Racism & Resident Evil 5 Part Two: Sheva Alomar

Sheva Alomar is the side-kick in Resident Evil 5. She escorts protagonist Chris Redfield through Africa. Light-skinned and trained in the United States, she is a bridge between worlds for white American Chris as he shoots his way through infected pan-African villages and ruins.  She is a playable character if you play RE5 in two player, or if you beat the game solo you can play the game through her perspective with Chris as your AI.

I played a two-player game with a friend, so I was able to play Sheva.  I had to put up a little fight to get her because neither of us wanted to play the white guy.  It was refreshing to be a playable character that was a woman of color.  After keeping the incompetent, screaming Ashley alive in RE4, I was relieved Sheva was tough, calm, and competent.

As much as I like Sheva, and think it’s great that she is a playable woman of color, there are several problems I have with her character design I’d like to discuss.  This post contains some spoilers.

Light-washing

I learned the term “light-washing” from a commenter at Hathor Legacy, softestbullet, who used the phrase to describe characters of color being depicted like Jay Lake’s Green and Justine Larbalestier’s Liar.  The characters aren’t drawn entirely white, but any “ethnic” features are downplayed so they look more like the “default” white.  I think light-washing is an apt term to describe Sheva because character designers seem to have gone out of their way to make her look less African than the rest of the black characters in the game.  She has light skin, gray eyes, and high-lighted hair that stays perfectly straight even after slogging through crocodile infested pools.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that Sheva looks more like the presumably light-skinned players than the other African characters that she kills.

Of course, it is important to positively represent mixed race characters, but I find it problematic that she is supposed to represent an entire continent.  I also am not sure how being mixed race comes in to Sheva’s family history.  According to the RE Wiki, her parents were killed when she was a child when Umbrella tested biological weapons on her presumably poor village.  With Africa’s history of past and present European colonialism, I suppose mixed heritage is possible, but I somehow doubt Capcom put much thought in the matter since they could not even say where in Africa the game took place other than it’s a fictional village called Kijuju.

No remorse/stand by your man

Sheva is assigned to Chris to keep the Kijuju natives from going hostile on him because he’s an American because apparently they hate the white man even before they’re infected.  She never questions this task, and expresses complete loyalty to Chris.  She never shows any remorse when people presumably from her community are infected and killed by her and Chris.  When she and Chris are out numbered and most of her team is dead, she tries to convince him to retreat, but when he says he is going to go off mission and look for his missing partner Jill, she stands by his side.

Shevas unlockable costume. She is wearing a leopard print bikini, high-heels, and has a chain draped across her torso.

Sheva's unlockable costume. She is wearing a leopard print bikini, high-heels, and has a chain draped across her torso. She is covered in white body-paint and wears a bone necklace.

Clothing design

Sheva wears high-heeled boots and a tanktop with a low v-neck cut.  This isn’t my idea of body armor.  Has any character designer ever spent a day in heals?  If he had, he might understand why how silly it is to inhibit your ability to fight and run for the sake of fashion.  Chris, on the other hand, wears a covering t-shirt and baggy camo pants with knee pads.  At least you can put Sheva in a bullet-proof vest, at least, which I did.

Sheva and Chris have even more divergent unlockable outfits.

Compare Sheva’s unlockable outfit and Chris’s.  Chris gets to wear his old S.T.A.R.S. uniform.  Very practical for killing zombies.  Sheva, on the other hand, dresses in some kind of stereotyped, pan-tribal costume.  African women (and that’s not a homogenous category) don’t go around wearing leopard print bikinis.  This outfit is a throwback to some mythical past and suggests that Sheva is “primitive” because she’s African.  Sheva is as contemporary a woman as Chris’s former partner Jill Valentine, and as educated and well-trained.  It’s insulting to put strong women in fetish gear when they’re supposed to be saving the world and completely detracts from everything that makes her badass.

Because RE5 was made in Japan does not excuse its racism.  Because the game was made by people of color does not mean it does not perpetuate white supremacy.  The insensitive design Sheva’s “special” outfit reduces an entire continent to a Westernized fetish for privileged consumers whether they’re in Japan or North America.

