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Bigby and Bitches: A Big Bad Wolf That Can't Bear Misogyny

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Wednesday, Nov 13, 2013
Faith, a prostitute from The Wolf Among Us (Telltale Games, 2013)
The fantasy world of The Wolf Among Us allows for a wolf to actually respond to the demeaning quality of the word that humans so often use to define the females of his whole species. And unlike a lot of human beings, he seems pretty unhappy about it.

I noted a couple of weeks ago the propensity of one of the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto V to completely go nuts when provoked by the words, “mother fucker” ”The Grand Theft Auto Rampage: The Violence of Cultural and Subcultural Politics”, PopMatters, 30 October 2013). I insinuated that Trevor’s rampage missions are set off by this phrase because as an outsider to certain subcultural groups in and around Los Santos, “mother fucker” completely alienates him, marking him as a perpetrator of the universal cultural taboo, incest. The mother fucker is accepted by no one, by no culture, and thus, is kind of the ultimate insult for a guy that is being rejected as a foreigner to a culture at large, let alone a subculture that might represent less alternative values or at least an optional space for someone less easily assimilated into that mainstream culture to maybe belong.


Coincidentally, the other game that I have been playing of late, Telltale’s new episodic adventure game The Wolf Among Us, features a character that in a manner somewhat similar to GTA V‘s Trevor has a tendency to get violent in response to name calling, that game’s protagonist Bigby Wolf.
  
Now, the nature of these two games is rather drastically different. GTA‘s violence most often arises from its multitude of action-oriented options of things to do in an open world that has few boundaries besides a player’s desires. Like Telltale’s most successful recent game, The Wolf Among Us, while affording some options for the player to shape his world as a result of responses (largely made in dialogue trees) to characters that otherwise occupy a largely scripted, story-driven game world, still the game is hardly what one thinks of when thinking about an “action game.” While a bit more action-oriented than Telltale’s Walking Dead game, it is also notable that due to its point-and-click gameplay style, combat is pretty simplified in The Wolf Among Us and also presented in a rather low key style of interaction for a video game (simple quick time button matching) in what is, of course, usually a fairly combat-free genre of game (the aforementioned adventure genre). Combat in The Wolf Among Us is also not something that can be initiated at will at any time. Combats are events triggered by certain turns in the plot and are thus limited to moments in the story that call for them, not because the player feels like mixing it up right now. 


However, the sheriff of Fabletown, Bigby Wolf, is the disguise of an infamously ferocious and violent character, the Big Bad Wolf. Thus, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that Bigby “acts out” a little bit more often than a more mundane and fairly average character, like The Walking Dead‘s Lee Everett. Lurking beneath the glamor (a magical illusion that makes Bigby appear human) that masks the Big Bad Wolf is, well, the Big Bad Wolf, an animal driven classically by hunger and rage. Bigby may represent a semblance of law and order among his fellow exiles, other fairy tale characters now occupying the real world also in magical disguise, but under this lawful guise there is a chaotic and easily enraged beast that could come bubbling to the surface at any moment.


When that beast emerges (as it does several times in the first episode of the game), Bigby’s rage is always catalyzed by an insult, not to himself, though, instead it is one directed at the women around him. Since Telltale offers the option of reacting to its game world via dialogue options, though, when casual or pointed misogyny pushes Bigby over the edge is left in part to the player. For me, Bigby’s response to Snow White or the prostitute Faith being called a “bitch” (and indeed that is the specific insult that always comes up in these antagonistic conversations) was always immediate. While Telltale provided me with options that might allow Bigby an initially more measured way of negotiating with a brutish verbal provocateur, I was always ready to unleash Bigby’s inner beast in response to this verbal abuse alone, which made me begin considering again (like the phrase “mother fucker”) the specific meaning and implications of the word and especially in the context of this world and for this character.


The literal meaning of this gendered insult is, of course, gendered to begin with. A “bitch” is a female dog, and as such is not an entirely unusual word in English. The language has tons of examples of words that specify the difference between the male and the female in an animal species (doe and buck, vixen and tod, cow and bull, etc.). It is interesting that these kinds of terms are sometimes applied metaphorically to humans more or less positively in some cases and more or less pejoratively in some others (a young man, probably a bit of a rascal, might be referred to as a “young buck”, a seductive woman is a “vixen,” and, of course, the term “cow” is usually applied to women in an insulting manner). The term bitch is probably the most common of these gendered metaphors, and it is, of course, insulting by nature, which is kind of odd given the generally positive view of dogs in many cultures (indeed, the slang term “dawg” or “my dawg” implies a friend, which makes sense given the dog’s common association with loyalty and companionship). However, the truth is that while the term “bitch” can be used in a neutral fashion (to literally describe a female of the canine species) just as the word “cow” doesn’t have to be an insult (and in its most common uses is not—it’s just what we call those animals all the time), it really never is used in a non-pejorative manner in any but the most specialized context.


The only people who refer to female dogs literally as “bitches” in a completely neutral fashion are usually dog breeders, which actually may account for why the word has become such a universal insult. Not only is it demeaning to dehumanize a fellow human being by equating them with an animal, the term “bitch” reduces women to their most basic biological function, as creatures that exist to breed. Dehumanizing and as about as reductivist a term as can possibly be used to describe “female-ness,” it suggests women as creatures built for their biological functionality and nothing more.


To return then to Bigby for a moment in this light, the most fascinating thing about the fact that this is the one insult that his character seemingly cannot put up with is especially pointed given that he is himself in reality a kind of dog himself. The fantasy world of Fables allows for a wolf to actually respond to the demeaning quality of the word that humans so often use to define the females of his whole species. And he seems pretty unhappy about it.


This is kind of an interesting perspective to view language usage from, as it provides a moment to reflect on the literal meaning of the word because the “man” reacting to it is more intimately linked to the literal concept that the metaphor only alludes to. Seen in this light, the casual usage of the word “bitch” as a way for a man (or really anyone) to dismiss women broadly by dehumanizing them and making them into a biological mechanism seems really rather tragic. To the dog, all of his women are by definition “bitches,” whether he views them positively or not, so why on earth should that be an insult? Why is general “female-ness” transformed into an insult, as if the biological potential to carry life within you is somehow an unattractive and undesirable quality to have.


I can understand Bigby’s rage at a term that blankets any member of his species that happens to be female as something contemptible, and, of course, this moment draws one back to the fact that that is what human beings do to one another all the time. In that sense, the example of Bigby has the potential in The Wolf Among Us to become a kind of instructional tool for those who are concerned with casual misogyny and the kind of numbing effect that overused language has on its meanings and implications. The personal affront to Bigby’s species is a call for self reflection, allowing the player of The Wolf Among Us to focus on the origins (and thus the implications) of the term from a wolf’s eye view, rather than from the perspective of a culture that has made the term so familiar that it has almost forgotten what it was saying in the first place.     

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