is about determining *for* us how we "should" look, how we should represent ourselves. The damage that has been done by said industry to women's body images, which we can quantify in the increase in incidences of anorexia and bulemia, is just one example.

As much to the point is the issue of responsibility. Freedom only works with an accompanying sense of responsibility: without a sense of how our choices impact upon others, we will spiral downward into a state of Darwinian "might is right." Purchasers of this skin, intending to use it as a fashion statement, should ask whether their choice to do so is worth the cost of desensitizing and normalizing the abuse of women.

melponeme_k

"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. "

Unbelievable... You need to see more of the world and grow up.

Men are abused by other men. The percentage of men being victimized by women is so small, its laughable to bring it up in discussions like this.

These skins are not feminist by any stretch of the imagination. Feminism does not endorse violence against women, men or children and it does not celebrate it.

If people want to wear these, fine. But that doesn't mean the people who find it reprehensible have to validate the choices of the ones who do.

Ruby Miggins

I own some bruised and wounded skins, and it never really occurred to me that someone would look at me wearing them and think, "She's a battered woman." Although I'm only an occasional roleplayer, and do wear them in that context, I really bought them because it fascinated me to have bruises and cuts on an avatar--something that is so often perfect in proportion and display. I thought of it as a proverbial stick in the eye to those who believe that the imperfect should not be seen in SL.

Extropia DaSilva

>The percentage of men being victimized by women is so small, its laughable to bring it up in discussions like this.<

There was a case once, where a female investigative journalist rang up a woman's refuge in order to report a case of abuse. The twist was, she claimed to be the the abuser, not the abused. The response she got was along the lines of 'you are the victim. He must have done something to deserve it'.

Since the reaction to abusive relationships where men are the victims and women are the perpetrators is, aparrently, something to dismiss it as 'laughable', and since the stance seems to be 'women are victims, men are abusive, period' the record of cases in which men are the victims and women are the abusers would be small, no matter what the reality of the situation is.

Judi Newall

My first thought was 'Great, never know when you might need 'em for a machinima." In fact we could have used one a few months ago for a film when one of the main characters WAS an abused woman.

JeanRicard Broek

What other art form immerses the viewer into the artists work like SL? Can you wear a painting, star in a movie or write a new chapter to a good book as easily as you, as an avatar, can become a derivative work of art?

We are all now artists if we want to be or not, if we go about dressing in SL as a refection of a runway model or a runaway, dog or robot, princess or the devil. We do not roleplay alone. We can and do express to others by our choices and keystrokes, hope or despair, anger or delight, indifference or concern. We all use bits and pieces by others, the technical and visual artists that makeup SL, who give us the content to assemble a statement.

All good art can & will evoke controversy and reflection. I see this skin as art, the people that wear her skins as characters in an unwritten play. Iris Ophelia is an artist and I can only think she must now feel like one, considering the reactions.

When and if SL becomes corporate & bland or produced & directed by others and no longer supports all manner of personal artistic expression & reflection I for one will be long gone.

Scylla Rhiadra

Of course these skins could be useful for artists. And they can equally legitimately be employed for combat RP.

The point is that this is not how they are being marketed and sold. I have seen a number snapshots of these skins on several blogs: exactly ONE of these shows the skin being worn in the context of "combat." The rest, like Ophelia's here, show them as a fashion accessory.

How is it "art" or "self-expression" to buy and wear a ready-made skin from one of the most popular designers in SL? Would wearing it with a Pixel Dolls dress, Maitreya pumps, and hair from ETD constitute a form of "self expression," when these are all mass-marketed mainstream lines worn by thousands of avatars in SL? This would be about as effective an assertion of individuality and an "artistic" aesthetic as buying everything you wear at H&M in RL.

Again, the key is context. These skins are being sold, marketed, and displayed in fashion blogs and features like this one as stylish accessories. They are being offered to a mainstream public, not as specialized items for a niche market, but as mainstream fashion items. And, unsurprisingly, that is how they are being displayed on fashion blogs.

To purchase and wear them as such is to buy into the idea that the bruises and cuts that in RL most usually signify abuse can become an aesthetic statement akin to a hair style or makeup choice. When we start down that road, we are well on our way to desensitization to the REAL issues of violence and abuse that such injuries actually represent.

Doreen Garrigus

I would accept these as scrappy warrior skins if they were worn by scrappy warrior avatars, but that is not the case, here. In every single picture, the mood of the avatar is passive, receptive and delicate. Even the the warrior avatar with the armored arm is in an underwear-model stance and wearing a bustier. This is victim chic.

mh

Personally I find cheap skins offensive to look at.

Might be better if all newbie and low quality skins were forced to include bruises. It would at least make the artistically ugly humanoid AV's interesting to look at.

And if brusing isn't 'stylish' can you explain mascara and the puffy lip look?

