In the summer of 2018, I signed up for a feminist spinoff of College of Wizardry (CoW, 2014) called Hecatic Academy of Witchcraft (HAW). Since CoW usually aspires towards a gender-neutral setting, I was interested in seeing what a specifically feminist and female-focussed version of the larp and the magic college might look like. How would the concept of magic academia be changed if we were to imagine it as developed mostly by and for women? Would magic itself become something different? What would gendered magic look like? And importantly, would there be room for magic expressions outside of the gender binary?
Hecatic Academy of Witchcraft was the brainchild of Agata Świstak and Marta Szyndler, and it was described as a “world where feminine means strong, powerful and unyielding’ and a “safe haven where witches can study magic without the risk of being burned at the stake.” The spinoff larp was marketed for “women, for non-binary pals, for anyone with a feminine experience, and for men who want to try something new.” College of Wizardry. “Hecatic Academy of Witchcraft”. Facebook video. 22 June 2018. Accessed 31 August 2020.
Having played as a professor at CoW before, I immediately knew that I wanted to teach again at HAW. Especially the new subjects of Moon Magic and Blood Magic sparked creative visions in my head of witches gathering in a circle under the full Moon to celebrate their womanhood. (Since I identify as a queer feminist, a witch and a cis woman, ideas for magic rituals centred on and celebrating female empowerment come easily to me). However, I was aware that I needed to make anything I did accessible to characters and players of all gender expressions and identities – and this honestly seemed quite the challenge. For instance, if Blood Magic or Moon Magic connotes a focus on “the female cycle” and menstruation, how would I include female bodies that don’t menstruate, non-female bodies that do, cis-gendered male bodies and people who might feel dysphoric about the subject? Is it possible to separate menstruation from the notion of a female biology? In general, how do we celebrate female power and magic in any larp setting without simultaneously reproducing binary gender thinking? How do we avoid cis-hexism?
The special feminist run of CoW was eventually cancelled, but it left me with a lot of unresolved speculation about uplifting the stories of women through elements of female power and magic while striving to make room for all players, including trans*In this text, I will use trans* as a signifier for all non-cis people (such as transgender, non-binary or genderfluid people, etc.). In other words, I will use trans* for brevity as a signifier for anyone who identifies (always or sometimes) outside of the gender they were assigned at birth. This is a common practice in writing about trans* experiences that I first came across in Ruska Kevätkoski’s work in the 2016 Solmukohta Book (Kevätkoski, 2016). players and characters. My goal here is not to provide the perfect answers (I don’t have them), but to share my thoughts and hopefully inspire others to gender their magic systems with awareness and intention.
The Social Construction of Binary Gender
Let’s have a quick talk about the gender binary and how our implicit biases about gender might influence larp design. The gender binary is the historical and current notion (particularly in Western culture) that there are two – and only two – distinct and separate genders. Biological sex is often invoked as a reason for upholding the gender binary, with proponents arguing that individual gender expressions spring ‘naturally’ from inherent biology – a view that is sometimes called essentialist. An alternative view (and the one I hold) is that the binary division of gender is a social construct, i.e. a socially constructed and culturally fluent set of expressions and behaviours that are implicitly taught, learned and sustained.See e.g. Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Books, 2011. Originally Le Deuxième Sexe. First ed. 1949; Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge, 1990, Tandon Neeru. Feminism: A Paradigm Shift. Atlantic, 2008. Accessed 23 September 2020. In the following, I will presuppose that gender categories are fluent, malleable and socially constructed – and that it is therefore possible to bend, break and rebuild them in larps and other fictional settings.
