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Everything is Fire: understanding Team Fortress 2 and gender representation

Posted 10 Months ago by galbraith

TW: this thread deals with mature subjects and features some language that may be considered offensive or explicit. Team Fortress 2 is rated Mature by the ESRB.

INTRODUCTION

Team Fortress 2 is a video game that was released in 2007 by Valve Corporation. It is a class-based cooperative online multiplayer first person shooter wherein a player may choose to play one of nine different classes with varied skillsets, equipment and attributes that are strategically levied to defeat an enemy team in objective-based challenges. Each of the nine classes (referred to collectively as "the mercenaries") is represented by a unique character, each designed to be eminently recognizable. The characteristics of each, including shape, sound and behavior, are elements that are used to great effect in communicating important game information to the player. Beyond this, however, a great deal of enjoyment is to be had through pure appreciation of the endearing and odd personalities that Valve has developed for them.

This heavily stylized characterization has led to some interesting choices that have provoked a decent amount of discussion among community members. In the case of at least one character, the enigmatic Pyro, this conversation is centered around gender identity and gender representation, and has resulted in the highlighting of various issues related to the modern American narratives surrounding those topics. It is my hope for this post to convey as many of the points that I find interesting about this as possible.

This initial post will be split into two parts: the latter one for addressing all issues relating to Pyro and the former for addressing the issues related to some other characters, trivia with relatively limited application, and other oddities. After looking at surface-level details about Pyro and their context mainly found in-game, I will expand the thread later with additional context and thematic analysis from the TF2 extended universe.

PART I: A BOY NAMED JANE AND A GUN NAMED SASHA

The Heavy Weapons Guy (real name Mikhail; generally referred to as "Heavy") is a large and bear-like Russian man with an equally large and exceedingly phallic minigun as his main weapon. Held suggestively at crotch height, it is physically imposing and capable of some of the most devastating damage in the game. The name of this gun is Sasha, and Heavy consistently refers to it with feminine pronouns.

The name Sasha is generally unisex, though it has regional context. Generally speaking with regard to Eastern Europe, it is a shared diminutive of Alexander and Alexandra, and is not considered a formal name. However, in other regions of Europe and in America, it is considered a formal name and is typically seen as feminine. The meaning of the name is "defender of man", which reflects the role of the Heavy as a hard-to-kill frontline fighter who generally pushes ahead of his smaller and less durable teammates. The historical precedent of referring to humanity as "man" creates an additional level of gendered significance, and sets up additional design choices down the line.

This form of subverting the typical asumptions that many would make about such a character continues not just with alternative main weapons such as a different minigun named Natascha (a much less ambiguously feminine name meaning "born on Christmas Day", which reflects the Christian overtones of Mikhail - "who is like god?"), but with much more obscure details, such as his high level of education, his love of peach bellinis, and his propensity to get drunk at Halloween, dress up as a pretty pink princess and demand that the other mercenaries brush his (non-existent) hair.

The character of the Soldier, while generally more focused on other issues such as radicalized Christianity, the cult of action and American exceptionalism, also provokes consideration of gender issues. However, it does so through the lens of abuse - through the irrelevant emotional excesses of a hyper-nationalist war criminal. Soldier is portrayed from the start as delusional to the point of total disconnection with normal human moderation, and this is reflected in the unerring machismo that informs his interactions with the other mercenaries.

In Soldier's view, everyone in his circle is a man and the failure to perform on the battlefield is what determines that you are not a real man but a "sissified maggot". However, with extremely rare exceptions, Soldier does not purposefully misgender anyone. Even when taunting the Scottish Demoman, references to kilts are portrayed as "cross-dressing". This outlines a kind of hardcore gender binary and gender essentialism that will be important later, but is perfectly represented for now by the fact that the closest thing that Soldier has to a real name is "Jane Doe", which he does not care about one way or the other.

Generally speaking, the Soldier is presented as being the most comprehensively offensive, both socially and ideologically as well as practically, and I take joy in the fact that his class has a cosmetic that depicts him as having a literal brain worm.

