Why I don’t want Shelly Mazzanoble to represent female D&D players

[I’ve been promising to write this post for quite a while, and it’s long. Super-long. Like, the longest thing I’ve ever posted. You’ve been warned!]

I’ve wanted to write for a while about Shelly Mazzanoble and the problems I have with Wizards’ choice to promote her as presenting a female perspective of D&D players. Wizards first started promoting her back in 2007 or so when she published “Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress” – a (supposed) guide to getting into D&D from a female perspective. Here’s what I had to say about it at the time on an indie tabletop forum:

Honestly? The book made me want to scrub my brain with Lysol. It’s one of the most sexist things I’ve read in a long time, and by sexist I mean ‘using women to reinforce stereotypes about women’. (Not all sexism is perpetrated by men. Not by a long shot. A lot of it is perpetuated by women.)

But ultimately, I’m glad I read it, even if it did provoke me into screaming “WHAT THE F*CK????” at it a couple times. I found it an instructive lesson on the mainstream view of women and gaming, which doesn’t much resemble (if at all) the view of women and gaming held over here in Indie Land.

Well, it seems that my adverse reaction to the book wasn’t a commonly held one – or at least not commonly held among the demographic that Wizards was targeting – since they subsequently gave Shelly Mazzanoble a column in their monthly Dragon Magazine called “Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard”. So I decided to dig up all of the columns from 2010 and see how they compared to the book.

[side note]

I wasn’t exactly filled with confidence when I saw the title image that is used with every column (though admittedly, it might not be fair to hold the art direction against Shelly. I desperately hope that she didn’t see and approve this.)

(presumeably) Tabitha Sparkles – Shelly Mazzanoble’s tiefling wizard (about whom she writes most frequently)

[/side note]

After reading all of the columns, I was just as irritated and infuriated as I remember being after reading the book. Shelly’s column is billed as a “lifestyle” column, a view into a female experience of D&D. But the problem is that in almost every column she portrays herself as a combination of all of the negative stereotypes about female tabletop gamers and/or women ever, and it makes me cringe because omigod I don’t want THIS AWFUL STEREOTYPE to represent me as a female gamer.

To break this out a little, here are the stereotypes that pop up most frequently in Shelly’s columns:

  • Women are insecure, neurotic, and occasionally irrational
  • Women are fashion and/or beauty obsessed
  • (when talking about player error) D&D has numbers and math is haaaaaarrrrrd!
  • (when talking about player success) Oh yeah! *tee hee!*
  • Women are incapable of taking the game seriously or being dedicated to the game.

Now the “D&D is haaard” stereotype is, in my books, the worst, because that stereotype underlies these themes – which are rife throughout Shelly’s columns:

  • Women can’t make decisions or perform complex tasks without someone’s help (read: a man)
  • Women shouldn’t try for system mastery. They should stick to the basics and let other players (read: male players) worry about min-maxing and system mastery.

Now I realize that all of this is some pretty harsh criticism, so here’s where the wordiness comes in. I’ve picked out columns that I felt were particularly egregious and selected quotes (so… many… quotes…) to help illustrate my points. For those of you playing along at home, the columns I selected were April 2010, May 2010, June 2010, July 2010, October 2010, and December 2010.

In Shelly’s words (many, many of them)

Women are insecure, neurotic, and occasionally irrational

You mean my sub-par D&D proficiencies are that obvious? Suddenly I feel like those people who order “Flab-Be-Gone” or face-freezing lotion from late-night infomercials. Oh please, let this work! (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

“Something’s different about me,” I told my boss.
She spun around in her chair. “You’re not wearing heels? You forgot your gym clothes? You finally stood up to your cat?”
“No.” Like I’d ever stand up to Zelda. “Something… bigger. I’m not nervous about DMing.” (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

“Congratulations,” Greg said about thirty minutes into our game. “You’ve managed to cover just about every perceived female psychosis.” To be clear, I wasn’t experiencing those psychoses. My newest Gamma World character was. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

What if I make a fool of myself? Now, these guys were not serious or jerks, but they did appear to be good at roleplaying. And I’m the new girl here. I’ve got to join them or beat it. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what was up with Mojita other than she obviously didn’t want to be a cockroach. Or gelatinous. Or committed to one emotion. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

“It’s true what they say about cockroaches,” Josh said. “They can survive anything.”

