Posted By Austin Yorski about 9 months, 2 weeks ago
There has been a lot of talk about sexism in video games recently. From the harassment of BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler, to the bullying of fighting game player Super_Yan, and the threats leveled at blogger Anita Sarkeesian, the industry and its culture have come under more fire in the last year than they have since the days when the shadow of Jack Thompson loomed large. Personally, I have extensively covered such controversial games as Skullgirls, Lollipop Chainsaw, Bayonetta, Dead or Alive, Record of Agarest War, Hitman: Absolution, and the Tomb Raider reboot, earning myself somewhat of a reputation as a “hand-wringing psuedo-feminist.” All of that is merely context to the larger questions about women in gaming. Where are all the strong female characters? Why are game writers so sexist? To what extent are critics exaggerating this specter of misogyny?
As someone who writes a bi-weekly column examining some of the touchier and more subjective aspects of the medium, there are a lot of ways to approach an issue such as this. I considered a standard editorial piece. I planned on going game-by-game to analyze male gaze and gender inequality as it occurred. I even started a list of my favorite “strong” female characters, but abandoned it as it ballooned towards triple digits. In the end, I decided that the best way to both get my thoughts across and to entertain our readers would be to take you along on a journey through what I see as the 6 female archetypes of interactive electronics, explaining how each can be utilized effectively or employed to embarrassing ignorance.
Warning: Some spoilers may follow.
1. Women as Goals
Easily one of the oldest tropes in all of fiction, the “damsel in distress” is a character archetype so entrenched in the collective consciousness that we’ve developed Stockholm Syndrome for it. The earliest games with actual plots–Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong–all revolve around saving the princess, and to some extent are justified in their simplicity. Nobody expected early video games to have complex characters or progressive explorations of gender roles, so it’s almost pointless to harp on the helplessness of Peach and Daisy. However, we should expect more from modern games, and sadly we still seem to see a disproportionate amount of female characters who are simply used as incentive for the male protagonist to save the world and stop the bad guys.
This is an easy sexist convention to lampoon. It doesn’t take a scholar to point out how useless Ashley is in Resident Evil 4 or how flat of a character Kyrie from Devil May Cry 4 ends up. On the other hand, there is a way to employ this trope in a justifiable way. As I’ve discussed previously, Mono from Shadow of the Colossus is purely motivation for The Wanderer as far as the plot goes, but sub-textually represents a rather interesting religious metaphor. Another great example is “The Princess” from Braid, who is employed to subvert audience expectations of her role. The game seemingly follows Tim on his quest to save the princess, but turns around at the end with the twist that she has actually been running from him the whole time.
It may be controversial to say that female characters being used as plot devices can be a good thing, but I think we can at least agree that there are “better” ways to go about it than the old clichés.
2. Women as Sex Objects
This is the thing most everyone thinks of when they consider sexism in gaming. BloodRayne, Bullet Witch, Wet, and many other titles have sold their intellectual property entirely on the sex appeal of their female leads, banking on the old adage that “sex sells.” What could be more sexist than that?
Unfortunately, quality artistic criticism is never so simple. Just because a woman is scantily-clad in a video game doesn’t make it sexist. Just because a game is clearly targeted at men doesn’t make it sexist. Just because a Tomb Raider developer made a sexist comment about Lara Croft doesn’t make the game sexist. It doesn’t matter what the designers, writers, artists, producers, or even the PR team meant for consumers to take away from their product. All that matters is the content of the software itself.
I’ve gone into this before, but it bears repeating: Authorial intent should have no effect on the merit of a work of art. I could write an entire other article about New Criticism and the intentional fallacy, but it seems far more expedient for those interested to simply seek out “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes. After reading, ask yourself: Is Lollipop Chainsaw sexist because Suda51 wanted Juliet to be sexy, or is it problematic for its combination of a powerful female protagonist and questionable usage of male gaze?
On one hand, there are clearly indefensible instances of the sexual exploitation of women in gaming. RapeLay is probably the most infamous example, but even SoulCalibur‘s Ivy is difficult to justify from any reasonable point of view. On the other hand, saying that women shouldn’t expose their bodies or express sexuality in a video game is both limiting to the medium and dangerously close to slut-shaming. There is a lot to be said for sex-positive portrayals of women in media, and there’s no reason why gaming can’t be a part of that. The question is always going to be about differentiating between the agency of the character and the presumed voyeuristic gratification of the consumer.
A good example of this occurs in the recent PS Vita title Gravity Rush. Some feminist critics have taken issue with Kat, the heroine, and her wardrobe choices. However, in the game Kat clearly states that she enjoys dressing the way she does. This is a classic feminism Catch 22: Is it internalized misogyny if you genuinely subscribe to patriarchal beauty standards? Muddying the waters even further is the divergent ideologies even within the field of women’s studies–there are three unique “waves” of feminist thought, in addition to separate schools like conservative feminism and radical feminism.
In the end, the preponderance of male game writers and conventional marketing wisdom is going to result in an infinite amount of female characters who are envisioned as little more than sex objects. Our job as consumers is to distinguish between these shallow offerings and works which happen to feature women who are conventionally attractive, sexually aggressive, or otherwise confident in their bodies. We can’t let the narrow-minded output of some creators forever close off an avenue of expression and creativity.
3. Women as Men
Some writers try to be progressive by making “strong female characters.” Unfortunately, they usually try to accomplish this by simply making their female characters physically stronger. This not only wholly misses the point, but also has unsettling implications for the way we as a culture view the relationship between strength and a person’s worth. A woman’s value is not proportional to her similarity to a man.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this is Anya Stroud from Gears of War. While the gender diversity she brings to the series was sorely needed, everything about her seems as token as possible. It’s as if they simply copied and pasted her head onto the body of a generic COG soldier–a tragic missed opportunity for a franchise so often accused of machismo. A slightly better example (sharing some staff, coincidentally) is People Can Fly’s BulletStorm, which features the tough-as-nails Trishka Novak. Pretty much everything that can be said about her is encapsulated in one of her first lines: “I will kill your dicks!”
Like every other archetype on this list though, there are profound and intelligent ways to utilize this technique. Naoto Shirogane (pictured above), from Persona 4, is a girl who dresses in men’s clothing because of her desire to be taken seriously as a detective. At one point in the game you even delve quite literally into her subconsciousness, only to discover that she is tormented by the symbolic representation of a sex-change operation. The game paints Naoto’s characterization not as a woman who is strong because of her resemblance to a man, but as a person who becomes strong when she no longer internalizes society’s prejudices against her chromosomal arrangement. Similarly, Kumatora from Mother 3 is a girl who cross-dresses to escape her prescribed gender role, which is juxtaposed with some of the most powerful beings in the game’s universe: transvestites.
Ultimately, there is an appeal to women who kick ass. There’s no reason why female video game characters can’t be as physically strong as their male counterparts, but it is important to remember that there is more to writing such a character than just changing a few pronouns around.