It is moderately interesting that the only time that Spy purposefully misgenders someone is when taunting Soldier, referencing Soldier's name by saying that "maybe your colleagues will send a man next time".

As a moderately interesting comparison to Soldier, Heavy does not view perceived weakness in other mercenaries as being even as moderately feminizing as Soldier does - or at all, for that matter. Heavy merely refers to the enemy team as "babies" or "little men". In addition, even this diminutive representation of others is at least partly coincidental - Heavy is literally larger than everyone, and he even refers to things like trains as "little", as a kind of filler word.

This likely reflects Heavy's life experiences before becoming a mercenary. After his father was executed by the USSR, Heavy, along with his mother and his three younger sisters, survived months in a Siberian gulag and eventually escaped to the mountains, where they lived a harder life than most and subsisted mainly on meat from bears that they killed themselves. It is easily possible that Heavy sees the average man as being more diminutive, in more than one way, than himself and the women in his life.

As an aside: Soldier's taunts directed at other classes are almost invariably based on nationality; when addressing the only other mercenary that is known to be American, the Engineer, Soldier seems to convince himself that Engineer is from Canada. Curiously enough, Engineer, who is from Texas, may occasionally taunt a defeated enemy Engineer by saying that "a real Texan would have dodged that".

Engineer's other voice lines are interesting both for their gender implications as well as for some coincidental commentary about race. Engineer's favorite pejoratives (and endearments, oddly enough) are "son" and "boy", which he applies to any given person almost indiscriminately, with some notable exceptions and ambiguities. He chooses to never call Demoman, who is black, "boy", which would seem to indicate a particular attentiveness to matters of offensive language. Engineer also almost never verifiably misgenders anyone; however, this will require more investigation in Part II.

Overall, Engineer, while having personal mannerisms very familiar to someone who has lived in South Texas their entire life, is one of the most educated and intelligent mercenaries, holding several doctorates in various hard sciences. This contrasts especially with Medic, who has no verifiable medical training whatsoever (though he more than makes up for it with his extreme enthusiasm and a notable lack of moral boundaries).

PART II: INSIDE THE FIRE

Pyro is an anomaly, and much of their characteristics, physical and otherwise, are currently unknown. They are concealed entirely by a baggy flame-retardant suit, including a heavy mask that muffles their speech. It is unknown from where they originated or what their name is. In terms of what their gender is, the short answer is that we do not know. Pyro does not seem to know or care about that sort of thing at all, simply doing what pleases them from moment to moment. Much of their interests are what we might describe as childlike, and it may be possible that they do not have a fully-formed sense of gender at all.

What we do have is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence and statements from other characters. While these things ultimately cannot determine what Pyro's gender is, they can help provide context and possibly indicate some conclusions as being more likely or less likely. Unfortunately, even some of this evidence is contradictory.

The description of Pyro found on the Steam trading card references them with male pronouns, including the sentences that directly call into question the conclusion that Pyro is a man. This policy of arbitrary pronouns and even of outright baiting is a well-established theme of how Valve portrays them. As the mystery of Pyro's gender is likely to be far more interesting and satisfying than actually unveiling a gender or subverting the character entirely, it has become Valve's policy to not provide enough evidence to conclude with a high amount of certainty anything about their gender.

This does not stop community members from trying, leading to innumerable direct self-reports of unexamined gender preconceptions in the form of arguments concluding with certainty that Pyro is a woman because there is a pink purse in their locker, or concluding with certainty that Pyro is a man because of an X-ray of them that would seem to indicate that a portion of their body is closer to fitting a masculine phenotype than a feminine phenotype, or of whatever other detail a person finds compelling enough to hang a hot take on.

These things do not determine gender, even if there were only two genders.

Soldier and Spy, likely the two characters that know the most about direct combat, both note that Pyro "fights like a girl/woman". While this can be interpreted more in the sense of a taunt, these are characters that we previously noted as tending to not misgender people purposefully. In addition, Spy is an expert at reading personal mannerisms, as he has to replicate them accurately when disguised as an enemy.

