Monthly Archives: October 2011

Video Games II: Women and Gaming

The other facet of women in gaming is the real women affiliated with the gaming world: the actual industry professionals, female gamers, and the women commonly referenced as “booth girls” – attractive women hired by game publishers and conventions to pose as gamers (who often are not actually interested in video games).  These women often face exploitation for their gender when they are recognized by the industry and are often otherwise ignored.

While female game designers go all the way back to Atari, there’s one woman designer with media prominence: Jade Raymond, of the team that made Assassin’s Creed.  Now, I don’t know Ms. Raymond, and I’m not saying she isn’t talented.  She didn’t get to her position in the game industry without talent and love of gaming.  However, I am saying the only reason her name rings louder than say, Carol Shaw (one of the earliest game designers) or Kim Swift (creator of the game Portal was based off of, Narbacular Drop, as well as a designer on the Portal team), is because…

1. She is attractive.

2. Her attractiveness was used as a selling point for Assassin’s Creed.

Now, it’s totally reasonable for producers to be public about their game – anyone who’s seen Cliffy B’s twitter feed knows that they’re often overly excited to do so.  It’s great to be proud of your work.  But, I have to question of things like this are really necessary to sell a game:

But you know what?  It worked.  Ubisoft put out Jade as an icon and sold their game by selling her.  This is a woman who by her early thirties had a resume including executive level work at EA and Ubisoft,  something respectable for any woman or man in the field, reduced to shilling her project by taking off her clothes.

Game designers aren’t the only industry women who face marginalization or exploitation for their work.  Game Journalists who happen to be female also face different professional standards.  Kotaku columnist Leigh Alexander had a piece about this recently wherein she argued that despite all of her work in game journalism, all of her articles and interviews, when people discuss her the most important adjective is “female.”  I don’t always agree with Leigh (her opinions on Bayonetta especially) but I respect how hard she works and it’s infuriating to me that her work gets distilled down to “female” with no attention to the actual vastness of her work.

When I think about women in the industry I often come back to this video because it’s something men generally find more palatable than outright feminist thought on the subject, but I have a couple problems with it, most notably the criticism of the aforementioned “booth girls” but also the suggestion that the best way to appeal to women is to make something pink.

The booth girl is not unique to gaming but the game industry in particular is fairly notorious for it and even embraces it.  It’s easy to point the finger and say, “hey, nobody is making these girls do this.  They’re making money by pretending to be gamers so women only have themselves to blame.  Really it’s men who are being tricked, they’re lured into these games by hot women who don’t really share their interests!”  Well, no.  Society is making these girls do this.

As girls (and later as women), we’re taught by our surroundings that our looks are our most important feature (“you can’t see smarts”) and that our sex is a commodity.  Men like to flip it and say that women commoditize sex to “get what they want” but supply doesn’t create demand (when was the last time a parent told his/her daughter her virginity was only as important as she deemed it so and that no decent man would judge her for having casual sex and enjoying intercourse?) and chances are these women didn’t just show up at a gaming convention one year and say, “hey, do you want to pay us to stand here and look hot?”

It’s not just paid models who fall into the “sex sells” role women are wedged into in gaming.  A half dozen sites and services exist to pair up men with women’s gamer tags.  While I’m not against the concept of matchmaking through gaming (I know I only date other gamers), these sites don’t approach it at that angle: the women get paid (per hour largely) and the company takes a cut.  It’s not prostitution by any stretch, but it’s not particularly good for women gamers either (it enforces the idea that women only pretend to game to get men).

So do actual female gamers and developers have an equal place in the game picture?  Is there any avenue for women in gaming that isn’t inherently exploitative?  Can a woman be just a gamer without attracting any undue attention; can an attractive women be a gamer without having more expected from her?  I think so.  I just don’t think we’re there yet.

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Video Games I: Characterization of Women

I’m an avid gamer.  I grew up with a NES and a Sega Genesis, we’ve had every Playstation ever put out, still have a working Dreamcast and Gameboy color, and bought an Xbox 360 in early 2007 after a friend-of-a-friend introduced me to Gears of War.  Chances are if I haven’t played it I still know about it.  The world of video games is wide and vast: it varies in style and theme, target age group, and from single player to interactivity between thousands.