That proves to be true of the whole game. We defeated the glow dragons, Mojita defeated her agoraphobia, and I defeated my irrational fear of roleplaying. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

Look, magazines, I don’t pay you to make me feel bad! My cat does that for free. (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

The thing that really bothers me about this is that almost every one of Shelly’s columns seems to follow the same formula, and that always starts with Shelly being adorably and/or humorously insecure about some facet of playing D&D. This then leads into neurotic and sometimes irrational attempts to wrestle with the insecurity in which a humorous result is achieved and a lesson of some sort is said to have been learned. Only it’s not learned, because the same insecurities pop up again and again and again.

That’s not to say it’s not okay to be insecure about stuff. Heck, no one is the perfect gamer, and D&D is a tough system to master. Some insecurity is justified – especially as a woman in a predominantly male environment. It’s the fact that at no point does Shelly ever express confidence about anything pertaining to D&D that bothers me. The tone, too, bothers me. If these insecurities were addressed in a genuine way, it wouldn’t be so bothersome. But these are clearly stereotypes being played for laughs.

Women are fashion and/or beauty obsessed

I must confess. Sometimes I’m a bit insecure. And no, not in the predictable “does this belt of vigor make my butt look fat?” way. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

At least I’m doing something right. The book recommends you, “shop for particularly utilitarian or extraordinary flamboyant clothing”. Finally! My work as Player-in-Chief has paid off. It then goes on to say, “Come up with a couple of interesting possessions to wear or carry”. This must be a nod to Tabby getting a new outfit or accessory every time we finish an adventure. She’s been dressed by the best – bracers by Hershey, robes by Cote D’Or, feather boa by… well… someone’s Halloween costume. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

Out of ten questions I scored three points each under ranger, rogue, and wizard, and one point under paladin. (How did that get in there?) For the record, question four about my wardrobe didn’t have any appropriate answers. A taxidermy shop? Maybe R&D should have consulted me before coming up with these answers. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

Ah yes, one of my greatest regrets. I’ve clearly leveled up my shopping skills since then.  (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

“Tabby knows what that is!” I shouted. I rolled a 2. “15?”

“Tabitha thinks this stone might be amethyst.” New DM says. “Maybe rose quartz. Real good for preventing intoxication and looks nice with jewel tones and Bermuda shorts.”

“What? Tabby would never say that,” I argued. Not only did I fail my Arcana check, but Tabitha failed her fashion check. Bermuda shorts? (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

Once I had my villain and a little information about his habit and habitat, New DM suggested I go back to the setting of my previous adventure, the one I ran my group through when I first tried my hand at dungeon mastering (with disasterous results, I reminded New DM.)

“Ah, you’re an old hand at it now,” he smiled.

I looked sheepishly down at my hands. Yeah, I could use a manicure, I guess.  (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

What’s with the high-pressure minion sales pitch? Where am I, the Nordstrom shoe department? (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

Later at home, I moved the dog-eared Nordstrom catalogs, Lucky Magazines, and Sephora shopping bags off the dining room tables and laid out my dungeon tiles, difficult terrain, and traps. (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

Welcome to the world, Mojita Especiala, a lime green gelatinous cockroach. She’s not so much cockroach as she is gelatinous. Her blobby being was forced into a roach-shaped bundt cake pan which doubles as armor. It’s like squeezing into a pair of skinny jeans after a long workout. “Very painful,” I explained. Not to mention humiliating should someone be in the locker room with you. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

The end of another year is upon us. I know this not because the calendar tells me so. It’s because my magazine subscriptions are yelling at me to clean this! Cleanse that! Change everything! Hey Shape, I already work out six days a week. And yeah, Lucky, I’d love to revamp my entire wardrobe to include the 379 “key pieces every woman should own”. Sorry Elle Decor – I don’t have a crawl space that I can make over into a reading room. I don’t even have room to read. (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

The sheer number of fashion and/or beauty-related examples really says everything for me. You know what? There are lots of women who have interests that aren’t fashion. But even if you are a woman that does love fashion, I’m pretty sure that not everything in your life ever comes back to fashion. Seriously.

