Category Archives: gender roles

I Don’t Look Down on Family Women, But I Think I Understand Why Amy Glass Does

By now everyone has read the Thought Catalog piece by Amy Glass/Chrissy Stockton titled, “I Look Down on Young Women with Husbands and Kids and I’m Not Sorry,” and her follow up explanation-ish piece, “Hi, I am Amy Glass.”  The piece inspired dozens (if not hundreds) or response pieces, 7 of which were published on Thought Catalog alone.

I think that Stockton misses the forest for the trees…but she’s not exactly “wrong.”  Allow me to explain…

Choice Feminism is a serious issue within feminism.  In Linda Hirshman’s piece she states, “During the ’90s, I taught a course in sexual bargaining at a very good college. Each year, after the class reviewed the low rewards for child-care work, I asked how the students anticipated combining work with child-rearing. At least half the female students described lives of part-time or home-based work. Guys expected their female partners to care for the children. When I asked the young men how they reconciled that prospect with the manifest low regard the market has for child care, they were mystified. Turning to the women who had spoken before, they said, uniformly, “But she chose it.””  They chose it.  And therein lies the issue: if something is expected, if a behavior is something we are reared into, is it really a choice?  If it’s assumed, are we really making the decision at all?  If it’s a choice, and an appealing choice, why are more men not choosing it?

Let me be clear – child rearing is absolutely a job, and is absolutely important in society.  Children grow up to be citizens.  They need to be raised, and raised well, whether that’s from a mom, a dad, both, two of one or the other, grandparents, a legal guardian, whatever.  It’s a shame that as a society we do value child rearing so poorly because it is the foundation of our society.  That doesn’t mean that a woman choosing to give up her career for childrearing is empowering.  It’s not, it’s important, but it’s not empowering.  It’s not necessarily feminist either, though there are certainly a great deal of awesome feminist mothers that use their role as a caretaker to raise children (boys and girls) who are respectful of others and aware of societal privileges.  Being a working woman isn’t necessarily feminist either, look at Ann Coulter or Michelle Bachman – both successful working women, both staunch anti-feminists.  A woman saying or doing something doesn’t automatically make it “feminist,” and trying to brand things like not-really-a-choice choice feminism and choice objectification as legitimate feminism only serves to dissolve the necessary force behind the movement.

This is where, I feel, the Glass/Stockton piece failed.  I don’t look down on married women with children, I wonder what their life could have been like if they hadn’t been brought up in a society where the expectation of women was still that they would sacrifice their careers when the time came to start a family, how much further we may be in science and medicine if half the population wasn’t still shoehorned into neglecting their academic potential, how different developing nations would be if women were really and truly given the same educational and career opportunities as men.  Chrissy is right to be angry that so many young women are giving up on their potential outside of the home, but she’s directing her ire at the wrong people.


Valentine’s Day Sucks

Valentine’s Day really is the worst – for everyone.  It’s a holiday that has become the representation of everything that is wrong with relationships, an emphasis on rom-com style romance and gratuitous consumerism that has absolutely nothing to do with love, commitment, loyalty, or sex.  That being said, this post has nothing to do with how horribly we celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Instead, I am solely going to focus on Valentine’s Day advertisements.

It’s not news that advertising harms women (and men) by enforcing impossible body ideals (even the models in the ads don’t look like the ads), adhering to traditional gender roles rigidly, and playing up negative stereotypes of both genders.  Valentine’s Day brings out a special kind of self-hate inducing and objectification in advertising.

This was the inspiration for this post (sorry for the quality, a friend nabbed it on an iPad screenshot for me):

workoutappad

Um…what?  The language of this ad communicates several troublesome things: your body belongs to “him” (it’s a capital H, so maybe they mean Jesus, but I doubt it) and it’s not good enough.  I’m going to lay down some truth to all of you: if someone is with you, they already think you’re pretty great.  If you don’t think you’re pretty great and want to change something about yourself, do it for yourself, and do it for healthy reasons.  If your partner demeans, degrades, and doesn’t appreciate you, don’t “surprise him with a new body” he (or she) doesn’t deserve anyway, surprise him with a breakup because you deserve better than to be made to feel like your body is for the enjoyment and property of another.  Period.  This ad is bullshit and further, there’s zero chance the young woman featured it it only works out seven minutes a day anyway.

