role-playing: assimilation, fantasy, and penis envy

I first learned about penis envy when I was in tenth grade. My English teacher was a haughty forty-something with a risqué ankle tattoo of a flower. That is, haughty and risqué by rural Mississippi standards. We were covering the grotesquely deformed limb of the body of literature: poetry. In high school, poetry was not only something archaic and impossible to relate to, it was also a cause of great mental anguish: what exactly was Walt Whitman talking about in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”? We struggled through poems of the 1800s and early 1900s and finally made it to the 1950s and 60s. After reading Sylvia Plath and discussing her rather morbid personal life, which ended with her head in a gas oven, a fellow classmate of mine responded with the ingenious comment: “She was messed up.” To which, my teacher replied, “Yes. She suffered from penis envy.”

Penis envy, as described by the ever blunt Urban Dictionary, is “the theory that all girls secretly wish they had a penis.” Finally, I had Freudian concept to apply to what I felt was the “real me.” Not to say I thought I was a male trapped in a female’s body, but I was more interested in what it was like to be someone completely different. Since I was twelve or thirteen, I had been divulged in the world of online journaling—blogging before the word blogging ever existed. My father died when I was ten years old and unable to cope with that, along with the repressive boredom that living in the middle of a field inflicted, I spent a lot of time on the Internet in what I guess one would call a very vain attempt to “find myself.”

Instead, I found role-playing (known in the online world as RP). The type of role-playing I was interested in wasn’t like the World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons fantasy games that existed then as well as today. It was more like the French New Wave cinema of the role-play world: there was a drive toward the “real.” This type of role-play was based on writing and creating memorable characters—an interactive novel of sorts. Players, embodying their characters, would write scenes in which they interacted with each other. Journal centric role-play operated in the form of communities; players would create journals for their characters, pick a “face” (typically a celebrity), and join a community. Generally, communities were city- or high school-based, but the possibilities were endless. One could adopt any identity he chose.

Dictionary.com lists role-play (v.) as “to assume the attitudes, actions, and discourse of another”—a rough form of assimilation. In “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function,” Jacques Lacan writes about the ego as identifying with one’s own image as an infant, one of the first ways we are ever assimilated into our culture. He writes, “the mirror stage in the context as an identification…namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image” is a way of “establishing a relationship between an organism and its reality” (94, 97). Through this spark, which enlightens a being to the existence of the “self,” perspective and subjective realities are created; a person no longer sees the world the way everyone else sees it—he sees it through the eyes of his image.

Outside of the mirror stage, role-playing takes up a huge amount of slack in assimilating the masses while tuning each person in to his personal image. Maybe that sounds like an oxymoron—but if any proof is needed, just look at America and its res publica republicans and the individualistic liberals.

I argue that literature was one of the first forms of role-play.  Leftover notes from my history of communication class say that Robinson Crusoe [photo 3] was the first novel written in English, although I’ve read on Wikipedia that is still being hotly debated by scholars. The novel encouraged a new kind of interiority and a new sense of self that had never been seen before. Like the more obvious The Neverending Story where the character actually reads a book to slip away to another world, Robinson Crusoe was a story of escapism—by scanning words and flipping pages a person could become fully immersed in another world, become another person. Today, we see the world through images; but nearly a hundred years before the first photograph was taken, we were seeing the world through words. Not only was one immersing himself into a different role through reading, but also the act of writing became a sort of role-play itself.

An aspiring writer since I began plowing through children’s books at the age of five, with journal-based role-play, I felt as though I had entered an artistic realm of writers where we were all concerned with creating these wonderful, quirky characters and sharing them with the rest of the world. As Robert Allen Brookey writes, “There is a strong tendency…to offer [cyberspace] up as a new utopia. Online communities have often been celebrated as spaces that allow for an unbound human experience, spaces in which individuals are able to form identities and express themselves without the constraints found in the ‘real world’” (101).  I soon found that it wasn’t so much the ‘artistic expression’ that drew people in; instead, it was the lure of being able to live vicariously as another person and fulfill the fantasies that people felt they could not accomplish in real life. I think it’s interesting that we have so many forms of entertainment today (and some that have been around for centuries) that focus on being a shape-shifter of sorts—of changing one’s identity in order to make dreams come true. I don’t have an answer for why that exists, but hopefully through this paper I can explore that.

Two forms that focused on assuming a different identity was theatre and later film. Role-play addressed theatre and film in a more literal sense. The Wikipedia page for the “history of role-playing games” says that in the 1500s in Europe, “traveling teams of players performed a form of improvisational theatre known as Commedia Dell’arte, with stock situations, stock characters and improvised dialogue,” although the first theatrical performance was recorded around 2,500 B.C. in the Egyptian empire (Wikipedia). With the help of Shakespeare and other playwright’s geniuses, we finally had a form of entertainment that was comprised of watching people take on an entirely different identity. Somewhat different from the spectator point of view, the actor had to literally immerse himself in a new world and come out a different person. Instead of readers identifying with a character and living out all of the actions of the novel through this character, theatre and film involved a person who was obviously not Hamlet or King Lear taking on their persona for a set amount of time. In an episode of the X-Files (I’m a really big fan) entitled “Hollywood A.D.,” a man who makes forgeries of Biblical texts says, “Before I could write like Christ, I had to become him, in much the same way I imagine an actor who plays a part becomes that part.”  Of course, this act of watching someone else take on another role became all the more exciting when film’s ‘star system’ emerged in the United States in the 1930s and 40s. In “The Emergence of a Star System in America,” Richard deCordova talks about the move from the unknown actors and “picture personalities” to stars, where we knew about their professional lives, as well as their private lives. It became more exciting to watch Johnny Depp as John Dillinger or Cameron Diaz as one of Charlie’s Angels.

