Best Of 2022: Card Shark’s Take On Historical Gender Is Both Playful And Enlightening
There is a woman at this party. Slight and dainty, she’s the niece of a posh lord. She hides her jawline beneath a fan, smiles with glittering power as she is invited to the card table. Her hands are always bad and her grasp of the rules seems tenuous. Forgetting her knife-sharp grin, you settle into a wine-fuelled haze. Only when the night is over do you count your coins, realize how much you’ve lost, and think again of that shining smile.
In its broad survey of French aristocracy, Card Shark allows players to explore crossdressing and queerness. The game’s tangible relationship to history is playful, broad, and particular (as I’ve written about before). Card Shark freely borrows tricksters and cheats from throughout history but also shows off the unique class-bridging function of card playing in the specific time period. Card Shark’s France is broiling with class friction, as a rising bourgeoisie has increasing power but is also isolated from the immense wealth of the ruling aristocracy. Underneath it all, Romani caravans avoid persecution and the revolution brews. Player character Eugene and his mentor, the Comte de Saint Germain, will explore all this through cheating at the aforementioned card games, amassing wealth, and discovering a mystery at the heart of the French monarchy. While the story told is largely fiction, a combination of The Three Musketeers and a satirical comedy of manners, the social circumstances of the characters are grounded in a material history. That extends to Card Shark’s depiction of crossdressing, gender nonconformity, and transness.
Before we dig into Card Shark’s relationship to gender, I want to start on a brief note on pronouns and how to discuss the potential tranness of historical figures. I am going to use he/him pronouns and the name Eugene for Card Shark’s protagonist. This is, in no way, meant to undermine the potential to understand him as queer. It is tempting and not always incorrect to label historical figures as gay or lesbian or trans. However, it should be emphasized that these are relatively modern labels that are unevenly and sometimes unfairly layered over an infinite variety of individuals and identities. These labels are not untarnished truths that we can now use to interpret history purely. Rather they broadly identify experiences and social norms, against which people of all kinds judge and understand themselves. I particularly like the phrasing of Kit Heyam’s recent history of gender’s title: “Before We Were Trans.” The implication is that past gender-non-confirming people share a common heritage, and many identities, with current trans people, but that the particular label of “trans” is relatively new.
Crucially, this does not mean we cannot resonate with or take meaning from the historial queer figures. Rather we should understand that they were, just as we are, existing in the constraints and language of their surrounding culture. Eugene may well be trans, or certainly, the game leaves enough room for him to be so perceived. But labeling him as such uses a language which he could not have had access to, even in Card Shark’s exaggerated historical fiction. I both want to respect the reality he would have lived in, had he been real, and respect the identities he could have held.
What makes Card Shark’s relationship with gender so sharp and insightful is that it understands its material and historical context at every turn. Card Shark has a general interest in exploring the margins of 18th century France. Infamous cross-dressing and womanizing opera singer Julie d’Aubigny and the brilliant Afro-French composer and fencer Chevalier de Saint-Georges both have extensive cameos. The non-existent S.W. Erdnase, named after the pseudonym author of The Expert and The Card, defies a distinct gender at every turn, in ways that let them enter into various realms and cultures. A Romani camp is featured as the Comte and Eugene’s base of operations and, in one of the game’s more modern twists, both can donate to their mutual aid fund.
The primary way the game explores the marginalized is through the protagonist. Eugene exists at multiple points of marginalization. He is disabled (he cannot speak), an impoverished orphan, and illiterate (he learns to read and write over the course of the game). Early on in the game, Eugene takes on something of a servant’s role, learning to assist Comte in various schemes that revolve around cheating at cards. Many of the tricks involve him getting wine for the Comte or getting a peek at other players’ hands as he wipes the table. But as he and Comte advance in society, Eugene’s presence as a servant at the table becomes less plausible. Enter: crossdressing.
The performance of gender enables Eugene and the Comte to get the jump on misogynistic wealth and to pass Eugene off as a member of high society. Eugene uses gendered markers, like a fan or a makeup box, to pull off gambling tricks. For example, he uses a makeup box to view someone else’s hand and then moves the fan in a particular way to signal cards to the Comte. Because Eugene is presenting as a woman, the men at the table believe him incapable of wrongdoing or deviousness. He passes, when his performance of gender is good enough, even as he subverts their expectations. In a real sense, Card Shark simulates the experience of social gender, asking players to play at fitting into a role, with dire consequences should they fail. Cheating is a social game, as much as it is a dexterous one.
This does not mean Eugene’s performance of gender is insincere. In the game’s brief, but expressive, moments of choice, Eugene can express enthusiasm or weariness, readiness or forgetfulness to the act of crossdressing. Similarly, Eugene is a name given by the Comte, one that Eugene can ultimately accept or reject. These are scant moments of expressivity, but they are enough to leave tantalizing gaps in what might seem a mere male protagonist. The player can embrace Eugene’s femininity or leave it as a tool.
For the time being, though, Eugene cannot live simply “as a woman.” Still caught up, as he is, in the drama of the plot. The game focuses on this narrow period of his life. Though we see him as an elder after the French Revolution in the game’s denouement, much of Eugene’s future life is left to imagination. Eugene is the exact kind of figure who would have been forgotten by history–whose queerness might be left in the memory of scant parties where a forgotten woman briefly lived.
But that’s the thing: Most of us will also be forgotten. Many trans people are misrepresented upon their death or died before they could discover themselves. Card Shark understands gender as fluid, culturally and socially dependent, yet still chosen or embraced. It raises up and highlights a marginalized past, but it also lets players participate in it and in small ways define it for themselves. Because of its sharp and playful relationship with the past, it opens the door for players to understand themselves as part of a vast expanse of queer history.
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