Sweatin’ the Small Stuff, or, Beware Your Throwaway Jokes About Middle-Aged Women in Magic

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you this break from mediocre fanfic to talk about everybody’s favorite topic: sexism in Magic.

(OK, maybe just mine. I have weird hobbies. This surprises nobody.)

As previously, I’m not talking about big, scary sexism—the stuff that’s easy to point at and go “Wow, that’s fucked up.” I’m not going to talk about the stream of gross comments and behavior Jackie Lee, for example, was exposed to when she Top 8ed GP Baltimore in 2012. I’m not even going to talk about the humiliation and anger women feel when male opponents they’ve defeated say “I can’t believe I lost to a girl.” These acts of sexism are egregious enough that most reasonable people can nod their heads and follow along with the outrage and feel virtuous because they’re not Those Assholes.

CRAZY ALTERNATE THEORY: Or she wore the outfit because it makes her feel good and she needs all the help she can get playing in an environment where very few people look like her and most everybody stares at her anyway while making passive-aggressive “jokes” about her appearance. Or CRAZIER STILL, she wore the outfit because she felt like it and didn’t even think about the alleged effect cleavage would have on someone’s Magic-playing ability because WHO CARES.

I’m not even going to talk about basic lands festooned with scantily-clad, anatomically-improbable women giving you come-hither glances. (Pro tip: if you use them, they make a lot of women feel gross and contribute to what lawyers have coined a “hostile environment,” but hey, that might be your goal?)

I’m going to talk about something that’s a lot more subtle, and therefore a lot more uncomfortable, because none of us wants to be That Asshole. But sometimes we are—myself definitely included. And it can feel shitty to be called out, and it can feel even shittier when you don’t even know what the hell this person is going on about, man, I was just trying to make a joke, can’t we just roll with it and call it a joke?

No, no we can’t. Because humorless feminist here, obvs.

So, I can give ya a pair of legs and a hot prince for that comic timing. Deal?

It starts with what is overall a really, really great Star City Games article by Danny West, “Playing Commander in Style.” He goes through some of the most degenerate Legendary Creatures and rips on them and… really, you should read the whole thing. It’s freaking great. My favorite parts are his suggestions for how to make the degenerate Commanders more stylin’. (His [card]Relentless Rats[/card] deck suggestion made me burst out with a surprised cackle.) Dude’s comic timing is a joy to behold, and if I could barter for it, Ursula-style, I would.

And then I got to the part about [card]Azami, Lady of Scrolls[/card] and I was all hahaha yeah so annoys very wait uh whut no no no don’t noooooooo Y U DO DIS.

To quote West directly:

I remember reading someone from WotC’s commentary on banning [card]Mystical Tutor[/card] in Legacy years ago. They said it wasn’t just that it was powerful—though it certainly is—it’s that they didn’t want a format marquee card being a middle-aged woman pointing at a passage in a dated text book.

(Emphasis mine.)

OK, first of all, West is kind of misquoting WotC; what Tom LaPille actually said at the time was this:

Upon the announcement of Mystical Tutor‘s banning, many players asked if unbanning [card]Entomb[/card] was a mistake and why we didn’t just reban it. This is a fine question, but that isn’t quite what’s going on. In fact, we don’t think that unbanning Entomb was a mistake at all. We think it’s cool that Reanimator is a deck. What we don’t think is cool is to have an enigmatic-looking hooded woman holding a book and trying to look innocuous while she boosts the power of every spell-based combination deck that ever shows up in the format.

(Emphasis again mine.)

Notice the shift in interpretation: West is making a crack about the age of the woman depicted in Mystical Tutor and how her lack of stylishness somehow played a part in the card’s banning. LaPille’s joke focuses on the contrast between how mild-mannered Mystical Tutor Lady looks, vs. the explosive, game-ending combo shenanigans the card enables. At no point is LaPille trying to make any kind of serious statement about Mystical Tutor Lady’s appearance and how that appearance had any kind of bearing on the card’s banning. Soooo that’s kinda telling.

But let’s take West’s statement at face value for a moment, shall we? (“Yes, let’s!” said nobody ever, but such is the tyranny I wield over this blog.) Let’s in fact pretend that WotC had actual, real-life reservations about a middle-aged lady becoming the Face of Legacy, and that’s one of the reasons they banned the card. I have a few points I want to make about “a format marquee card being a middle-aged woman” etc:

Point the First: When I see Mystical Tutor Lady, I don’t think “frumpy middle-aged woman.” I honestly think she’s kinda foxy. Am I nuts here? Or is my love for thoughtful-looking women with gorgeous eyes and great cheekbones skewing my perception?