Nakshatranatan

These are two diamond ads from previous Valentine’s Day promotions.  For the sake of just evaluating these ads, let’s put away the issues with diamond engagement rings for just a second.  It’s not even a “clever joke” anymore and frankly the implication that women are essentially willing to prostitute themselves for a valuable shiny rock is eyerollingly offensive.  It also reduces the value of a woman to her vagina.  “Give her diamonds, not because you love her, but because you want easier access to sex!”  It cheapens relationships, it prostitutes women and stereotypes men into being drooling sex fiends only interested in women for what’s between their legs.  Frankly I don’t see why a woman would want a diamond from a company that implies she’s a frigid idiot only meltable with an overpriced stone or why a man would want to spend a borderline obscene money at a business that thinks he’s barely higher functioning than a baser primate.

Also according to ads, ladies, not only is your body not good enough for him, but the only part of it he apparently cares about is a disgusting filth hole you should be embarrassed of:

TampaxValentinesDay Summers_Eve_V-Day

Ah yes, don’t forget your “v!”  Never mind the fact that douching and introducing harsh scents and disinfectants to your vagina really screws up your body’s natural flora and can actually cause yeast infections.  Also don’t forget your naturally occurring period will ruin your significant other’s planning (seriously, it’s a 28 day cycle guys, learn how to count and you’ll know when your GF’s next period is; if you’re not into period sex, then don’t book a sex hotel room during that time.  Duh.).  I’m not even sure what Tampax is trying to communicate – that you can have sex with her tampon in and avoid having your dick look like it came out of the elevator in the Shining?  That doesn’t sound very safe, sounds like a gross way to get TSS actually.  I don’t even understand what’s going on besides trying to shame a woman out of having a period on Valentine’s Day.  I can’t speak for all women but if that was something I could control with will power alone, I would never have a period.  Ever.  It’s messy and painful and I’m a big fan of efficiency and not wasting resources, i.e. keeping my blood inside of me.

This Valentine’s Day, don’t celebrate with consumerism and encourage companies like these to put out degrading advertisements.  Celebrate with earnest expressions of love and loyalty, and cherish those close to you.


Chivalry is Dead; Long Live Courtesy!

#58th Rule Revised

A friend of mine, well meaning but very much still stuck in the idea that men should be gentlemen and women should be ladies recently posted this article.  Never mind the fact that the article itself is rife with errors, I took issue with the concept that somehow, as a gender fighting tooth and nail to be treated equally, women were somehow doing it wrong and that “gentlemen” were missing out on the “ladies” they deserved and wanted so desperately to pamper spun in the direction of “ladies, you deserve better/a guy like me!”

Here’s the thing: “gentlemanly” behavior, as an appreciated standard, hasn’t died: we just call it common courtesy now.  Holding a door for someone?  It’s something women and men do, for women and men, because letting a door slam in someone’s face is rude.  “What happened to paying to take a woman out for a nice meal?”  We now go Dutch or take turns paying – as it should be!  MRAs love to criticize feminism as a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too movement.  “You want to be equal, buy your own drinks! *smirk*” …Okay.  That’s not a problem, the origins of a man paying for dates goes back to when middle and upper class young women did not commonly work outside of the home (women in the workforce is not new for the impoverished in the United States, but it’s not something you hear about too often in your average history class).  Women do work now; presumably in a couple if one party is not working, the other one pays most of the time.  This isn’t a bad thing and you’d be hard pressed to find an academically respectable feminist that thinks it is a bad thing that women are now increasingly becoming financially independent of men.

Mr. Picciuto argues that, in reference to this so-called “hookup culture,”  “The real problem here is that women, for one reason or another, have become complacent and allowed men to get away with adhering to the bare minimum.”  As linked above, this isn’t the case, but even if it were, why is it so incomprehensible to believe that women, uh, like sex?  “When did it become acceptable to just text a girl, inviting her to come bang? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about those instances, I’m just saying, why have we strayed away from what has been established as the norm?… Eventually, I feel that women will wise up and start asking for the things that they deserve, the things used to be automatic and expected of men, like holding a door, pulling out a chair, and paying for dinners.”  I can’t speak for all women, but if a guy walks through a door before me and doesn’t hold it, especially if we’re on a date, I think he’s an ass.  I also think the same of a woman on a date.  And I always hold the door, because I’m not a self-important jerk.

