Ok, let's do this.
Horse Tribal is a thing now, apparently, which is great because that means more horses, and that means - not intrinsically but in practice - more femme-friendly aesthetics in Magic.
This is extremely gratifying for me as I've been waiting for more femme aesthetics since I was like 10, and while Magic has done a great job of scratching certain other aesthet ic itches of mine, this was largely, outside of the occasional Rebecca Guay or Terese Nielsen piece, not aesthetic space Magic seemed interested in exploring. There've been bright spots, mind. While the world of Theros wasn't particularly interesting to me, Nyx and its denizens were an aesthetic delight, and though Lorwyn/Shadowmoor never quite achieved a full Arthur Rackham Victorian faerie art aesthetic (to creative director Brady Dommermuth's regret) the overall design of the plane was fascinatingly orthagonal to the previous few years of designs. Still, Magic, as long as I have known it, dominantly focused on martial and badass magepunk aesthetics.
Look at some of the cool ponies we're getting now, though. Oh, sure, there's your requisite nightmare in Plague Mare. But we've also got Shield Mare's bright white horse so pretty that the medieval looking iguana dragon can't even touch it. We've got Surge Mare's hippocampus thing going on, with its lovely aqua stripes. And above them all we have the real queen, Diamond Mare, a horse made of actual diamond with a freaking double rainbow in the background. The flavor text is "When it passes, rainbows follow" which is both a nice nod to its mana generation capabilities and also hella gay.
An all-color-plus-colorless cycle of pretty horses is great, but Wizards, not content with creating Horse Tribal for some reason, also put out Loyal Unicorn and Mesa Unicorn in quick succession, two cards that clearly belong on a poster in a teenage girl's bedroom. Boreas Charger and Pegasus Courser bring us horses with big pretty wings, which is always nice. While the idea of a little girl being a card was a joke in Unhinged, we've now got the absolutely adorable Aminatou, the Fateshifter who was designed quite deliberately by Alison Luhrs to be both strong and still girly. And Ley Weaver and Lore Weaver are clearly girlfriends and, more broadly, every single person in Valor's Reach is queer, I don't make the rules, it's canon.
But ok, ok, I'm getting a little diverted here and I haven't explained why I'm using "femme" rather than just "feminine". I'm actually a little leery of explaining, as it's kind of a complicated and contested term within queer spaces, and there's some division between the kind of isolated rural internet queerness that I grew up with and the tradition of the queer bar and club scene. But. Femme is broadly an adoption, by queer women, of highly feminine aesthetics. It's femininity performed not for the male gaze but for the queer female gaze.
When I talk about it in relation to Magic, which still predominantly keeps its queerness to subtext and paratext, this doesn't mean that the pretty unicorns are themselves gay, just that they are feminine and embrace qualities atypical for a game like Magic - softness, lightness, joyfulness, frivolity. These qualities are aimed at a different audience, bluntly, than masculine teen boys, and are ripe for adoption by the queer female and nonbinary audience of Magic.
I've been waiting for this chance to build a femme aesthetic in Magic since long before I knew what that was, or how deeply I desired it. I knew it, in fact, since my very first card: Capashen Unicorn. The Unicorn looms large in my memory and imagination. I don't know how it is as a card - my brain recoils from the idea of evaluating it rationally. When an older boy gifted me the card at around 10 or 11 years old, it seemed an obviously magical and precious object. I had eclectic tastes as a kid, but I absolutely did love unicorns. I thought they were gorgeous. I'm too postmodern'd to be essentialist about this desire, to mark this as some sort of "proof" of my latent femininity, but it didn't take long for me to figure out I shouldn't trumpet my love of the opalescent majesty of unicorns. Yet, here was this game with shockingly detailed art showing someone living the dream, my dream, of riding a gorgeous unicorn, while surrounded by sparkles.
