Infamous 2: Using women’s bodies to tackle morality

The above screenshot is a compilation of two images from the upcoming PS3 game, Infamous 2.  On the left, a darker skinned scantily-clad women wears tight leather (or is it pleather?) pants, what appears to be a tribal coif of sorts, tall combat boots, and a piece of draping fabric barely covering her breasts.  Her tightly-toned midriff shows and she stands with a pose that conveys confidence.  On the right, an Asian woman with short (or slicked back) hair wears a black pantsuit with a white button-up shirt underneath.  Aside from her lower forearms, hands, face, and neck, no skin is showing.  She stands calmly, looking approachable.

Two very different women here, both of them with a motive in the plotline.  The woman on the left, Nix, is a “”hedonistic guide that coaxes Cole into not thinking about the consequences of his actions.”  Kuo, the woman on the right, a “NSA agent working to help Cole defeat the Beast.”  In other words, evil = barely dressed temptress, good = fully clothed businesswoman.

There are a few things wrong with this.  The biggest issue that I have with it is how a woman’s clothing is used to determine her moral standards within the game.  If we took the same situation but used male characters, would the evil character be any less dressed?  How often is the quantity of clothing that a man wears used to determine whether he is evil or good in a game?  Never.  You would know a man is evil based on his interaction with the protagonist, his dialog, his place within the story, his facial expressions.  However, the easy way out for a woman is simply to dress her with the male gaze in mind.  It’s a lazy way to make shallow female characters.

We’ve also talked on the Border House about how a woman’s sexuality is so often used as a plotline and a major indicator of the character’s personality and role within games.  The woman who coaxes the protagonist into ill circumstances is the sexual character, using her body as a weapon.  The woman who is deemed “good” by the plot is fully covered and modestly dressed.  This does nothing but reinforce stereotypes that women who protect their sexuality by hiding their femininity are chaste and pure, and women who choose to be sexual are inherently evil.  Your thoughts?

(Source: Joystiq)

About Tami Baribeau

Lead Editor and co-founder of The Border House, feminist, gamer, lover of social media, technology, and virtual worlds. Pansexual, equestrian, dog lover, social game studio director and producer. Email me here and follow me on Twitter!
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23 Responses to Infamous 2: Using women’s bodies to tackle morality

  1. NonCon says:

    Not just sexism, but I’m definitely seeing racism here to. At least now I don’t have to feel bad when I don’t play Infamous 2.

    • kimadactyl says:

      Totally, that’s the first thing I saw too. Darker skin == more evil, obviously. What is it with those pieces of fabric though? I recall seeing these several times recently. Morrigan wore one in Dragon Age. Is it based on a real item of clothing or is it the only thing they sell in the women’s section at the Chaotic Neutral clothing store?

      • Mirai says:

        Really? I thought that the woman on the right was asian, possibly Chinese. I suppose it doesn’t matter since her skin is red and thus probably not an actual ‘race’ vs some magic babble fabricated from the pseudoscience Infamous is based on.

        • NonCon says:

          See below comment. Media going “Dark Skin = More Evil” whereas “Asian = Model/Business/Professional” isn’t exactly something new.

  2. Blue says:

    Also, please don’t overlook the racial angle.

    Black people are often positioned in the media as the ‘bad minority’ while Asian people are positioned as the ‘model minority’.

    To actually have a black woman as the representation of moral decay, the Asian woman as the representation of moral righteousness, and a white straight man as the proverbial ‘blank, neutral slate’? That’s a pretty goddamn racially-loaded statement for the game and how its makers view race.

  3. Deviija says:

    I am very glad to see Border House put up an article about this ‘reveal’ yesterday. As those above me have mentioned, let us not overlook the racial angle and implications of this dynamic and portrayal of the women.

    I am all for minorities being represented in games. But not at the cost of sexualization or reinforcing stereotypes/stereotype imagery. Nix and her outfit reminded me of Sheva and her ‘special tribal outfit’ in RE5. The dark-skinned/black lady gets a tribal look. A *tribal look*. I find that offensive in and of itself, tbh.

    As for the sexualization and tired tropes, yes. The lady with the darker-skin is the ‘evil’ one, the temptress to lead a white dude astray, the sexual weapon for the male gaze, so on and so forth. Lazy artistry and character envisioning — and also telling of the sexism and racism undertones. What bugged me, too, while reading comments on various blogs when this news hit yesterday, I saw countless posts from people demanding that the women (or at least Kuo) needs to be HAWTER and more ‘sexed up’/complaining that the women are too ugly and need to be more attractive. It was depressing to me that that was a vocal clamor rather than the other obvious issues here.

