A brief scream about "representation" in Magic, capitalism, and so on
It was always going to come to this.
Over the last decade, we've seen a general trend by large corporations toward "representing" marginalized identities, and Wizards of the Coast is no different. While some people celebrate an increase of fictionalized diversity, the effectiveness of this organized push feels nebulous at best. The only measurable outcome we can really see is the increase in products marketed in similar ways, as evidenced by Secret Lair: International Women's Day.
This trend is not going to stop here. I fully expect a Secret Lair: Pride edition to drop in June with foil alternate art versions of Ashiok, Ral Zarek, and Alesha. Ashiok, a character that players point to as "non-binary representation," is a physical embodiment of a nightmare and not human. While this is a Big Mood, I'm not sure how useful it is in representing a community of real people.
This type of convenient, trickled out "representation" through characters and special products feels more like targeted marketing strikes than support. Although Wizards has made an effort to give back with campaigns like their rainbow Planeswalker shirts and Secret Lair: IWD, they've come with their own stumbles as well. Seeing as I am a queer Magic player who volunteers for the organization that received the funds of one of Wizards' fundraisers, I have a lot of complicated feelings surrounding this topic.
When the product of a corporation whose main goal is making profit and protecting its brand is tied together with a message of "helping," it feels very disingenuous. How much does this "representation" and "visibility" actually help the community it claims to represent? I could write approximately 1000 different articles on this topic, but I'll limit myself to this abundantly personal one (for now) to try and address this question from my experiences within the Queer and Magic communities in America.
Wizards of the Coast published the article "The Truth of Names" on January 28th 2015. It tells the story of a character, Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, whose card was designed in isolation of her story, and how she effectively "earns" her name and transness in the eyes of her peers through her prowess in war. I was majoring in Gender and Women's Studies in college at the time the piece was released and would describe my mood after reading it as "cautiously optimistic with heavy cynicism." To me, it felt very cheap and superfluous. Like tacking on a story after the fact, similar to JK Rowling's antics in the years following Harry Potter's conclusion. If Alesha's identity was such a major part of the story and world, why not reflect that in the cards in the set?
Soon after, I played Magic in a game store where several players laughed about calling Ashiok an "it" in the supposedly progressive San Francisco (it's not). In another game store in the Bay Area, the response to Alesha was not much better. I can't imagine how the story of Alesha being trans went over in a lot of the local game stores throughout the US, let alone in other countries. I have intentionally avoided wading into internet communities surrounding certain hobbies, but I can't imagine there was a lot of acceptance of queer Magic characters going on there.
People typically discuss the role WotC plays in raising the "acceptance" level surrounding the identities they occasionally decide to flaunt in a positive manner. The general consensus seems to be that increased visibility will eventually lead to increased normalization and acceptance later on, resulting in meaningful change in the mindsets of others. As evidenced by the stories above, that's not necessarily the case. If anything, the biggest effect of cards like these is that they make people whose primary personality trait is being "anti-SJW" really mad. While this is hilarious, the idea that Wizards is bringing about any systemic change with this after-the-fact inclusion of queer characters is unabashedly untrue. When Wizards releases a product with a story like Alesha to promote it, the conversation surrounding the identities involved is thrust into the world, and it is up to the queer people to do the explaining. Ask any queer person and they will tell you the countless conversations they have no choice but to face every day. The overheard conversations at the game stores where they play Magic to relax. The awkward ones that happen when cornered in the lunchroom by a coworker. The first messages on every dating app.
This isn't to say that the inclusion of queer characters is a negative force. It's not an overall bad thing, but it's not really great either. It's a thought. It's just kind of there. The "acceptance" of the communities that Wizards represents comes from the people in the community humanizing themselves through their existence, not because they happen to look like a fictional character.
Cards like Alesha, Ashiok, and Kynaios and Tiro are emblematic of a larger issue: the use of marginalized communities only when it is convenient. Corporations like Wizards of the Coast have parent companies that have shareholders they have to answer to when something deemed too radical arises. Let's take the episode with Autumn Burchett's anti-TERF lands for an example.
In Day 1 of Mythic Championship VI, Wizards of the Coast instructed Autumn Burchett to remove lands that were altered with pro-trans, anti-TERF slogans. These lands are illustrated by Terese Nielson, who had recently been outed as a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminst (TERF) and alt-right supporter. For a company that made a big deal out of promoting its queer characters, an openly trans player making a statement for anti-discrimination and equal rights shouldn't have been an issue. Lee Shi Tian's Hong Kong protest demonstration just one month earlier saw full airtime spotlight and no repercussions, despite organizations like the NBA fully silencing fans, coaches and players in order to protect the profit of their Chinese markets. These are obviously radically different issues, but the small protests of the players are the same. Why would a supposedly progressive corporation that cares about its trans audience have such an issue with a statement that is hardly even radical? In an entirely unsatisfying conclusion to this saga, Wizards allowed Autumn to play the next day with similar lands (but none of them illustrated by Nielsen) after they faced significant backlash and threats of boycott online. Within the span of two days, Wizards' attitude toward the queer community crumpled twice under the pressure of potential revenue loss. What does it say that their outlook toward a marginalized group is so easily swayed by public opinion?