It is crucial to understand that just because something is a construct, this does not mean that it doesn’t exist. National borders are a social construct, but they are enforced by laws and sometimes maintained with violent force. Currency is a construct, but the numbers typed on a piece of paper or inside a computer still represent influence and agency in society. The male/female division of colours such as blue and pink or the idea that only women may wear skirts is obviously culturally constructed, but the negative consequences for transgressing outside the expectations of your assigned gender category can be substantial. Even when we resign ourselves to the restrictions of whatever gender category we were assigned at birth, there is still implicitly trained internalised and externalised social policing in place to ensure that we perform“Perform” here not in the sense of “playacting” but meaning to present yourself through a set of implicitly trained and socially acceptable gendered behaviours. whatever behaviours have been designated as sufficiently “feminine” or “masculine” by our culture. This is true for both of the binary gender categories, because although white, straight cis-men are often viewed as a dominant group and as the “norm” (compared to whoever is being “othered” through normative discourse), their potential for self-expression is equally restricted by the rules of the gender binary. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains:
We define masculinity in a very narrow way, masculinity becomes this hard, small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves…
Although the binary categories of “male” and “female” are constructs, they have tangible and material effects on our lives. We live within and around these identities and categories every day. Many people perform their expected gendered behaviours without even thinking twice about it. Our assigned gender roles are implicit and systemic, and therefore they become the norm. Anyone who exists outside of this norm, either because they resist binary thinking, or simply because they don’t fit easily within the two established categories, often risk being shunned, oppressed or overlooked. The consequences of not “fulfilling” your assigned gender role can be harmful. Exclusion from communities or being marked as “other” have very long histories as forms of social punishment intended (consciously or subconsciously) to correct behaviour back towards the culturally normative expectation.See e.g. Munt, Sally R. Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame (p. 32). Ashgate Publishing, 2007.
When we understand the mechanisms behind gendering and othering, and when we recognise the binary gender categories and their associated expressions as constructs, we are better able to anticipate and play with these concepts in larps during world building and in the development of gendered or ungenderedSince the gendering of people, expressions and behaviours is the accepted norm, the decision to omit gender altogether also become a gender-conscious choice. magic systems.
When we create worlds and settings for larps, we are deconstructing and reconstructing reality. Most larps, however abstract (with a few exceptions), still tell the stories of connected or disconnected human beings and their communities. Nothing comes from nothing, and the stories we tell are reflections of the human experience.
When it comes to gender, this means that we might unwittingly be reproducing binary stereotypes. That is why gender awareness matters, and why it is important to make conscious decisions about gender and to include trans* characters and narratives. Because of the historical erasure of trans* narratives, examples of trans* historical figures are not easy to find,Sharma, Ayesha. “Transgender People Are Not Included In Mainstream History.” Everyday Feminism, 2018. Accessed 24 September 2020. and it takes deliberate effort to search them out and include themPreferably without ascribing trans* identities onto historical figures whose personal gender identities can’t be ascertained. or to create fictional historical trans* characters for players to portray.
Likewise, when we create magic systems that celebrate female power (or any gendered magic), we must take care not to conflate magic and biology, thereby insinuating that e.g. femininity and female magic spring from a “female biology”I.e. a female gender assigned at birth based on physical characteristics. rather than from the female cultural experience. If we create a system which states that female magic comes from such a “female biology” (i.e. from having a womb or from something more abstractly female but concretely connected to the physical), we are reproducing the essentialist idea that gender is biological. If gender is a construct, then gendered magic is also a construct. This is true for the actual construction of gendered magic systems when we create them out of game, and that must be true inside the diegetic reality of the larp as well.
The great thing about this is that if gendered magic (such as a female witch’s potential connection to the Moon) is a social construct, then this gendered border within magic can be explored and transgressed just as the boundaries of gender can be explored and transgressed in real life. We can (and should) embrace and empower the female minority exactly because it is a minority“Minority” here not signifying a numerical minority but rather any social group that is subordinate to a dominant group with more power and/or privilege regardless of group size, see e.g. https://www.britannica.com/topic/minority. – but we can do that and also make space for other minorities. We can do it without doing unto others what has been done to women for so long.
Gentlemen Magicians and Wild Witches
There is so much potential for stories about gendered magic, so let me offer an improvised example: Imagine a world historically reminiscent of our own where men go to school and learn magic while women are denied access to both magic and learning. In this world, girls are taught magic in secret by their grandmothers in the woods. Their magic grows wild and intuitive while the boys are taught structured and formulaic spells – both branches of magic equally effective, but each with their restraints and specialities. In this world, the cultural division between boys and girls has created a gender binary. It has also created two separate forms of magic according to gender – not because only two genders exist but because only two genders have been allowed to exist.