While the amount of intended detail may be in question here, it is apparent that Valve is extremely meticulous with many things of this sort, though not necessarily all of them. Even just with regard to the Spy's voice lines, there are some details that take on additional significance based on the wider lore. For instance, he refers to most enemy mercenaries as "the [class]", but he refers to enemy Scouts and Spies as "that [class]", representing the idea that Spy and Scout are related in some way - referencing the possibility that they have a familial "relation", based on the theory that Spy is Scout's father.

Heavy, who we have previously noted as seeming to have an oddly progressive sense of feminine empowerment, has no specific domination taunts related to Pyro (or any class) at all, instead pulling from a pool of generic taunts that are applied to any class indiscriminately. It is worth noting, however, that one of the most famous and weighty lines in the franchise is when Heavy said of Pyro "I fear no man. But that thing... it scares me".

Engineer, who we have previously established as being possibly the most erudite and respectful mercenary, refers to Pyro interchangeably as "son", "boy" and "ma'am". Firmly concluding from this that Engineer perceives Pyro as some form of non-binary or genderfluid, or otherwise as a traditional gender that Engineer is misrepresenting, requires an excessive amount of personal interpretation. However, if we determine that Engineer's unbelievably prominent use of "boy" and "son" are merely force of habit and subtract them from all of his voice lines, Pyro remains the only individual character that Engineer genders at all.



While this is nowhere near finished, I have to break it here because it is getting far too late. I will definitely provide some closing thoughts, though.

EPILOGUE

I love Pyro. They are my main - my default whenever I play TF2. Unless my team is in dire straights and they require someone to change to a more suitable class, I am playing Pyro. This is mostly for the gameplay aspects, because Pyro legitimately handles in a way that I enjoy a lot more than the other classes, but there is also a definite sense that I love them because of their comfortably ambiguous gender and the incredibly interesting discourse surrounding them. In a way, they have become a gender Rorschach test - a bundle of chaotic characterizations which we use more to learn about members of the community than to learn about the game itself.

This is especially true with all of the cosmetic items that are available, allowing Pyro players to express a wonderful variety of gender-irreverent styles.

In the coming days, I will be gathering and contributing more information about Pyro and how they are seen by others, as well as posting the best and most representative art of them. (It's odd how cute a person can be when all we see of their face is a gas mask.)

Thank you to anyone who managed to sit through all this rambling. This is important to me for reasons which have become a little more apparent lately, so it is at least worth it to myself to examine what is happening with one of my favorite characters.

There are 14 Replies


Firstly, I like this analysis. I'd like to add a bit to it, even if most of my additions are going to be from expanded lore.

  • "Meet the Pyro" is extremely different from the other "Meet the" vids and shows lots of things that are traditionally considered feminine, but to an extremely manic, tropey point of view. You used the word "enigmatic" to describe the Pyro, and I couldn't agree more. Pyro vision, which is even a thing I believe you can experience in-game (IIRC), is an actual diversion from in-game reality, and shows the sort of manic hyper-feminized reality that you see in the "Meet the Pyro" vid. I'm not sure what to make of this, but felt like pointing it out.

  • You mention Spy, but there's some key information that I'd like to tack on. Spy is a classy, polite character, kind of the same way Sniper is. They're both fairly gentlemanly and highlight class as a key trait that they possess. I don't remember many of Sniper's taunts off-hand, but feel like they could maybe add on to this analysis. One of Spy's lines I think about a lot in the conversation of Pyro's gender is when you initiate a conga line - Spy says "Dance, Gentlemen! Dance like nobody's shooting at us!" - A classy character like Spy, who knows everyone's mannerisms on a very deep level (as you pointed out) refers to the others as "Gentlemen". If Pyro were truly a woman or identifying as female, I'd imagine Spy would say "Dance, everyone" or something to the same effect, but this is still not hard proof of anything haha

