Unlike most of the gaming world, I will not be playing Grand Theft Auto V: I explain why over on TLF. It’s a long and involved explanation, so you’ll have to go read it over there.
Unlike most of the gaming world, I will not be playing Grand Theft Auto V: I explain why over on TLF. It’s a long and involved explanation, so you’ll have to go read it over there.
Gamers Against Bigotry posted a link to a Wired piece about female soldier skins (character art, basically) in the online game Warface that struck a chord with me about a recurring problem in videogame – and fantasy – depiction of women.
The piece seems, at first, to be about the developer’s use of different female skins in different localizations (regional adaptations) of the game. But, as Wired‘s Philippa Warr says of the issue, “you say ‘cultural relativism’, I say ‘inherently problematic’.” That’s because no matter which way you look at it, the skins are not even remotely realistic. For instance:
The male versions of both characters appear to be fairly “normal.” They’re wearing armor, carrying weapons, etc. I’m sure there’s something unrealistic about them, but I would believe that those people were appropriately attired for a combat zone. The female rifleman, however, has a shocking lack of sleeves, and her decolletage has got to be getting in the way of her aim.
And I haven’t even said anything about the female sniper. Warr says that she is “likely to get extreme nettle rash all over her bosom as she lies down to line up her shot,” and that’s being quite kind, all things considered. After all, why have a hood if you’re going to expose the brilliant whiteness of your heaving bosoms to the sky?
Now here’s the thing. Warr is talking to developer Joshua Howard about the localization of the game, and Howard has a lot of really interesting things to say about the conflict created in cross-regional competition by the fact that different areas – he mentions China and Russia – have different spec preferences for their weapons in terms of damage and kickback. And that is really interesting.
But the sniper’s cleavage is just too prominent for me to allow the piece to stay there. Howard tries – valiantly – to excuse the female models by arguing that they’re “better” than what the fans expected: the fans, he says, “were very comfortable with the fact we have these very realistic-looking men but they wanted the women to be not what we would think of as realistic at all. Up to and including running round in high heels which is just silly, right?” In short, Crytek is trying to respond to fan requests for the kinds of skins they want, and, Howard says, “They’re not what our players at first requested in the Russian region. They tended to be considerably more extreme that what we ended up shipping with.”
So Crytek tried to make these models more realistic. I don’t think I want to see what they started with, especially considering that sniper apparently also began by wearing high heels. But here’s the thing. Catering to a fanbase is all well and good – and is generally a good strategic marketing choice – but at what expense? Does anyone seriously believe that a more realistic female model is going to cause Warface‘s fans to stop playing the game? Because I don’t.
Any more than I think that putting some clothes on the sniper (what is it with female snipers, anyway?) in the new Metal Gear Solid V is going to make fewer people play that game. The Metal Gear series has had buxom female snipers before, but at least Sniper Wolf wore a body suit. Sheesh. (Kotaku has some theories about this.)
I think that if either Konami or Crytek wanted to include realistic models of women in their games, they would have just as many players as before. At least, I suppose, Crytek put a few more articles of clothing on their sniper than Konami.
Both companies could easily include female models that are attractive and reasonably clad, as in Tomb Raider or Bioshock Infinite or Gears of War. Instead, by pandering to the input of the fans who are asking for admittedly ludicrous models, Crytek is enabling the misogyny that’s already rampant in the industry by perpetuating an unrealistic image of women that is not only highly sexualized, but designed explicitly for the viewing pleasure of (straight) male gamers. And this last is really why I have a problem with it – because images of women in games should not be designed as sex objects; rather, they should be created as characters serving a purpose – as soldiers, medics, explorers – first and foremost, the exact same way their male counter-models are created.
And that’s really my point. We aren’t going to see equality in gender-representation in games until characters are created as characters, rather than as sex objects. I’ve heard the argument that female gamers won’t ever be happy with female characters unless they’re “ugly” or “fat” or “completely covered,” which is silly, and I’ve heard the argument that “if you want good female characters, then they have to be designed by women.” Sure, women could design good female characters, but to suggest that only women can design women is just as silly. All that needs to happen is that characters need to be designed as characters, as their purpose (soldier, healer, mage, adventurer) rather than as proverbial “eye-candy,” no matter what their gender.
