Recently, I’ve been enamored with my local games store’s League Months. You sign up, get three discounted packs, build a 30-card deck from them, and once a week you can purchase two more packs and build a 40-card deck. It’s basically a slow-drip Sealed event that takes place in the margins of larger tournaments over a month.

It’s an interesting way to play. Because you spend longer with the deck, rather than a single day, you get more attached to the cards and the play style of your deck (or you get increasingly frustrated with your deck’s inability to cohere or increasingly malcontent with the unsplashable Hour of Devastation sitting in the sideboard of your G/W/b deck). I was playing against my compatriot in one of these games when I had to do the truly unpleasant: announce one half of a split card. “I cast . . . the first half of the card, ‘Mouth // Feed.’” “You cast Mouth,” he said. “I . . . cast Mouth.”

I don’t know what it is about that word by itself that makes me so uncomfortable, but the combination of the mouthfeel (or Mouth-feel) and grammatical imprecision really gets at my cringe-centers. There’s no ideological basis to be made discomforted by using the word “Mouth”
as an action, but here we are. The things we’re taught or the things we see repeatedly and
passively—that “mouth” is a noun, generally used after a very specific verb—stick with us, even
when we push back against them.

I thought about all of this this weekend, when I was playing a card game around the kitchen table with friends and a Prairie Prison Rodeo ale (shameless, potentially lucrative plug for that delicious beer. DM me, Prairie). It was a silly game about battlin’ wizards with an aesthetic that’s indebted to Zap Comix and punk-era Oakland graffiti—or, more accurately, it’s indebted to the aesthetic that’s indebted to the above; shit’s way more Superjail than R. Crumb. The relevant point, though, is that the cards default to “his hand,” etc. when mentioning another player; meanwhile, I was playing with a 50/50 male/female group.

Magic has, to its credit, always—from day one, back in the hidebound Paleolithic 90s—defaulted to “his or her/he or she” (obviously, the answer is the singular “they,” but we’re probably ten years out from universal acceptance of singular nongendered pronouns), and so it was surprising to see that singular masculine pronoun deployed by the game designers as though everyone in their audience is male-identified. We’re getting better, generally speaking, at inclusion, but to be reminded of past exclusion also can hurt, and to see those old, wounding exclusions still be upheld as the rules of grammar and interaction is wrongheaded and baselessly archaic.

I’m thirty years old and a product of the public school systems of North and South Carolina, which is to say that my old ass was raised and educated around the turn of the millennium, a time when we were taught that “he” is the preferred, assumptive pronoun for an abstract person or for a random individual from a group of people. When taking Spanish, we were told that the “-o/-os” suffix was the standard for a group of all genders (or “both genders” back then), as this was before common awareness of the elegant “Latinx” solution. Even now, the 2017 AP Stylebook—one of the books I always have nearby—accepts “they” as a singular pronoun, but says: “we stress that it is usually possible and always preferable to rework a sentence instead.”

I can’t think of a better reason for more nonbinary/nondefined advocacy than the most commonly-
used style guide for journalism asking readers to reword sentences in order to literally—literally literally!—erase the existence of folks who prefer “they.” “Usually possible and always preferable,” jesus. Essentially, much like in all spheres of American life, you’re allowed to be yourself in informal settings, but god forbid you try to express your base understanding of yourself in a world of rules. The dominant cultural authorities will remind you that your silence is usually possible and always, always preferable—and they have as many ways as you have days of reminding you of that. You’re marginalized—not just in the political sense, but in the philosophical sense. You may exist, but you don’t belong.

In cultural criticism, there’s something called “subversive code.” It’s the intratextual lesson you can take away from something depicted with flat, unbiased presentation. You’ll see it used mostly with regard to photography and cinematography, and it’s basically what you take away from a work of art that tells you something about the actual artist and the society in which they created their art. People who create art without tools (writers and painters, for example) don’t often have access to this hidden interpretation, while people who create with tools (photographers, directors) do, as the camera theoretically depicts everything in frame, not just the subject.

Obviously, this isn’t a perfect exercise—the photographer chooses to focus on the subject, can zoom in to the detriment of the surroundings, etc., can edit in post-production—but it’s worth talking about when we talk about the larger social context of a work of art. When you look at a still from a movie, you’re not just looking at the image at which the camera is pointed; you’re looking at the world created around the image, and you’re looking at the world in which the camera was manufactured. When there’s a dissonance between those worlds, there’s a line of subversive code within it, waiting to change the understanding of the media.

  • Think of a mug shot. See the red eyes of the subject. Why are they red?
  • Think of the famous photo of Omran Daqneesh. See the lockers, individually labeled, behind
    him. What’s in those lockers?
  • Think of Hero of Iroas. To whom is he a hero? Should we praise the adherents of a god of war?
  • Think of Farm // Market. Who’s the aggressor here—the mummy swinging the scythe, or the human that enslaved him?

Your answers to those questions demonstrate how subversive your personal code is going to
be. The answers given by a representative sample of the population is how those pictures will be
interpreted. Your answers might be ones the AP Stylebook would find “usually possible and
always preferable” to adjust, elide, or erase. But at the end of the day, you have to go home to
bed and sleep the sleep of the just, and the AP Stylebook isn’t a part of that—except for those
of us who keep it near the bed.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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