Wait, hang on, “the norm?”  Is he referring to the historical norm wherein politically powerful fathers used their daughter’s virginity for social leverage?  Or the norm outside of the US where young women (and men) are arranged to each other, sometimes at a very young age?   The virginity insurance norm has lived into today thanks to great marketing by jewelry companies.  Maybe he meant the norm where premarital and casual sex happened with the same frequency as it did decades ago with the same number of partners, just by different means (i.e. the internet and texting), but women were shamed for it being publicly known?  There’s no such thing as a “norm” in dating and things like courtesies and the enjoyment of sex becoming a common ground is good for both sides.

You’ll notice non-heterosexual couples don’t have an issue with “chivalry,” because both parties have an expected common ground of courtesy, neutral of gendered expectations.  Why is this such an issue for heterosexuals to get a grasp on?

Oh, right, because being “gentlemanly” gives men a platform for which to criticize women for not being “ladies,” AKA “women who are having more sex than I personally find acceptable at a completely arbitrary level/not with me.”  This isn’t an attitude expressed only by men, women slut shame the shit out of each other under the guise of being more “ladylike” than the women in question.  The great thing about being a woman standing in judgment of the sexual freedom of other women is that the amount and type of sex you’re having is never slutty *eyeroll*!  Which, ultimately, is the point of slut shaming – if someone else is sluttier, and you can make sure everyone knows it, then you’re not a slut, and you’re better marriage material than her.  Gag.

The image at the top of this page is a modified macro from The Rules of a Gentleman circulating on imgur.  Looking through the list and eliminating the weirdly infantilizing ones (“If she can’t sleep, read her a bedtime story.”  Haha, what?), the ones that are date-specific (“Run with her on the beach.”) and the ones that are just plain wrong (“If she slaps you, you probably deserved it.” – No, nope, physical assault is never acceptable. “Never give her a reason to think that she’s the man in the relationship.” What does this even mean, like never let her be in charge?  The hell?), this is a good list…for how to interact with all people in a polite way in society.  We need to let go of this whole chivalry thing because it’s keeping us all down, and we need to actively suppress the idea that the value of women is directly tied to who they do or don’t sleep with.


Why I didn’t post about the election

As I’m sure you’ve (rightfully) assumed, I’m more or less surrounded with politically and socially active men and women.  Some are liberal, some are conservative, some are somewhere in between; my facebook wall saw more candidates pictures on it this year from both the big two and third parties than ever before.

 

So, why didn’t I speak up?  This was, arguably, one of the most important elections for women since suffrage was still on the table.

 

Here’s the thing: as much as I agreed with (and ultimately, supported) the Democrat’s positions regarding women’s health issues, I was more than a little bothered by the rhetoric that seemed to assume that 1. women’s health issues were my only concern and 2. as a woman I should automatically feel a certain way about women’s issues and so would be naturally inclined to vote Democrat.  And, apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m overjoyed Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost their respective races, it’s great that Americans won’t put up with people with such misguided and horrifying opinions on rape (especially when those opinions can dictate law).  And Elizabeth Warren winning her seat is totally awesome not just for women but for constitutional law scholars as well, she’s a brilliant scholar motivated to end corporate welfare.  Wisconsin electing the first openly lesbian senator, Tammy Baldwin?  Amazing, as was Washington, Maine, and Maryland voting to support gay marriage.   I guess what I don’t understand is the mentality that, if you’re a woman, you should have automatically voted for President Obama.

 

Why?  I mean, quite a large percentage of women are pro life.  Further, both Gary Johnson and Dr.Jill Stein ran on pro-choice platforms (Dr. Stein’s being arguably more liberal in regards to abortion and birth control access than even the Democrats).  And it’s not like Libertarian or Green are the only two third party options even.  Yes, it’s true that in the present political climate no third party has a chance of taking a presidential election, but third parties do win Representative and Senate seats, and ultimately change tends to start at the grassroots and as third party voices become stronger, their ideas tend to be absorbed into the big two.  My point is, you really weren’t limited to two choices, there was more than one pro choice/pro life and pro birth control access/anti birth control access if you didn’t care for Obama or Romney (as many didn’t).

