Friday, July 23, 2010

Battle Royale Redivivus

WARNING: This post contains images of violence that may be triggering.

In October of 2009, Prokofy Neva posted a feature on his blog Second Thoughts regarding a new line of skins available from the very popular skin designer, Gala Phoenix, owner of the store Curio. These new skins for women, entitled "Battle Royale," featured a variety of cuts, abrasions, and bruises. Prok is not generally known for his liberal views, but he is surprisingly progressive on most issues relating to gender; here is how he responded:

"I can only protest. It's wrong. Battering women -- or men -- or children -- isn't right. It's not cool. It's not 'fashionable'. Why would anyone think it is 'beautiful'?!

I'm just frankly appalled that this stuff goes by week after week on World of SL and other sites and nobody complains. This time of year it reaches a particular peak. Nobody says, hey, that's ugly. That's wrong! And claiming that it 'doesn't matter' because it is in a virtual world doesn't make it right."

Prok's story triggered a firestorm of responses, on his blog and elsewhere. Prok was responding not merely to Gala's new skin line, but to the ecstatic response to it posted on the popular fashion blog Juicy Bomb:

"These new Gala Phoenix Battle Royale skins are so interesting I have to show you them in larger than normal sizes. There are 6 makeups total, with 2 versions each and a light and dark skin tone option. These skins also have a version called Battle Royale Defeated, which features the same makeups on a more banged up and bloody body. Scroll down to see all the makeups available & pics of the body :) I squealed a little when I tried on each one.. they get bloody!"

What was most disturbing about the Juicy Bomb story was that it treated the skins not (as Gala herself has claimed was the original intent) as combat role playing skins, but as fashion accessories. Taking "Heroin Chic" one step further, Juicy Bomb turned Gala's skins into "Abuse Chic." This impression was strongly reinforced by images of the new skins published alongside the review, featuring a bruised, bloodied, and battered woman wearing a short purple floral-patterned dress. The "squeals" of slightly shocked delight from the review's author, Gogo, didn't help: "It's still pretty, but dirty and totally bad ass!"

Gala's skins are by no means unique: they are neither the first, nor by any means the worst examples of skins depicting abused women in Second Life. One skin that was for sale a little more than a year ago, until (apparently) banned, was simply entitled "Rape," and featured a badly bloodied and injured woman, with the word "WHORE" carved into her stomach. Other skins clearly designed to represent the effects of abuse, including, for instance, one plainly entitled "Victimized" and advertised as featuring "3 levels of abuse" (because one is never enough?), remain for sale in Second Life.

What makes Gala's "Battle Royale" skins so very disturbing, however, is that while such "rape skins" have largely in the past targeted a "niche" market of combat and/or rape and snuff role players, Gala's Curio is an enormously popular store focused upon a mainstream audience. The introduction of skins depicting the physical effects of violence and abuse against women to a mainstream audience has the potentially insidious effects of both making such depictions more "acceptable," as well as encouraging the notion that the signs of abuse can be "attractive," "fashionable," and "chic."

That many have, in fact, viewed the "Battle Royale" skins as fashion accessories, rather than as role playing tools, is evident from the response of others who followed in the wake of the original controversy. While a story in the fashion blog Shopping Cart Disco featured a picture showing the skins employed in something like a "combat" role, and maintained a consistent line that these skins were intended for combat RP, a story by Iris Ophelia, the fashion writer of the popular Second Life blog New World Notes, attempted rather more inconsistently to argue 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." Unfortunately, some of the accompanying pictures to Iris's story belied that interpretation: the headline snapshot, for example, shows the "Battle Royale" skins on two women more clearly dressed for a night of clubbing than of being clubbed.

Personally, I've always taken a perverse enjoyment in the sheer idiocy of the "This isn't a battered woman, it's a tough woman!" response to this kind of debate, because it is so utterly disconnected from the reality of abuse. This brand of "Thelma and Louise Feminism" seems to assume that "feminism" is not directed at ending gender violence and bringing about social justice and equality, but rather about ensuring that women have higher calibre weapons than the men who would otherwise be willing to hurt them. In her NWN article, Iris goes on to explain that "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." Feminists, it seems, should be less worried about preventing physical abuse -- indeed, women should be willing to just "suck it up" -- and more concerned about teaching women to hit back, harder! This is a feminism of the "if you can't beat them, join them" school . . . literally. It's an approach that would turn every real life scene of abuse into a kind of restaging of the OK Corral, or a rematch of Spinks versus Ali. In a "real life" context, it's an approach that is illogical, unrealistic . . . and very, very dangerous.

The terms of the controversy were much complicated by Gala Phoenix's own response. When I spoke to Gala personally about this in IM, shortly after having called for a boycott of her products, she seemed sincerely upset and bewildered by the response to the skins. When Gala told me that producing skins to represent physical abuse was the last thing on her mind, I honestly believed her. Indeed, I am still reasonably convinced that she was being sincere. Explaining that she was going to be away for several weeks, she replied to my suggestion that she produce a notecard or sign disclaiming any such intent with the assurance that she would respond upon her return.