    As a sidenote: what is with ladies getting necklace/hoop strips of cloth to cover the breasts attire? Nix’s top reminds me of Morrigan’s top from DA:O. None of these outfits are practical to wear — unless wearing a neckerchief/scarf on your chest and nothing else is fashionable.

    • NonCon says:

      Yeah, I forgot to mention the tribal aspect of it in my comment, though I meant to. Thanks for bringing that up. I can’t help but feel it’s equating the whole tribal thing with hedonism, too.

      • Deviija says:

        Yeah, equating showing skin = hedonism = promiscuity, etc. I notice it as well, particularly in regards to those that wear ‘tribal’ outfits or are ‘tribal-styled’ characters.

    • Cuppycake says:

      I was wondering the same thing about her top. It’s totally the same thing Morrigan wore – and outside of video games I have never seen an article of clothing that looked like that!

      • Deviija says:

        It is an article of clothing — if we can call it clothing — that I have seen displayed several times in video games. I know I have seen it elsewhere, though I would have to hunt to point to specifics. It is something that I scratch my head at. This kind of top is neither fashionable or attractive (aside from a way to show the most cleavage and sideboob possible), so it always leaves me irritated and puzzled when I see it (more frequently?) in our games.

  4. Cuppycake says:

    Thanks everyone. I wrote this up quickly last night and was definitely thinking about the racial issues, but struggled with a way to talk about it. I think Blue hit it spot on with their comment.

  5. Tom Abernathy says:

    Yep. As I tweeted, I know the Sucker Punchers are a decent lot and I’ll bet they thought they were doing a good thing by prominently featuring two female NPCs, and non-white ones to boot. But intentionally or no, they’ve run aground in the shallows of the swamp of sexual and racial stereotypes, and the subtext isn’t very pretty. There’s still some time for them to make alterations to the skin tone and even wardrobe of these characters; let’s hope the reaction is specific and vocal enough to reach their ears and give them second thoughts.

  6. Ikkin says:

    I’m not entirely sure that the Evil is Sexy trope is inherently sexist, in and of itself — it’s somewhat natural to equate a character’s ability to tempt the hero with the character’s sexual appeal, regardless of gender, because sexuality is considered to be one of the strongest temptations. The way this is depicted for female villains is definitely more problematic than the way it is for male villains, but the popularity of characters like Dracula makes me doubt that the portrayal of his female equivalent is necessarily meant to say anything about female sexuality in particular.

    I’d be open to convincing that there’s something problematic about the trope itself, but it seems to me that the evil character’s outfit itself is more of an issue, both by being objectifying and by equating tribal attire with a lack of moral restraint.

    • Except it implies that sexuality is inherently evil, and more to the point, because of the overwhelming number of protagonists who are straight and male, generally implies that female sexuality is evil.

      (Like, I can’t really come up with any examples of a man doing the seduction. Or a good character doing the seduction, for that matter. Most of the male examples on TVTropes for that trope seem to just be men who are evil and sexy, but never actually use their sexuality.)

      • XIV says:

        Going to have to agree with Emily here. This is why I dislike the Femme Fatale character really, it often labels open and assertive female sexuality as poisonous. When a man shows that kind of sexuality, he’s usually portrayed as a good person or at least really funny and lovable with lip service to how ‘horrible’ he is. And even then he’s usually not defined by his sexiness, the femme fatales often are (And honestly, I even hate the name. There are other ways women can be deadly without having to use sex. Why must women’s characters /have/ to constantly revolve around sex?). And the whole ‘evil woman who is sexy and uses sex as a weapon’ is much more numerous than the men who do so, as Emily pointed out.

        In the end the detective picks his vanilla girl next door gal and the femme fatale usually dies a messy death. And speaking of Dracula.. didn’t the women become much more open about being sexy and having sexual desires when they were turned into vampires? Or am I wrong? Because if that’s how it happened, well there’s the ‘female sexuality is evil and unnatural’ thing all over again. It’s just that same Virgin/Whore dichotomy, the pure pure virgin or at least vanilla woman is the good one and the sexual woman is evil. Though as mentioned in the comments above.. the whole ‘darker things.. such as skin = evil’ is rearing it’s head again now too. Goodie. Don’t we get enough of that with stuff like the Drow? x.x

        • Mirai says:

          This is something that bothers me greatly in shit like Dante’s Inferno – the creatures of temptation are women because women seduce men and that’s evil. And thus they’re dressed scantily and you never see a single male incubi because that’d scare off dudebros and we don’t want that.

      • Ikkin says:

        Is that necessarily the case, though? The correlation between clothing and moral alignment seems more complex than that: sexy clothing can symbolize temptation, sexy clothing can symbolize an intentional disregard for social taboos, sexy clothing can symbolize a lack of restraint, sexy clothing can reflect a sexually-liberated character.

