I almost never read Kotaku, let alone the comments. But I found this comment on the post about the lack of female characters in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 via Stephen Totilo’s Twitter and thought it was worth discussing. The comment, written by Kotaku reader Friedhamster, reads as follows:
We fight as men because we’re fighting men.
As soon as we fight as females we have to fight females. (Bayonetta and Jeanne.)
I have no qualms about dumping round after round into a dude’s face made of pixels. I do have an issue with doing the same to, even, a virtual female. I wouldn’t feel right about that. I just wouldn’t.
This immediately reminded me of that story of how there were a Harry Reid punching bag and a Nancy Pelosi pinata at CPAC, but only the women were allowed to hit Pelosi and only men were allowed to hit Reid. In both cases, the gender segregation is silly. At CPAC, someone realized there might be a PR problem if news that men were beating up Pelosi in effigy got out, but thought it was a gender issue rather than a violence issue. The punching bag and pinata shouldn’t have existed at all, because advocating violence against your political opponents is wrong, regardless of gender. But in video games, the gender segregation is silly because there’s simply nothing wrong with shooting a female enemy combatant.
So where does this ickiness the commenter is talking about come from? In the ensuing comments, Kotaku reader Holly Green gets to the heart of the matter:
Its not hating women to shoot one in a video game. You shoot men in video games, do you hate men?
Your hesitancy seems to be based in the notion that women are fragile and need protecting.
To which Friedhamster replies, “You got it buddy.” His hesitancy about shooting female enemies in games comes from a sense of chivalry.
Chivalry, as most of our readers likely know, is sexist. It is based, as Holly Green said, on the idea that women are weak and need a man to protect them. Obviously this is extremely condescending and untrue–women don’t need special protections any more than men do. This logic has been used to actually deny women rights, with the excuse that it is “for their own good.” Friedhamster exposes this line of thought when he compares killing women in a game to how killing children is all but banned in games: how insulting is it to imply that women and children are somehow equal, similarly helpless and in need of protecting? (Answer: extremely insulting!)
Chivalry is also behind the idea that women are somehow purer or better than men; Friedhamster indicates this when he refers to women as “the finer sex.” But that logic is also sexist and limiting; it allows people to hold women to a higher standard of behavior than men, when the reality is we are all flawed human beings. In short, chivalry is just a way of policing women’s behavior under the guise of it being beneficial or a compliment to women.
The bottom line is, when women are treated differently simply because they are women–whether by treating them as inferior or putting them on a pedestal–it’s sexist. As an advocate for better representation of women in games, I believe it’s important to have female “grunts” or “cannon fodder” enemies in games, almost as much as having our Jades and our Commander Shepards. And many games do have female enemies that are treated the same as their male counterparts: BioShock, the Mass Effect games, and Dragon Age, to name a few.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that, when female enemies are included, they are often not treated equally as the male enemies, but inappropriately sexualized, playing into a dangerous conflation of sex and violence. While Metal Gear Solid 4 has the awesome, all-female army of supersoldiers known as FROGs, it also has the “Beauty and the Beast” unit, four bosses in the game which are beautiful and scarred women in ultra-high-tech suits that double as weapons. The sexualization of the women in their second forms (wearing only skin-tight suits), while inappropriate, could be interpreted as intentionally disturbing (though I think it would be a stretch), but the secret “photoshoot” mode where the women pose while the player takes pictures cannot be anything but disgustingly exploitative. Kris Ligman at The Hathor Legacy has more (the post spoils MGS4, but the part about the B&B Unit is before any major spoilers).
Another example: Grand Theft Auto IV also treats female NPCs differently, because there are female prostitutes that can be hired, then killed to regain the player’s cash. Aside from a single gay male character who can be murdered while on a date with him, only female NPCs can be victims of such sexualized violence. Even though the code treats all the NPCs equally when it comes to violence, the result is unequal because of what kinds of NPCs exist.
In his God of War 3 review, Justin McElroy distinguishes between fighting female enemies and killing sexualized female NPCs:
More problematic for God of War III is that much of the “collateral damage” I referred to manifests as an unsettling streak of violence against women. Not just violence against women, but against (human) women that have been sexualized and made to appear defenseless. This thread may have been present in the previous entries in the series, but, for me, it was especially notable this time around. I’ve killed countless e-people, in all manner of disturbing ways, so I can’t condemn God of War III too harshly, but there were times when I was nauseated enough by Kratos’ actions that I was momentarily distracted from having fun. Maybe this is Santa Monica Studio’s intention, but if there is a “lesson” here, I certainly didn’t get it.
Here, it’s only female enemies that are portrayed as helpless and sexualized, conflating sex and violence similarly to the gross MGS4 photoshoot mode. If the female enemies were treated the same as the male warriors in the game, it probably wouldn’t have had that same nauseating effect, and likely wouldn’t be sexist. Hopefully someone here can weigh in on this when God of War III comes out.
It’s fine to have female enemies even when playing as a male character, but they’d better be treated the same as male enemies. Preventing situations like the one Justin describes requires a more nuanced approach than simply disallowing women to ever serve as enemies in games. We don’t need your chivalry.