A (male) friend of mine who writes about comic books and had an upcoming article about sexism and misogyny in comics recently linked a video on facebook about the exploitation of the female body in gaming and the differences between how male and female characters are presented.  The video makes an excellent point about body language and characterization:

A recently released picture for the upcoming Mass Effect 3 illustrates this point particularly well:
For those not particularly familiar with the characters of the Mass Effect universe, the above characters are from Mass Effect 1 (and briefly 2): Ashley and Kaidan.   Only one of these characters survives the first game and which one it is depends on choices you make as the player.

Both of these characters are equal – they’re both Alliance soldiers (Ash in the Soldier class, Kaidan in the Adept), both are promoted in rank in Mass Effect 2, and both reach the highly elite Spectre status in Mass Effect 3.  Effectively, it doesn’t matter which one you choose to survive the first game, they come out as equals in rank and importance in the final game.

But despite her Spectre status, Ashley is drawn primarily as a sex figure.  Her body language presents her as an object for men to ogle, eyes averted, hips skewed.  It says nothing about her character and in fact can be argued to be directly contrary to her actual characterization in the games.  One of the stills is even of her turned around so that the gamer can see what her ass will look like in ME3.  Kaidan, on the other hand, holds a firm and confident pose, facing forward.  Keep in mind, these characters are supposed to be interchangeable and equal.

While I agree with Bob Chipman about how clothing is or isn’t worn, I do think he misses the mark on whether or not clothing (or lack thereof) is a concern (and should be) to female gamers.  Let’s continue with the Mass Effect example before moving on:
In Mass Effect 1, Ashley is introduced as a “tough” character – she’s the sole survivor in her unit of an attack on the human colony on the planet Eden Prime by Geth invaders.  However, even with her initial introduction, her clothing is the bigger statement: she’s wearing bright pink and white armor.  Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with conventional femininity and women wearing pink.  “Feminine” isn’t inherently anti-feminist or bad.  The fact that there is pink and white armor (and yellow and black and every other color) in the game is not the problem.  The problem is that out of every single recruitment in the game, Ashley is the only one in an armor color that isn’t remotely suitable for any sort of combat situation wherein concealing oneself might make the difference between life and death.  She is othered for her sex.

In Mass Effect 2, your team consists of many male and female companions.  See if you can spot a difference between the men and the women in this picture:
With exception to Tali (third from Left), none of the women are wearing armor suited to intergalactic combat despite every single one of the male companions being dressed for the occasion.  Jack (far right) has belts for a top, Samara (second from left) – a warrior hundreds of years old – wears a catsuit with a revealing cut down to her navel, and Miranda (center) wears a bodysuit so revealing you can see literally every contour of her body during the game.

The problem is not simply that these characters are hyper-feminized, or that their outfits are revealing, it’s that they are explicitly treated differently from the male characters and are dressed entirely inappropriately for the situations which they are presented with in the game.  They are all presented primarily as sex objects and secondarily as characters (and their characters leave something to be desired – Miranda, Tali, Ashley, and in a way Jack all have major father issues that define everything about their actions).

Just to clarify because I don’t want it to seem like I’m railing only on Mass Effect, it’s one of my favorite games.  It’s in no way unique in the problems it has with female characters.

As another example, let’s look at Anya Stroud and Sam in the recent release Gears of War 3 alongside their male counterparts:
Gears of War 3 takes place decades after Emergence Day, the apocalyptic cataclysm between humans and Locust on the planet Sera.

Let’s do some math.  The first Gears of War takes place 14 years after Emergence Day (4 years after the incarceration of the protagonist, Marcus Fenix).  It’s established that Marcus, his best friend Dom, and Anya are all veterans of the previous war on Sera, the Pendulum Wars.  So, assuming they only fought one year of the Pendulum Wars and all enlisted at 17 (which isn’t true because Anya is an academy grad officer and Marcus is a decorated hero from the wars, but for argument’s sake, we’ll lowball the numbers), at the onset of the first game they’re all 32 years old at the absolute youngest.  The second game takes place six months after the first, and the third eighteen months after that.  So 34 is the absolute youngest any of these people are.

In the third game Marcus, Dom, Cole and Baird are all visibly older.  They’re grizzled, worn, scarred and dirty.  They’ve been fighting an unstoppable and unrelenting foe for sixteen years!  Anya and Sam, however, remain ageless and clean.  They have flawless makeup, no wrinkles, no scars, and cute haircuts (as opposed to keeping their hair tied back and out of their eyes, or cut short).