So when I first saw a post on Gawker’s “Privilege Tournament” I dismissed it as something weird that was supposed to be a joke. And then I saw more posts about it, including one on Jezebel that encapsulates a lot of my response, which is, essentially: “You know when someone says something, and you’re thinking: Hold up - you did not just THINK that, you also let that s*** [redacted] come out your mouth, huh?”
Yesterday, I was explaining the dickwolves debacle to yet more people who had thus far been living in blissful ignorance, and we all agreed that the primary issue with it – and with all displays of privilege – is not that the initial offense happened, not that there was offense taken (whether overreactive or not), but that there is a ridiculously large contingent of Angry Young White Men who seem to find the idea that they are privileged and therefore need to consider the opinions of others to be a horrific invasion of their personal freedom.
Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan writes: “These days, teary privilege confessionals pour forth from the lips of college students in equal proportion to the fiery critiques of our grossly unjust world that pour forth from the unprivileged masses,” arguing, it seems, that the lack of privilege is somehow itself a form of privilege. The ultimate social status symbol is to have the “best non-privilege” so that you can claim the most exemptions from “normalcy.” As the first commenter, BlackManIncognito, points out: “A white man made the game; set up the categories and tells us to fight it out. Sounds about right.”
It’s like one of those weird conversations where all the participants try to explain why they’ve had the worst day, or why their husband is the worst or their wife the most nagging. “Oh, that happened to you? How awful, but at least you didn’t have to go through what I did.” You know exactly the kinds of conversations I mean.
Here’s the thing. Those conversations are only possible from a point of privilege. People only compete about the bad things that happen to them when those things aren’t really actually that bad in the grand scheme of things. No one competes for the “worst” story of human trafficking or assault or attempted murder or slavery or genocide. People who experience actual hardship don’t compete with each other for sympathy about it.
This is not to say that the minor hardships experienced by people with privilege are not genuinely emotionally distressing. It is also not to to say that people with privilege can’t complain about their boss or their coworkers or their spouses. Complaining is a coping mechanism, and it helps us feel better.
But here’s the thing. Complaining about someone else’s misfortune, disability, or minority status encroaching on your privilege (not your rights, your privilege) is complete bull****. I’m sure Nolan claims his piece is satire, but it’s about as tastelessly privileged and arrogantly bigoted as if he’d simply typed up a genuine piece announcing how attacked straight white men are in today’s society. And don’t think that doesn’t exist, because it does (and I’m probably going to start a flamewar by linking to them through this blog). And here. And here. Now some of these sites are talking about serious issues – the bias against fathers in divorce, for instance – but for the most part, they are focused not on equal rights, but on the retention of privilege, as Kyle Tran Myhre points out (there are further links to more at the bottom of his post).
Ultimately, the loss of privilege is probably a bit disturbing to those who have become accustomed to possessing it. It feels as though the status quo, which has always catered to them and exclusively to them, is shifting uncomfortably and including all of these Other People who have not hithertofore appeared in the awareness spectrum of the Privileged. And suddenly they’re demanding not only to have the right to exist, but to speak out, to have games made that appeal to them, to have films and television shows with characters like them, to have jobs that pay them the same amount as the Privileged, which means, of course, that the Privileged are starting to lose some of their status as Privileged.
I imagine that’s a strange and scary feeling, to suddenly realize that the world is not actually made just for you. But that doesn’t mean you have the right to try to take it back.
So today’s grand internet explosion related to gender and gaming has to do with a comment made by the lead developer of the Grand Theft Auto series Dan Houser at Rockstar games and printed in The Guardian, and picked up by Polygon:
Despite Rockstar’s sometimes secretive aura, Houser is very direct and has strong views on GTAV’s relationship with the movies (“We don’t need to hark back to film when technology allows us to produce our own response to real places”), on the lack of playable female characters (“The concept of being masculine was so key to this story”) and on game conferences like E3 and Gamescom, which he no longer attends (“You don’t play a videogame in a room with 20,000 people doing the same thing unless you’re a lunatic”).
The reason there aren’t playable female characters in GTA is that “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story” that having a playable female avatar seemed inappropriate. I am a staunch advocate for more playable female protagonists. I think a lot of games could be improved – and reach a broader fan base – by making gender one of several customizable options in character creation.
