Transphobia, celebration, or corporate advantage?
Source: CD Projekt Red, Zoom in probably by Kotaku
Prologue: Here we go again.
Alright folks. I?m going to be as straight-forward as possible with you here. There is a video game coming out next year. It is called Cyberpunk 2077. It is coming from Polish studio CD Projekt Red of The Witcher fame and is based on the dystopian future tabletop RPG from which it takes its name. That RPG was directly inspired by the pioneering works in the genre, Gibson?s Neuromancer and Dick?s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to name just two of that myriad.
During presentations of the game?s lighting system, a direct use of graphics giant Nvidia?s raytracing technology, the ad you see pictured above was spotted. Depicted is a trans body with feminine features and an obviously visible, but covered, penis. This few seconds of the tech demo has already been featured by the usual suspects and been out and out labeled as transphobic by larger news outlets.
Call me crazy, but I think there?s a little bit more to the story. And I?m going to try to break the ENTIRE thing down for you, from beginning to end, instead of crunching it up for a news digest.
Part 1: Mixing it up.
Let?s talk about the singular ad, without the added context of the game?s impending release or a followup statement from an art director that I will get to shortly.
What has upset people is the terminology and imagery here. In essence: the entire piece. This ad shows us a body and tells us, without question, that it is a trans body. This information can be private to a person living that life, or it can be proudly displayed. It all depends on the individual. But the advertisement, by its very nature, is overtly sexual. A reading of what we?re presented could reasonably be: ?This is different, just like our soda, and we know you?re fascinated and possibly aroused.? The ad, as an ad, asks the viewer to equate this trans body (and soda) with ?mixing it up.? With the idea of going outside their norm.
I believe this is a reasonable reading of the ad. And I also believe that those who find this reading abhorrent are justified in that feeling. That reading is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. Allow me to explain?
Part 2: We?ve always been at war with mixing it up.
Cyberpunk 2077 adapts the tabletop RPG Cyberpunk, most likely taking heaviest inspiration from that game?s second edition, Cyberpunk 2020. Let me tell you a couple things about that setting. The state of that world, as of their fictional year 2020, was one that had survived a major societal collapse. The United States government now kowtows to ?megacorporations? to remain afloat. Essentially, the world of Cyberpunk is a vision of the heat-death of capitalism. When companies themselves outright control the government and, by extension, the people.
Set almost entirely within one fictional California burg called Night City, the Cyberpunk tabletop game has allowed players to tell the stories of society?s outcasts for thirty years. Players aren?t corporate entities, but individuals, forced to reckon with their own identities and the overall identity of their society in a world where commercialism is the last lifeblood of America. Players take on the roles of literal punks, hackers and political idealists who have to navigate this strange world of the future.
Source: Budweiser UK on Twitter
Let me ask you this, and it isn?t purely rhetorical: Does it seem out of place to you that a commercialized future would take advantage of all body/person/identity types? We see it already in our modern 2019. It is Pride month as this story comes to light and thankfully the larger LGBT and ally communities have begun questioning the nature of Pride-themed advertising. Just take a look at this ad from your friends at Budweiser, the OFFICIAL BEER OF THE LONDON PRIDE PARADE in case you weren’t quite aware yet. I?m certain their alcoholic beverages and signage are all across the city and will be as that event and related programming continues for the next month, but something about this sudden desire to hand a cold one to the average gay is a little concerning, isn?t it? Why now? Why not? twenty years ago? Or ten? Or five? Why now?
Those questions are rhetorical. We both know the answer. Because now it is profitable. That?s where we are. The marginalized are a demographic, after all, so why not capitalize on that fact?
AGAIN, I want to make it clear to you that this is a real marketing tactic in our real world. This is what we?re dealing with in 2019 AD. If you don?t think an extreme version of a commercialized future would not use trans identity as a way to move soda, you?ve not been paying attention.
The reading I explored before, the one I believe to be the centerpiece of a lot of individual anger directed at this ad and CD Projekt Red right now, is exactly the sort of thing you would see in a capitalist ruin-world like the one Cyberpunk has created. It may not be too terribly off from what we see in our reality sometime in the future. But that?s not the only reason people are angry.
Part 3: A Twitter mix up.
This incident doesn?t stand alone. Last August, CD Projekt Red caught some heat for this tweet:
Source: Kotaku screenshot
Now I?m not going to tell you whether or not I think that the above tweet is transphobic. I?m not going to claim to be able to make that call definitively. But I think we can agree that it adds something to the discussion at hand. And here?s the thing: that isn?t the only other offense. Because just two months later, this happened:
Source: Kotaku screenshot
Now in case you?re in need of a little background on this second one, the #WontBeErased campaign was one started in response to a number of policies and intentions put forward by the Trump administration that were harmful to the trans community. You may have some feelings based entirely on that sentence alone, but I ask that you consider this: the campaign was one of human interest, of pursuing the humane. It wasn?t something that needed to or should be used for corporate interests.
