October 14th, 2008

Since The Penny Arcade Expo, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Utilikilts — the skirts for men made up in Seattle that have such a large presence among fans at gaming events. While at PAX, I went around interviewing guys wearing these kilts, asking them: why did they buy them, what do they like about wearing then, what do they wear under them. I recently put together a piece for Wired on the topic, so I got to talk to Mr. Utilikilts himself, Steven Villegas, who told me he’s sold more than 100,000 skirts since he opened shop eight years ago. That’s a lot of dorks — gamers of otherwise — to be wearing the heavy-duty equivalent of a school girl’s uniform. When asked if his customers ever had qualms over breaking gender expectations though, Villegas said no way: his target audience already couldn’t care less what the world at large thought of them. Gender expectations be damned!

The trouble is though, I just don’t think that’s true. If you check out the Utilikilts website, you’ll see its approach to gender is loud and clear: manly, manly, manly. No skirt-wearing, effeminate sissies here. Just outdoorsy, tool-loving men. As for the literally hundreds of gamers who wore Utilikilts to PAX, I can’t say they sported as much muscle definition as the guys on the site — but still, as tends to be the case in the video game community, they were guys’ guys. They wore hiking boots and made adorably sleazy comments to me about their underwear (or lack thereof). They wore skirts, but they weren’t girlie.

That’s the thing that really fascinates me about Utilikilts, at least as they interact with gaming. We gamers, as a community, tend to be a heteronormative bunch. We get uncomfortable around gay people and we assert our manhood by raping the corpses of our pixelated opponents. We hate it when people question what it means when we play using beautiful female avatars. Our community is overwhelmingly male, and because society thinks we’re unproductive dorks, our self-esteem is crap, which turns us intolerant fast. So how is it we’re okay with wearing skirts? If I had to guess, I’d say Utilikilts:

1) have been adopted by a very particular subset of the gaming community, one that leans more toward table-top gaming than hardcore video games and therefore has a slightly different, more tolerant character
2) allow male gamers to push gender expectations in the safest way possible — that is, within a testosterone-filled, pro-boy environment in which wearing a kilt is actually consider more manly than wearing pants
3) nonetheless give aforementioned male gamers a possibly subconscious release for their feminine side.

Mr. Utilikilts can spin it any way he wants, but there’s something transgressive about putting a bunch of hot-blooded men in skirts with — more often than not, it seems — no undies on. There’s no way that kind of behavior would be acceptable en masse among gamers unless somebody gave it a macho coating and made it a palatable part of fandom. So thank you, Utilikilts, for letting boys be… well, girls. They may never admit it, but I think they needed it.

Tags: gender

7 Responses to “What Utilikilts say about gender and gamers”

  1. jfpbookworm Says:

    Letting rich boys be, anyway. Those things are expensive!

  2. soulofaqua Says:

    Those indeed are expensive, that’s why I prefer my sarongs, and because they come in flower motifs too! well before you ask me, I do wear underwear under them as even though I’ve been wearing them since I was 6 I am not shy with how I position myself so it could be embarrassing at certain moments if I did. Now why I wear them? Mostly because my mother leads an Indonesian dance group and the traditional dance garbs for a man often involve either a sarong or loincloth, depending on how active the dance is. But anyway, I have been participating in practices all my life and I joined in at age 10 and I like them. They’re comfy and breezy and you don’t have to buy a new one when a tubby enlarges or declines. Some girls love it, most just freak out why I am wearing a skirt with a flower motif.

  3. chesh Says:

    It couldn’t have anything to do with them being obviously patterned after Scottish kilts, traditionally worn by men for centuries, rather than the plaid skirts worn by Catholic schoolgirls.

  4. soulofaqua Says:

    But would that be fun to describe Chesh? Not really. The lady is fully aware of what it actually is patterned after, it’s just more fun imagining it thusly

  5. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Actually, to hear it straight from Steven (Mr. Utilikilts), there’s no direct connection between Scottish kilts and utilikilts. Sure, they’re both skirts for men, but he says his product was conceived of totally separately and means separate things. Of course, the Scottish version sets a precedent, but beyond that there’s not much relation…

  6. neergdar Says:

    however you want to reason it, utilikilts are HOT!! functional, durable, and damned sexy.

  7. The Guy Says:

    Except Bonnie, that’s a load and we all recognize it.

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