Now in this world, there are male magicians who will never learn (or even want to learn) what the wild witches know. But there are some among them who yearn for the magic of the Moon and the forests and who turn out to excel in intuitive magic. There are those who were told they were girls, but who now live as boys to attend classes and surpass their peers in every way. And there are those who can master both branches of the craft and combine them into new kinds of magic.
Of course, several things could happen next within this world when people break the social expectations. I would love to see a story where combined or gender-transverse magic is celebrated to empower trans* characters and where it begins to dissolve the gender binary. Alternatively, backlash, banishments or cover-ups of all non-binary magic could mirror the transphobia, ostracism and the erasure of trans* narratives in the real world. This is where it is especially important to consider the purpose of the gendered player experience you are shaping and to remember your trans* players. While I firmly believe there must be room in larp for people to explore lives and identities outside of their own, and while some trans* people will appreciate seeing cis players struggle with the same institutionalised challenges they face every day, others might find it hard to watch someone else live out their most difficult real life moments.
With no direct experience in larp development, I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have made note of some good advice and best practices: Make it very clear in your scenario description if your gendered magic system will lead to play involving gender discrimination and/or trans* discrimination. Create trans* or ungendered characters to make space for all players interested in playing trans* narratives. Acknowledge the existence of your trans* players in advance. Don’t wait for them to initiate the conversation, but make it clear from the start that you anticipate what you can and are ready to listen.
When it comes to magic in a historical setting, it is interesting to imagine how the two (culturally constructed and segregated, but very real) genders might perform magic differently. But it is not enough simply to declare that there is male and female magic. We need to know why that is and what it entails. Stories of gender segregation have value when they investigate the gender binary in order either to teach us something about the lived experience of all genders at that time and place or to explore and transgress the gender boundaries they establish.
Gender-Neutral Witchards and Agender Fae
At College of Wizardry, it has become custom to call witches and wizards by the universal gender-neutral portmanteau “witchards.” No one seems to recall the exact origin of the word (a reflection of the largely community-sourced gameplay), but the term functions well to support the gender-inclusive tone that the larp aims for. In the player handbook for CoW, there is a passage on equality and inclusivity which reads:
Witchard Society is different though: magical ability can surface in anyone, and that makes everyone equal regardless of their looks, body, sexuality, gender, beliefs or ethnicity […] and genderqueer and transgender individuals are common and wholly accepted.College of Wizardry. Player Handbook. Company P, 2019. Version 3.0, ed. Laura Sirola and Christopher Sandberg. Accessed 23 September 2020.
I imagine this rule stated clearly and directly (and repeated in pre-larp workshops) makes a difference for many players, although I can’t speak for them. I can say that it means a lot to me when portraying a female professor of age and authority, and it matters in the gameplay I have sought to create for other players. At CoW, there are also pronoun badges for players to show clearly whether their characters identify as they/them, she/her or he/him. This enables me to use the right pronouns for the characters I meet (something I very much appreciate), and then promptly ignore their gender because at CoW, gender doesn’t matter – but it matters a great deal that gender explicitly doesn’t matter, because this stands in such clear contrast to the importance implicitly placed on gender in the real world.
The upcoming larp A Harvest DanceA Harvest Dance, set for October 2021. by Lotta Bjick and the team at Poltergeist LARP features another kind of magical creature that has transcended (or rather never had) the need for gender. The site describes: “Fae society is not human and the concept of gender is bewildering and strange to them, therefore all characters will be written and played without gender.” The vision is that all players will portray genderless fae characters and use they/them pronouns about each other at all times. As fae, the participants will be able to play with – or rather completely disregard – gender in fashion and demeanour because the fae are bewildered by the silly human mortals’ constructed gender binary.
