Saturday, 19 July 2014

041: The perfect male avatar?

I've referred my readers to Iris Ophelia's point of view before in this blog. She's a well-known and hugely experienced commentator on both Second Life and other virtual realities.  A piece she published yesterday is highly complimentary of the photographic work of Second Life artist Nomak Nyoki whose Flickr feed is found here; I've lifted his beautiful photograph that you see to my left from her post, to encourage you to see his Flickr for yourself. She says he's quite a stylist and I completely agree.  He really uses props very cleverly to contribute to the atmosphere of his pictures, the lighting is great, whatever Photoshopping there is (I'm terrible at noticing whether or not there's been Photoshopping in a picture, but this looks so darn complete, I think it has to have been touched up) contributes to rather than detracts from the emotions he's evoking with the pictures, and I agree with Iris Ophelia that he's "a force to be reckoned with in the world of men's fashion in SL", although I think I would differ with her about just how much and in what way.

It was the title of the piece that caught my attention, though. "The Perfect Male Avatar Might Not Look exactly Like Nomak Nyori, but it's Probably Very Close". Iris Ophelia suggests that if you wanted to do "a head-to-toe male av makeover" his Flickr stream should be "your number one source of inspiration".

I think the first thing that crossed my mind was exasperation. Frankly, if I met the above young man in real life, I wouldn't be applauding his perfection; my first instinct would be to take him out and get him a sandwich; next would be the number of a good personal trainer. And that's because my tastes run to guys who have spent more years in the gym than this guy would have been alive, had he existed outside SL. I'm definitely aware that there are gay men in SL who would regard this ephebic type as the nearly perfect av of Iris Ophelia's dreams; I tend to not hang around with them and my sense is that they don't make up the majority. When I see an av that looks like this in my usual hangouts, he's usually trying to trip me and hit the ground under me, if you catch my drift. I don't really want to have sex with him and I absolutely don't want to look like him. (Nothing wrong with being a slender bottom; just not to my taste.)

So it's clear that when Iris Ophelia says this guy is nearly perfect, what she means is, "from a heterosexual female point of view". To the best of my knowledge, Iris Ophelia is a heterosexual female and she gets to express that point of view. Gay men of my acquaintance would probably disagree, but that's not the reader for whom she's writing.

What it makes me think, though, is two things.

The first is that -- well, what I thought of was an old Simpsons episode in which Lisa is reading a thinly-disguised version of "Tiger Beat", with floppy-haired adolescent singing stars on the cover talking about what qualities they liked in the girls that they dated. Lisa Simpson's magazine, though, was called "Non-Threatening Boys". And that's what I see all over Nomak Nyoki's Flickr stream; non-threatening boys. Wide-eyed waifs like the one above, complete with purse dog. Epicene fashion model boys. Boys with edgy tattoos styled to look "street", but with precise and precious hair and accessories that suggest to me that if street violence was imminent, we'd hear a high wailing noise as the owner of those high-tech headphones headed for the hills. What it all boils down to is One Direction with a couple of extra tattoo layers.

Now, I'm trying to be funny about it; really, there's nothing wrong with liking non-threatening boys. It's just that, in the context, it's kind of like going into World of Warcraft and complaining that it's too violent. In the realm of men's fashion and accessories, Second Life is beautifully focused upon making male avs who look like muscular street thugs, and I see it everywhere I go. In fact, the more I hang around in non-gay spaces, the more I see it. Guys in SL, straight and gay, like to be eight feet tall slabs of rippling muscle, with long unruly hair and biceps that could crush a beer can. Or, as Iris Ophelia's only commenter (at this point), one Pussycat Catnap, says, "the usual T-Rex arms I see on male avatars". Which the lack of, in her view, boosts him "10 notches on the respect dial"; apparently her arm candy shouldn't have, you know, actual arms.

So, there's a serious dichotomy here. Guys gravitate towards looking a certain way in SL, and women apparently want them to be -- exactly the opposite. They don't want a man who looks strong enough to change a tire, they want a guy who carries a shoulder bag and a Boston terrier. Trouble is, there are tons of stores where you can buy rolled-up T-shirts (and the requisite biceps to go inside them), and not all that many malls filled with designer beanies and bucket hats. Men are voting with their wallets to look like what they want to look like and, believe me, it is very, very rarely that a man's consideration of personal appearance include how well his tuxedo's boutonniere will match his girlfriend's evening gowns or toe polish. Ain't gonna happen.