Wizards of the Coast's inclusion of queer characters in their lore is a calculated risk that bets anything lost will be less than what is gained. Even though Wizards is composed of some people who almost certainly have goodwill, those intentions are only allowed to shine through when they are sanitized, safe, and marketable. Companies care about demographics, not communities or the marginalized people in them.
Capitalism is actually okay because my collection of action figures is getting more and more diverse
—@WarrenIsDead, December 27, 2015
I understand why people are so vocal for any small amount of representation that big companies feed them. When you have a hobby that takes up as much time and money as Magic does, you want to feel as though both of these resources are being put to good use. By pairing the ideas of progressiveness and activism with the act of purchasing a product, companies make people feel like they're making a difference in the world when they're really just spending money on their hobby. "You support women? Prove it by buying our $50 product devoted to them, even when one of them is a non-human mythical creature."
Queer author JP Brammer wrote about his time writing for websites meant primarily to be shared through social media. He explained that the mission statement of the site he wrote for was to sculpt progressive articles that could be easily shared and flaunted through online platforms. He writes:
The end product was rarely meant to be a genuine, meaningful threat to the systems that facilitate marginalization...The narratives (read: posts) were meant to elicit cathartic recognition from those who shared the identity of the author and smug satisfaction from allies who could then decorate their page with it like magpies building a shiny nest.
This makes sense: as people spend more and more of their time online, it's understandable that they want to justify their time spent as "enriching" by feeling as though they're changing the world for the better. Killing time on an app now projects a narrative of personal growth and activism.
Additionally, marketing researchers have done a lot of analysis on how corporations appeal to the queer community. As social norms have gradually shifted over time, companies have paid attention to what this means for their marketing demographics. The gradual push to appeal to queer audiences has paid off for several companies, like Subaru, who have seen larger and longer returns on their investments. It is not a matter of progressiveness or ethics, but instead a calculated business decision.
So what does this have to do with Magic? Well, Magic is no stranger to trying to expand their product line to appeal to the queer community through their representation. Wizards of the Coast has recently seen increased growth in their Magic department as a result of Arena and the larger markets they have been reaching as a result. The lifeblood of every company is increased market growth, better returns. Obviously not all of this increased revenue is a result of outreach to the queer community, but I have to imagine it is a notable amount for Wizards to continually push such storylines so prominently. I literally cannot look through the replies of any pro Magic player's post without seeing some sort of queer person there. All the queer people I know who play Magic really like Magic, including myself.
Not all of this is bad, right? Wizards is giving money to charities that support women with this new Secret Lair, isn't that good? Well, yes, money going to charities is indeed a good thing if the charities use it appropriately, but there are other issues at hand. The tying of consumerism to charity is just another way of tying identity into a company's public image and marketing. You can see it in the rainbow Planeswalker shirts. Magic isn't just selling a game anymore when they run promotions like this, they're selling the idea that their products are a force for good. Lambert House receiving money from promotions like this is a good thing, but the processes surrounding it are what we should take issue with.
What happens when Wizards of the Coast stumbles in the ways they have in the past and people boycott these causes that appear problematic? After the anti-TERF land issue, a lot of queer players made a point online about boycotting the existing rainbow Planeswalker fundraising that Wizards was running. As a result, the community came together to create a new campaign with a different shirt for a different charity. I think people coming together to start a new campaign to raise funds is nice, but they could have come together to do this at any time in the past as well. Why is charity fundraising like this entirely determined and directed by the actions of corporations and only when it serves as a vehicle for branding? Whether the money is going to Wizards' campaign or elsewhere, the fact remains that more people will end up wearing shirts with copyrighted Magic insignias on them. Consumption of products, progressiveness, and charity have become inextricably linked due to campaigns like these, but the identities involved with them have mostly become afterthoughts to the products being sold.
I can't explain how confounding it is to see people walking around with shirts that just say things like "Love Wins" or "Pride." When slogans get so reductive that they can't even mention queer love, are they even about queer love anymore? All of these products just become nebulous tributes to identity that are so removed from the real people who experience the marginalization every day of their lives.
I understand that fictionalized portrayals of marginalized identities are not meaningless. However, the power in these stories comes when the creators are from the background they're trying to capture. When people focus so much of their energy toward trying to get major corporations to feed them table scraps of the content they want, they miss the meals being provided to them by marginalized creators. There is a reason queer people never shut up about things like Steven Universe, She-Ra and Janelle Monae's music. It's because the success of these media rewards the queer creators behind them, allowing them to embrace their identities in a public setting while also making a living. Screaming "MAKE CHANDRA AND LILIANA KISS" at Wizards of the Coast does nothing, whereas commissioning a queer independent artist to depict that can be the difference in whether or not they make rent that month. Wizards of the Coast is a transnational corporation and will survive no matter what. The same cannot always be said for independents.
