This paper was written and submitted as a final for my CST 424: Gender and Communication class at Northern Arizona University on May 11th, 2018.
Featured Photo was found on Reddit by user memorizemee
Gender, Presentation, and Communication in The Adventure Zone
In August 2014, the McElroy brothers, Justin, Travis, and Griffin, and their father Clint embarked on a podcast journey of a Dungeons and Dragons game, entitled The Adventure Zone. The podcast follows the journey of three player characters: human fighter Magnus Burnsides (played by Travis McElroy), dwarven cleric Merle Highchurch (played by Clint McElroy), and elven wizard Taako Tacco (played by Justin McElroy). The plot focuses on the recovery of the Grand Relics which threaten the peace of their world. There are eight major campaign arcs in The Adventure Zone: “Here There Be Gerblins,” “Murder on the Rockport Limited,” “Petals to the Metal,” “Crystal Kingdom,” “The Eleventh Hour,” “The Suffering Game,” “The Stolen Century,” and “Story and Song.” An important factor is the identity of the four McElroys: cisgender, white, straight, masculine-identifying and -presenting.
The podcast, while recorded and later released to the audience, is a communication of ideas of gender and presentation; the McElroys play the three characters, who are interpreted by the audience, and the audience creates creative works in response, such as fan art, comics, cosplay, and more. In this paper, I will be focusing on how the player characters Taako, Magnus, and Merle are presented in differently gendered ways across the span of The Adventure Zone and how theories of gender presentation and communication apply and do not apply to the three characters.
Taako Tacco is an elven, masculine-identifying wizard played by Justin McElroy. He specializes in the magical field of transmutation. Taako, while masculine-identifying, challenges social norms of masculine-coded presentation. He often chooses more feminine-coded clothing, behaviors, and patterns of speech. One example of this is in the “The Eleventh Hour,” which is the fifth arc of The Adventure Zone.
The campaign arc “The Eleventh Hour” takes place in Refuge, a desert city. In preparation for this, Merle, Magnus, and Taako decide to switch outfits into more summer-y and warm-weather-suitable clothing. For example, Travis chose cargo shorts for Magnus, while Justin decided that Taako would definitely be wearing a skirt:
Justin: And – please don’t trip, I’m wearing a skirt. Don’t even bug on that, of course I’m wearing a skirt.
Clint: A kilt!
Griffin: Like a man-kilt?
Justin: No, like a skirt, but like a magical one.
Griffin: Oh, okay. (McElroy et al., 2016)
At first, Griffin and Clint respond humorously to Justin’s decision; it isn’t a decision expected to be made by any of the players, as all four McElroys are straight, cisgender, white males, expected by society to uphold hegemonic masculinity.
In Galliano’s chapter “Theory of Gender”, they discuss various theories of gender like feminist psychoanalytic reinterpretations and gender-in-context theory. For the psychoanalyst reinterpretations, Galliano brings up points made by Chodorow in 1978: in order to be masculine, boys must reject anything that is feminine, as it would detract from their masculinity (Galliano, 2015). However, this theory doesn’t seem to apply to Taako. Instead, Taako finds that his use of “femininity” in his self presentation doesn’t detract from his masculinity. He just finds himself more comfortable and fashionable in a skirt as opposed to shorts. Instead, the Gender-In-Context theory might be more applicable to Taako’s gender presentation, as there are the various intersections of his identity that may be affecting how he presents his gender and how it is received: being gay, elven, a twin, a sibling to a trans woman, potentially physically and sexually abused by an old colleague, and more. Based on this theory, Taako’s gender could be based upon the interactions and communication he has with others, such as interpretation of the act of choosing a skirt over shorts as feminine, but presentation of it as simply convenient and fashionable, rather than inherently gendered.
In chapter two of Gendered Lives, “Theoretical Approaches to Gender Development,” Wood discusses Queer Performative Theory, which can also apply to how Taako presents himself and communicates with others in the realm of The Adventure Zone. Taako in general is a queer individual; he is gay and also embodies feminine traits as a masculine identifying individual. Queer theory in general critiques what is “normal” and “abnormal”, and performance theory claims that gender identity is performative, both individually and collaboratively (Wood, 2015). Thus, queer performative theory is a view of queer performance “as means of challenging and destabilizing cultural categories and the values attached to them” (Wood 2015). With this in mind, both Justin and Taako challenge those they communicate with to evaluate what they see as “normal” or “abnormal” by presenting a masculine identity integrated with performance and aspects of feminine identity. Justin pushes his family to reconsider their response to a man wearing a skirt, in the quote above, and accept that a man can wear a skirt and not just a kilt; Taako pushes Merle and Magnus to consider how they define masculinity, even in a previous arc ranting about having emotions, being multidimensional, and being allowed to express them (McElroys et al, 2015).