Arcadia Codesmith

About one in ten reported cases of domestic physical abuse are inflicted on men by women. Because men are much less likely to report abuse, estimates of the actual proportion of abuse range from a conservative 20% to 45% or more. Women are also much more likely to employ a weapon than men.

But that's not the societal perception, and maybe that's the hidden cost here -- not not only are we perpetrating the stereotype of women as passive victims, but we're also casting men as abusers or potential abusers -- and those who are victimized as weak and unworthy of help.

I'm willing to consider the argument that if these skins spark a conversation about the dynamics of abuse, that if instead of making abuse mainstream they make the DISCUSSION of abuse more acceptable, then they fulfill a valid purpose.

But something else bothers me about the whole thing. In Second Life, the answer to the question, "Who did this to you?" is always the same; "I did it to myself". And that is perhaps the single most destructive and dangerous message you could possibly send to the victims of real-life abuse.

Todas Turbo

I agree with Arcadia.
Women are fighting against domestic violence, and this pics out of it context, are completely the worst promotion.
And I ask LindenLab think about allowing any kind of fashion published for promotion with women damaged images, is a bad policy.

Myf McMahon

"And if brusing isn't 'stylish' can you explain mascara and the puffy lip look?"

Uhmm, yeah I can actually.

Assuming you're talking about eyeshadow and not mascara (which in context would make much more sense), hilighting the area around the eyes makes them seem more open and expressive, easier to read. This is reason theatrical makeup is so much heavier than what you normally see people wearing. It's about emphasis, not emulating bruises.

As for puffy lips, well the reason we pay so much attention the lips on woman's face is because we've evolved to walk upright and our other lips aren't as obvious as they are in other primates. With this in mind, I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out why men might find puffy or engorged lips attractive.

Doreen Garrigus

I think you missed the point, Myf. Nobody is trying to say that emphasized eyes and puffy lips aren't attractive. The point is that the seductive makeup on the skins indicates that the bruises are a fashion statement. That's the context.

mh

I think you miss the point Doreen. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

As someone else pointed out nothing is forced upon anyone in SL.

It is as close to free expression of ones own fashion statement as the average person is likely to get.

swannjie

bruised women looks worst than bruised men, they look like "victims" - could be used as a "sexual turn" on, just like "being slaves" etc could be a turn on, or a "tie me up; or all tied up" could be a turn on. Its totally a "turn off" for me though, anything that needs a perversion turn at the expense of women is damaging. Like super skinny models, like demeaning postures of slaves. Bad role model.

Doreen Garrigus

It's funny. I haven't passed any kind of judgement about these skins---I didn't say anything at all about whether they were pretty, ugly, funny, shocking or sad. Nothing.

All I did was disagree with Iris's take on them. She said they were warrior skins, and that they made the avatar look tough or scrappy. I said that the models were acting seductive rather than tough and that we had to look at them in the context of seduction rather than feminine independence.

Let me try this again.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Well, yes. I didn't say it wasn't. I said these skins were intended, as worn, to be beautiful. Judgement is up to the individual.

And the lesson about what makes a woman's face attractive? Not necessary. Nobody was arguing against it. The line about mascara was misinterpreted to mean, "Why do women wear makeup to emphasize their eyes and make their lips look puffy?" when it really meant, "If these skins aren't supposed to be a fashion statement, why are they going to so much trouble to look sexy?"

I do, as a matter of fact, see a need for these skins for roleplaying or machinima. I would be a little taken aback to run into one in everyday use. It would be totally out of context and weird. I would wonder what the wearer was trying to express. And I would ask.

Arcadian Vanalten

Arcadia's stats are pretty accurate, and yeah, those of us in the behavioral healthcare and clinical psych fields can vouch that most of our male vics we treat refuse to report it for fear of ridicule. Melponeme's assumption is a widely-held, and widely inaccurate myth; a baseball bat doesn't care what kinda plumbing its wielder has, and many ladies with certain psychiatric illnesses are capable of a LOT of damage during rages (I'm reminded of one lady I saw on an inpatient unit that took 8 athletic men to restrain when she went violent during a psychotic episode).

That being said, I DO have to admit to a bias. I still have a hard time seeing bruised women. It's ameliorated if they're armed and armored, but Ophelia's blouse-and-bruises look in the above pic? Really high on the creepiness scale for me. Not saying it should or shouldn't be done; folks should doll up their avvies as they see fit. But it's disingenuous at best to decry getting a reaction.

My own reaction is, to me, interesting, as I usually prefer battered clothes, cars, and accessories over the perenially perfect that's so easy in SL. I can see the artistic merit in the juxtaposition of damaged perfection, but still, her Battered Fashionista look triggers some sort of visceral discomfort with me. Maybe it shouldn't, but it does.

Marianne Little

I don't remember anyone raging over Tuli's skins "Gash" and "Grief", back in 2008. Her Belle avatar who was a beautiful pirate also came with a bruised and bloody skin. What makes Gala's skins so much worse?

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