Category Archives: gender roles

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?

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“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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