Of course, there was a metric shit-ton of fashion references in the book as well, which makes me think that this is just a cynical attempt by marketing bots that want to appeal to women outside their “core market”. But let me say that as someone who is female, I am probably outside that core market, and this does not appeal to me at all. I find this one-sided depiction of Shelly-the-character as a shallow, fashion-obsessed maniac who relates everything in her life to clothes or beauty to be insulting.

Oh yeah! *tee hee!*

Hmm. When did I get wizard’s escape? Oh yeah, I have a shield. I double-checked to make sure this character sheet said “Tabitha Sparkles”. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

“When Herteus gets to here,” Chris said, pointing to the square I just passed through, “a large green blob falls from the ceiling and tries to attack”. Hmm. Didn’t I just approve some banner ads that mentioned something about wearing protective headgear? (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

Ten minutes later, I hadn’t finished my cup of peas, but my unaligned female elf thief was in my arsenal. Holy moley, I did it! I made a character using a book and a pencil. (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

The use of cutesy ‘oh yeah, I knew that’ or ‘oh yeah, I should have known that’ can die now and forever and never come back. Ever. I mean, seriously. Don’t be proud of being able to create a character from scratch. It just means that you are literate and don’t have any learning difficulties that would prevent you from teaching yourself complex tasks from a book.

D&D has numbers and math is haaaaaarrrrrd!

Instead of saying, “Sorry guys, I must have been out sick the day we covered force fields,” she may have been able to offer up some knowledge that would have helped the party in a skill challenge. Ugh. I hope they don’t read this. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

A long time ago, Tabitha went and got herself all multiclassed as a warlock. Oh, I never mentioned that? Well that’s probably because I have no idea what to do with her fancy warlock sophistication. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

“I know,” he said, rolling his eyes like he did last Tuesday when I insisted that Tabby was bending over to pick up a penny when that minion’s arrow came at her. “What kind of encounter?”

“How about a good encounter?” I said, not sure of what my choices were. I didn’t want it to suck. “And one that won’t give me an ulcer trying to figure out how to run it.” I still have anxiety dreams over the last one. (June 2010, Canine Enounters)

“Every encounter should be a free-standing adventure,” he said. “You want to include as much for the players to do as you’re comfortable running.”

Again, I suggested just one monster… a big, slow, lazy monster. “I can handle sitting back and substracting a few hitpoints here and there,” I said. (June 2010, Canine Enounters)

With my two gargoyles, remaining minions, and one dragon waiting in the wings, I realized the importance of placement. I was kind of throwing minions out there willy nilly and kept forgetting the gargoyles could make better distance by air than ground. Aeon had a minion and a gargoyle marked. Anwar was bloodied, and I was overlooking opportunity attacks at every corner. Dungeon Masters have a lot to keep track of! (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

What’s so hard about a little roleplaying? But it was too late. Panic moved in and tossed reason’s possesions to the curb. The guys were chattering back and forth, in character, with Greg interjecting important plot developments or story elements or Alpha Mutation cards now and again. It was only a matter of time before they discovered the new girl! Was it too late to remember an appointment with my therapist? Was it too late to make one? (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

I caved to my basic instinct. “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

“Are you crying?” Greg asked.

And… scene!

Okay, back up. I wasn’t crying. But Mojita was. Way to go, Instinct. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

“I know, but if you really want a female wizard named Berry White, then it’s time for you to make one,” he said. “Before our first encounter.”

Ha! That’s crazy talk! “You mean, like with this book? And a pencil? Right! I actually want to play this season, so I think I’ll just stick to the gender-confused wizard Chuck misnamed.” (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

As a child, my father railed against “helpless female syndrome” and abjured me to never pretend to be helpless just because I felt it was expected of me. And that’s the feeling I get when I read this. Shelly expresses insecurity about system mastery, about playing her character right, about making good choices for character advancement, about creating encounters, about just creating a character, about roleplaying – about EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING to do with D&D is painted as this herculean task and it is just SO AMAZING when the people around her manage to do these things and do them well.

There’s no shame in genuinely needing help, but this just smacks of deliberate obtuseness.

Women are incapable of taking the game seriously or being dedicated to the game.