A subsequent note by Gala sent to Shopping Cart Disco, however, seems to have signaled a new harder line by the designer:
"I in no way advocate or promote violence against women. Having been in an abusive relationship in the past, I'm fully aware of how serious this issue is to many women. I created the “Battle Royale” series in response to the hundreds of requests I've received for a tough, tomboyish line of skins. The skins weren't meant to depict violence towards women at the hands of men. Of course a few people will interpret it that way and I'm aware that residents of the BDSM community might purchase them with this interpretation in mind. Ultimately these women are being subjected to virtual violence with their own consent, and thus, are not victims of domestic abuse."
As a response, this might have made more sense had anyone actually been claiming that avatars who donned these skins were "victims of domestic abuse." Of course, no one was: the real issue was the trivialization and, indeed, potential glamorization of violence against women by those who would wear these to represent abuse against women, or as a fashion accessory. Gala's new apparent willingness to sanction the use of these skins by those who do wish to represent violence against women is the result, one surmises, of a disinclination to alienate a (large) potential market for the skins. Gala attempts to have her cake and eat it too: No, of course the skins weren't meant to depict violence against women! Eeek, perish the thought. But, um, if you'd like to buy them with that purpose in mind, then please feel free: the vendor is there, on the wall to the left . . . (Ka-ching! Ring up another sale!). Gala's response triumphantly manages to convert a self-justification and apologia into a marketing opportunity.

It is also interesting to note that Gala made no reference here, nor in her discussion to me, of the Japanese movie Battle Royale, an ultra-violent cult teen exploitation flick, upon which many of her supporters were subsequently to claim the skins were based. That Gala neglects to do so, and that the skins she has created are a) only female, and b) demonstrably not depicting Japanese teens, leaves that explanation in doubt.

(One rather ambiguous note regarding Gala's response remains unexplained: someone posting as "Gala Phoenix" on Prokofy Neva's blog wrote that "The only woman that I advocate getting beaten is you, Prok." Prok is, as is well-known, a woman in real life. There is of course no way to know for sure that this appalling comment was actually written by Gala, but subsequent calls on her to disclaim it went unheeded. It would be nice if Gala made it clear, once and for all, whether this remark was hers or not. Who knows? Maybe she'll do so here.)

Gala Phoenix is one of the most respected skin designers in Second Life. And it is this that makes her response -- or lack thereof -- so very disappointing. Gala has claimed to have been a victim of abuse herself. She has claimed that she did not "intend" that the "Battle Royale" skins be taken to represent violence against women, and has asserted that she would never "promote" gender violence. And yet these skins do just that, by trivializing and "aestheticizing" the physical signs of abuse and violence. Her sole response to date has been a reiteration of the irrelevancies that wearing these skins is "consensual" (which no one to my knowledge has denied) and not in itself abusive (which no one to my knowledge has ever suggested). Sadly, profit seems to come before principle after all.

One expects better from a leader of the community.

Well over a half a year has now passed since Gala first put these skins up for sale. To date, she has made no attempt to dissociate them from either the "Abuse Chic" market, nor the BDSM and rape/snuff role playing markets. Indeed, since her brief note to Shopping Cart Disco, she has remained obstinately silent on the subject. The "Battle Royale" line of Curio skins is still to be found for sale, undifferentiated from and on the same wall of her shop as many of the other high-end fashion skins for which she has become so well known.

And indeed, what are they, after all, but another chic fashion accessory?

The SLLU Feminist Network invites you to join in a boycott of all products produced by Gala Phoenix, to be maintained until the items listed in the boycott notice have been removed from sale. A good way to make your personal decision to join this boycott more effective is to send a notecard to Gala Phoenix, announcing your decision to join in the action.

For a full list of the items by Gala Phoenix that related to this boycott call, see the
SLLU Feminist Network Boycott Notifications.

For more information about representations of violence against women in Second Life, see "Gender Violence in SL: FAQ and Some Answers"


  1. Its part of our virtual world that the mentality of "anything goes until you get caught/enough people complain to the overseers to possibly effect bottom line or generate bad press" (same thing)has been present since the beginning. In this case another niche has been found to make some Lindens and raise a creators profile - this is after all a fantasy environment with the potential to run at a profit. I do insofar as running clubs that our consortium uses to pay tier etc. And while in no way condoning these depictions of women, as undoubtably victims of violence of which there is no other analysis possible, I find it interesting that you decided to begin with what many might view as a "milder" form of all the disturbing elements present in world (as if any form of violence against women could be termed mild - I accept any flame for a somewhat clumsy choice of words) rather than some of the activities that have personally sickened me I applaud the fact that you are raising these issues.

    Base line - if this kind of depiction is treated as in the tradition of heroin chic then it deserves to be boycotted. Not a comment on RP involving combat although I have never felt the urge to display "wounds" as some kind of badge when I have been involved.

    sirhc Desantis

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment sirhc. The story about "Battle Royale" is here because it represents, in a sense, "unfinished business," and I didn't want to let it just drop.

    And you are right: it is in some ways a "milder" case than many others in SL. For an instance of the latter, see the story on Dipp Canning's stuff (which is itself, I would argue, by no means the most violent and misogynist line of "furnishings" and animations available).