But I don’t care that GTA wants all their protagonists to be men. (And not just because I have no personal interest in playing it – I played Braid and I think that needed to be a male protagonist, too.) The reason I’m entirely unconcerned by Houser’s comment is because I think that telling a story about masculinity is the only reasonable explanation for having only male protagonists. Could they talk about masculinity from a female protagonist’s perspective? I’m sure they could, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is a story about masculinity, machismo, and its relationship to an urban environment replete with vice and crime. It’s a very particular story and it actually has a legitimate claim to a specifically-gendered protagonist.
Yes, you could have a woman or a gay man or a trans*person in the same setting, but then the story wouldn’t be about cis-masculinity. It would be a different story, and one probably worth telling, but that isn’t GTA‘s story, any more than the story of a young man coming of age is Tomb Raider‘s story.
So while I do think there should be more female protagonists in videogames, this isn’t another Call of Duty: Ghosts problem; where Activision proffered a lame excuse about ‘technology’ being the limiting factor for their lack of women in the COD series, GTA has an aesthetic, meaningful reason for their choice, and that, in my estimation, is actually a justification for the continued exclusion of female protagonists from the game.
This is not to say that I consider GTA to be a paragon of games. While its open-world layout has revolutionized the industry in many ways, I find its depiction of prostitutes and women in general to be rather heinous. I despise the fact that the player can beat women and is even praised for doing so. But in this – and possibly only this – case, I think they’ve given a justification for why their protagonists are and will remain (for the time being) men.
So in the wake of all the craziness in the gaming community last week, I offer up my review of Tomb Raider over at the Learned Fangirl as a ray of hope in a sea of misogyny and rape jokes.
Square Enix’s Tomb Raider is not only a fun game, but it’s a good game from a design standpoint. And it’s a game that features its female hero as a hero, not a damsel or a waif or a princess. She’s smart, resourceful, adaptive, and intellectual – as well as being physically capable of taking on either exploration or combat. And the new Lara Croft (unlike the old one from 1996) doesn’t have a bosom equivalent to twice the mass of her cranium, which I personally find to be an improvement.
But even the positive female hero aside, Tomb Raider is just a good game, and one that the husband enjoyed as much as I did… and he’s an industry professional. Short version – play the game. For the long version, follow the link to TLF.
So a few days ago I made a post about the resurrected dickwolves debacle at PAX. Since then, quite a few people have also made posts about said debacle, including Rachel Edidin on Wired (“Why I’m Never Going Back to Penny Arcade Expo”), Elizabeth Sampat (“Quit F***ing Going to PAX Already, What is Wrong with You”), Christine Love (“An Open Letter to Jerry Holkins”), and (my favorite) Gamers Against Bigotry’s Sam Killermann (“
DO NOT ENGAGE: Dickwolves, Again”). There’s a lot of anxiety out there. A lot of disappointment. A lot of anger.
I (obviously) sympathize with a lot of it. I think that repeatedly invoking the now-infamous dickwolves scandal of 2010 is only asking for trouble on a wide variety of fronts. I think it opens old wounds for those who were emotionally impacted by the original strip. I think it concerns people who want to see dickwolves die a silent, ‘dignified’ death rather than become a rallying cry for those who want to see women leave their precious games industry and geekdom alone. I also think that the problem is not actually the dickwolf itself. The problem is how it was handled originally. Because if we’d heard an apology along the lines of “Gee, we didn’t realize this was going to bother people because our point was the ludicrous nature of MMORPG missions, we’re sorry,” and they never mentioned it again, it wouldn’t be an issue.
But they did. Repeatedly. And they merchandized it. And that’s what has upset so many people – that something which should not have been and really was not that big a deal became a vehicle of ideological assault on conscientiousness.
Well, Mike Krahulik has apologized. Again. Sort of. Well, mostly. I’ll give him a “mostly” for this one. I say “mostly” because there was a good deal of “re-contextualizing” going on in that apology, adding in things that were not included in the original statement and which seem to blatantly contradict the tenor of the comment that “I think pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.” While in the retrospect of a few days and a huge flamewar later Krahulik may well regret saying what he did, while he may now understand that the whole dickwolves thing needed to never have happened, and while he may now recognize that what he should have said was “we never should have had dickwolves merchandise to pull,” those things are not, in fact, what he said to a crowd full of fans who cheered his comment in the spirit of attacking those pesky feminists who want to censor the male-centered comedy of PA.