In addition to film, theatre, and literature, there were more “practical” ways in which role-playing is utilized. Traditionally, young girls play with dolls and young boys play with cars or war figurines to acquaint them with their particular genders—the nurturing mothers or the tough and rugged soldiers.  Interestingly, the Barbie doll, created by Ruth Handler, was supposed to be a way to familiarize girls with the future development of their breasts. In a documentary entitled Barbie Nation, Handler essentially says that girls role-play their future selves through Barbie. These more practical forms of role-playing definitely reinforce the assimilation I mentioned earlier.

I guess that’s why I think role-playing is so interesting; in one context it can be assimilation, but in another it can be liberation and the freedom to live out your fantasies. Point in case for fantasy: sexual role-play. Generally, it involves costumes and is very similar to acting, but its participants are aroused or gain sexual gratification by taking on another identity. Some stereotypical examples would be the nurse and the patient or the maid and the rich baron, but oftentimes it can be weirder with gender reversals or a phenomenon known mostly to comic convention goers as “furries” where a person dresses up as a particular animal.

I’m just postulating here, but I think one of the reasons we role-play or try to escape our own identities is because we feel that other people or characters possess some kind of ability that we can never ascertain in our own mundane little lives where we buy eggs once a week and go to work every day—whether that be a sort of depth we never get from the people in our lives or a kind of perfection and idealness that we’ve been seeking out. I believe this is because we’ve been taught to be incredibly self-aware of our image, and moreover, we role-play and mold ourselves based on things that are not real: films, theatre, books, Barbie dolls, amazing sexual fantasies of rich old men and beautiful young housekeepers. It’s hard not to be self-aware as ourselves as images, as appearance is what people see first and judge us from. We are taken at face value, literally. In a capitalist and consumerist society that feeds off of appearances, we see hundreds of advertisements a day, showing us what we should look like, what we should eat, what we should do, and how happy we will be if we buy a particular product. However, the trick to capitalism is dissatisfaction. We buy to achieve perfection, but we never quite get there, so we keep consuming in a vain attempt to reach that goal. In “Notes on Surface: Toward a Genealogy of Flatness,” David Joselit writes, “I will argue that flatness may serve as a powerful metaphor for the price we pay in transforming ourselves into images—a compulsory self-spectacularization, which is the necessary condition of entering the public sphere in the world of late capitalism” (293).

The idea of the image and our self-awareness of it is a reason I think online role-play has become so convenient and so irresistible for a large amount of people. The focus is not on an individual’s barely-changeable public image, but on an image and identity he creates for himself in a virtual world. As Guy Debord writes in “The Society of the Spectacle,” “Understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance” (143). With virtual role-play games, there’s no longer any anxiety about how one appears to the world because you actually can control it—unlike consumerism’s false claims that one can change his appearance and become a new person by buying a face cream or a new shirt. In Consuming Life, a very good but also very depressing book, Zygmunt Bauman writes about the computer, “It is so much more reassuring to know that it is my, only my palm that holds the mouse and my, only my finger that rests on the button. No longer will it happen that an inadvertent (and uncontrolled!) grimace on my face, or a flickering but revealing expression of desire will leak out and betray to the person on the other side of the dialogue more of my inner thoughts or intentions than I am prepared to divulge” (17).

My utopian dream of utilizing role-playing strictly as a means of developing my writing basically flat-lined. The new virtual me was too irresistible and too easy. I could be male or female, ridiculously rich or starving artist, black or white. I could have perfect relationships and the best job. I could get into any university I wanted and travel to any country on a whim. It was all very ideal for a confused teenager. In “The Precession of Simlacra,” Jean Baudrillard writes, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short circuits all its vicissitudes” (254). The virtual world began to take place of the real world for me and for many other people I knew. The two seemed to blur and things that happened in this imaginary world on the Internet began to drastically affect me in real life.  I once went through a spell of depression because one of my characters fought with another person’s character. Interestingly and similarly enough, there was a news article in 2008 that documented the real-life divorce of a British couple after the husband had been caught having an affair on the popular virtual reality game SecondLife with another avatar other than his wife’s (de Bruxelles).

In “Photography” by Siegfried Kracauer, he writes, “Never before has an age been so informed about itself” and “Never before has a period known so little about itself” (432). The mass onslaught of images as well as these other realities we participate in keep us from knowing our own reality, the true reality. What I find so perplexing about online role-play is that its flat, yes, but so much depth and dimensionality has tried to be injected into that flatness. It’s as if we’re trying to take an image of a person and make it into a person, the way Baudrillard describes the map drawn in the same scale as the empire itself, so that it eventually comes to be taken as the actual thing; or the way a piece of paper and rolled up into a cylinder makes it appear as though it has depth. In actuality, when you unroll it, it’s still just a piece of paper.

Will we eventually all live virtual realities and let the world outside crumble? That’s hard to tell, but there certainly are reasons for why people choose virtual reality or other forms of escapism over reality. In a society that’s superficial, image-based, and appearance-focused, perhaps we should begin examining reasons why people so vehemently want to be someone other than himself and perhaps try to alter that. After all, virtual reality games were invented because there was a desire for them. Maybe in a place where everything is determined by the façade, virtual realities are attempting to compensate for that.

* this is an essay i wrote for class. don’t steal it. it’s all mineeeee.

May 5, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Uncategorized.

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