If Nomak Nyoki gives styling information for the stores where he got that antique flight jacket or filigree necklace or hair with the tire tracks shaved into the sides, I'm thinking that those stores are not selling a lot of stuff to male avs. They're possibly selling more to female avs who give this stuff to their male associates, hoping that they'll upgrade their look instead of wearing the same outfit over and over and over. I have to chuckle, because I think many straight guys think that the ability to wear the same outfit over and over is a benefit; they don't like shopping and once they have a look they like, there's no need to tamper with it, is there?  So that's why Nyoki is a fashion force to be reckoned with; I think he's selling lots of stuff to women to give to men, or to audibly wish that men would buy and wear. But Iris Ophelia uses the phrase "head-to-toe male av makeover". I suspect that the reaction would be a lot different if men were asking women to have head-to-toe makeovers to please them, starting with those big fake boobies and hooker heels I see at a lot of parties.

My feeling is that if women in SL are looking for non-threatening boys to take to social events, what they should do is collude in pairs, create a slender, well-dressed, and non-threatening male alt and take turns being the other's male escort. Which is a weird idea, if you come to think of it, that the only way a woman can get a man to act and look like what she wants is if she gets a girlfriend to dress up like one. Is it that what women are really looking for, is another woman with a convenient penis? That is a discussion I cannot even undertake, being woefully philosophically unequipped; I'll defer to any woman's interpretation. But it's interesting to think about from the point of view of a gay man.

The second point is more tenuous. When Iris Ophelia tells me that I need "a head-to-toe male av makeover" so that I can look like a gaunt, twee, and overly-tattooed teenager -- with the understanding that straight women will "boost me 10 notches on the respect dial" if I do so -- well, I can chuckle and move on; I don't really give a shit what Pussycat Catnap thinks of the size of my arms. But I think what's going on here is complicated. What I'm hearing is the subtext that female heterosexuality is the dominant paradigm in Second Life, and if you don't meet straight women's expectations of your looks and sexuality, then you need to change until you do.

Which is, of course, what straight and gay women have been putting up with for years, I gather, and in real life is responsible for a thriving breast implant industry, billions of dollars worth of cosmetics and dyes, and the Jimmy Choo empire. The thing is, though, that Iris Ophelia is a thought leader among men and women who want to see virtual realities change to be more accepting of women on their own terms. She likes to play various violence-based RPG-style games on an equal basis, and, to paraphrase, she wants to be the player who rescues the helpless male just as often as she is rescued by him, no fear no favour. And I applaud that; I think all games should be welcoming to all people, no fear no favour. She also wants women to be treated with respect within the game environment and in the spheres of comment and analysis that surround it; again, I'm with her. She's an insightful analyst of games and her voice should be heard equally and without sexist cat-calling. She wants equality, but this kind of article is telling me that she doesn't return it; she can be herself, and I need a makeover.

The tenuous point for me here is that there seems to be a vague underlying assumption here that SL is somehow a "women's game", and that what women say goes; male avatars are subject to the female gaze, and if they don't meet expectations, then they've somehow transgressed and need to be "made over" -- and, as near as I can tell by the visual differences between my av and Nomak Nyokim's, emasculated. I have to admit, I might be reading too much into a couple of paragraphs of commentary; it could be that Iris Ophelia merely wanted people to look at some interesting photographs and chose her story hook poorly. It's been known to happen. But it's often when we are careless and unguarded that we express our inner truths.

I think it's clear that SL has a higher percentage of female players than RL, and I think that the economy of SL is based on women buying virtual hair and clothes. I think that because there is no violence in SL, and more of a focus on creating an attractive avatar, it has some perception in the non-gaming world as being a "women's game" in the same way that World of Warcraft is perceived as a "men's game". But I know that Iris Ophelia will tell you that World of Warcraft is not a men's game, because it's actually about the skill-sets of the players and the social interactions necessary to make things happen as much as it is killing monsters. Well, it works the other way around too; Second Life is not a women's game, because it's actually about the skill-sets of the players and the social interactions necessary to make things happen.  I'm not taking this point further than I think it deserves; I don't really think that a lot of people within Second Life think of it as a men's game or a women's game. I don't like what she said, and I don't like what it implies, but I don't want to beat it to death when it may have been less than fully thoughtful.

So at the end of this trail of logic, I'll leave it to my readers. I was going to ask for input about what makes an avatar "perfect", but truly I think that has almost nothing to do with what the avatar looks like and everything to do with the human behind the process. And in that respect -- we're all perfect.


  1. I think if it were phrased "he is my choice for the perfect male avatar" it would be ok. The problem may lie in the usage of language. By saying he IS the perfect male avatar issues were raised in my mind too, mostly concerning the fact that he is Caucasian and blonde.

    1. Maybe I was crabby yesterday ;-) I just get so tired of the "Boys with muscles are icky" thing.