  • Soldier - I like your analysis on him, but definitely want to add to it. In the comics, Miss Pauling is representing the mercs on trial and says "He calls himself the Soldier, despite never having served in the armed forces!" Also in the comics, Soldier says he's voluntarily committed himself to POW camps and has never broken - they've even asked him to leave. Well, of course they have, he's not actually a Soldier so he doesn't have any enemy intel. He's just calling himself The Soldier. Thusly, his words carry little weight - he misrepresents his own career / identity (compulsively, perhaps?) as well as why he's been asked to leave the POW camps (I don't think he realizes he's being asked to leave, not because of his strength of will, but because he's got nothing to offer them lol). I like your analysis of his machismo and strong American ideals. There's a moment in the comics where he's visiting The Heavy's family in Russia and they offer him clothes that say "Sears" on the tag and he reads the first S, covers his eyes and says "Eyes, I'm gonna stop you right there. That says Soviet!" and goes on an America-first rant - about how American clothes are so much better (while his are shown to be ripped and falling apart after the hike through the Russian mountains) In reality, he's one of half the characters who, canonically per the comics, can't even read, so... that adds extra weight to his perception of Russia and the USA and patriotism, I suppose. I just don't offer much weight to this character's words in the slightest.

  • You touch on the Spy and Scout having a familial relationship. Comics somewhat confirm this. I don't know if it's explicitly stated, but Spy at least sees Scout as his son after having had some relationship at some point with Scout's mom while Scout is shown to have been an infant. We don't really see anything preceding that, though, iirc lol

    Overall, nice analysis. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. :)

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  • 10 Months ago
    Weird Occurance

    I've never played TF2 and am only familiar with it through meme videos on YouTube, so I admittedly don't have much to add to the discussion. That being said, I wanted to say I found this a very enjoyable and enlightening read. I have enjoyed games like Apex Legends and Overwatch - where you aren't simply using generic units, but actual characters with backstories, personalities, likes and dislikes, rapports or even rivalries with some of the other characters - but I honestly had no idea TF2 did all this so many years ago. I'm seeing how that must have been a factor in the game becoming so iconic. And as soon as you start giving personalities to your cast, you're laying the groundwork for other things such as how you handle gender, something I never thought I'd be thinking about with regards to a game like TF2.

    I do find it interesting hearing about how others speculate about Pyro's gender and the reasons for their conclusions. The bit about Pyro having a pink purse stood out to me especially, and how it led some to conclude that Pyro obviously must be female... I definitely understand why some people would think that, but I'd like to think that these sorts of things may have served as a spark in others to start question the validity of gender norms.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this.

    10 Months ago
    Jo Nathan

    Thank you both for taking the time to read this, haha. I really appreciate it.

    @WO:

    Pyro vision, which is even a thing I believe you can experience in-game (IIRC), is an actual diversion from in-game reality, and shows the sort of manic hyper-feminized reality that you see in the "Meet the Pyro" vid. I'm not sure what to make of this, but felt like pointing it out.


    This is one of the elements that I consider supporting the idea that Pyro is more childlike than anything, and possibly has not developed a gender identity at all. If this were the case, I would guess that they could be described as non-binary and/or agender. Seeking to determine gender identity for someone else, however, is an inherently problematic thing.

    One of Spy's lines I think about a lot in the conversation of Pyro's gender is when you initiate a conga line - Spy says "Dance, Gentlemen! Dance like nobody's shooting at us!" - A classy character like Spy, who knows everyone's mannerisms on a very deep level (as you pointed out) refers to the others as "Gentlemen". If Pyro were truly a woman or identifying as female, I'd imagine Spy would say "Dance, everyone" or something to the same effect, but this is still not hard proof of anything haha


    The entire situation is complicated by the fact that, early in development, Pyro was internally referenced at Valve as being a man. There was a development roadmap where the nine mercs that we know now were supposed to be men, but there would also be a female character added for each class. This didn't pan out for a bunch of reasons, technical and otherwise, so Valve fell back on further developing Pyro as a method of non-standard gender representation.

    Regarding the "gentlemen": the characters tend to generalize when referring to the team overall, especially Engineer referring to the team as "boys". Are these behaviors force of habit, a statement about gender, a stylistic conceit, some combination of things? It's reasonably vague, as you noted.

    I just don't offer much weight to this character's words in the slightest.