I don’t think it is. Mystical Tutor Lady has a facial structure actresses and supermodels would kill to have. West was either engaging in a bit of hyperbole for yuks (and fell flat), or our beauty standards are way more screwed up than I gave credit for.

Point the Second: Contrast Mystical Tutor Lady with the faces gracing the other three cards in the cycle.

enlightened tutor  vampiric tutor

worldly tutor

(Yeah, I know, bla bla bla [card]Goblin Tutor[/card] bla bla but it clearly doesn’t count because IT TUTORS TO HAND GOD THESE THINGS MATTER PEOPLE I MEAN WHAT ARE WE ANIMALS?)

Not that I don’t love the adorable old dudes that grace Enlightened and Worldly Tutor. And sweet Sallie Mae, the art on Vampiric Tutor is just straight-up, uh, well, awkward. But Mystical Tutor, the one female face that’s also in a position of power in this series, is actually conventionally attractive. So…what the hell? Middle-aged? Especially in comparison to the beyond-middle-aged dudes on Enlightened and Worldly tutor?

(The fact that Mystical Tutor Lady is kinda hot while being the only female depicted in the cycle is its own problem, and I’ve written about it at length already, so let us consider that dead horse beaten, shall we?)

UPDATE: Soooo, several friends pointed out that Enlightened Tutor is, in fact, an adorable old lady. I feel pretty mortified, and offer myself as an object lesson on how some people (well, actually pretty much only me in this particular instance, because everyone else I’ve talked to parsed Enlightened Tutor as female) interpret gender when given the potential for ambiguity. Remember how I said that I’m not exempt from occasionally being That Asshole? Proof, right here.

So. Uh. Well, that kind of blew my mind for the day. In a really awesome way, though.


In conclusion: Mystical Tutor Lady: actually attractive enough to be a Cover Girl, if she weren’t so busy fucking up every format in which she’s legal.

Point the Third: I would be so. Flippin’. Thrilled. To see a woman like Mystical Tutor Lady be the face of Magic for a set or three. I am so very, very tired of sexualized ladies, hugely muscular guys, and smirky dudes being the face of Magic. Chandra went from a sweet steampunk-esque aesthetic to a Scarlett Johansson knock-off clad in chainmail Frederick’s of Hollywood. Liliana went from sexy bellydancer who still looks scary enough to fuck you up to conventional cheesecake giving you a come-hither glance. And f’real now, Garruk the Roid Rager was the face of M15.

I dare Wizards to give us a major female Magic character (read: Planeswalker) in the next couple of sets who doesn’t have a body that wouldn’t look out of place on a runway or the cover of Playboy. [card]Tamiyo, the Moon Sage[/card] was a great start, but that was three blocks ago. Hell, at this point, I’ll take more than one female Planeswalker per set.

Mystical Tutor Lady, honestly, is most directly analogous to Jace in terms of appearance: mysterious. Good-lookin’. And, not gonna lie, kinda douchey, too—I mean look at that smirk. The smirk of blue mages everywhere. And I, for one, welcome more faces like hers in Magic, both in its art and in its player’s community.

Seriously. Middle-aged?


All right. Whew. Glad I got that off my chest. Anyway, I kinda shrugged off the Mystical Tutor crack and continued reading the article and three paragraphs down…

How to Make Azami Cool Again:

It’s impossible. She’s an aging librarian. If you really want to try to style up Azami, you could take all the wizards out of your deck, tie weights to your ankles, and jump in a pool.

Ugh. No. NO.

I mean, OK, Azami is the Lady of Broken Combo Crap. I totally agree with his sentiments about how Azami works in general and how Azami decks work in particular—and I think the jump-in-the-pool comment was pretty funny. But while West rips into many different Commanders in this article (he calls [card]Uril, the Miststalker[/card] “a giant, unfriendly idiot you grow without hindrance,” which startled another a cackle out of me), he specifically makes fun of the physical appearance of the characters on only two cards—and both cards feature women. And one of them because she’s an OLDER LADY LIBRARIAN.

Y’all. We’re nerds here, right? We’re playing a game in which we’re basically magical wizards waging magical battles across endless planes of magical existence. We’ve spent a lot of time—some dullards would probably even say too much time—arguing how THESE pieces of cardboard are CLEARLY BETTER than those other pieces of cardboard. Many of us prefer spending our Friday nights turning cards sideways and taking our opponents from 20 to 0 life points in lieu of, fuck, I don’t know, playing hula hoops or doing the hustle or whatever the hell it is kids do these days that’s cool.

