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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

Saints and Sinners: Pope Joan

by Hilary Doda
January 24, 2002
Edited by Drew Meger  

Somewhere in the 13th century, a story began making the rounds. Recorded in Stephen of Bourbon's 'De septum donis Spiritu Sancti', it told the tale of a mysterious Pope John VIII, who had supposedly reigned over the Vatican from 855-858 CE, sandwiched between Leo IV and Benedict III. The mystery about this hitherto unremarkable man? He was a woman.

He was Pope Joan, to be exact, a woman who had come to Athens disguised as a man to be with her lover, was educated in the best schools and rose through the ranks to take the papacy. Her identity was revealed, according to the tale, when she went into labor and gave birth during a procession through Rome and was stoned for her heresy.

The truth of the matter is that Benedict succeeded Leo within a matter of weeks in 855, leaving no room for this secretive woman to have held the position, and contemporary historians make no mention of this shocking incident. Given the names, alternately, of Agnes or Gilberta, Pope Joan was a figment of an overactive imagination in the early middle ages, a story begun, as far back as scholars can trace it, more than 200 years after her supposed death. Used as evidence of papal illegitimacy by reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries, the myth had faded out of circulation and lost all credibility by 1900.

Possibly based upon earlier stories about a disguised woman acting as a Roman senator (Marozia) in the 10th century, the story caught the imagination of the ages. It's experienced a resurgence in popularity recently, a recent novel (Pope Joan, see Sources, below) has been through 10 print runs, and a movie is currently in pre-production.

The themes seem to stand the test of time; picture the great and mighty Catholic Church, so adamant about the evils of womankind, unwittingly being led by a woman themselves! The trauma that would have resulted to the institution had the story been true would likely have been dramatic, and if made public, their credibility would most likely have suffered immensely.

Breasts, Your Holiness?:

There are a couple of ways to look at the myth. Firstly, the tale served as ammunition for those who wanted to discredit Church leadership and credibility. Allowing a woman to serve in a males-only position meant that the leadership wasn't infallible; if they could be fooled on one thing, why not other things, including points of doctrine?

Secondly, it made two opposing points about the status of women within the society; depending on the presentation of Joan's actions: depicted as a good leader and unequaled scholar, Joan proved the Church wrong on points of doctrine which considered women less than men in every respect. Shown to be a liar and sexually immoral (by giving birth to her lover's child in a very public manner), Joan's disgrace and fall neatly proved the Church's doctrine of innate female evil.

The original creation of the story probably came about as an attempt to discredit church leadership of the time. With a bit of careful spin, however, it became an object lesson in punishment for women who dared to step beyond their bounds (by gaining an education as well as power) and attempt to deceive holy men (she's not only humiliated but publicly stoned for her crimes). In later years, Joan was seized upon by Protestant reformers as an anti-papal object lesson, demonstrating the fallibility and corruption of the Catholic church, intimating that Joan's lover was himself a priest sworn to celibacy.

There are few more effective ways of eroding or constructing social status and power for a group or institution than by showing them as subversive. The response of the populace can be swung either way after the revelation, naturally, depending on story purpose, the ability of either side's spin doctors, and some carefully applied PC influence.

Especially in setting where one group (any differentiation is possible, of course, from age to clan to race) is considered to be lesser than another in terms of status, intelligence, strength and so on, placing a hidden member of the "weaker sex" in a position of power and then - at the best or worst possible time, depending on relations between the group and PCs - revealing that subterfuge can cause power shifts of the most dramatic sort... or a crackdown to rival that of McCarthy-era America. The disguised or gender-bending character can be a manipulator or simply a pawn herself, pushed and pulled by enemies and friends alike.

Just a Sweet Transvestite:

Playing a gender-bending character, be it a club-hopping cyberpunk drag queen or a princess in disguise, offers players a unique opportunity - a chance to try out a cross-gender character, with the 'blame' for any behavior which rings false falling squarely on the PC herself. For those of us unsure about our roleplaying abilities when it comes to playing opposite-gender characters, this brings us a chance to give it a try without worrying too deeply about playing to stereotype. Having a character who's just no good at pretending to be the opposite gender can be freeing for the player, letting her concentrate on the game instead of whether her kung-fu master is 'too butch.'

Within a game group, as well, playing a gender-bending character may be somewhat easier for the others at the table to accept than a straight-up opposite-gender character. The pronoun difficulties may still come into play, but at least this way they can be used as in-game fodder for disputes and near-miss unmaskings.

It's far less tedious to have a PC in the know constantly refer to an actual female character as 'her' when said PC is disguised as a boy and every slip could mean that someone around them gets suspicious enough to investigate, setting off whole new plot threads and adventures... then to sit there and sigh, "No, I told you, I'm playing a guy in this game," for the fifteenth time in an hour.

Portraying a gender-crossing character naturally and easily can be a challenge; the easiest way to go about it that I've found is to work with the GM separately before the game and explore your character's background, along with her perceptions of the opposite sex. A cloistered novitiate monk on the run is going to have a very different image of women and girls than the playboy lothario trying to sneak into the girl's dormitory, and would portray their female disguise in very different ways.