    Of course, and I don't either, in the sense that we cannot take them at face value. He's interesting in that he is more often wrong about things than otherwise. However, there are things that we can observe about at least some part of his behavior, and this may give more weight to his interactions with some characters. For instance, we can tell that he truly does have a great relationship with Demoman - despite Demo being Scottish, Soldier references him as "good, real good, maybe even the best".



    Either way, I haven't read the comics in years, and I will be revisiting them as soon as possible. I wanted to mainly talk about in-game voice lines and some random trivia that I remember initially, but I think that the comics are going to be a huge source for understanding a lot more. Then, after that, I will be providing comments and responses about how the community has received these things.

    10 Months ago
    galbraith

    This is one of the elements that I consider supporting the idea that Pyro is more childlike than anything,


    Perhaps and I could agree. But in Meet the Pyro, there are rainbows, and a pink unicorn, and pink lollipops, and pink everything - which may harken back to the pink purse in the locker (interesting to note), but that purse could be there for any number of reasons, as you stated. There's really no clear answer to this one haha

    Regarding the "gentlemen": the characters tend to generalize when referring to the team overall, especially Engineer referring to the team as "boys". Are these behaviors force of habit, a statement about gender, a stylistic conceit, some combination of things? It's reasonably vague, as you noted.


    Right. It is vague, but I have a weird feeling Spy would be more conscientious of this than, say, the Engineer, Scout, or Soldier lol but it's interesting, normally the generalization for a mixed group is "you guys" or "guys" - but for a mixed group in a more "formal" tone, it'd be "ladies and gentlemen" or "boys and girls" - but yes, still vague.

    Of course, and I don't either, in the sense that we cannot take them at face value. He's interesting in that he is more often wrong about things than otherwise. However, there are things that we can observe about at least some part of his behavior, and this may give more weight to his interactions with some characters. For instance, we can tell that he truly does have a great relationship with Demoman - despite Demo being Scottish, Soldier references him as "good, real good, maybe even the best".


    Agree fully.

    Either way, I haven't read the comics in years, and I will be revisiting them as soon as possible. I wanted to mainly talk about in-game voice lines and some random trivia that I remember initially, but I think that the comics are going to be a huge source for understanding a lot more. Then, after that, I will be providing comments and responses about how the community has received these things.


    The comics are great. I read as much as I could in a several day span at one point and was laughing the whole time.
    Can't wait for your analysis!

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    10 Months ago
    Weird Occurance
    10 Months ago
    Axem Great Water

    Notice anything about these pictures?


    I wanted to bring this up, too, but couldn't find the style of gun it was! I knew it was based on a real thing, but didn't know what it was and a quick google search didn't help. hahaha Thanks for sharing!

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    10 Months ago
    Weird Occurance

    Notice anything about these pictures?


    That the way miniguns tend to be held corresponds more often than not to phallic representation? Yes, I did notice.

    That TF2 does not exist in a cultural vacuum, and that it is inspired directly by many pop-culture phenomena, and that possibly the most famous use of a minigun in film was in Predator by the character Blain Cooper, who had such fantastically overbearing machismo (as befitting the film overall) that he became one of the direct inspirations for multiple TF2 characters? Yes, I did notice.

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. If I hold a penis-shaped cigar in front of my crotch and tell you to suck it, that's a little bit different.

    10 Months ago
    galbraith

    re:soldier in particular - I am reminded that the central thesis in a book I liked quite a lot (Detransition, Baby) is that everyone, even the cis, perform their gender, and gender performance is often exaggerated. The transfemme protagonist cites a man who has for all his adult life been an urban-dwelling software engineer, but every few weeks gets together with his friends in a rustic log cabin to drink expensive whisky and chop wood. He and his friends spend thousands to roleplay an exaggerated image of being hard-drinking, rugged mountain men but really live a lifestyle that is hardly traditionally masculine, and compared to that, her slightly exaggerated femininity and desire for motherhood seem downright wholesome. I.e., really, nearly each of us is a performer of our gender, and by extension, a kind of pervert.

    Enjoyed this read.

    10 Months ago
    (b)aeris

    Hey Aeris -

    Nothing in your comment stood out as particularly triggering or inflammatory, removed the mature content flag on it.