Shouldn’t we freaking love librarians, regardless of age? I don’t know about you, but I dreamed about becoming a librarian when I was a kid. Holy shit, a job in which I’m surrounded by books and to ensure that other people are surrounded by books? GIMME.

And I mean look at the art on Azami. LOOK AT IT.

Azami, Lady of This is Why You Can't Have Nice Things
Azami, Lady of This is Why You Can’t Have Nice Things

Fuckin’ scrolls everywhere! Why? Because she fuckin’ said so. She’s the motherfuckin’ lady of motherfuckin’ scrolls! And those sleeves! And that hair! I WOULD KILL FOR THE ABILITY TO MAKE SCROLLS FLY AT MY BIDDING, ALSO THOSE SLEEVES AND THAT HAIRDO.

Not only is the composition superb, but the artist has managed to convey a sense of calm power in Azami. This is a woman, more than any other I’ve seen in Magic, who wouldn’t even bother killing yaks from 200 yards away with mind-bullets. The yaks would apologize for creating a mess, put all those scrolls back in the proper order, and promptly jump off the nearest cliff to save her the fuss and bother.

And the artist accomplishes all this without giving Azami breasts bigger than her head, unnecessarily exposed body bits, or lordotic poses (*koff* [card]Kiora, the Crashing Wave[/card] *koff*).

West can riff all he wants on how broken and unfun Azami is, and he does, but when he rags on her age—seriously, now. Why? Is it funny because older people don’t play Magic? Is it funny because older women in particular don’t play Magic? I ran one of the biggest game stores in Portland for a couple years, and lemme tell you, that’s untrue. They’re considerably rarer than the dudes between the ages of 13 and 35 who made up the majority of my former clientele, but they exist.

Some of these women played back when damage went on the stack and there was a functional difference between Instants and Interrupts. And some of these women picked up Magic a couple months ago because their kids were really into it and then fell in love with the game for its own sake.

These women are fuckin’ cool. These women are fuckin’ STYLIN’ in the only way that counts in the Magic community: they are enthusiastic about playing the game and they make the community a better, more diverse place.

So Danny West, I’m calling you out. Yes, it’s small stuff, especially when compared to some of the truly nasty sexist shit that goes down in the Magic community sometimes. But the small stuff counts, too, because the small stuff is what skates by, unnoticed—and ultimately, the small stuff matters.

12 responses to “Sweatin’ the Small Stuff, or, Beware Your Throwaway Jokes About Middle-Aged Women in Magic”

  1. […] Sweatin’ the Small Stuff, of, Beware Your Throwaway Jokes About Middle-Aged Women in Magic | O… (October 14): “I dare Wizards to give us a major female Magic character (read: Planeswalker) in the next couple of sets who doesn’t have a body that wouldn’t look out of place on a runway or the cover of Playboy. Tamiyo, the Moon Sage was a great start, but that was three blocks ago. Hell, at this point, I’ll take more than one female Planeswalker per set.” […]

  2. You’re ignoring the fact that elspeth was the marquee planeswalker and main character for the entire last year. Her sexualization is zero so considering all that I think wizards took you up on your “just once” dare already for the entirety of theros block

  3. “You’re ignoring the fact that elspeth was the marquee planeswalker and main character for the entire last year.”

    Here’s what I actually said:

    “I dare Wizards to give us a major female Magic character (read: Planeswalker) in the next couple of sets who doesn’t have a body that wouldn’t look out of place on a runway or the cover of Playboy.”

    So a couple things to unpack here:

    1. I agree that Elspeth hasn’t been inappropriately sexualized. I am super glad about it! I wish it weren’t a thing I had to celebrate every time I saw it. But it’s still progress. Hooray progress.

    2. Elspeth, despite being clothed in sort-of sensible armor (alas, she isn’t immune to nonsensical boob-molded armor to afford proper lift and separation), wouldn’t look out of place in a fashion magazine, hence “out of place on a runway.”

    3. This isn’t just about sexualization. It’s about the limited palette of expression for major human (or anthropogenic in general–thinking of Kiora here) female characters in Magic.

    4. Still waiting for a female Planeswalker who looks like Nicol Bolas, Karn Liberated, or Sarkhan the Mad.

    5. I will be SO HAPPY to eat my words, you guys. For realz. You have no idea. Magic is my favorite game, and it doesn’t make me happy to see basically one body plan for female planeswalkers and most of the human female legendary creatures, and a dizzying variety for the males.

  4. I think that the major point is that there is an underlying issue at play in Magic and around the world. Continuing to place emphasis on the look of females in both MTG and real life with regards to what classically are termed “assets” degrades the intellectual and individuality due to all.