Again, the problem is not that they are attractive, busty, and thin women.  There’s inherently nothing wrong with being attractive or having large breasts or being lithe from a lifetime of being on the run (though it’s more than a little unrealistic).  The issue is that these women are presented so clearly different from the men with whom they have shared identical experiences and time alive.  These women should have battle scars, they should have lines around their eyes from peering down a rifle scope for years.  It takes away from the realism of a “this is the end of the world” mood when all the women seem immune to everything around them including physical damage and the space time continuum.

It’s interesting to consider this problem when applied to games with visible female protagonists, such as Lara Croft and Bayonetta, versus games with completely covered or not visible (first person) female protagonists like Samus Aran (of Metroid) and Chell (of Portal).  There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said about Lara before (she’s actually a poor role model and protagonist, her character is more or less void of characterization beyond her sex appeal though the reboot may attempt to change that) and the “subversiveness” of Bayonetta and the destruction of her foes through her femininity is arguably the most offensive ploy at “see, using/commoditizing sex and sex appeal to get what or where you want or need to be is empowering!” in gaming, but Samus and Chell are actually interesting to examine.

Samus is probably one of the, if not the most highly regarded female lead in gaming.  The reveal the the end of Metroid that the form under the power armor was that of a woman was a great twist and really forced the player to re-examine any misconceptions he or she might have had about heroines (even if it was done in the sleaziest “look, a girl in a bikini!” way).  Up until the unlockable Samus in Super Smash Brothers Brawl and later Other M, Samus kept her power armor on most of the time (unless you unlocked “good endings”), which was met by an interesting dichotomy: some game critics rightfully though it was pandering her character should have been above while others heralded it as an “about time” as if somehow, despite years of space ass kicking, she was totally unaccomplished until they could see her body on constant display (there’s multiple articles on “hot babes” in video games pointing out her curvaceous backside and large breasts).

Chell is seemingly the bright light in female game leads: she’s pretty average looking, she’s a woman of color, and the fact that she’s a woman is entirely inconsequential to the game.  In Portal she’s a woman trapped in an experiment gone wrong, using her wits and some neat technology to escape a homicidal artificial intelligence.  But what does it say about the industry when the best female character they can make is one that’s never seen, heard, or given a background?


“What’s Your Number?” and Slut Shaming

I’d like to preface my criticism of the film What’s Your Number with a note that I have not seen the movie itself, I am basing my feelings about the content of the film on previews and actual film reviews.  My commentary has nothing to do with the acting, production, or any artistic aspect of the film.  I happen to think Anna Faris is a very funny woman, however, the theme of her present flick is not.

For those not in the US Rom-Com loop, there is a major theatrical release wherein the protagonist (Anna Faris) goes on a quest to not sleep with anyone else because she will never find a husband because of the number of men she has slept with and is inferior to her friends for having a larger number than them.

Spoiler, she has sex with one more man (Chris Evans), presumably because she intends to marry him (because premarital sex is fine but only if you’re planning on getting married!).

Now let’s be honest – romantic comedies, while often geared towards women, are hardly ever progressive about the messages they convey about healthy relationships and gender roles.  Boy meets girl (or girl meets boy), boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.  The man usually has to come around to loving the woman in spite of or because of her flaws and then do something romantic (profess his undying love, purchase a price-inflated blood diamond for her, stand up to her father) to seal the relationship forever.   Often this means the woman giving something up (such as a career).  For example, in You’ve Got Mail, following the collapse of her business due to the corporate crowd-out by Tom Hanks’ character, Meg Ryan’s character closes her small independent bookstore to work in Hanks’ large male-owned and dominated store because despite everything she loves him.  She has lost her livelihood, she has lost her independence, but it’s okay because she has the love of a providing man.  And these are the movies we want compare our real-world relationships to?

What’s Your Number? is indicative of a larger problem within our society: Slut Shaming.  The idea that women should be embarrassed by or ashamed of sexuality, that sexually empowered women are somehow deserving of or responsible for being victims of sexual assault and rape, and that women shouldn’t enjoy sex (especially casual sex) are all frames of thought behind slut shaming.  Think about the number of times you’ve seen or heard the following (on facebook, in person, wherever):

  • “Think of it like this: if a key opens a lot of locks, it’s a master key, but if a lock is opened by many keys, it’s a shitty lock.”
  • “She’s such a slut, look at what she’s wearing.”
  • “Well when you dress like that, things happen to you.”
  • “She’s had sex with x number of guys, she’s such a whore.”
  • “She’s loose.”
  • “Women just need asprin for birth control: put an asprin between your knees and keep it there!”
  • “She only says she’s bisexual to get attention from men because she’s a slut.”
  • “She’s the town bicycle, everyone’s had a ride.”