Thus, in The Adventure Zone, Taako challenges how people see and interpret interactions with gender. Characters in the realm of fiction in the podcast are challenged to reconsider their interpretations of what is masculine and feminine due to their experiences with Taako. The McElroys as players are also forced to change how they communicate with each other in person and as players in character. Justin is a masculine-presenting man, yet changes how he communicates with others when he is playing as Taako, a more androgynous-presenting man. Listeners of the podcast are challenged to reconsider how they interpret gender based on the communication from the McElroys to them via the podcast, especially since the communication is purely audio in the form of narrative storytelling and dialogue.
Magnus Burnsides is a human man whose role in the trio is the fighter. He is played by Travis McElroy, and is seen as a “typical masculine” character. Magnus is often described as physically tough, imposing, and capable. He starts off in the podcast as believing that he has to perform according to hegemonic masculinity, However, we see development for Magnus as The Adventure Zone progresses, as Magnus becomes more comfortable with feminine-coded behaviors, such as showing emotions other than anger and asking for help.
In the one of the final episodes, “Ep. 68. Story and Song – Finale, Part Two,” Magnus has to fight a shadow-version of the Royal Bear, who taught him what true strength is. In this fight, Magnus experiences a flashback to his original encounter with the Royal Bear. The Royal Bear asks Magnus what he thinks strength is. The Royal Bear questions Magnus’s responses, which all reflect physical strength:
Royal Bear: You’re telling me what it is to be strong, that’s not what strength is. Why do you want to be strong, Magnus?
Magnus: So I don’t have to lose—anyone.
Griffin: He says,
Royal Bear: You want to protect your friends, is that right?
Magnus: They’re not strong enough. I have to be.
Royal Bear: Strength is a tool, Magnus, it’s a commodity. You can spend it, and spend it, but everyone’s got some, and lots of folks are gonna have more than you. But if you ask for it, Magnus, other folks’ strength can become your own. That is what strength is, Magnus. Who gives you strength, how willing are you to ask for it? Pride and glory are the enemies of true strength, Magnus.
But you keep friends nearby. And you ask for help when you need it, Magnus, and you won’t just be strong. You’ll be unbeatable. (McElroy et al, 2017)
Magnus’s initial responses of physical capability equating to true strength mirror ideologies upheld by hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity relates the male body to power, as “power itself is masculinized as physical strength, force, speed, control, toughness, and determination” (Trujillo, 1991). A man should have control over any situation, whether it requires physical strength or mental strength. Magnus wants to be physically strong enough so that he can control situations and protect his friends, and imposes the upholding of hegemonic masculinity upon himself. This is also reinforced by Magnus’s behaviors to control situations through the duration of The Adventure Zone, such as intimidating others into cooperation, “rushing in” for battle and investigation, and more. As well, having control over a situation like hegemonic masculinity praises also would require a man to be independent and unneeding of others’ help. Asking for help would imply that the person doesn’t have control over a situation, and thus wouldn’t be upholding hegemonic masculinity. As Magnus’s behaviors reflect this, so would his mindset and choices; he doesn’t want to ask for help, nor does he think that asking for help would be a definition of strength.
Similarly, Magnus’s actions and behavior also reflect the stereotype of the Sturdy Oak, discussed by Wood in chapter 10 of Gendered Lives. The Sturdy Oak is “a self-sufficient pillar of strength who is never weak or reliant on others” (Wood, 2015). Magnus, as shown in the quote from episode 68, doesn’t want to rely on others, instead being the one whom others rely on. He feels pressured to be the strongest and the most capable, as he worries that the others aren’t strong enough to protect themselves at all times. However, this mentality can lead many men, such as Magnus, on a path of ultimate self-destruction, as they focus only on helping others and never on allowing themselves to receive help that they need. In this scene, though, Magnus learns that strength is also having the capability to ask others for help when you need it. After all, as the Royal Bear states, if you have the help of others, you’ll be unbeatable. Thus, Magnus breaks out of the stereotype that he has been placed in by others and himself; he undergoes major character development both in the flashback and in the present battle of the scene by asking for help. Even though it isn’t traditionally seen as “masculine” to show vulnerability by asking for help, it’s necessary to progress, such as in winning a battle against an enemy stronger than yourself.
In comparing these two theories of masculine presentation, both are rather similar and accurate in summarizing Magnus’s behaviors and presentation of masculinity. However, what these two concepts don’t encapsulate about Magnus is his development through the podcast; he eventually loosens his grip on hegemonic masculinity and the Sturdy Oak. He allows himself to ask for help and to also express his emotions, which are considered to be more “feminine” behaviors by hegemonic masculinity and stereotyped presentations of masculinity. As well, Travis develops as a player, as he realizes that he doesn’t need to perform hegemonic masculinity through his character for Magnus to be perceived as masculine. The communication about gender between Travis and Magnus improves throughout The Adventure Zone, allowing Travis to mold Magnus into a more realistic and multidimensional character, rather than leaving him as a flat stereotype of masculinity.
Merle Highchuch is a dwarven man, fulfilling the role of a cleric, played by Clint McElroy. The oldest of the three, both character and player, his presentation of masculinity would typically be expected to be the most social-norm-conforming. However, this isn’t the case. In The Adventure Zone, Merle’s communications and interactions with others convey a rather gender-neutral presentation. His overall vibe as a character is very relaxed and insightful, and chooses to fight by calling for assistance from his patron deity, Pan. This passivity is typically seen as a feminine trait, however, the rationality and authority he holds as a cleric is also deemed as a masculine trait.
In “The Stolen Century,” Merle is the sole communicator with John, the physical embodiment of the Hunger and the primary antagonist of the podcast. Despite being constantly killed in their mediation space by John, Merle continues to spend multiple, consecutive years of the Stolen Century talking with John to get information about the Hunger with the one question he gets per year. Eventually, Merle asks John, “Are you my friend?” and John responds by saying that friendship requires someone to bring you joy, then asking Merle what brings him joy:
Merle: What brings me joy is… life. I think you can find joy anywhere in life, I think it’s a conscious choice. I think you – you choose joy in life. And no matter how bad things are, no matter how crummy, no matter how dark, no matter how many times some guy named John kills your ass–
Griffin: He chuckles.
Merle: –you find joy. I’ve found joy, honest to God getting to know you. I’ve found joy playing chess with you. I have enjoyed–I haven’t enjoyed you know, getting my ass killed, but I find joy in whatever I do. I don’t always do things right, and I don’t always do things smart, and I don’t always do a character voice, [Griffin laughs] but whatever I do, I find joy in it. Because at the end of the day, that’s all you got. It’s looking back on the joy you had, and the joy you found, and the joy you gave other people. (McElroy et al, 2017)
Even in the very last episode, the last interaction that Merle and John have is like two old friends catching up, asking how the past decade had been. John even risks his life to give Merle advice on how to kill the Hunger that had been consuming John for at least a century (McElroy et al, 2017).
What Merle showcases in his interactions with John is a different presentation of his masculine identity than what society treats as “normal masculinity.” He has implicit control of a situation through gendered communication and friendship, unlike hegemonic masculinity described as “the connecting of masculinity to toughness and competitiveness” and “physical force and control” (Trujillo, 1991). Rather than physically fight to gain control, Merle chooses the passive path and uses rationality and verbal communication; often, society sees the use of passivity as a feminine trait, and yet also rationality as a masculine trait.
In his interactions with John, Merle is generally restricted to verbal communication, as John has the ability to kill him instantly in every meeting. Wood, in chapter 5 of Gendered Lives, discusses the differences in gender-coded communication. Masculine communication is described as “a way to accomplish concrete goals, exert control, preserve independence, entertain, and enhance status” (Wood, 2015, p.114). Feminine communication, on the other hand, is described as “a primary way to establish and maintain relationships with others” (Wood, 2015, p. 113). However, in his talks with John, Merle uses aspects of both feminine and masculine practices of communication. While his original goal was to gather information on the Hunger, eventually Merle feels that his relationship has progressed from just strangers to friends, as suggested by his question in episode 63. Merle has been actively participating in both feminine and masculine communication in his talks with John, even if it hasn’t been intentional; while gathering information on the Hunger, Merle has also been gathering information on John and providing information about himself, thus fostering a connection of understanding and closeness between the two.