    Carry on :)

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    10 Months ago
    Weird Occurance

    Okay, so hypothetically, how would you hold a minigun? Given the size and shape, it wouldn't be held like a rifle or pistol. You wouldn't want it over your shoulder like a missile launcher, with the ammo belt, spinning parts, and spent shells right next to your face. Realistically, the only other option is by your side, with waist-height being the most comfortable height to hold it at.

    Edit: Maybe with the butt against your stomach, but that would be a VERY awkward way to hold it.

    10 Months ago
    Axem Great Water

    Okay, so hypothetically, how would you hold a minigun?


    I mean, if you're talking about "realistically," the answer is, "you wouldn't."

    10 Months ago
    Jet Presto

    Axem, let's get to the core of the matter.

    I have no issue with saying that what I am providing is an interpretation. There are parts of this interpretation that have more context, some that have less, etc. However, overall, the thing that I am interpreting is itself an interpretation, and is informed by even further interpretations before it. Attempting to reduce the observation of these facts to crude mechanical dryness is undercutting any meaning that the thing has, intended or unintended - especially considering that the idea of using the actual real-life gun in a handheld capacity is itself as expression of excess and machismo. Miniguns are vehicle-mounted because they have excessive weight and recoil; they fundamentally cannot be used in a handheld capacity as an element of any pragmatic strategy and this kind of gun being used in this capacity have almost always been portrayed as being exactly how I have characterized them here.



    Once again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar...

    (Interesting side note: the M2 machine gun used by Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove was nicknamed "Ma Deuce", much like how Heavy's minigun also has a feminine name.)

    It's also just funny that someone is trying to "well, ackshually" me about guns when I am a gun nerd. Besides all the other points, I am directly acquainted with how gun manufacturers' ideology and the ideology of their contractees directly figures into the design of guns - even just the physical object of the gun is itself a representation of a narrative or even a dialogue, of a demand or a desire and the answer that has been given.

    10 Months ago
    galbraith

    Right. I think Galbraith is pointing out that this gun / style of gun was selected for a reason and given the name Sasha. It could’ve just as easily been a pistol, rifle, or some other weapon of any kind, but they picked a minigun, which is depicted as being held at crotch-level. So that’s the deeper meaning they’re getting at; not that a minigun is held at crotch level.

    That said...
    I think the analysis of the gun name that you offered is interesting, but outside of Sasha and Natascha, I’m not terribly sure what other generic Russian names they could’ve used. Svetlana, I suppose? And male name I guess could’ve been Chekhov or something? But I’m pretty sure they made it a female name because some people name their cars, boats, etc and typically refer to them with feminine pronouns. Hell, even I refer to my laptop and car with feminine pronouns. So it’s an endearment thing to show the Heavy’s love of his gun.

    I wonder if the Defender of Man is why Sasha was picked for the name, or if it wasn’t even taken into account and the names are surface-level selections as the first Russian-sounding names they could come up with or the best sounding ones or creator had a friend named Sasha, or any other conceivable reason. Sure, it seems reasonable the name was picked in part for the meaning behind it, as the Heavy certainly does plow ahead with the minigun and “defend” the weaker glass cannons like Spy and Scout, but it’s so easy to get lost in a rabbit hole of reading reason into things hahah

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    10 Months ago
    Weird Occurance

    I think the analysis of the gun name that you offered is interesting, but outside of Sasha and Natascha, I’m not terribly sure what other generic Russian names they could’ve used.


    Well, these guns didn't have to have personal names at all. The fact that they do is almost exclusive to Heavy (I'd have to double-check that, though). Valve has no qualms about inventing the wildest possible combination of words to name their weapons, such as "Horseless Headless Horsemann's Headtaker" to describe a moderately fancy axe.

    Also, they could have just given it any number of male Russian names... as a side note, Valve also develops Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which is notorious for having a large Russian playerbase. They are moderately in-touch with the subculture, and they do things like name some NPCs traditional Russian names in other contexts. It's not like they don't know that someone or something can be named "Vladimir" instead of "Sasha".

    10 Months ago
    galbraith

    This thread is archived