My adorable avatars enable me to work out my emotions online
Illustration by Janice Chang
The first and only time I punched a wall, I didn’t even break the skin. The source of my frustration is long gone from my memory, but I think of that failure to translate internal anguish into external catharsis every time my emotions flare. When those moments pass, I ponder other ways to unleash unsavory emotions, such as anger, frustration, and jealousy, instead of letting them stew. Lately, I’ve found something that helps: I play video games and don another persona’s literal and metaphorical violence to take the sting out of my real life.
Instead of adopting the gruff, militarized male avatars that rule the “Metal Gear Solid,” “Halo,” or yes, even the “Call of Duty” series, I take out these unsavory emotions on cute things, while I playing as my own cute character, in games like “Super Smash Bros.,” “Pokémon,” and in its own way, “Animal Crossing.” The playable avatars are comically cute—rendered in rounded edges, non-jarring colors, and adorable expressions. Whether alone or in groups with friends, these games offer an outlet for me to “talk shit,” peacock, and participate in other decidedly impolite behavior, all through the projection of a comically cute, often feminine, avatar. This desire to engage in play while neutering the edge of my emotional impulses fits in with the phenomenon of cute aggression: the catchy, blanket label for the desire to destroy cute things, such as a chocolate pastry with the cute face symbol ( :3 ) on it or a fuzzy, squishy baby animal. But I take it one step further. I am the cute, destroying the cute, drawing my power and release from things that appear powerless, and, in the process, finding a way to forgo "ladylike" digital etiquette while still tethering myself to feminine-coded iconography.
The characters in "Animal Crossing" are made to be adorable.
Video games aren’t the only medium that I’ve leaned into to unload my aggression. In middle and high school, I joined digital art communities with people I only knew by their usernames. We trash talked and forged real friendships built on constructive competition. Some of those relationships have literally been wiped from the internet, but they shaped how I feel about and use the internet. My avatar usually was (and often still is) artwork of an anime-style girl, one that never exposed or alluded to my real face. I was able to build on my social skills by acting out emotions that I couldn’t—or was scared of—bringing forth in my daily life, while hiding behind cutesy avatars, typing quirks, and the use of emoticons (^-^ and *-*) to undercut the extremity and seriousness of my feelings.
A decade ago, it was understood that avatar choices and digital presentation didn’t necessarily signify anything about a person’s “true” identity. This isn’t the case anymore. Women, girls, and other femme-performing folks in the digital world have to proactively build walls around themselves and obfuscate their more feminine aspects or risk drawing the ire of “cis”— straight men who feel as though their spaces are no longer sacred. Today, male social media trolls often use anime girl avatars to express their ideation of a perfect, passive female companion.
This is a complete reversal of the digital communities I once had known. The early anonymous internet offered a way to experience conversation and build relationships that could otherwise be tainted by various –isms. When it came to representing myself in these spaces, I was drawn to cuteness, in aesthetic and in practice, because that was how I wanted to represent my girlhood. I am drawn to cuteness now because I want to challenge the idea that women and femme folks have to erase or obscure their gender, or else hew to it, in expressing themselves online. Internet anonymity, at its best, is a ticket into normalcy—a way to express oneself without any of the prejudice or judgment that is encountered in the real world. That anonymity has been co-opted by hateful movements is a tragedy on top of others. We shouldn’t—and don’t have to—gloss over our identities in order to feel safe in expressing our feelings, even (especially) the ugly ones.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Allying myself with and engaging in cutesy, feminine iconography is both a truth and a trick.[/quote]
I don’t feel as if I’m smashing the patriarchy when I seize a “Pokémon Go” gym from a team of male-coded players. But I do remember watching guys in my college dorm play video games and having to fight for a turn. So I share screenshots of my victories with blithe captions such as “#JUSTGIRLYTHINGS.” I don’t believe that I am “flawless,” act “like a queen,” or any number of “F” feminism buzzwords when I see my work about my experience as a women of color being shared online. But I do remember what it was like when boys, white and otherwise, made fun of my appearance and my nondemure manner of speaking, so I relentlessly hype my own work and the work of my peers.
Allying myself with and engaging in cutesy, feminine iconography is both a truth and a trick. I was and still am a girly(ish) girl, but that won’t (and doesn’t), stop me from engaging in competition, critical analysis, aggression, and joy. Anyone who tries to stop me can eat my ~*~*~*dust.