Of course, although characters might be written as unbiased or genderless, it doesn’t mean that players are able to enter into the fiction and immediately abandon their subconscious biases. It takes effort, and that effort takes awareness and intention – and even then, we might still slip up. (For instance, in spite of best efforts, I have personally experienced both sexism and sexual harassment at CoW.) But it matters that we get to try, and that we get to enter into a world where concepts such as gender-equality or the total lack of gender is explicitly stated as the norm and the expectation.
The organisers of A Harvest Dance are aware that players bring their trained normative behaviours with them into the event whether they want to or not. The act of using they/them pronouns for everyone around you is a new experience and a social exercise. It is stated clearly on the website that players should avoid gendered pronouns and not use words such as “man” or “woman.” But, the organisers say, “We are aware that this is not what most of us are used to in off-game real life and we might mess up. That is ok!” (A Harvest Dance).
Although our ingrown biases are hard to shed, larps give us the option to try. The trying is important in itself because it shows us that the established social norms of the real world are transmutable and replaceable constructs and are not the only ways to exist and interact. Even when we try and fail, we learn something about ourselves and the pervasive condition of our subconscious preconceptions. Through the narrative device of magic (and the actual magic of larping), we are able to construct, inhabit and investigate alternate realities that can show us a glimpse of what a truly unbiased community might look like, or experience what a genderless society feels like. The creators of A Harvest Dance say that they “are excited to see what characters we all can create together without the boundaries of gender!” And so am I.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least attempt to include a discussion on magic and menstruation. After all, it was the notion of Moon Magic and Blood Magic as magic school subjects that set my thoughts in motion exactly because they made me think of menstruation rituals and the potential for accidental gender-based exclusion. Menstruation is historically and implicitly connected to womanhood, but it is not something all women experience, and it is not something only women experience.
Menstruation is connected to womanhood because it has historically been associated with the physical characteristics ascribed to ‘female biology’. Not only that, but menstruation has been marked as something unclean or impure by the patriarchy and is still abused as a reason to subjugate and disfranchise the female minority and keep women subdued.UNFPA. “Menstruation and Human Rights.” UNFPA, 2020. Accessed September 27, 2020. Women have been called hysterical (from the Greek “hystera,” meaning womb or uterus), and the menstrual cycle is continually cited as a reason why women should not hold positions of power.See e.g. Robbins, Mel. “Hillary Clinton and the clueless hormone argument.” CNN, 2015. Accessed 24 September 2020. In some cultures and traditions, women are kept separate from their communities during menstruation, and they must undergo cleansing rituals before re-entering society. The loss of dignity and agency that women face through the stigma of menstruation is exactly why it is an important act of resistance for women to celebrate it. Menstruation celebrations and rituals can and should be used as a tool to empower the female minority and break this age-old taboo.
However, as I said above, not all women menstruate, and not only women menstruate. Some women are post-menopausal, some have medical conditions that disrupt or prevent menstruation, some have reasons and medical means to opt out, and some women don’t have a uterus. Some trans* people menstruate but do not identify as women, including a number of men. And some people are dysphoric about their menstruation (or lack thereof) because it doesn’t correspond with the (socially constructed) physical expectations of their gender identity. So how do we celebrate menstruation through magic without risking the exclusion of bodies that don’t fit neatly into binary gender categories?
I’m sad to say I don’t have the answer. To be honest, I thought about not including this segment at all because I have more questions than answers. But in the end, I believe the question merits being asked. My ultimate intention is not to provide a ready-made solution but to inspire further contemplation in others. Two brains are smarter than one, and larps are the perfect playgrounds to ask the “what ifs” together and experiment with subversions of social norms. But I do have one final thought to share on the matter.
While womanhood and menstruation are historically related issues, they are not actually the same thing. When we look beyond the conflation that patriarchal history has made of women and menstruation, we see that the connection is yet another social construct. Some bodies menstruate. Some of these bodies belong to people who identify as women. Some of them do not. Menstruation is a thing that some bodies do – not a thing that just women do. So maybe it’s possible to separate the two.