When independent creators make art, they depict their lives through the lens of those who have lived it, felt its intricacies, and learned from it. They create the art that they wished they could see more of in the world, the art they could not live without making. When small queer studios like Worst Girls Games make a game that shows the importance of queer people supporting each other and forming community like in We Know The Devil, it comes from a place of knowledge and self-reflection. It fights against the typical, sanitized Queer stories from larger corporations who can't do anything too radical. It gives players insight from struggle and forces them to look inward.
Watered-down corporate representation (as well as the charity and marketing that piggybacks off of it) like what we see in Magic is ultimately nothing new in the grand scheme of business, but it serves as a distraction from the bigger issue of marginalization. Good representation does not come from trying to make marginalized communities look more like the dominant culture. Real representation requires boosting the voices of the people who are being marginalized, letting them tell their own stories, debating the ideas of "acceptable queerness" put forth by louder voices, and paying them for this work so they can survive and make more.
Okay, this is all very abstract. When thinking about Big Issues like this, it's easy to just think of it as theory discussion rather than something that impacts the daily lives of real people. What's the effect of Wizards of the Coast's charity campaigns in the real world?
I volunteer at Lambert House, an organization that gives queer youth from a variety of backgrounds a place to hang out and feel safe during the week, an opportunity that many of them do not have in their day-to-day lives at school, work, and home. We provide dinner for them every night. We provide resources for those in crisis. We have a clothing/supply bank where the youth can take clothes that fit how they want to present themselves.
Lambert House is the organization that received the funds from the rainbow Planeswalker logo campaign that was subsequently boycotted online after the issue with Autumn's lands happened. The entire story behind this Land Debacle feels like some sort of supreme ironic joke. In their anger at Wizards for how they treated Autumn and their queer fanbase, people reduced the amount of income that a charity that works with queer youth received. Some of this went to a different, worthy cause, which I am all for, but the focus of the initial fundraising got lost in the scramble that ensued.
It would have been nice to have something as small as a link to Lambert House and a push for people to give without having to buy a product that supports the company you disagree with. I don't blame anyone for not thinking to do this, it's just sad that everything turned out this way. After all of this drama, all that's left of the campaigns are broken links to out-of-print products. I don't know if anyone in the Lambert House organization even knows about the drama behind this story. I'm sure that they were just happy to receive any amount of support at all.
Here is a link if you would like to donate to Lambert House. I recommend also looking into a local organization in your area that handles a cause meaningful to you and either donating or volunteering if possible. Volunteering actual labor is an indescribable help, even more so than money. You don't have to do any of this. I know that money, time, attention, and willpower is a scarce resource for a lot of people already. Never feel ashamed of this. We are all we have. Solidarity forever.
I'm just a once-weekly volunteer at Lambert House, I'm not a higher-up that makes any executive decisions. I can't tell you the exact specifics of what the involvement with Wizards has looked like. What I can tell you is this: the money Lambert House received as a result of the campaign was a helpful boost to the overall funding of the house. There are people from Wizards of the Coast who regularly volunteer to the house as well. Sometimes, a few people from the company come by and run game nights for the house and leave some free Magic cards for the youth to play with. Every night I volunteer, I walk past them sitting on the shelf, mostly unopened. If these gifts were only investments in marketing, I would say they've paid dividends of exactly zero US dollars. There are a multitude of good people who make Magic that I have to imagine have their hearts (mostly) in the right place. I can't deny this.
What frustrates me so much is the focus on the product of Magic in relation to all of this. I can't help but be annoyed that money used to help people could stop coming in due to the mistakes of a corporation. I wish that the goodwill of others wasn't only determined by the products associated with it. I wish people would donate (or even better, volunteer their time! (it's okay, we're all busy though, i get it)) without having to be guaranteed something to show they're a good person at the end, like a shirt with a corporation's trademark in rainbow colors on it. I wish that other charities and marginalized people didn't have to depend on the few good people in corporations to receive a spotlight.
Ultimately, these inequities of opportunity aren't Magic's fault. Wizards of the Coast is only one big company in a sea of bigger companies that helm even larger ships. It's only part of a larger system that is even harder to change than individuals' behaviors. I don't want to end this article that was basically a lecture with me giving you an actual lecture, but I would feel irresponsible if I ended everything on such a directionless bummer.
Good representation looks like community, not like echoing a single, larger voice. It looks like boosting the marginalized in the ways they ask for, like supporting the movements that they have already worked to create. It takes work. When Wizards publishes stories like "The Truth of Names," I don't doubt that they view their work as a small incremental change, but the attention they generate still goes to the company, the brand, the game. Representation matters most when it pushes attention to the systems that cause the identities to be marginalized in the first place.