 

I don’t like that both the right and the left seemed to bully voters into picking between Rep or Dem, especially women.  It’s like over the span of a few months my uterus became a battleground state, with both sides saying they knew that their side would do what’s best for it.  The fact of the matter is, no matter how pro choice, pro birth control I am, another woman holding the belief that a early term fetus is a person and that as a person has rights does not make her fundamentally anti-woman, nor does it make me a baby killer.  The issue is a lot more complicated than that, it really is, and if you’re trying to simplify it down to a simple “it’s a woman’s body!” statement then I’m sorry but you’re missing the point.  I guarantee that no pro life woman believes that she doesn’t own her own body, or that her body is worth less than, say, a man’s.  And but for a very small percentage of evangelicals, no pro life women would say that abortion should be 100% illegal even if the mother’s life is in danger.  It is a fundamental difference in the view of personhood of a fetus, not just over who has rights to a woman’s body.

 

Thus, if a woman believes that a fetus is a person with rights, then that woman is justified in voting for a party that supports that idea and isn’t “stupid” or “anti-feminist.”  I disagree with her wholly, but I understand where her decision is coming from and while I may try to persuade her to see things my way, I would never say outright she shouldn’t vote for the candidate she supports just because I think she’s wrong.  Trying to shoehorn women into voting against their beliefs just because of their gender seems inherently wrong to me.


“The Women’s Olympics”…well, not really.

From George Takei’s Facebook, comment if you know root source

I, like most other women tuning in to the Olympics this year, was so excited to learn that every country had sent at least one female athlete to compete in London.  “The Women’s Olympics!” the media was quick to dub it.

And that was about the last positive thing any major media outlet (or social media) had to do with women’s sports in the games.

We’re all well aware women’s sports doesn’t get the kind of respect that men’s sports does.  The fact that Title IX even had to be mandated illustrates as much.  But the coverage of women athletes in the 2012 Olympics was, well, embarrassing.  Let’s start out from the beginning, the title of “Women’s Olympics.”

It’s a crock.  The two Saudi women who competed were only covered by one news outlet in their home country, an English language paper, had a public shame campaign launched against them on Twitter, and oh yeah, were likely only added at the last minute to avoid a ban from future games.  It’s great that these women competed, it really is, but to act like it’s a step towards Women’s Rights is dishonest.

And while women from every nation competed, which women were given any (positive) attention was quite limited.  Before the game even started some athletes were attacked for not being skinny enough.  Yes, at an event where the very best athletes from around the world come to compete, what these women’s physical appearance is was more important than their athletic ability.  You don’t see male weightlifters being called fat, but there you go.

If not “fat,” how about “ugly, masculine, and dyke(ish)?”  That’s what British weightlifter Zoe Smith was subjected to after a documentary about women weightlifters in Britain aired.  Don’t worry about Zoe though, she got the last laugh (and seriously, great job Zoe!).

With the close of the games tomorrow, it’s important for us to look back with pride at what women around the world have accomplished, but also necessary to examine how we watched these women compete.  Was it really necessary to identify volleyballers by their asses?  Did we need a slow motion montage of unidentified, exclusively attractive athletes?  Did one of the woman athletes who had no chance of medaling need as much coverage as she got just because she was labeled, “the hottest Olympian?”  Was it appropriate to call women Olympians “Gold Diggers?”  We’ve come a long way, ladies, but until our athletes are honored for their abilities and not their bodies we will not ever have a “Women’s Olympics.”


Reading Between the Lines: Female Musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine

From time to time The Feminist Menagerie will feature an article by a guest author.  I’m excited to present the first guest piece, written by Kera Lovell, 2011 graduate of Purdue University’s American Studies Master’s program.  I had the pleasure of completing my undergraduate thesis at the same time as Kera and was first introduced to her research on women and the rock music industry at that time.  She’s recommended the books Electric Ladyland by Lisa Rhodes and Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman by Katherine Orloff for further reading.

Reading Between the Lines: Female Musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine, 1975

Reflecting the massive changes initiated by the women’s liberation movement, women began to drastically challenge gender inequality in the music industry in the 1970s, with growing numbers of women as music journalists, vocalists, musicians, writers, and executives who helped support openly feminist musicians and organize feminist music festivals. Even at Rolling Stone, one of the most popular national music periodicals still today, the magazine began to hire more female journalists and editors, covered increasing amounts of women’s rights issues, and, in 1975, dedicated a record number of cover stories to female artists. In spite of all the successes of Second-Wave feminism, it doesn’t take a genius to crack a 1975 issue of Rolling Stone and expect to find rampant sexual objectification of women. You can flip to almost any page and find it—the variety of pornographic magazine advertisements and nude album cover promo ads are just the tip of the iceberg. To say the least, this was a very difficult time in the history of female musicians who attempted to negotiate a space within the hypermasculine music industry.