    Changing such an uncomfortable truth has taken Western civilization hundreds of years, and it’s not even there yet. As a whole the globe is still struggling to get over a lot of the gender and racial issues which plagued the earth for thousands of years. Those underlying rough patches aren’t fun to address outright, but opening up dialogue in many areas really help to keep it on the mind.

    I believe there is no way to eradicate the issue completely without consistent strides being taken every moment of every day but the vast majority of the population. Articles like this help to keep that dialogue open, in the forefront of everyone’s minds, and ultimately is a paving stone in the road we need to build.


  5. You’ve just officially become my favorite MtG blog. I frikken love your posts, this article especially! Definitely gonna share this with my students.

    Also 115% onboard with you – Magic needs less cleavage and steroids, and more characters that we players can actually identify with. They were doing a much better job with this in the early days, before the now-ironic “Modern” border. There’s a huge difference in how both men and women are portrayed in Legions vs. today. (Ignore Akroma and Phage, focus on the Muses…)

    Keep on keepin’ on. I love your work!

    P.S. You had me from “200 yards away…WITH MIND BULLETS!”. That’s Telekinesis, Kyle.

  6. Magic is a fantasy game trying to appeal to the teenage boy. What’s so wrong with having large breasted woman and bulky men? Does the art offend you so much that you really need to write a 5 page post about it? I’m open to conversation and criticism, but this is a fantasy game where the art has nothing to do with the game play or dynamics. If you can’t stand to have to look at a 2×1 inch little box that offends you, you literally don’t have to. Did some random person say something about the art that you didn’t like? I didn’t even know who Danny West is, and I’ve been playing magic for 5 years. if you don’t search for these problems you won’t find them, and with complete respect for you, I would highly recommend duct taping over the card art in the future.

    • Magic is a game that’s trying to appeal to a *lot* more than teenage boys—WotC has been pretty explicit from the beginning about trying to be more inclusive. And even if this game were attempting to capture the teenage boy market and no other, any attempts that cater to sexist, racist and other problematic assumptions shouldn’t get a free pass just because the company thinks these sorts of themes will appeal to their target market. All of us, not just teenage boys, get to critique what they’re doing.

      This isn’t about me being offended in the traditional sense of the word. I’m a child of the Internet. It takes a LOT to offend me. It’s about the cultural implications of what we do, and what it says about our attitudes towards groups of people. It’s not just about Magic, it’s about art and how we choose to represent, talk about, and write about disempowered people in general.

      You don’t give a shit about these issues. That’s fine. I do, and so do a lot of other people. With complete respect for you, I would highly recommend duct taping over your computer monitor in the future.

      • Now I understand that sexism is a serious issue, I simply don’t feel as though magic is the place that we should be concerned about. The whole idea of magic is that it is a fantasy game! I love playing Daretti because I can image to be a mechanical genius, and I see the appeal to want to play as someone like Zurgi Helmsmasher, being able to crush your foes to a pulp! I feel as though there is EASILY adequate cards that will be able to fill the fantasy desires of a female. Want to be some kick ass kill everything woman? Elspeth is a PRIME example of that. WotC has gone so far as to include trans gender cards, such as Alesha, while still keeping an appeal to be a beautiful princess that still has board and game presence. While I will admit my earlier comment was quite rude, I still feel as though it isn’t WotC’s responsibility to ensure that every individual is satisfied with this game, and if you find you are being excluded at your LGS because of your race, gender identity, or some other reason, that is DEFINATELY not the responsibility of WotC, but of yourself to defend your personal rights. Talk to the store manager, he can ban players from his store for poor behavior. If it is that serious, consider confronting the local law enforcement about the issue.

        • I used to run a game store. I’ve had to 86 my share of problematic nerds. I have zero problem dealing with jerk-ass gamers when they’re behaving badly.

          I feel like we’re talking past each other, a little bit—you’re focusing on the big, in-your-face That Is Definitely Sexist/Racist/Homophobic issues. I’m trying to talk about something more subtle; it’s so subtle that we often take it for granted because it’s part of the cultural background radiation. You’re not the only person going “Well it’s perfectly fine with me that the female Planeswalkers have basically one Slim But Curvy Anthropomorphic body plan, when the male Planeswalkers range from Dragon to Lumpy Sentient Robot to Vampire Dreamboy to Do You Even Lift, Bro?”

          Furthermore, saying “it isn’t WotC’s responsibility to ensure that every individual is satisfied with this game” is a straw person argument. While strictly speaking, WotC doesn’t have any responsibility to anybody whosoever other than, like, the usual legal duties to shareholders and employees, I am one of their consumers. You’ve already conceded that they’re specifically catering to teenage dudes. Why shouldn’t they cater to me? I am one of their target markets—and people like me make up a bigger and bigger share of their market every year. They need to start actively catering to people like me if they want to keep the game healthy and growing.