I’m not saying that Krahulik and Holkins – as the creators of PA – want to attack the pesky feminists. I am saying that there is a non-insignificant contingent of people who have been using and are going to continue to use the dickwolf as a symbol of male dominance over “feminist censorship” with the pathetic excuse that “You can’t tell me what to joke about” because there’s “no harm in a joke.”
And here’s the thing. I don’t think that Krahulik and Holkins ever intended to attack rape victims who were upset by the original strip. I think those victims were collateral damage in a larger reaction against what some view as “excessive political correctness.” And, if I’m going to be honest, I’m not a big fan of being PC just for the sake of being PC, and I do think that parts of our society are overly sensitive to certain things. That said, I am also a fan of being conscientious about whether or not what you’re saying or doing is going to cause someone pain and then either adding a warning (that’s what “trigger warnings” are for) or not doing it. And I’m also a fan of apologizing if you offend someone unintentionally.
I still respect what PAX is supposed to stand for. I still think I’ll attend in 2015 (I can’t go in 2014 for other reasons). I will also, however, be paying attention to the kind of example that Krahulik and Holkins present in the meantime, because that example is going to form the community’s attitude to things like dickwolves, like feminist gamers, and like criticism of games and the gaming community.
And that’s my biggest problem with the repeated invocation of canis lupus phallus – that the gaming community, which already has problems accepting the opinions of half the planet based on gender (to say nothing of minorities of race or sexuality or trans*ness), is being shown that aggressively sexual and offensive behavior is acceptable. When women have to struggle to be seen as “real gamers,” when they have to deal with online and voicechat harassment simply for being (perceived as) female, when female developers and feminist game critics are threatened with rape and murder, it’s important for leaders in the industry – which Krahulik and Holkins are, whether they meant to be or not – to step up and not encourage the perpetuation of rape culture. It would be better if they were more proactive – if they ENGAGED – in promoting inclusion publicly in words as well as in PAX policies.
I also understand that Krahulik and Holkins can’t be everything to everyone. They can’t satisfy all their fans or be aware of the possible repercussions of their strip or their words all of the time. They are only human. They also have the right to free speech and free expression. BUT.
It is important, too, for them to acknowledge that it is not unreasonable for us to ask them to allow the dickwolves to become extinct. To ask them, as industry leaders (whether they wanted to become leaders or not), to take a little bit of time to think about the repercussions of their actions and speech. To consider not only whether they will have to apologize for something, but to think about how it will resonate with the gaming community – and whether that resonance will be positive or negative. Dickwolves are not a positive. Rape culture is not positive. While they have the right to say and do whatever it is they wish, they have a responsibility as leaders to make the choice not to.
So I was at PAXEast when the Penny Arcade guys were first reacting to the “dickwolves” scandal by drawing (and then erasing) a “vaginawolf” during the LiveStrip panel in 2010. I don’t have an inherent problem with “rape jokes” that are kept from being threatening or totally obscene, simply as a matter of free speech, although they are certainly not what I would consider “tasteful” in any context, and probably not appropriate in most situations. I thought at the time, “That was insensitive and tasteless, but they apologized and we can move on.” But then PA didn’t really drop it, not really. And now Mike Krahulik announces that “I think that pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.”
I have long been a PA apologist for many reasons, including their support of Child’s Play and the fact that, generally speaking, they’ve been careful to apologize when they stick their feet in their mouths. But it’s starting to seem that PA ascribes to the sentiment that it’s easier to apologize than to actually think before opening one’s mouth, which means that the apologies are starting to wear very, very thin.
I’ve been to PAXEast more than once, and I’ve never personally felt uncomfortable there as a female gamer. Last year, I in fact noted that there were a lot of women there, and most of them were not being treated overtly as sexual objects (except for a couple of them who were wearing articles of clothing that couldn’t really be called “pants,” exactly, and the sexualization took the form of ogling, not verbal or physical assault that I witnessed, because even said “pants” are not an excuse for harassment, but were cosplay and intended to get people’s ocular attention). In short, I did feel like I could be comfortable at PAXEast because there were other people there like me, and because I was able to move around on the floor and attend panels that didn’t make me feel in any way threatened or self-conscious about my gender.