Rolling Stone exemplified how even Leftist, counterculturally-rooted organizations negatively reacted to feminism. The magazine repetitively denigrated the Women’s Movement and “women libbers,” and more often than not, sexually objectified women by including articles on female pornography stars, female sensual massages, and political sex scandals. While Rolling Stone claimed to support progressive politics, readers can clearly see by reading between the lines that women are portrayed as sexual objects and subordinate to men. Not only were men sexually objectifying women in the advertisements, articles, and images in Rolling Stone, but female musicians ultimately mirrored this sexual objectification by over-sexualizing themselves to win over the patriarchal world of rock ‘n’ roll.

Women’s own self-sexualization surprised me most when investigating the magazine’s 1975 volume for my senior thesis at Agnes Scott College a few years ago.  Although there had been female musicians on Rolling Stone covers since the magazine was first published in 1967, cover stories of women had been few and far between. These numbers are pretty grim, with no female musicians on covers in 1972 or 1973. There were, however, eight women on Rolling Stone covers in 1972: four prostitutes, a nude woman receiving a massage, Sally Struthers, and Jane Fonda. 1975 began a drastic jump in female coverage with six covers devoted entirely to female musicians. This volume also shows a wide range of female musicians, including blues-rock artist Bonnie Raitt, hard rock artist Suzi Quatro, the African American glam rock group Labelle, Jewish jazz and rock artist Phoebe Snow, pop and later country sensation Linda Ronstadt, and pop rock artist Carly Simon.

Even though it might appear that these women were gaining greater respect and recognition through increased publicity, women began to take a lead from male journalists and sexualized themselves during their interviews, possibly to attract more male fans. Other than Raitt, who attempted to maintain a disinterest in sex, all of the cover stories on female musicians included the artist’s discussion of her orgasms. Patti Labelle compared her onstage ecstasy to being married to a million men and women: “And when I’m married to a person, I give all I have. It’s like a climax, and when the audience does it like they did last night in Atlanta, I come…Yes…I wear Pampers onstage.”1 Fellow band member Sarah Dash added, “It’s like letting a million people see you in bed with whomever you love…and being naked and having sex with your music…but I don’t wear tampons because if it ran down my leg, that’s what you see and that’s what you git. We told our band; ‘Now we like to reach orgasms onstage, and they thought we were from out there somewhere.’”2 Not only do these accounts reveal the lasting boom of the sexual revolution, but show how female musicians were expected to perform onstage and in articles. Journalists exhibited no surprise at these artists’ sexual revelations. Rock ‘n’ roll sold sex and women who were candid about their sexuality were successful entrepreneurs. In the heat of the revolution, many women wanted to embrace their sexuality, while other women felt that flaunting a sexual image only resulted in more sexism in the music industry. According to Terry Garthwaite, member of the band The Joy of Cooking, women were expected to be what she calls “chicky-poo”: “ultrafeminine and…submissive in their attitude,” while at the same time being what fellow band member Toni Brown defined as a “sexpot”: “a doll-like figure” “playing a flirtsy-cutesy role” (Orloff 59, 34). Male journalists consistently portrayed women as vulnerable and weak, yet sexually feisty women. Yet women were treated this way by all factors of the music industry, encouraging women to wear low-cut gowns rather than produce their own projects. Rather than feeling pressure to sacrifice their femininity to be “one of the boys,” women were often led to be passive and sexual. In Rock ‘N Roll Woman , her 1974 collection of interviews with female musicians, Katherine Orloff discussed how Ronstadt perpetuated the stereotype of a ditsy showgirl which many female musicians had to fight:

It seems she has been pigeonholed to such an extent that she is often given little credit for having any brains…Linda likes to feel sexy onstage and the message is communicated as much through her clothes, a wardrobe which includes tight pants and filmy blouses, as through her movements, suggestive comments, and generally friendly attitude. In this way, she sometimes seems to perpetuate her own stereotype (123).

On that note, have you cracked an issue of Rolling Stone since 1975? Things haven’t change much, except perhaps the self-sexualization and sexual objectification of women has gotten a little worse.

1 Art Harris, “Labelle: Comin’ Comin’ Comin’ to Getcha!” Rolling Stone, July 3, 1975, 42. Note how even the article’s title is a play on the article’s orgasm banter.

2 Harris, “Labelle,” 42.


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.


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.


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