Once you have that set of perceptions set out, try to keep them in mind as you play out reactions. The goal in a lot of these situations is to play out not the monk's own reactions to, say, a slave auction, but how the monk himself would think a woman would react. Has he learned that women are evil and lust-filled? Or perhaps weak and quick to swoon at unpleasant sights? If the only women a pirate knows are his shipmates who swash and buckle their way across the seven seas, he's not likely to be able to emulate the wilting-flower daughter of Victorian nobility with any great accuracy. Have some fun with it.

A character in disguise can be a perfect plot hook, but even the most hunted of folks can't keep the faade up forever. Sooner or later there will be an unmasking, and this is a chance to truly get into your characters. Whether voluntary or through premature discovery, the character must shed her by-now comfortable/confining disguise and step out into the world on her own. How will her companions react? Those who knew her only under the new name and background? If she's outed involuntarily, what kind of danger has she been put in by her discoverer? How much damage has she caused, wittingly or unwittingly, by her deceptions? One character can have a sweeping effect on a setting, and the way the PC group handles the next few days or weeks may take the game to a whole new realm of play.

The nitty-gritty details of the actual disguise may be taken for granted or glossed over without much problem, and certainly depend heavily on the technology available within the game setting. Asking the player to provide the GM with a basic rundown of the measures taken for the disguise can be very helpful, on the other hand, enabling the GM to plan to unmasking or gauge NPC reactions more easily. There are plenty of online resources available for the would be drag-king or drag-queen, some of which are listed in the Sources section below. There are some basics, however, which apply where and whenever your game may be set.

Male characters pretending to be female, if they choose to dress revealingly at all, need to remove excess body hair and emphasize curves over angles. Despite the Halloween costumes of Junior High boys, a female shape cannot simply be approximated through the installation of a bra stuffed with balloons or tissues. Modern and futuristic settings offer technological solutions such as padded full-torso girdles and long-line bras, forms intended to give flat women more bust, as well as specialty stores established precisely to help the modern man explore his feminine side. Historical and fantasy characters may find that their best help lies in corsets underneath bulky dresses; Victorian and Elizabethan characters will find things easier than Regency or Roman for that very reason. The long habits of cloistered women can hide a multitude of shapes, and many medieval styles are draped enough that a padded male form could pass for that of a woman. Characters in warmer areas or *cough* Ragnarok Vikings *cough* are going to have a hard time of it without magical intervention.

Female characters pretending to be male must minimize hip and bust curves, especially when paired with narrow waists. The hourglass figure is the most difficult to disguise, and busty women are likely to have a harder time than their more straight-up-and-down friends. Binding the chest is the easiest way to go about flattening the breasts; modern-day women can find torso girdles for this exact purpose, while historical or fantasy characters may need to resort to the ever-popular bandages.

Moving from medieval gowns to breeches may present a problem, but generally a small amount of stuffing will give the impression that is intended without going overboard in order to make a point. Three rolled sweatsocks are no more likely to look realistic than helium balloons in the bra do for our men, and will get the character pegged as 'stuffing in a heartbeat. Nowadays, products such as Mr. Softy -- essentially a dildo resembling a flaccid member -- can be picked up at many sex-toy stores, and presents a much more realistic look under clothes. Again, in worlds with magic readily available, an illusion spell will go a long way towards making the disguise work as intended.

Tips and Tricks:

As a quick note, these plot ideas will work far better in some settings than others. In a world of relative gender equality, gender-bending or transvestite characters may raise some eyebrows, but probably not be the end of the world. In a setting, however, where one gender is considered to be far more able/intelligent/strong/divinely inspired than the other, revelations and rumors can be deadly.

The Crying Game: A story is spreading around town that a PC or NPC is not who she appears to be. Morality laws strictly forbid cross-gender play, but the character has had no choice but to hide herself this way. Can the PCs find the source before their ally is tried or killed? On the other hand, an enemy may have the populace eating out of the palm of her hand; planted evidence and ideas whispered in the right ears may well prove to be her ultimate undoing.

The Emperor's Clothes: Something is seriously wrong within the halls of power, be they religious or temporal, and the staff are either unaware, ignoring the problem, or involved in a cover-up. The new leader has shown dramatically different behavior than anything the institution has seen before, and the staff suspect madness. The upper echelons may well be aware that the king/high priestess/supreme judge is disguised as the correct gender and either ignoring or assisting in the duplicity. Whether they're attempting to bring down the old order or prevent it from crumbling, they're breaking the laws in a dramatic way.

Glass Ceiling: A character is desperate to have access to a power structure or occupation restricted to the opposite gender, be it the only female child in an all-male dynasty, a would-be apprentice to a boys-only school, or a genius boy who dreams of flying in a world where pilots are female. It'll be easier to sneak in than change the very structure of the group, but how long will it take before those around her to realize that this eager young newcomer is more than what she seems?

Guess Who's Been At Dinner!: One trick which can be a lot of fun, if your GM/player is agreeable, is to hide the character in question's real identity even from the other players themselves, not just the characters. It can be a true test of roleplaying ability and group perception, and when pulled off correctly, the unmasking scene may well be one of those moments which goes down in collective group history.

Sources and Reading List: