Most of my exposure to Nordic larp goodness comes from attending Knutepunkt, and Mad about the Boy (MatB) is no exception. I remember a presentation in 2011, and a quick chat with Trine Lise Lindahl (one of the authors) in the KP cafeteria, telling her how cool this stuff was, and something like «yeah, I’d like to play it, but I may have to organize it, and in my local crowd it would be tough». Fast forward two years, I’m checking my lip gloss in the mirror of a Swedish toilet while re-adjusting my skirt.
The game in a nutshell
Mad about the Boy is a larp inspired by the comic Y: The Last Man, set in a near future where all human beings with a Y chromosome died on the same day. After the initial shock of the catastrophe (a lot of women died too, e.g. as victims of or passengers on the many men-piloted vehicles), women re-organized and, in this Nordic adaptation, the government managed to preserve sperm banks. It sets up an insemination program led by a Committee who will select who would be the most appropriate women to receive sperm, and to form novel 3-person family units, potentially re-starting humanity. The game runs in two acts, the first is mostly about the selection program, doing tests and interviews and meeting the other participants, and ends with the arrival of the scared, naked and lost last man on Earth. The second act deals with the women’s reaction and what to do with the program, the man etc. One of the game’s original traits is that, while all characters are women, the game can be played either by all-female players, or as a mixed gender run, with male players dressed as women. This is the run I joined.
A roleplaying challenge
I have tried many larp characters: airship and Viper pilots, vampires, hobgoblins, demons, princes, the-bad-conscience-of-a-lover-hiding-in-a-closet… but never a woman. Therefore my first draw to the game was the roleplaying challenge. Could I play a decent woman? My past experiences with playing female characters as a teen tabletopper hadn’t been that convincing: it often ended up somewhere in the Xena:Warrior Princess – Lara Croft – Jessica Rabbit spectrum. Not being particularly interested in breeding, I didn’t think I could portray passionnate motherhood, so I asked for a character who was not that interested in becoming a biological mother, or at least someone who wouldn’t have to make strong passionate speeches about motherhood. The second challenge was more practical: could I physically impersonate a woman without making a fool of myself, surrounded by female players? The organizers were pretty clear this was not going to be a drag queen show, so the looks had to be believable. So quite different from that crazy Halloween party ten years ago in San Francisco, i.e. last time I dressed as woman.
The physical prep challenge
This was probably the strangest larp preparation I’ve ever done. I asked for makeup tips from my crafting partner in crime and after an evening of trying on various products with her, I had a basic makeup kit in hand and some ideas of what to do. But I really wasn’t comfortable with techniques that just take years to master. Due to a very busy summer chedule, I had to do some of the shopping online, and discovered the wonderful and sad world of transvestive websites. The rest was finalized in single afternoon of shopping in my neighborhood. I wrote the following at the time on a social network:
Conclusions from a few hours of cross-gender shopping for larp:
– it must suck to be 1.9o meter tall woman these days
– apparently not many people are a size 34, so why does H&M make so much of it?
– both shop attendants selling wigs seemed dead sure I was a transvestite. As in, they did not the give me the “WTF?!” look that hardware store employees give me when I buy chain or other metal bits for its looks. They gave me the “motherly wink-wink I know what you’re into” look.
– as an unaccompanied man, picking clothes at the female level of a department store in your own neighborhood where most of your colleagues shop is a bit stressful
– going to the dressing rooms on said female level, seeing a huge line, is even more stressful
– going to the men’s level dressing room with your female clothes is not only faster (smaller line) but makes much more sense. Still feels weird, but feels less like you’re trespassing.
– glad I’ll be playing an old-school woman, because anything that was a bit cool and nice did not exactly accommodate my shoulders. And for a 1m90 dude, I have like no shoulders or back muscles.
– next time I must do this with a female friend
– next time I must plan this more in advance. Same as every larp shopping basically.
– why am I talking about a “next time” ?
I originally had a very classy businesswoman look in mind, but made do with what I found. The final bits were accessorizing, like buying a female watch in an airport shop during a business trip and refusing the gift wrap. I did not feel comfortable enough to say «no, it’s for me» though. And travelling to the game with a suitcase full of female clothes, silicone boobs and hip prosthetics just made me pray that they wouldn’t lose the luggage.
Nordic stuff: gender issues!
The first days of the larp featured pre-game workshops, a significant part of which consisted in training men to walk, sit etc as women. Talking with female players, sometimes months after the game, several were a bit pissed off that mostly stereotypical female behaviors were used during the workshops. I see this as a necessary evil: given the limited time, shortcuts and simplifications had to be made. Would have it been better with more time allocated, or if the training had been designed to be more subtle? Probably. But another point of criticism was that the male-to-female workshops took a lot of prep time, and were of limited value for the female players. Valid point indeed, but as a male player these practice sessions were an absolute necessity and one of the main reasons I signed up for the game: I needed the time, advice and out-of-character validation before game start to feel comfortable playing a woman. So maybe splitting the genders into separate groups at some point may be useful.
Overall, their criticism was that while this game was in theory an all-female character game, it was really a lot about men. In game, it was about men in general, reminiscing about them, then about the last man once he arrived. Out-of-game preparation was also a lot about men, asking players to mention an important man in their life during the introduction round, guided meditation on losing the men in their daily lives, a mood video playing at the beginning/end of the acts showing photos of men… and as said hours were spent on teaching men to move or communicate like women. So while there was a lot about motherhood, it seems «men» were at least as much of a topic as «babies». I am really curious to see how this was felt by players of the all-female run, who did not have to spend time on the trans workshops, and didn’t have to worry about giving male players time for shaving and makeup.
Nordic stuff: larp design
The following elements are coming to France and Switzerland too, but this was the first time I experienced so many in a single game. I didn’t use a lot of meta-techniques, just a few very short inner monologues to let the other player know what my character really thought. As she lied a lot during the motherhood selection interviews with Committee members, this was quite useful.
The black box is an off-game room where players can get out of character and plan to play flashbacks, flashforwards etc, and they can also play different characters for these scenes. It therefore offers both character development outside of the normal in-game time frame and a break. The one black box session was a very welcome pause for me, both as a break from the character, from my slow game at the time and from the physical constraints of moving as a woman (muscles did hurt). A limitation to me was costuming: in a no-costume larp, it’s easy to just make everything up, play a different character in someone else’s scene etc. But MatB was pretty much 360° illusion (WYSIWYG), so the black box felt a bit weird at first when I was trying to play a tough soldier while dressed like a bourgeois heiress.
Pre-game workshops were a great way to build common anecdotes, a common past for what were sometimes old family units. I knew this in theory, but the practice was great, both fun and useful. Nothing beats roleplaying past Xmas dinners when you want to build a feeling of family, and playing NPCs in other people’s past scenes was a great general roleplaying warmup. I made up a past lover during workshops, then when I dropped his name during storytelling time the players of my family unit could make knowing smiles because they immediately knew who I was talking about, just like any real life partner would. I reused some of these workshops for my latest game, Afroasiatik, but unfortunately not the “past moments” ones due to lack of time. Will definitely remedy that in the future.
Apart from the post-game gender criticism above, the two most Nordic things for me were transparency (see below), and the overall duration of the experience. The in-game/out-of-game time ratio is much less than in my usual games, and a lot of time was taken for briefing, debriefing, deroling etc. The after party was much longer than in any «continental European» game I’ve been to: we very often rush in and out of larps without talking about them or meeting the real people behind the characters. In MatB, taking that out of character time overall felt really nice, made both for a relaxing vacation and smoother ride in and out of the game.
Looking back, I didn’t really respect what I had initially in mind for Kristin, my character. First I have no clue how to make a believable Swedish fishery owner, so I just went with old money, high maintenance woman stereotypes. I would have liked to channel more the strong businesswomen leaders that I know, but for some reason felt more comfortable in the bitchy and proud stereotype. One of the reasons was that when the player of one of my life partners really took charge, I just felt comfortable letting her take the lead. This was really me, the player letting go, I think in theory my character should have been more pro-active and less “trophy wife”.
The «wanting a baby» aspect played on many levels as my character only wanted to be a mother to transmit the family business. So I was pretending to want a baby as a player (because I do not want children now) as part of my character and that character was pretending to want a baby for “good” reasons (while she only wanted one for inheritance reasons).
From the looks point of view, I was also playing a rather stereotypical high-maintenance woman. Transformation was interesting, as I never had the time to fully do it at home before the game. I knew I didn’t want to tweeze eyebrows too much due to work, so was a bit concerned about ending up looking too masculine. I removed arm and leg hair with cream, which did not hurt but took ages and was rather messy. I used Dermacolor, the same brand of sweatproof makeup I use for my hobgoblin, but still had to use a lot to cover my facial hair, making my face a bit orange -which actually worked for my character (fake tan etc). When I was first dressed up, brushing my wig in the mirror, I got very strange looks from female players, and a few WTF comments as they did not recognize me from the workshops. This started to feel like it was working.
Josefin, one of the players, then worked wonders with her skills and makeup kit and completely hacked my face. The results were so good they were scary, and I had to stare at myself several times in the mirror to believe my eyes. There was someone else in there, you could obviously still recognize my facial features but the quality of her makeup made the experience really eerie.
The physicality of walking and sitting in a straight skirt, remembering how to stand and talk was both fascinating and taxing. It was distracting from immersion in a way, and at the same time making me feel the character like I’ve never done before. My muscles were not used to holding my body in this way, my joints ached from sitting with my legs crossed tights etc. I just felt like slouching on my chair, legs spreads as usual, but tried not to.
Having to do makeup checks because I left gloss all over my coffee cup, adjusting boobs prostheses or brushing the wig several times a day also gave a different meaning to time. Obviously not all women wear heavy makeup and some are very experienced with it, but just maintaining appearances when you decide to go for full looks requires an insane amount of time and energy. I was suddenly held to different appearance standards and this was both informative and disturbing.
I know, this is supposed to be a larp critique and not a «my first serious cross-dressing» feelings dump but hey, it’s my blog, not electro-larp.com :). I really liked the game overall, first for the professionalism of the organizers. They knew what they were doing, they were friendly, the site was beautiful, the food delicious. Same for the friendliness of the players: this was my first «true» Nordic larp (Celestra had the comfiness of a geekfest and many non-Nordic players). From a gameplay point of view, MatB proved me that yes, it was possible to have fun roleplaying daily life: no complicated plots, nothing to hide or save, just living life as someone else. Of course everything was more interesting because I was trying to do it «as a woman» but still, it worked. Removing my jewelery to wash dishes because my character thought it would make her look more motherly and more fit to get a baby was an interesting moment. Doing said washing up while sweating under a wig was rather a «WTF is wrong with my hobby?» moment.
The interaction with my family unit was great, players were nice out of character, and while I had met them at game conventions before (or read their articles) this was the first time we really got to play together. So I had both my fanboy moments and my snarky French larper moments as I saw my first Finn being miserable alone in a corner and enjoying every second of it. So yes, fellow «continental Europeans», Nordic larpers are really weird like that.
They also enabled me to experiment with touch, another big Nordic larp thing. We did a quick Ars Amandi test, and knowing about it is very different from actually trying it. It’s a pity the only time I got to try it in game was for a very violent scene in the black box but I could definitely see its purpose, allowing both safe physicality and an emotional connection. I also got to experiment with normal touching. During the workshops, male players were instructed to touch people more, both to show attention during a conversation or general caring, as women often do among themselves. As the future biological mother of our unit was depressive, there was a lot of patting to reassure, also something I normally only do with close friends or family. My character was not very touchy-feely, which worked well with my natural non-hugger self. But from a very objective point of view, I did spend an awful lot of time with my hand on the thigh of a dude wearing a wig.
MatB also confirmed that transparency works. I was actually shocked when the last man arrived. I fully knew he would arrive but still, the scene worked. In many ways, knowing about all the plot and the other characters brings larp closer to theater. It enables different kinds of scenes, and is a different kind of pleasure, but it’s still pleasure, so that works.
However, in many other ways, MatB was still a larp, with the equivalent of the Dreaded Larp Sunday Morning. I hate Sunday mornings in general, but Sunday mornings with heavy makeup or costuming are the worst. So rushing to shower, shave closely, plaster heavy foundation makeup quickly on so that the nice makeup could be done later and that both the makeup artist and myself could get breakfast was rather stressful. Weather was both colder and more humid than the day before, the wig was annoying me so I tucked bits behind my ears, making me look like an elf, and I just felt physically uncomfortable overall.
After the man arrived, the in-game stakes raised and that was the most larpish part of the larp: people plotting in small groups about what to do with him, trying to form alliances, a near Mexican standoff with a game rule confusion… It was back to Vampire larping or to the last minutes of murder mystery larps when you’re trying to exit with the McGuffin. Not a bad experience, the tension was fun, but at this point I was tired and the game just became way too normal.
To bleed or not to bleed?
I usually do not like playing close-to-home. For me larp is a hobby and I don’t want it to interfere with my real life history and with serious emotions. But for some reason the theme of men dying removed this barrier. A few years ago, I lost a friend who was my age. When asked about naming an important man for me during the introduction round, he immediately came to mind. Later on, as we were doing an in-game story circle, I re-used a story that happened to this dead friend. A few years ago I would have found this poor taste, but this year, at that moment, felt right, and I still don’t regret it. I don’t know what he would have thought of it. Most of the bleed out was physical, as mentally I was glad to get rid of Kristin ASAP: I don’t like people like her in general, so that was easy. However, physically, the «lock your shoulders, swing your hips, break your gestures» mantra stayed with me for several days after the game. I also started to look at women in a different way, especially 40+ business women. Not in a «you look like an interesting person», Dustin-Hoffman way, but rather in a a «she’s wearing this and this and moving like that and she botched her eye liner on the left side» way. I just got more interested in clothes and makeup and how to use them to hack ones’ natural physique. Several months after the game, that effect is gone, but yes, overall there was quite a lot of bleed, and just seeing my body hair grow back over the post-game weeks helped with refocusing on my real life.
The hardest part was really playing a conservative, xenophobe, hardcore free-market capitalist. For two days, despising social workers, artists, people living alternative lifestyles, the poor and liberals in general was tough. The first hours it’s fun, but after a while you just feel like a horrible person. The character actually «spoiled» one of my best scenes in the game. We were on the lake side, walking down a small pier. The scenery was idyllic, late afternoon, trees, water etc. My first out-of-character internal reaction was «wow, this is beautiful». The second was «what would my character do? Dip her tired legs in the fresh water». So I sat down, raised my skirt a bit, looked at my legs in their black lace stay-on stockings and thought «wow, these are not my legs, but they’re hot», then I removed the stockings (a *very* weird sensation, both from looks and touch point of view) and chatted with the young woman sitting next to me (played by a female player). She was meek and wanting to be like Kristin one day. As a player I felt like relaxing, stretching, comforting her and hugging her. Instead I just played my character and told her to be tough and show strength if she wanted to succeed in life. So the idyllic scene was destroyed for me as a person by Kristin’s 1980s capitalistic dogmatic bullshit, but it worked really well from a larp point of view.
So all in all, Mad about the Boy was a great experience, one of the highlights of my «Try new and weird things in 2013» series. It did not make me change my views on children or women in general, but did offer a very physical perspective on the concept of gender and a very practical taste of Nordic larp. Would I roleplay again as a woman? Maybe not in a similar larp setting, as the work required was rather intense, but for a shorter, less serious, party-like context why not. Interestingly, Conquest of Mythodea 2013 had many commonalities with MatB on these constraints and on gender bending. I’ll explain further in a future post.
For a review (in French) by another French larper who attended the same run, including his experience about roleplaying in English, click here. And pester him to translate it on electro-larp 🙂
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