Now, I know people who have been assaulted at cons (not PAX-cons), and I know plenty of people who have been on the receiving end of lewd comments at cons. I both know and have personally been on the end of geek-incredulity for being a gamer (even from my students), which is annoying, but, again, never at PAXEast.
All of which is why I am so profoundly disappointed in Krahulik’s comment. PAX-cons did feel safe, to me, ideologically speaking. They felt like a place where I didn’t have to defend myself as “the girlfriend” or “the wife,” but could actually be “the gamer” (and “the wife,” too, but I wasn’t there as “the wife”). I did think that a lot of the reaction to the original strip was blown wildly out of proportion, although I can also see how it might be upsetting to some. An apology that no harm was intended would not – and did not – go amiss… and would likely have been adequate if PA had let it drop.
Now Krahulik probably recognizes that in the backlash against feminism in gaming there are a lot of (primarily male) gamers who would purchase a “dickwolves” item to show “solidarity” for their fellow straight male gamers, part of the “Men’s Rights Activism” movement (which I did not even know was a thing until yesterday) that sees feminism as “ruining” their games. Said merchandise would probably also sell well to the teenage-male contingent who think dickwolves are funny because they’re… well.. dickwolves, and might not even know about the negative backlash surrounding them. These demographics likely mean that from a merchandising standpoint, Krahulik is probably correct in saying that said merchandise would make PA a lot of money.
But if PA wants to retain its image of inclusivity, and its reputation for being welcoming to the entire gaming community, reselling such merchandise is a terrible idea. Deliberately ignoring the clear outcry against insensitivity and tastelessness in the gaming community in order to pander to an element of that community with a penchant for misogyny and verbal assault is a terrible idea. Encouraging the misogynist subset of the gaming community – who, let’s face it, don’t really need any additional encouragement – by standing up as a public figure to whom the community looks as a barometer of appropriate behavior and saying that an offensive icon of rape culture is a good merchandise strategy is a REALLY terrible idea.
Because whether we like it or not, PA has become an industry leader in commentary, production, and community interaction. With PAXPrime, PAXEast, and PAXAus, they’re leading the convention circuit in terms of exposure, popularity, and reputation. They’ve banned booth babes. They claim to welcome gamers of all types. They speak for developers with The Trenches and for fans with the regular PA strip. And now they’re condemning those members of the community who don’t want to see the perpetuation of rape culture by encouraging those who do.
I can’t attend PAXEast 2014 due to a scheduling conflict, but this does make me think seriously about whether or not I even want to consider attending in 2015. It makes me want to avoid PA strips, PA merchandise, and even watching the PAX twitch channels. It makes me uncomfortable that some of my favorite developers (BioWare, for instance, who does so much with inclusivity in terms of gender, race, and sexuality in games) have become affiliated with PAX-cons. Right now, I’ll wait to see where this goes, because I want to like what PAX and PA have always claimed to stand for, but I need to see them actually standing for it, rather than taking a nose-dive into the worst examples of behavior the gaming community has to offer.
So I want to give a shout-out to professional Starcraft, both players and media coverage, today because of the way they handled this: a female gamer (handle: Scarlett, name: Sasha Hostyn) in the World Championship Series who almost won season 2.
Why do I think they did such a good job? Because the Penny Arcade report above and the live commentators (video links in the article) didn’t say a single word about her gender aside from using the female pronoun when referring to her. In fact, the lead story is that she’s Canadian (not South Korean).
We often spend a ton of time talking about how women in games need to be more visible and more vocal, so why am I so happy that when a woman wins second place in the Starcraft WCS, nobody says anything? Simple. Because they didn’t have to draw attention to the fact that she’s female. They just accepted it and treated her exactly the same as every other player in the tournament… aside from commenting that she’s Canadian. (In some ways, focusing on another difference does draw attention to her gender by virtue of it being the proverbial elephant in the room, but I still think silence was the best possible option here.) It’s a positive because they didn’t feel the need to praise her skill because she’s a girl, as though being female is a natural videogaming disadvantage. Positive, too, because there were no disparaging comments about her gender, either. No suggestions of kitchens or domestic activities or attractiveness.
