I’m tired. Not physically, or mentally, but sociolinguistically. For years, I’ve had to deal with virtual strangers babbling in the games I’ve played, using terms like “gay” (in the derogatory sense), “fag,” and “homo” when something or someone doesn’t go their way, and now I can’t seem to get through one 25-player raid without at least one wise guy following up someone else’s leading comment with “that’s what she said.”
I’m tempted to rename my blog “That’s What She Said”… because I feel the need to recuperate this sexist phrase from the testosterone-infused ranks of male gamers everywhere.
If you’ve somehow been under a rock for the past few years and have no idea how this phrase is typically deployed in what we academics like to call “online discourse,” here’s an example:
Dude 1: (checking out Dude 2’s new mammoth mount in World of Warcraft) Wow, that’s huuuge!
Dude 3: (sniggering) That’s what she said.
This is not a non sequitur. It’s a penis joke, in flimsy disguise. “That’s what she said” jokes work by transporting regular conversation into the boudoir, by flirting with graphic references to sexual encounters. The jokes work best when the context of their delivery implies a woman that is submissively and delightfully titillated by her man’s virility. That may explain why these four little monosyllables have achieved a kind of cliched adoration among uncouth and (dare I say) sexually frustrated male gamers, young and old, despite their being the intellectual equivalent of “your momma” or “I know you are, but what am I?”
Once, I heard a woman I don’t know wittily turn this sad, sad joke against the reigning paradigm. Though I don’t recall the exact words, the exchange went something like this:
Dude: (referring to a quick boss encounter) Well, that was short, and kind of unsatisfying.
Woman: That’s what she said.
The problem is, I don’t see why women should have to buy into the joke in the first place, even if it allows us to get our own back once in a while. This reminds me of the colonizer-colonized dilemmas regularly discussed in postcolonial studies circles–have you really succeeded at throwing off your oppressor, if you used the oppressor’s tools against him? Does raising your “third-world” country’s GDP to “first-world” levels qualify as a good thing if you’ve ruined your ecological resources and replicated the same manipulations and problems along the way?
This is, of course, just my latest personal grievance against online game chatter, both typed and spoken. Many gamers seem to take these virtual public forums as a stage on which to perform their masculinity, to mouth off or insert off-color remarks without fear of reprisal. Guys who crack these jokes clearly think they are being funny, other guys signal their approval by laughing, and yet we wonder why most female gamers opt not to reveal their gender and remain a silent minority on voice servers and in chat channels. On a related note, UC Davis anthropologist Bonnie Nardi observes in her recent book on World of Warcraft that female players almost never use the term “rape” in reference to dominating an in-game mob or other player (as in player vs. player combat), while many male players casually deploy the term “raping” any time they feel particularly enthusiastic about defeating another player or entity in the game. I’m not saying that these guys are actually imagining sexually dominating said players or entities, or that they are seriously condoning rape, but nevertheless the word “rape” has come to stand in for the ultimate kind of combat humiliation, the most complete form of “ownership” in the gaming sense, of “owning” or “pwning” someone so hard that it’s like taking a woman at her most vulnerable.
Most of us who frequent online worlds have learned to shrug off the blatantly homophobic, racist, sexist, and politically incorrect ramblings of such chatter, and sometimes it’s clear that “trolls” use such language deliberately to incite the juvenile amusement of flame wars, but I worry that a few people end up speaking for the many, establishing a false and ugly normativity.
So… my earnest advice to guys who use the seemingly innocuous rejoinder of “that’s what she said,” even in a knowing way (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), is to give it up. Why? Because it’s not funny. Frankly, it makes you look silly. It might have the effect of earning a few giggles from a couple of insecure strangers, but it also alienates anyone with a vagina and, I hope, some notion of taste and decency.
We all know the gaming industry is already a hypermasculine world, full of big-breasted women and giant guns. Why add insult to insult? At least that’s what I say.