About Lake Desire

Lake Desire, real name Ariel Wetzel, has been blogging about feminism and videogames since 2005 at her blog New Game Plus. Lake also writes at Feminist SF - The Blog! Lake Desire is an English graduate student at University of Washington, studying science fiction, feminism, and cyberculture. At work, Lake participates in rank and file labor organizing and the anti-budget cuts struggle. Lake believes in direct democracy, queer liberation, and opposes white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism. Lake is white, queer, feminist, anarchist, and of course a cyborg. Lake may not sound like your typical gamer, but has been gaming since a toddler and never managed to quit.
This entry was posted in Console Games and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Racism & Resident Evil 5 Part Two: Sheva Alomar

  1. Pingback: [links] Link salad says never never on a Sunday | jlake.com

  2. Maggie says:

    Sigh, RE likes to do this stupid stuff. I was so angry when I finished RE4 and unlocked the “special” costumes.

    • Lake Desire says:

      I borrowed a GameCube and RE4 from a friend who’d already beaten the game. I unknowingly selected the “special” outfits thinking that was just the normal attire. I couldn’t believe kidnapped Ashley was crawling around in dungeons in such a low-cut top.

      Her suit of armor, on the other hard, is a great special outfit.

  3. Mantheos says:

    Great post! I agree with all of your points except one. I do not think that Sheva’s default outfit is as sexist as it is described. Her high heel boots are a problem; I’ll give you that, but the rest of her outfit isn’t that bad. The game takes place in a [most likely] very hot African country. Sheva having a tank top is not unreasonable due to the heat. It would be unrealistic for them to go into that climate with heavy armor. She is not running around in a bikini either (for her default costume). Why the whole team didn’t go in with the bullet proof vests in the first place is another question, but the fact that you can give both Sheva and Chris the same bullet proof vests is a “non-sexist” thing. (sorry, I didn’t know how to word that last part). But great post and I agree with you completely on everything else. :)

    • Lake Desire says:

      Have you ever tried running in ass-tight pants?

      • Mantheos says:

        No I have not. I don’t think her pants look that tight, but that’s still a fair point.

        • Lake Desire says:

          I’ve seen tighter pants, but hers also look like either kakhi or hemp, both materials I find pretty restricting when I ride my bike or hike in them (and I wear mine a lot looser!). But I guess I don’t need to be so nit-picking about virtual clothes because I think the high-heels and cleavage are more annoying than the material of her pants. :)

  4. koipond says:

    Also in the image is the obligatory big knife(tm) that all ‘primative’ people have to carry around.

    *sigh* So full of Fail.

    • Lake Desire says:

      You’d think someone who thinks “primitives” (such a loaded concept) go around in bikinis and bone necklaces wouldn’t have metallurgy.

      • koipond says:

        I blame Sid Meyer. All them kids playing those civilization games where you could get metallurgy and not have figured very little else out. I mean that’s how it all worked, right? Right?

  5. Dyannamika says:

    I really think that some designers of female characters in gaming and comics would re-evaluate their costumes if they ever had to spend some serious time in high heels… but increasingly I realize that these things are geared more and more to ONE demographic.

  6. Madcow says:

    I liked Sheva a lot too! I guess I just like playing girl characters… I do like that both Sheva and Jill are calm, coordinated, and very able women. However, looking at resident evils gone by, there have always been problems in the outfit department.

    Not saying that a blue tube top and miniskirt are on the same level of exploitation as the tribal fetish getup, but horniness played a key role in both.

    And I would have loved it if Sheva was a little more choked up over some of those headshots. A potentially deep character who doesn’t really follow through, it’s sad.

    Oh I want to point out Chris’ costumes too (again, not on the level with Sheva’s) but if you want a gross look at culture, the safari getup is a bit much. I felt deep, deep shame as I stared at those zebra safari pants.

  7. Pingback: Racism and Left 4 Dead 2 | The Border House

Comments are closed.