Now, think of how many of those have ever been applied to men.  With exception to the second to last (which will be discussed further in a future post about bisexual erasure), none of them.

Keep in mind that absolutely none of these statements, no matter how “jokingly” they’re made, do anything but value a woman based on what her worth is to a man and base that value on an arbitrary number of penises that woman has come into contact with.  Some of them even suggest that if a woman enjoys sex, owns her sexuality, and feels comfortable about her body, someone taking sex from her would be partially her fault.

Slut shaming isn’t limited to men turning women’s sexuality against them; some of the most vicious slut shaming comes from our own peers, woman to woman, in a misguided effort to obtain some nature of pack hierarchy.  Girls turning against girls, women against women to enforce a rigid patriarchal structure that harms everyone as if somehow to say, “I may only be valued by my vagina, but I want my vagina to be valued more highly than hers.”

In the 2004 film Mean Girls (based on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman) Tina Fey’s character tells the girls of her school to, “stop calling each other sluts and whores,” because, “it just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”  What we have is a culture so engrained in this idea what women shouldn’t have sex and if they do they shouldn’t enjoy it too much that the biggest insult to a woman’s character it to suggest that she does these things.  A culture so entrenched with the idea that the number of people a woman has slept with determines everything about her socially including whether or not she is worth marrying is so acceptable that a romantic comedy film can be made about it…and women will pay to go see it.


What is Patriarchy (and does it exist in America)?

One of the first questions asked of a modern feminist often boils down to, “why does feminism still exist today?  Women aren’t really forced to stay home, girls are outperforming boys in school, and conditions for women today are better than they’ve ever been before.  In fact, in some ways women have it better than men!”  The notion seems to be that feminism has outlived it’s usefulness; that with suffrage and the boom of career women we should just accept our station and realize we have it pretty good.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines privilege as, “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.”  In a patriarchal society, the dominating privilege is male privilege.  Other privileges exist – white privilege is still overwhelming – but male privilege crosses race barriers, religions, and ethnic backgrounds.

This is not to say all (or even most) men are sexists, on the contrary it is simply an assessment that, by nature of birth, men are afforded rights (often as social constructs) that women are not.  The average male does not consciously recognize he is privileged and certainly does not actively think of himself as a promoter of inequality based on the historically imposed “superiority” of his gender (though such men do exist).  Barry “Ampersand” Deutsch crafted a male privilege checklist based on the 1990 Peggy McIntosh essay titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.  It’s 46 points reads as follows:

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.

2. I can be confident that my co-workers won’t think I got my job because of my sex – even though that might be true. (More).

3. If I am never promoted, it’s not because of my sex.

4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.

5. I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are. (More).

6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.

7. If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are relatively low. (More).

8. On average, I am taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces much less than my female counterparts are.

9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.

10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.

11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent. (More).

12. If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.

13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.

14. My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more this is true.

15. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

16. As a child, chances are I was encouraged to be more active and outgoing than my sisters. (More).

17. As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male protagonists were (and are) the default.

18. As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often. (More).

19. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether or not it has sexist overtones.

20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented.

21. If I’m careless with my financial affairs it won’t be attributed to my sex.

22. If I’m careless with my driving it won’t be attributed to my sex.

23. I can speak in public to a large group without putting my sex on trial.

24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.” (More).

25. I do not have to worry about the message my wardrobe sends about my sexual availability. (More).

26. My clothing is typically less expensive and better-constructed than women’s clothing for the same social status. While I have fewer options, my clothes will probably fit better than a woman’s without tailoring. (More).

27. The grooming regimen expected of me is relatively cheap and consumes little time. (More).

28. If I buy a new car, chances are I’ll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car. (More).

29. If I’m not conventionally attractive, the disadvantages are relatively small and easy to ignore.

30. I can be loud with no fear of being called a shrew. I can be aggressive with no fear of being called a bitch.

31. I can ask for legal protection from violence that happens mostly to men without being seen as a selfish special interest, since that kind of violence is called “crime” and is a general social concern. (Violence that happens mostly to women is usually called “domestic violence” or “acquaintance rape,” and is seen as a special interest issue.)

