Anita Sarkeesian posted a link to this article and interview with her on gamesindustry international by Dan Pearson. Pearson’s title, “Woman Vs. Internet: How Anita Sarkeesian beat the trolls,” is perhaps a bit optimistic and reductive, but the attitude he has about the whole thing is one that characterizes Sarkeesian as a hero willing to put up with the trolls in order to do something she views as crucial to the development of our culture in general and the culture surrounding videogames in particular.
Pearson notes several potential sources for what we perceive as misogyny in the industry: the low number of women in development, the original misogyny in the industry that perpetuates the alienation of female gamers, the misogyny of the community itself keeping women from speaking over headsets during online play, etc. He also notes that people – men and women alike – are working to change this. Developers are looking to hire more women. Depictions of women are getting better (overall, although there are specific instances of failure). And, as he says, “Online debate is helping.”
“But,” he also notes, “the problem persists.”
In the interview portion of the article, Pearson asks Sarkeesian not only about her Kickstarter and the backlash it generated, but also about what she actually thinks about the images of women in videogames. And for that I would like to give him a cookie, because, frankly, that’s what she wanted to talk about to begin with and what the trolls have been trying to stop her from talking about. After reading the interview, I, for one, am looking forward to what Sarkeesian’s Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames has to say.
So I want to address the issue here, very briefly and less eloquently than Sarkeesian. She talks about the false equivalency argument made about unrealistic characters (aka, “male characters are unrealistic, too”), the question of whether immorality is demeaning, and so on. And one of the points she makes at the end is worth repeating:
It’s important to remember however, that entertainment media doesn’t exist in a vacuum – that characters, stories and universes are an integral and growing part of our cultural landscape outside of the game. As such game developers should understand that their creations are always interacting with (and have an effect on) the widespread pre-existing stereotypes and negative perceptions about women in the real world.
Game characters and game narratives are powerful bits of culture and they can be employed to either reinforce harmful stereotypes about women or to actively challenge or subvert those regressive perceptions. Ultimately, I want complex, engaging and flawed yet heroic female characters with transformative story arcs instead of boring, marginalized, overly sexualized, cliched stereotypes.
In essence, the images of women presented in games – or any other media – are engaged in a critical dialogue with our understanding of what women should be, what they shouldn’t be, and how they should behave. And any depiction of women is a part of that dialogue, whether positive or negative, fat or thin, sexy or not. Sarkeesian’s point seems to be that we need to be aware that any image we create is going to become a part of that cultural milieu, and whether we really “mean” the image to be idealized or condemned, it will engage with and possibly help to shape our current standards.
And, really, that’s ultimately a good thing. Media of all kinds (literature, film, games, etc.) have been doing this for centuries. Games should be doing this, but they should also be aware that they’ve entered a stage in their development where the way they depict anyone and anything (not only women) has the potential to influence the direction of our social ideologies. Which is, I think, an overall good. But developers and artists need to remember that and take it into consideration.
So are images of women in games demeaning and objectifying? Some of them are, yes. Personally, though, I have more issues with Princess Peach than I do with Lara Croft, and not because Peach is a sexualized fetish object (although her name is Peach…). PP is helpless; Croft is most definitely not, and I would consider that a positive (even though I might wish she were a bit more proportional).
I would also argue that female protagonists are not the largest issue – female NPCs (non-player characters) are. When women are always the victims, when they are always helpless, always reliant upon the (usually male) player-character to rescue them, that is more destructive than when they are, say, Bayonetta (who has a whole host of issues, but can at least take care of herself). When the depiction of women is always as a victim, then women come to be viewed as victims, whether they are or not. And if women are always viewed as victims, then victimizing them becomes acceptable, because that is what they are “supposed” to be. And that is really where I have a problem with the way women often appear in games (and, truth be told, in many forms of media).