As well, Clint McElroy also had been effectively utilizing both masculine and feminine communication practices both in character as Merle and as a player with his three sons. Despite the communication in a roleplaying tabletop game inherently being coded as masculine due to its purpose for receiving and sending information to complete a task, Clint puts in extra effort to make jokes, ask personal questions, and laugh with his sons as a way to foster the connection he has with Justin, Travis, and Griffin. In playing Dungeons and Dragons, Clint is embracing both masculine and feminine traits in his style of communication in the game, just as Merle does in The Adventure Zone.
Those Boys in the World
The three player characters in The Adventure Zone all present masculinity in different ways. Taako presents his gender variably in terms of situational context, Magnus expands his presentation to go beyond just hegemonic masculinity and the Sturdy Oak stereotype, and Merle embraces both feminine and masculine traits in his verbal communication. The variety in masculine presentations in The Adventure Zone communicates to the podcast’s audience that there are multiple, equally valid ways to identify and present as masculine, contrary to what society enforces through representations of masculinity in popular media.
The audience of The Adventure Zone has majoritively responded positively to these presentations of masculinity. Fan-made media of the three player characters have been reflective of the McElroys’ portrayals. Cosplays of Taako often include skirts, dresses, and other “feminine” styles of clothing, similar to what Taako chose to wear in “The Eleventh Hour” and, presumably, other arcs as well. Fan-made comics about Magnus embrace his sensitivities to beautiful music and cute things just as often as they embrace his strength, dexterity, and athletic capabilities. Fan-made texts and stories include Merle’s mixed-gender style of communication.
In terms of these theories, The Adventure Zone becomes even more complex and personally affecting than just an entertaining podcast to listen to. Just like all other media, it informs the audience about gender, communication, and presentation. It embraces the changes that the characters and the McElroys experience in terms of their own gender presentations and communication styles. For some, the satisfaction gained from listening to The Adventure Zone is topical, derived mainly from the development of plot that can be gained from many media texts. For others and myself, it includes the satisfaction of a developed plot, as well as the knowledge that these four men are communicating to others that there are different ways to present masculinity. Their contribution in media representation of gender presentation creates a space for intersectional media authors to contribute as well. Those authors can continue to expand on the socially understood notions of gender, identity, and presentation, and then provide that knowledge to audiences. Those audiences will then share these texts with others, engaging in conversations about gender in those texts, much like this essay, allowing the communication about gender to continue and inspire the next generations of authors, educators, and communicators to be more inclusive and thoughtful of gender, presentation, and communication.
Galliano, G. (2003). Ch. 3, “Theories of Gender: On Fallacies and ‘Phallocies’,” pp.44-62. Gender: Crossing Boundaries. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
McElroy, C., McElroy J., McElroy G., & McElroy T. (2015, September 10). “Ep. 23. Petals to the Metal – Chapter Six.” The Adventure Zone. Podcast retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/adventure-zone.
McElroy, C., McElroy J., McElroy G., & McElroy T. (2016, June 2). “Ep. 41. The Eleventh Hour – Chapter One.” The Adventure Zone. Podcast retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/adventure-zone.
McElroy, C., McElroy J., McElroy G., & McElroy T. (2017, May 18). “Ep. 63. The Stolen Century – Chapter Four.” The Adventure Zone. Podcast retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/adventure-zone.
McElroy, C., McElroy J., McElroy G., & McElroy T. (2017, August 1). “Ep. 68. Story and Song – Finale, Part Two.” The Adventure Zone. Podcast retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/adventure-zone.
McElroy, C., McElroy J., McElroy G., & McElroy T. (2017, August 17). “Ep. 69. Story and Song – Finale, Part Three.” The Adventure Zone. Podcast retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/adventure-zone.
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Wood, J. (2015). Ch. 5, “Gendered Verbal Communication,” pp. 102-122. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, & Culture (11th ed.). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.
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