32. I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. “All men are created equal,” mailman, chairman, freshman, he.

33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.

34. I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name.

35. The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.

36. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is pictured as male.

37. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.

38. If I have a wife or live-in girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks. (More).

39. If I have children with my girlfriend or wife, I can expect her to do most of the basic childcare such as changing diapers and feeding.

40. If I have children with my wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.

41. Assuming I am heterosexual, magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.

42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. (More). If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do. (More).

43. If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover. (More).

44. Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile.” (More: 1 2).

45. Sexual harassment on the street virtually never happens to me. I do not need to plot my movements through public space in order to avoid being sexually harassed, or to mitigate sexual harassment. (More.)

45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.

46. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

The term “patriarchy” (defined as “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; control by men of a disproportionately large share of power “) is often met with an eyeroll but in a nation where male privilege exists across all other social barriers and only 17 senators (39 in total historically), 2 supreme court justices (4 total in history), and 0 presidents have been women it is difficult to suggest that women – and the rights held by women – have not been overwhelmingly ruled and decided by men.

What does living in a patriarchy mean for American women (and for men)?  Bills like HR 358 (the “Let Women Die”) bill pass through the House of Representatives despite the bill expressly allowing hospitals to deny life-saving abortions in direct opposition to the 1986 Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act.  A male representative (Joseph Pitts, R-PA) decided for his female constituents that their potential fetuses are more valuable as human beings than they are.  That a grown woman who’s only “mistake” was being born capable of getting pregnant should pay for that with her life if a hospital deems it inappropriate to terminate a fetus so that she may survive.

For men this means lost wives and daughters, lost friends and coworkers.  It means holding on to a woman you love as she’s dying in a hospital emergency room and being told that to save her life you must leave and go to another hospital (perhaps hours away) and hope with all your might that they are willing to perform the procedure to save her life.

It can also mean having a female contender for the Republican presidential candidate actually endorse the idea that women should do as they’re told by their husbands and fathers – endorsing the literal and traditional rigid definition of patriarchy.  Not only is this obscene for a woman who professes to be capable of running the largest political office in the country to say, it’s offensive to imply that a woman is incapable of making decisions about her own life, or that while she may be able to make decisions that a male would automatically make a better decision by virtue of his Y-Chromosome.

Historically it has meant the nation as a whole refusing to constitutionally guarantee women equal rights and legal protection and only 21 states to grant it in their constitutions.  The ERA saw several introductions and defeats before disappearing, all by male-dominated (and in many states, male-exclusive) governing bodies.

What all of this boils down to is this: yes, the United States is a patriarchy.  No, this is not a conscious decision by most men to oppress women.  It is a tradition passed down from generation to generation, across party lines, something that has been lulled into society and will take an actual awakening to be rid of.  It will take women realizing that they are still oppressed, and men realizing that they are benefiting from having societal station over women, and both of those sides coming together to say, “this is unacceptable,” for anything to change.


Identifying bias: knowing your privilege

In the interest of full disclosure and transparency I’d like to briefly identify my inherent biases and positions of privilege.  Because what groups we are born into have a large impact on how we think and view the world you have a right to know where my opinions are based from.  I have privilege, and I have inherent bias, and I will to my best to be aware of that and write as neutrally as I am capable of given those circumstances.

I am an American college-educated mid 20s bisexual white cis female from an upper-middle class family.  I cannot honestly write from any other perspective.  I cannot place myself in the perspective of the particular nuances of feminism from a Black or Hispanic or Asian woman, or a gay or straight or trans woman, or from an underprivileged woman.  I cannot being to imagine what the experiences of a feminist in China or France or Chile or Saudi Arabia or Ghana might be like.  To do so would be inappropriate and would do a disservice to feminists who are any combination of those traits.

I welcome these opinions, I want to hear your stories, and I hope that through mine we can find a common ground from which we can all reach equality in our society.  As a white woman my voice is one that has been often been heard in feminist discourse; I hope to add a unique social perspective in the digital age.  I have a strong background in traditionally male-dominated social scenes (comic books, gaming, metal and industrial music, and more) which has given me an insight into patriarchy and shifting attitudes towards gender in society.


Under Construction!

Thanks for stopping by The Feminist Menagerie!  Expect many updates in the coming week as old writings are edited and rethought!


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