Scarlett’s just another gamer, and a damn good one. And it’s about time that the gender of a gamer becomes irrelevant to their abilities and the way they’re treated from the other side of the console (or computer), so props to PA and to the WCS for allowing her to be a gender-neutral gamer instead of a “girl gamer.” Now let’s see more of that in games, in the gaming community, and in games journalism, where gender determines pronouns but not much else in terms of treatment, privilege, or assumptions of skill or even taste.
I hope this is the beginning of the end of sexism in gaming (community, development, journalism), but I know we still have a lot of work to do across the board. Nevertheless, this story is a beacon which I can come back to when I get depressed by the rest of it all, to remind myself that we are moving forward, even if slowly, and if we (as gamers who happen not to be straight white men) just keep going, just keep doing what we do, whether that’s designing, blogging, publishing, or just playing, the industry will respond and we will be able to stop hiding behind avatars and handles… if we want to.
My first thought: Good! It’s about damn time. After all, lots of games have had female characters in multiplayer mode for a long time (including Halo and Gears of War), sometimes even in the single-player campaign (Halo Reach, Mass Effect, Gears of War 3, Fable, Dragon Age, and others). Now perhaps it’s too bad that it was more important to them to announce new-and-improved realistic dogs at E3 than it was for them to announce the introduction of playable female soldiers (yup, the furry, tattooed German Shepard rated higher than women), but at least they are including women, right?
And what inspired this inclusion? Well, I’d assumed – probably like many other gamers – that Activision or the development team had finally realized that women were not only people, but people capable of combat, even in a virtual, pixelated environment. (Yes, I know the snark is coming on strong today, but it’s August and I’m an academic, so just bear with me for a bit.) As Stephen Totillo notes in an article today, apparently not.
The reason (if you don’t want to click the link)? Technology. We now apparently have the technology to include women. Because clearly creating a single female model for a soldier is far too complicated for game consoles to handle… except that they’ve been doing it for years. Yes, I do understand that the actual point being made is about complex character customization – while it’s possible in Mass Effect or Skyrim to fully customize the appearance, color scheme, and other elements of the player-character, in a game like COD the memory required to display fully customized avatars for ALL the players in a game is significantly higher than what is needed for the player-character in a single-player campaign. I get that.
But here’s the thing. You don’t need full customization in order to have female characters. You can have three models of characters that aren’t at all customizable and one of them can be female. It’s pretty easy. Halo did it. Gears did it. Unreal Tournament did it (and that one was in the 1990s). But let’s say you only have one model in your game. Defaulting to male for COD is probably the better choice for a variety of reasons, including the fact that most soldiers are male and most COD players are male. Okay. I’m fine with that.
But what I’m not fine with is the deliberate effacing of the sociopolitical issue behind the decision to include women. It’s like Activision doesn’t want to admit that they were at one point excluding women, so they blame the absence of women on technology. They couldn’t admit that the culture fostered by COD was misogynist or at least sexist, so they said “Oh, we just didn’t have the capability,” instead of saying, “Hey, we think it’s time that we include women in COD and since we’re planning to include custom characters, we’re doing it now!”
I’m one of the first people on the bandwagon to defend COD against detractors who say it makes players violent or aggressive, but I’m also one of the first to say that the COD player community is about as far from welcoming as it gets (except maybe League of Legends). Don’t believe me? See these tweets in response to the alteration of a couple of guns. So when I see women being added to the roster of CODG, I’m pleased. But when Activision doesn’t have the courage to admit that part of why they’re including women is to be inclusive, I get annoyed. Because to have a major industry leader saying “Hey, guys, it’s time to include women in our games because that’s the right thing to do” would set an example. Saying “Oh, we’re doing it because now we can” dismisses the importance of including women and also sets an example, and not the good kind.
Today my review of the final installment of Tropes vs. Women in Videogames (Damsel in Distress, part three) went up on TLF. I’ve talked about Sarkeesian’s series before, both here and on TLF, and while I think the TvW series is improving, it still leaves me wanting more.
I do like that Sarkeesian recognizes the cross-over between media in this piece – that she sees the echoes in the games that feature female heroes from television series and movies that are doing the same thing (Buffy, Charmed, Sabrina, etc.). I kinda wish she’d been more conscious of that in the other two sections – to note how the games are the same, better, or worse than their surrounding media. Because that’s something that’s worth thinking about.