Perhaps in the right story and the right setting, rituals celebrating menstruation could be something different and apart from rituals celebrating womanhood. The great thing about magical world-building is that we are not limited by mundane maxims. We are free to imagine and inhabit alternate realities that are partially or wholly different from our own. We can create worlds where menstruation is celebrated in all bodies regardless of gender, or where menstruation talk is commonplace and not taboo, or where menstruation represents something else altogether.
As I said, there is good reason to celebrate menstruation specifically in order to re-empower a female minority that has been disfranchised directly through menstruation stigma. That can and should be done in larps that focus on the gender binary and the concomitant limits it places on everyone – larps that hopefully also consider the injustices done towards trans* people through the same social system.
The Power of Gendered Magic
Whether you believe in magic or not, gendered magic will always be a social construct because gender is a social construct. When we create worlds and social settings for larps, we are either reconstructing or deconstructing the gender binary. Once we realise that genders are social categories that have been culturally constructed over time, it becomes easier to reframe and reimagine them, which we can then do with intention and awareness of the ramifications it will have for players and characters of all genders, including trans* players and characters. We should not accept an implicitly essentialist approach to gender simply because it is the norm of the real world.
Larping – and especially larping in fantastical settings – gives us the power to decide to try something new, or to question the status quo by reproducing it for the purpose of closer scrutiny. We get to imagine worlds not only where “feminine means strong,”College of Wizardry. “Hecatic Academy of Witchcraft.” Facebook video. 22 June 2018. Accessed 31 August 2020. but where masculine means being sensitive to the needs of others and expressive about your emotions. We get to break the cages and the restrictions placed on all of us through the binary construct of gender. Whatever choice we make about gender categories in our world-building and magic systems, it should be done with intention and for good reason because it has the power to change someone’s frame of mind.
Gendered magic has the power not just to include but to uplift gender minorities. With Hecatic Academy of Witchcraft, the idea was to reframe and celebrate women and female magic in exact opposition to the historical persecution of female witches.Even though men were also persecuted for witchcraft, and although there are examples of countries where more men than women were executed, women were the main target of witch-hunts and executions in Europe and Scandinavia. (Guillou, Jan. Heksenes forsvarere: en historisk reportage. Modtryk, 2012. Orinally Häxornas försvarere – ett historiskt reportage. First ed. 2002). At A Harvest Dance, there will be an absence of gender, which is in itself a gender-aware choice and a social construction, and it will probably teach the participants something about their own perspective on and relation to gender. In my own example above about boys schooled in magic and girls learning magic in secret (where gender segregation has resulted in two different types of magic), we can imagine how characters that are able to combine the two gendered forms of magic might become revered for the very fact that they see through and transgress the implicitly binary system.
In larps, we get to do the telling – but narrative power also means responsibility. When it comes to creating space for trans* narratives in larp, cis people still hold the most power. By stepping up and making sure to include trans* characters in our stories, and by asking the right questions when we create gendered worlds and gendered magic systems, we begin to counteract historic and current trans* erasure. When we create realistic or historically inspired settings, we need to work towards including those stories that are too often erased, overlooked and forgotten. When we write alternate, fantastical and imaginary worlds and settings, we are free to reimagine gender, or its absence, for everyone.
Although I don’t have all the answers, I hope that sharing my thoughts and speculations on this issue might have inspired some further play with gender, magic and gendered magic in larps. There are already a number of larps with rich explorative ideas about gender (e.g. Brudpris, Sigridsdotter and Mellan himmel och hav), and I hope to see even more larps in the future with a deliberate focus on gender in their world-building in order either to investigate or remedy the gendered injustices of the real world. I especially dream of more larps where gendered magic – or the explicit absence of gender in magic – is applied as an allegorical device to illustrate and illuminate the fundamentally constructed condition of the binary gender categories of the real world in order to uplift and celebrate gender minorities. To me, this would be true magic.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “We Should All Be Feminists.” TEDxEuston, 2012. Accessed 16 October 2020.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Books, 2011. (Org. “Le Deuxième Sexe”. First ed. 1949.)
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge, 1990.
College of Wizardry. “Hecatic Academy of Witchcraft.” Facebook video. 22 June 2018. Accessed 31 August 2020.