Remember what I said about using LGBT identity because it?s profitable? Here?s another example from the same company that will be putting out a game with an ad critical of that ideology in it. It?s another sticking point for people and I absolutely get it. With this context, the message in Cyberpunk seems disingenuous. BUT, again, it isn?t all of the information.
The community manager generally considered to be behind these tweets was let go from CD Projekt Red shortly after the #WontBeErased tweet. He had worked in that position for roughly seven months and soon left Poland to return to his original home in the UK.
Now, I think it?s worth pointing out that the development team actively creating a game and some dude pulling social media work do not overlap in their duties. This guy didn?t have anything to do with the content of Cyberpunk 2077. Does that excuse the entire company? Absolutely not. But neither does it condemn them.
And we?ve got another voice speaking to the intention of the art.
Part 4: The mix up of author and intent.
The idea of separating an author and their work has always been a complex one. In modern ?cancel culture,? it?s an idea that?s being thoroughly explored with the total eradication of a bad author and their products. But it?s been a question for so much longer that now it?s generational. My parents wrestle with enjoying Woody Allen movies the same way I do in still finding Louie to be an entertaining and engaging TV show. Whatever the correct answer is, it isn?t simple.
Source: Control Conference
Pictured at left is Kasia Redesiuk, an art director at CD Projekt Red who is currently working on art assets for Cyberpunk 2077. She is the artist who created the ?mix it up? advertisement that sparked this entire discussion. In an interview with Polygon, Redesiuk claims that her work represents a corporate interest in using people of various demographics as objects to sell products to those demographics. Her intention here essentially confirms the commercialization reading I spoke about earlier as being an inherent part of the Cyberpunk world and therefore and integral part of this video game adaptation of that world.
Let me take that ball and run with it for a bit.
What we see in Cyberpunk 2077, at least what we can discern from the material we have right now, is a world where corporations exploit anyone to make money. And it exists in an era where the trans body, and most likely other bodies as well, aren?t taboo. They aren?t seen as the ?typical? male/female body type, but they are present and numerous enough for callous megacorps to want to appeal to for cold hard dollars (or whatever they decide to call the currency). They are portrayed as their own being, a body type with its own shape and truth.
Is that incorrect? Is it wrong to portray a trans body as a trans body, with all of the physical attributes that can come with that? Again, I?m not the person to make that decision. But I?d like to think it isn?t bullheaded or foolish to see beauty in bodies as what they are and it not be fetishization. Is it fetishistic to find a woman?s legs beautiful? Or a man?s shoulders? Or is that fine because society has normalized the sexualization of those two biological body types? Why then, would it be fetishization to find the model in the advertisement beautiful for their legs? Or their shoulders?
Is it the semi-erect cock that?s the problem here? Because if so, I think that?s a whole other discussion.
This thread over at resetera is growing fast. On the latest page (17, if it matters), there are 33 instances of the word ?problematic.? The discussion portends to wrestle with ways one can portray a problematic society without being problematic, which to me sounds paradoxical. It cannot be inherently problematic to portray a problematic society if your message is one that communicates that nature. To a degree, the onus is on the narrative itself to do that work. But at some point, the reader has to take the idea and finish the play. Every aspect of every idea cannot be spelled out for the reader, or else we begin to exist in our own version of a world without individual thought. Especially when a narrative is as large as Cyberpunk 2077?s will presumably be, being a ?non-linear role-playing game? and all.
What is most astounding about this discussion is that the genuine, unbridled anger seems to come entirely from this incredibly vocal subset of people that are not willing to engage with the piece they?re chomping at the bit to rip apart. Instead, they want to analyze the promotional material that precedes the work. I don?t know how to explain this, but it?s common knowledge one should not judge a movie by its trailer. Otherwise, this would have been an absolute classic and not the cinematic equivalent of watching the Hindenburg go up in flames.
Critical thought is what separates us from other creatures. It?s what makes human beings special. But if you refuse to practice it, you become no different than the beasts we?ve worked so hard to distance ourselves from.
And when that happens? We?re all living in dystopia.
David Cole is an independent writer and mediaslinger from the great state of Kentucky. He believes that games give us the tools to create more impactful and important narratives than ever before. More of his work can be found through his website: davidcole.space.