I have been thinking about that, actually, a lot lately. About how even in movies and tv shows I’m seeing the same tired tropes that pepper videogames. Recently, the husband and I went to see The Heat with another couple. The husband had some really interesting things to say about it – namely that it felt like an alien universe. Which I thought was actually really weird. It felt, to me, like a typical buddy-cop movie, except with women instead of men. But not to him (and not to my friend’s husband, either, apparently). He pointed out how Mullins was always emasculating the men in the film by commenting on the size of their testicles. How both women dressed “masculine.” How there wasn’t any real romance in it, at all.
How Bullock’s earlier film Miss Congeniality, which has a lot of similar themes about empowerment, made more sense to him. Why? Because ultimately in that film, women were being objectified. Sure, a lot of it was satirical, but because the girls got prettied up, it made sense. Because there was a male love-interest, it made sense. Because she had to act like a girl to win, it made sense. In The Heat, they don’t. The “makeover” scene is one in which they take out a lot of guns and end up in black cargo pants, tank tops, and flak jackets, carrying ammo and grenades. Bullock isn’t the “hot chick” of the duo who always gets attention – far from it. And they have to act like men in a man’s world in order to make progress, and they know it. It was very “true,” and apparently made the men in the audience really aware of their privilege. I want to play a game that does that.
I also just want to briefly mention something in light of one of Sarkeesian’s recent tweets about the series.
My Damsel in Distress miniseries doesn’t feature more heroic female characters in games as examples because they are not Damsels in Distress
— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) August 13, 2013
While on the one hand, I totally see her point (which follows an earlier tweet in which she points out that just because the damsel-in-distress trope is prevalent in videogames does not mean that ALL female characters are damsels), I also think she’s missing the motivation behind the complaint that she isn’t addressing female heroes. First of all – and I do mention this in my review – there are lots of female characters who begin as or feature temporarily in games as damsels who un-damsel themselves, and I think those characters are very much worth mentioning. To quote myself (which is a little weird, I know):
But the only example Sarkeesian can give us of a game in which the female rescues herself is… made up? What about the most recent Tomb Raider, in which we are repeatedly (and I’m not that far yet) placed in a victimized position and then Lara gets herself out? What about Metroid? What about any number of instances in the Dragon Age series in which the Warden and Hawke (if female) fight their way out of trouble that they have landed themselves squarely in the middle of? What about No One Lives Forever? Or Remember Me? Or the female characters in Left 4 Dead and Gears of War III? Or Sheva Alomar in Resident Evil 5? Or perhaps the example I like the most, Alice, from American McGee’s Alice, who is so utterly objectified by both medicine and society that she goes insane and has to fight her way out of her own self-objectification? (Alice is an amazing game on so, so many fronts.)
My list is not simply a list of female heroes, but a list of female heroes who specifically and deliberately un-damsel themselves. They are damsels at first (or at some point in the game) and subvert the trope by redefining their damsel status from victim to hero. I think those kinds of female heroes are worth mentioning. I think others can be mentioned as alternatives (and Sarkeesian does some of this, very quickly) – answering the “What do we do if we don’t create damsels-in-distress?” question. Or the question of “How can we have a character in need of rescue that isn’t a negative damsel?” (since rescuing another person is one of our fundamental social power fantasies). These are legitimate questions that Sarkeesian doesn’t address.
But I do want to come back to the idea that although I am criticizing her work, I do applaud what she’s doing (just as she’s criticizing games that she might enjoy…). I don’t think she should stop. I do think that I want to see more than what she’s accomplished, however, and from other perspectives (feminist and otherwise) that do more work with the “gaps” in the TvW series. Because it does have gaps. Glaring ones that need to be talked about and filled.
But Anita Sarkeesian is only one woman who needs to sleep and eat like the rest of us, and her work – at the forefront of its genre – is going to have gaps. And that’s really fine. I’m not saying she should be able to do ALL THE THINGS. I am saying that there are gaps, that those gaps need to be addressed, and that someone – be it Sarkeesian herself or others, maybe even myself to a very small degree – needs to be working on that.