College of Wizardry. Player Handbook. Company P, 2019 (version 3.0, ed. Laura Sirola and Christopher Sandberg). Accessed 23 September 2020.
Guillou, Jan. Heksenes forsvarere: en historisk reportage. Modtryk, 2012. (Org. Häxornas försvarere – ett historiskt reportage. First ed. 2002).
Kevätkoski, Ruska (formerly N. Koski). “Not a Real Man?” Ropecon ry, 2016. Accessed 30 August 2020.
Munt, Sally R. Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame (p. 32). Ashgate Publishing, 2007.
Robbins, Mel. “Hillary Clinton and the Clueless Hormone Argument.” CNN, 2015. Accessed 24 September 2020.
Sharma, Ayesha. “Transgender People Are Not Included In Mainstream History.” Everyday Feminism, 2018. Accessed 24 September 2020.
Tandon Neeru. Feminism: A Paradigm Shift. Atlantic, 2008. Accessed 23 September 2020.
UNFPA. “Menstruation and Human Rights.” UNFPA, 2020. Accessed September 27, 2020.
Cover photo: Image by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay.
This article will be published in the upcoming companion book Book of Magic and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:
Møller, Marie. “Gendered Magic.” In Book of Magic, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021. (In press).
|↑1||College of Wizardry. “Hecatic Academy of Witchcraft”. Facebook video. 22 June 2018. Accessed 31 August 2020.|
|↑2||In this text, I will use trans* as a signifier for all non-cis people (such as transgender, non-binary or genderfluid people, etc.). In other words, I will use trans* for brevity as a signifier for anyone who identifies (always or sometimes) outside of the gender they were assigned at birth. This is a common practice in writing about trans* experiences that I first came across in Ruska Kevätkoski’s work in the 2016 Solmukohta Book (Kevätkoski, 2016).|
|↑3||See e.g. Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Books, 2011. Originally Le Deuxième Sexe. First ed. 1949; Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge, 1990, Tandon Neeru. Feminism: A Paradigm Shift. Atlantic, 2008. Accessed 23 September 2020.|
|↑4||“Perform” here not in the sense of “playacting” but meaning to present yourself through a set of implicitly trained and socially acceptable gendered behaviours.|
|↑5||See e.g. Munt, Sally R. Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame (p. 32). Ashgate Publishing, 2007.|
|↑6||Since the gendering of people, expressions and behaviours is the accepted norm, the decision to omit gender altogether also become a gender-conscious choice.|
|↑7||Sharma, Ayesha. “Transgender People Are Not Included In Mainstream History.” Everyday Feminism, 2018. Accessed 24 September 2020.|
|↑8||Preferably without ascribing trans* identities onto historical figures whose personal gender identities can’t be ascertained.|
|↑9||I.e. a female gender assigned at birth based on physical characteristics.|
|↑10||“Minority” here not signifying a numerical minority but rather any social group that is subordinate to a dominant group with more power and/or privilege regardless of group size, see e.g. https://www.britannica.com/topic/minority.|
|↑11||College of Wizardry. Player Handbook. Company P, 2019. Version 3.0, ed. Laura Sirola and Christopher Sandberg. Accessed 23 September 2020.|
|↑12||A Harvest Dance, set for October 2021.|
|↑13||UNFPA. “Menstruation and Human Rights.” UNFPA, 2020. Accessed September 27, 2020|
|↑14||See e.g. Robbins, Mel. “Hillary Clinton and the clueless hormone argument.” CNN, 2015. Accessed 24 September 2020.|
|↑15||College of Wizardry. “Hecatic Academy of Witchcraft.” Facebook video. 22 June 2018. Accessed 31 August 2020.|
|↑16||Even though men were also persecuted for witchcraft, and although there are examples of countries where more men than women were executed, women were the main target of witch-hunts and executions in Europe and Scandinavia. (Guillou, Jan. Heksenes forsvarere: en historisk reportage. Modtryk, 2012. Orinally Häxornas försvarere – ett historiskt reportage. First ed. 2002).|