Tag Archives: gender roles

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.

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“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.”


What Role do Men have in the Feminist Discourse?

A few months ago a friend of mine who is male and a freelance writer and I got into a discussion about video games and comics and how women are portrayed.  He was working on a piece concerning how certain female superheroes were being revamped and asked me, in my opinion, could a man really effectively write on a feminist issue?

 

My first instinct was to say, yeah, of course, but after some additional thought I wasn’t totally sure.  Could a man really write on a feminist issue? A man can’t remove his male privilege any better than I could remove my class or white privilege, and I don’t feel as if I can responsibly write on issues that face poor or women of another race.  Is being aware of privilege, is being against privilege enough?  Well in this case…maybe.

 

First and foremost I do believe that men have a role in the feminist discourse.  When you consider men like Bill Baird, who stood up for abortion rights years before Planned Parenthood and dedicated his life to women’s reproductive rights, it’s unfair and disingenuous to suggest that some men aren’t involved and in fact, some men give up and risk a great deal for women’s rights.  So men do have a role, men definitely do have a role, but I think what men and what role is where things get a little shaky.

 

For example, women in geek culture seems to be a hot feminist topic in which men seem to try and fit their viewpoints in to some pretty disastrous results (from a  feminist standpoint).  This video, while aiming to illustrate how impractical and sexist women in video games are dressed, falls into the trap of blaming women for thriving in the only area of gaming that they’ve been welcomed into by the male dominated industry: “booth babes.”  Or this article, which while pointing out that sometimes attractive women are unfairly characterized as “fakers” in the geek realm and that women are treated pretty horribly in online gaming environments, primarily rails against “booth babe” types and cosplayers that aren’t perceived as being actual fans of the realm they’re promoting with super sexualized outfits.

 

Look.  Both of these men aren’t women-haters, they’re not anti-feminist, but their posts are seeping with privilege.  I already had an article about this, but my point on the women in geekdom stands: it’s not fair to point the finger and say “these women are taking advantage of geek men” when they have been encouraged and embraced into the role and often times are shunned, ridiculed, and harassed for not fitting into it.  If you’re a girl gamer and you’re attractive, you’ll be expected to play it up and “show your tits,” and if you’re not attractive, expect to be called fat or ugly or a dyke or whatever because your looks are paramount to your actual gaming ability.  I’m not exactly sure how you can tell if someone’s a “real fan” or not from looking at them anyway, but that’s the problem – when you have a man writing about a feminist issue without a frame of privilege, things like a misplaced persecution complex rears its head.  You think these women are faking it for attention and money?  Maybe the problem is they live in an environment where their worth structure and acceptance into a group is entirely dependent on their looks.

 

Let’s go back to Bill Baird.  In the 1970s Baird was accused of being a CIA plant, being an embarrassment to the movement, and worked only to “make women appear easier.”  These accusations didn’t come from the far right, they came from feminists and Planned Parenthood.  A man who spent time in jail, a man who lost his family, a man who was nearly murdered multiple times by radical pro-lifers was shunned from the very movement he gave everything to protect.

 

So you can ask me if I think men can write about feminist issues, you can ask me if men have a place in the discourse, and I will tell you yes.  But, I will hope that by saying yes it encourages responsible writing and dialog with a certain level of care and attention given to the privileges held by the men holding the pens and striking the keys.


Culture and Feminism: Where does What Belong in the Discourse?

When I first started this blog I did a post about identifying bias, mostly to be transparent about who I am and what my perspective is, but also to remind myself that I cannot – and should not – ever try to write for or on the behalf of a group I can’t represent.  That being said, someone proposed the question to me and several others recently: who belongs in the feminist discourse, and what roles do radically different, sometimes opposing, groups have?  There seemed to be a few points of contention but they mostly boiled down to culture lines and gender lines.  This post will address the former, a future post will address the latter.

 

A forum I regularly post in has a feminism megathread (amongst hundreds of other political talking points) , and routinely the thread is closed and derailed on rehashed and repeated arguments, one of which is what level of “education” someone posting in the thread should have and why or why not that arbitrary line is fair.  It’s an odd conundrum – nobody wants to explain every page what male privilege is and that yes, it definitely does exist – but at the same time, can anyone rightfully be excluded from the discussion simply on the base of lack of academic feminist knowledge?  Surely saying so implies a rather white, upper-class attitude towards the discourse.

 

One member proposed this: does an educated Western feminist with a degree in women’s studies have more weight in the feminist discourse than an uneducated individual campaigning against female circumcision in his or her small community in Africa?  Is the second, who may or may not have any interest in “women’s rights” in a western sense at all, even really a feminist?

 

No, and yes.  The face of feminism in the US and Europe tends to be a pretty pale one (I would argue due in large to widespread racism when modern feminism was coming to its peak in the 60s and media still preferring to center on white spokespeople in most issues today), but it’s inaccurate and unfair to suggest that women’s issues are a white woman’s affair.  But why, in an era of global communication, is there still this disconnect between voices in the discourse?

 

We have a major cultural gap between priorities.  Not that first world women’s issues aren’t issues (an argument often made by particularly right-wing anti-feminists “you’re not stoned for being raped so you have nothing to complain about!” “your vagina isn’t mutilated so you have nothing to complain about!”) – that white, upper-class women, by and large, have failed to even identify and listen to what issues face other groups of women in the discourse.   So we end up segregated by lack of understanding and communication when we all have a common goal: at the root, everyone in the discourse wants women to have a safer, healthier role in the world they share with men.  An end to patriarchy, even if how they view patriarchy varies wildly.

 

Take body image issues, for example.  The body image issues that face black American women are vastly different from white American women – something I thought I understood – until an exchange and conversation I witnessed and took part in at work one weekend.  One of my coworkers – a married, childless, middle class mid-20s black woman – opted to let her hair grow naturally, no weave, no straightening, just her natural hair.  I remarked that it looked nice and she replied, “black men hate natural hair.”

 

This kind of took me aback for a second.  It’s her natural hair, it’s what her body is genetically conditioned to grow, and it looks lovely, why would anyone dislike it?  “Not all black men I’m sure,” I said, about to eat my own words.

 

A customer came in shortly after, a middle age black man.  “What happened to your hair?”

“I’m letting it grow naturally.”

“You should straighten it.”

“To look more like a white woman?”

“Nappy hair is shameful on a woman.”  I am not making this up or exaggerating, this is exactly what he said.

“You have nappy hair under your hat, why should I have to straighten my hair?”

“You’re a woman.  It’s not ladylike.”

 

My cheeks burned red with embarrassment.  How could I have missed such an obvious cue that she was expressing a real and very legitimate body image problem that is so embedded a complete stranger thought it was appropriate to say her natural hair was shameful?  The next man in line (another middle aged black man) who had heard the exchange assured my coworker that her natural hair was in fact, beautiful, but the damage had already been done – her feeling that “black men hate natural hair” had been validated.  I was stunned, I am still stunned, that the exchange happened.

 

And it’s because I hadn’t listened, I’d heard what she was saying, but I hadn’t listened.  In her saying, “black men hate natural hair,” what I was missing was the “…because black women are socially pressured to have straight hair like a white woman and to reject their own natural appearance.”

 

I realized my own personal error in creating an inclusive environment for feminist discourse, and I realized that my mental lapse is probably representative of a larger issue in the global discourse: we’re just not listening.  Every cultural group has a place in the discourse, every opinion has a place in the discourse, we just need to reach past hearing the words and listen to the heart and soul behind them.


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?


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