          So that’s the economic argument. There’s a social good argument to be made, too: that companies like WotC, that not only absorb culture, but have a disproportionate impact in propagating and normalizing culture, absolutely have a duty to minimize oppressive shittiness and move to a place of greater inclusiveness.

          And all that goes way beyond me getting my not-especially-delicate feelings hurt when someone’s a dick to me during FNM. It’s structural, not personal.

          • Off, we don’t know whether most of the dragons are male or female, and I could easily find a female for any typical “group” that you would like. Just as there are “you even lift bro” males, look at Ardent Plea, angelic accord, trap essence, these are all examples of strong, independent woman. Want a planeswalker example? Nihiri is clearly lifting a rather heavy sword, and is also a blacksmith (or lithomancer, whatever that means). While there is only one lumpy sentient robot (sorry ladies), their are plenty of prime examples for any type of person, male or female, for any group that you feel best suits them. This goes both ways, though. I’m a guy, and I wanna play some selesnya, some real down to earth nature spells. Besides Gaddock, not wanting to get immediately hated off the table, where do I go if I want to play a male general? Emmara, Trostani, Selvala, Saffi, Sisay, Lady Caleria, they are endless! And keep in mind, not a single one of those are overly sexualized. Maybe Sisay, but that’s pushing it. For every card I list, there will also be some bad examples, but I am just not able to make the connection between these cards and the very real and serious problem of sexism. Will Basandra always have a place in my heart as one of my favorite commanders? Yes, but not because of her outfit, because of her ability to affect the game and board state.

          • In re: genders for non-human characters, especially characters that are important to the storyline (Planeswalkers, legendary creatures): we do generally have a good idea. Nicol Bolas is referred to using male pronouns. So is Ugin. Kolaghan is a female dragon. Niv-Mizzet is a dude. They do a pretty good job of not tossing on human signifiers of femininity on the dragons, but the fact remains that we still don’t have a non-anthropomorphic female Planeswalker on a card yet.

            And yes, there are lots of bad-ass women wielding huge weapons and casting big spells in Magic. Some of the most powerful cards in Magic feature women on the art. (I mean, this article is basically a looooong love-letter to Mystical Tutor and Azami.) But f’real, look at Nahiri (or just about any other weapon-wielding female character in MTG), and then compare her with the dudes. Garruk. Mirran Crusader. Odric. My point stands: the body plans are very, very similar for the women who are named characters, while the dudes show a lot more variation.

            Why is that? If you can come up with a credible answer that’s not, at its base, “Because Wizards wants to cater to a particular demographic” or “Ugh, nobody wants to see a woman who’s muscular/fat/[insert body type here that’s something other than slim and curvy],” I’d love to hear it.

            Now, take a look at the body plans for elite athletes and fighters for both genders in the real world, and you see a LOT more variation. You’ve probably seen this image before, it’s made the rounds, but it illustrates my point: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1470692/original.jpg. We see a similar range of diversity for male body types in MTG, including the art for named characters. I don’t see why we couldn’t see similar diversity for the women. Yes, you can always pick out the exceptions, but they are exactly that: exceptions. Women are often sexy when they don’t need to be sexy in MTG, and it happens very, very rarely for the men. (I remembered being startled when I saw Rakish Heir, because it was the first piece of art in MTG I’d seen that catered to the gaze of folk who like to fuck men.)

            And I feel like you tangented with the point re: some guilds/colors being associated with the feminine more than the masculine, and here’s the thing: I totally see what you mean, and it’s part of the same problem with stereotyping. Some of the color identities tend to run along gendered lines, though the issue is getting better with time.

            Oh, and to tangent on your tangent: Sisay is in fact attired in an utterly and completely nonsensical fashion for battle. Srsly, she’s basically wearing a bikini bottom with harem pant leggings and a midriff shirt? I…what? Why?

            And I get that for you, you don’t connect the abundance of (mostly tastefully-drawn—mostly) cheesecake in MTG artwork and sexism, but I’m going to posit that it’s because you don’t really have to live with, struggle through and think about the realities of sexism every day, from the big and obvious (the ones we can pretty much all agree are Very Bad Things, like women being disproportionate targets of domestic and sexual violence), to the slightly-less-big-but-still-serious-problems (not being taken seriously at work, having to put up with people denigrating feminine things and femininity as weak/stupid/worthless/frivolous), to the not-especially-obvious-to-people-who-don’t-care (having basically one female body plan deemed acceptable by the mass media).