And he failed his first two death saves. “Oh no,” I croaked over the lump in my throat. “He hasn’t even had his first haircut yet!” (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

If I don’t learn how to write an encounter, I’m going to use this space to psychoanalyze each and every Real Housewife of NewYork, which may be fun but probably not appropriate for Dragon Magazine. (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

“Wait a minute. I don’t know if I can kill a dragon,” I told New DM. “Dragons are animals too. I’ll feel bad.”

“Didn’t a dragon kill your beloved barbarian minotaur?” New DM asked. “What was his stupid name?”

Man, Kevin can’t catch a break. “Yes, but still. This is my dragon.” (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

“What if the dragon is susceptible to tickling, and if the adventurers tickle him he laughs so hard he spits out puppies? Unharmed, of course.”

New DM shook his head, then started mumbling things like help me, please make it stop, I don’t think we’re in D&D anymore.  (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

“But you get a mutation card.” Greg handed me a deck to choose from. I drew mind trick, which would grant me a bonus to an Interaction check. Helpful, if only the glow dragons understood us. Not one to let things go to waste, I decided to use it on Viktor to make him believe he’s in love with Mojita.

“Um…” Viktor said. “You are the color of spring, Mojita.” (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

“Ah, an eladrin wizard!” I said. “I shall love you and keep you and call you Berry White.”

“It’s Berrian,” Chuck said. “I named him. I should know.”

“Trust me. It’s Berry White,” I said, explaining once again that in addition to my role as Player-in-Chief, Zelda’s lackey, and most recently “sado maso cookiest” due to my unloading thirty-seven tons of holiday cookies on R&D, I am also the Pre-Generated Character Whisperer.

“I’m like that guy, John Edward, who allows dead people to communicate with their loved ones through him. Sara: someone whose name begins with a D, always smelled like ham and used to favor plaid shirts wants you to check behind the refrigerator. Does this make sense? I know what the pre-gens want. They speak through me.” (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

Everyone is familiar with the unflattering stereotype of the woman who’s only there because her male S.O. is there. The woman who does stupid shit like name her warhorse Fluffy (I’ll admit it, guilty once upon a time), constantly looks at her watch, gets distracted frequently and can’t stay focused on the game. This is like that, only minus the male S.O.

Women shouldn’t try for system mastery. They should stick to the basics and let other players (read: male players) worry about min-maxing and system mastery.

I want to help the party solve puzzles and reap rewards. And yet sometimes I choose to have Tabitha cast scorching burst because I know she’s good at it. I can attack and roll damage without once referencing my character sheet. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

Maybe Tabby should ditch her dreams of becoming a warlock and concentrate on becoming a really good wizard. (April 2010) (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

“It could run away,” New DM suggested. “Or negotiate.”

Yeah, but that would involve roleplaying, and we all know I’m not the best negotiator. I guess I could just pretend this is a game of make-believe and no dragons were hurt in the process.  (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

Then it hit me. The talking. And not just the “What are you having for dinner tonight” or “Would you rather have eyes in the back of your head or a giant lizard tail” table talking I’m used to. This was relevant talking. Like important to the game talking. This was – gasp! – roleplaying!

I know what you’re thinking: “This is D&D, you big dummy!” But maybe you don’t remember my irrational fear of roleplaying and playing D&D with people who are: 1. Too serious. 2. Jerks. 3. Really good at roleplaying.

This is why I usually create characters that are too sullen or naive or too apathetic to talk to strangers. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

This makes me so very angry. Shelly Mazzanoble is presented as a very prominently female voice, one of the only female voices to come out of Wizards. And she constantly presents herself as this stereotyped caricature of a woman who is insecure and thinks D&D is hard and this roleplaying stuff is pretty scary. And you know what? That could be okay if she managed to soldier on and find a way to succeed despite her many insecurities. I could roll my eyes and move on with my life if it didn’t constantly lead to the conclusion that she should just stick to the basics and let other people worry about achieving system mastery. That system mastery is for other people and is too lofty a goal for poor little Shelly to achieve.

This makes me want to hit things, because this shit is insidious and toxic and just reinforces stereotypes of female gamer behavior. This more than anything says that when it comes to gaming, women are never going to be more than second class citizens because gaming is just too hard for our little female brains. And. Gah. This is so wrong. Being a dude does not automatically confer superior powers of mathematics and gaming. It just doesn’t. Like, times a million.