        Which implications apply to a character have to depend on context, though. If sex is only correlated to evil through this type of clearly-immoral character, and isn’t portrayed as problematic in contexts where the characters involved are not using/being used by each other, I wouldn’t think that this usage in and of itself would do much to imply that sex is evil. After all, you can’t really deny that it doesn’t make sense that a hedonist would be more open about her sexuality than a button-down businesswoman.

        As for the male equivalent, I was thinking of the modern version of the vampire myth (at least, when the vampire is still allowed to be evil), as well as the type of villain best represented by Sephiroth who wears tight clothing, exposes his chest, and makes sexually-tinged comments towards the hero in a suggestive tone of voice while attempting to use the hero for his plans. It’s not the same character type, of course (they’re usually more interested in dominating the hero than seducing them, though some of them, like Kingdom Hearts’ Ansem, need a willing victim and act accordingly), but it’s still an example of sexual implications being used as an evil-marker for male characters, and reversing the genders doesn’t seem “weird” enough for the trope to be inherently “feminine.”

        Which isn’t to say that most existing female examples of the “Evil is Sexy” trope aren’t messed up — just that I don’t think the trope itself is necessarily at fault, and the context of the rest of the work needs to be taken into account.

        • XIV says:

          It does depend on context. But the fact is women are the ones put so often into the ‘female sexuality is evil’ context and that’s the context ‘villainous women’ are often put in. People like Sephiroth and Ansem do not use their sexuality as a weapon, not like the examples of the women do who actually express sexual desires (and actually have their sexual parts on display a lot more often and are a lot more blatant about it instead of just going with implications. If you counted only the most blatant, as in the ones who actually use their bodies to get ahead, the list of men would be cut down considerably) and usually are labeled evil for it. There’s a reason there’s an entire archetype in Femme Fatale and no such equivalent for men. And the women largely outnumber the men in this regard. I’m not really willing to say the trope isn’t problematic all by itself in the end.

          • Ikkin says:

            Well, I agree with you about the Femme Fatale trope being inherently problematic, and not at all equally-distributed gender-wise. But, I don’t think all female villains that follow Evil is Sexy are necessarily Femme Fatales, and the impression I had (which may, I admit, be incorrect, seeing as I know nothing about the game) was that the Nix character was more of a “devil on the shoulder” than a seductress, in which case the clothing would be a symbol of temptation more than anything. (And that’s where the Sephiroth/Ansem villains fit in — they’re not equivalent to Femme Fatales, of course, but they’re good male examples of “sexy devil on the shoulder”)

            I don’t like the “sex as a weapon” thing any more than you do, I think. I just think that less-modest villains can serve other symbolic purposes without demonizing sex as a whole.

  7. Jayle Enn says:

    This looks like the ‘think with your dick’ version of the clumsy moral choices craze. Do you want to be a Good Boy and save it for the right American Apple Pie, or be a Bad Boy and let Jungle Fever consume you?

  8. franzferdinand2 says:

    My quick way of measuring the situation is to reverse the genders in my head. Hey, what do you know? The “good” person is wearing clothes that wouldn’t look at all out of place on a dude.

    Part of me wants to give the game makers some credit for not making the “good” NPC just eye-candy, but the “evil” NPC’s existence makes that a “one tiny step forward, two big steps back” kind of scenario.

  9. Nezumi says:

    This reminds me of Ar Tonelico. I know we’ve talked extensively about the many things it did wrong, but there’s one thing it did that, if not right, at least differently and that is relevant to this discussion. It features a character that they go out of their way to make you think is a villain — not only is she the leader of a group that had seemed villainous up to this point, but she wears a skimpy black leather outfit. Then it turns out she’s one of the good guys, and the villainous elements of the group have been going behind her back. Subverting the expectation that “Sexuality, especially female sexuality, is evil” seems like a good thing to me, but I may not be fully understanding all the implications — it’s been a while since I played, I tend to read things on a very literal, surface level, and I’m inexperienced with noticing sexism. But still, it seems better to subvert that than to just have “she’s good, but she’s also sexy”, as that doesn’t properly comment on the bizarreness of the expectation, and mostly ends up just being objectification.

  10. 12Sided says:

    wow, having played the first game it makes sucker punch look really lazy, as the whole ‘sexy lady tempting you to dark side’ vs ‘business/government woman urging you to do the right thing’ is exactly what you had in the first game. Is the woman on the left going to be called crazy and sexually harass Cole too? Are they going to be replaced by male characters towards the end again?
    I’m probably going to be getting this game anyway because I liked the super-hero feeling of playing the first one but geeeeez, just a little creativity?

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