Capashen Unicorn strikes me now as odd, as queer. The flavor text describes Capashen riders as "stern and humorless even before their ancestral home was reduced to rubble" which conveys some solid worldbuilding information but also stands somewhat at odds with the gloriously sparkly artwork. It feels like a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to rein this prancing unicorn art in, like it's just a little bit too feminine and the flavor text must counterbalance it. The end result, I think, just is something all the more fascinating for its juxtapositions. Maybe this is futch? Maybe that's way too big a topic for this article.
It was a bit of a bait and switch, though. There weren't many other cards so overtly feminine in character, feminine in a way that resonated with me as a mirrored subject rather than an object I was presumed to be distant from. It's not even that I'm hyped about horse tribal because I love horses (horses are the office worker cousins to unicorns and pegasuses, honestly), it's just that for a long time I didn't get much like Capashen Unicorn and now there's a bunch more cards with that feel, suddenly.
Oh, of course there HAVE always been angels. But angels have never really felt femme textually, in the sense of performing femininity for female consumption. While I'm now very interested in closely revisiting Serra's character, in general I think it's safe to say that angels exist in Magic predominantly to appeal to a straight male fan base. Akroma (not unlike Phage in a sense) is literally created out of the powerful mage Ixidor's fantasies about his hot dead wife for goodness sake. And her character design looks like that's her origin!
Feminine aesthetics waiting to be appropriated as femme aesthetics still have come not with the kind of softness of frolicking unicorns but with a kind of Female Fronted Symphonic Metal militancy: feminine, but also with a broadsword. Crack an M11 pack and you know immediately that you've got a Baneslayer Angel because Within Temptation starts blaring mysteriously in the background. Even as Magic has transitioned away from pinup art aesthetics (and let's be fair, Magic never had too much of that to begin with compared to other contemporary fantasy franchises) I think the aesthetics still are largely about appealing to Magic's male base, just the part of it that considers itself less gauche.
This is fairly easily demonstrated on both the creator and player side through two case studies. First, we might consider the only plane to dominantly have male angels: Amonkhet, where they're used to signal the debased nature of this Bolas-warped world with its corrupt faith. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's an effective aesthetic strategy that sets Amonkhet strongly apart from other worlds... it just does so by leaning on the presumed male gaze of the audience to invoke uneasiness with what would normally be potentially erotic objects.
Second, the reaction to Tiana, an angel in work clothes, with short hair, brandishing a wrench, demonstrates how a significant portion of the male player base regards angels. I've seldom seen this much salt over a character design before. The reddit thread is pretty interesting reading. Lots of "She'd get covered in grease!" and "She's not wearing angel clothes!" and "She's fat!" and one person who describes her as looking like a single mom. Wowza. So, if I'm reluctant to call angels femme, it's because when you get a wonderful butch angel at least part of the player base flips its collective lid.
Also: imagine a geek culture that could think of more interesting things to say than ZOMG IS THIS FIREFLY?!? Time to let go, nerds, it's 2018.
Anyway, these things seem to indicate that angels, and much of Magic in fact, are still ensconced in male gaze dynamics. And yet.
"The unicorns of Sursi are a manifestation of Serra's joy and compassion. They frolic and dance like children, offering blessings to anyone they encounter."
Wow. They frolic and dance like children. This is soft. This is femme. This is something the teen boy-I-thought-I-was would absolutely have loved. This is not a card aimed at showing off cool magepunk spellslinging or martial prowess, this is just a pastel field full of flowers with a frolicking freaking unicorn.
This is, in the context of Magic as a whole, queer. It intervenes in the highly male coded aesthetic space of Magic with something very overtly not that, and it queers Magic, and I love it, god I love it. Because not all Fantasy or every person's fantasy must be of hardness and power and sternness. The great power of Magic is that it is a game and setting that can be any setting and, increasingly, a wide range of games as well. There should be room in that space for femme material, material aimed at presenting femininity for a feminine and even queer female gaze, one that gazes on it not as object but as a kind of reflection. Who knows? Maybe someone used to seeing an Other will look at such an aesthetic and suddenly perceive a mirror and be trans-formed. And if not, well, more unicorns and diamond rainbow horses for me. I've been waiting for them for a long time, and I'm glad they're here.