Women can’t make decisions or perform complex tasks without someone’s help (read: a man)

“Don’t you remember?” she went on. “We took you and your brother to Florida for spring break when you guys were in high school and Dad put a $100 gift card in your Easter Basket. You were so overwhelmed by what to buy you never spent it.” (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

New DM has exacted the ultimate revenge! “He’s on vacation?” I whined. “He’s supposed to be helping me with my encounter!” Technically he did help, as you might remember from last month’s column. But that was a month ago. You can’t expect me to remember everything he said about traps and tactics. I can’t even find my notes. (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

I’m pretty sure they won’t love it, but if Chris Perkins, Dungeon Master to the Stars, says to do it, I’ll consider it. My number one priority is not to overwhelm myself.  (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

Once Chuck even helped me weigh the pros and cons of cognac leather versus mahogany suede when I found myself in a winter boot conundrum. (His arguments for both were so well articulated, I ended up buying both pairs.) (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

“Have you become so reliant on the Character Builder that you forgot how to roll up a character the old fashioned way?”

“That’s nuts,” I said in my defense. “Everyone knows I rely on Marty to roll up my characters.”

And I didn’t forget. It’s quite possible I never knew. The last character I rolled up the “old fashioned way” was Astrid, my 3.5 elf sorceress, and really my old DM did most of the work. (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

Getting men to either perform complex tasks she should be doing or to make decisions for her is another theme that is super-prevalent in Shelly’s columns, which – again – makes me want to punch something. In a year’s worth of columns, not once did Shelly write about turning to a female to bail her out of whatever tempest in a teacup she’d created for herself.

She’s essentially handed over all agency to the men in her life and doesn’t even bat an eyelash at it, seeming to take for granted that of course these men should drop everything and roll her a character, or write an encounter for her, or whatever it is that she’s supposed to be doing. And it’s demeaning for everyone involved. It’s demeaning for Shelly-the-character to be completely dependent on men for everything. But it’s also demeaning for the men, who I’m sure have better things to do with their life than babysit someone who could learn to do all this stuff if she exerted herself.

This is so messed up it deserves a special mention:

This doesn’t actually relate to any of the above stereotypes, but it was so messed up that I had to specifically call it out. In a column in which Shelly angsts about preparing an encounter for her group, she ends with this paragraph:

I’d love to tell you, but I’m much too busy gathering up Dungeon Tiles and minis. And maybe creating some special actions for my monsters to appease Bart. And possibly a skill challenge for Kierin. Maybe a puppy for Laura and a chocolate torte for Hilary.

My jaw literally dropped when I read this because I could not believe what I was reading. The BOYS get skill challenges and monsters – stuff that engages them with the system. And the GIRLS get puppies and chocolate. Because all that stupid system stuff wouldn’t be rewarding for them, since they’re – you know – GIRLS. Which deserves a special mention and a particularly loud “…the FUCK???”.

Argh. So angry.

In summary: some closing notes (or – tl;dr)

(This is dragging on way too long, so I’ll keep this brief.) I will give Shelly one thing. There is a certain level of craft to these columns. If one can speak of comic timing in writing, then Shelly’s timing is good and her jokes are always well-delivered, even if I hate the content.

Now do I think that Shelly Mazzanoble is all of these stereotypes? No. I think that Shelly is being used by Wizards to try to broaden their appeal to women. Only their marketing department doesn’t really understand how to speak to women without being off-putting, insulting, and patronizing. So as a result, you get Shelly-the-character’s Fluffy Adventures in D&D is Also For Girls Land.

This pisses me off. It pisses me off because I don’t want the neurotic, fashion-obsessed, passive, please-decide-things-for-me, d&d-has-numbers-and-is-haaaaaard character she portrays herself as to represent me as a female player. In her columns, Shelly frequently refers to herself as Player In Chief. This implies that she is somehow representing players of D&D, which is what I am violently against. I desperately, vehemently, passionately want to be disassociated from pretty much everything Shelly’s columns say about women. Shelly-the-character doesn’t represent me or any of the women I know who play D&D, or even any of the women I know who play roleplaying games that aren’t D&D. Not at all.