(Alternate title: The conflation of violence and sex in video games, how it manifests in the ‘femme fatale’ character trope, and how this conflation works to serve patriarchal fantasies of women and violence: a male perspective.)
Women in video games don’t get a fair shake. That’s blatantly apparent. Since the early 1980s, the most common identity trope for female characters has been the love interest/damsel in distress – the embodiment of feminine fragility that the male protagonist (and assumed male player) must save. Since the original NES appeared on shelves in 1985, there have been countless princesses, wives, girlfriends, queens, damsels and sidekicks saved from the clutches of the Bad Guy. But beginning in the 90s, catalyzed by the chain link bikinied warrior women of the fantasy genre and Lara Croft’s bustline, there was born a “new” trope for women in gaming: the femme fatale. Skilled, deadly and somehow able to murder in the latest Victoria’s Secret fashions, the femme fatale is a faux empowered woman whose narrative agency rarely evolves beyond killing things in as little clothing as possible. From Street Fighter’s Cammy (1992), who scissor kicks in a thong leotard to Heavenly Sword’s Nariko (2007) who decimates battlefields in what I can only generously describe as lingerie, the femme fatale does two things and does them well: look sexy and murder faces. It’s become a nearly ubiquitous trope in the past 10 years: see Nariko (Heavenly Sword), Shura (Soul Calibur), Skarlet (Mortal Kombat), Catwoman (Batman), Rhayne (Bloodrayne), Trish (Devil May Cry) the list goes on and on.*
But dangerous women are nothing new. The femme fatale is a long-standing character trope seen in both television and movies and has been around since the serial radio dramas of the 1940s. What’s remarkable about the femme fatale trope is how it manifests in the video game medium. The production of videogames is arguably even more male-dominated than film or television – men develop the software, own the production companies, the publishing studios, write the stories, develop the characters, dictate the game’s marketing, and so and so forth. As such, femme fatales are women created by men for other men** to play with. While these women are given a myriad of occupations (ninjas, assassins, amazons, secret agents, etc.) they still serve one purpose: make violence sexy. The sexy – massacre mashup has reached new heights of abysmal depravity with the ‘fatality’ moves of Mortal Kombat fatale Skarlet in the latest iteration of the franchise:
In the video, Skarlet’s finishing moves show her slicing open her opponent’s body, then gleefully gesticulating as it splashes across her face, hair, and exposed chest. It’s a moneyshot. A ‘finishing move,’ if you will, of a hardcore porno. One that has been met with delight across the internet. But why? Why are dudes creating women who exist only to fuck and murder? Why are these women so celebrated, so ubiquitous? And does that tell us anything about male fantasies or the male psyche? Dr. Michael Kimmel is an American sociologist specializing in masculinity, and spokesperson for NOMAS (The National Organization For Men Against Sexism). In “The Gender of Violence” Kimmel writes:
“Masculinity is still often equated with the capacity for violence. From the locker room to the chat room, men of all ages learn violence is a socially sanctioned form of expression. Male socialization is a socialization to the legitimacy of violence – from infantile circumcision to being hit by parents and siblings to routine fights with other boys to the socially approved forms of violence in the military, sports and prisons….men learn that violence is an accepted form of communication between men and between women and men. “
In a patriarchal culture, agency is always accorded to men. As such, gamers are assumed to be men and video games reflect male values and male expressions. Because, as Kimmel states, violence is the only form of expression for men,*** men use violence as the means of enacting their own gender. The conflation of sex/violence in videogames is an example of this. Naked women with (distressingly literal) bloodlusts are reflections of the constraints of a patriarchal culture wherein men are given narrow and unfulfilling socially acceptable ways of expressing their gender identities; she is the embodiment of male fantasies concerning the two most prominent socially constructed barometers for masculinity: sex and violence. The femme fatale is not an empowered ass-kicker, she’s an arm of patriarchal thinking. Femme fatale characters exist only to kill and fuck because killing and fucking are intrinsically tied to masculine fantasies of power in both the real and virtual (as if there were any cultural distinction) worlds. And in a patriarchal society where masculine = good, strong and feminine = bad, weak these “women” (made by dudes for dudes) exist as tokens of counterfeit empowerment because they enact male fantasies of power. This is why the femme fatale, despite having no narrative agency, is sold as a “strong” character.
Specifically concerning Skarlet’s fatality – called “make it rain****,” it’s a recreation of a sex act in porn. Feminist authors have long highlighted porn (m/f porn, specifically) as a place where violence against women is eroticized and Mortal Kombat here has recreated this same dangerous eroticization. Bulletstorm, a PS3 shooter released in 2011, did much the same; looking at its move list shows the same conflation – abilities have names like “facial,” “gang bang,” and “deep penetration.” Bulletstorm takes a violent act and frames it as sex. Mortal Kombat takes a sex act and recreates it as violent. It becomes apparent how developers purposely erase the distinction between sex and violence to appeal to a male audience.
The consequence of making violence sexy in an ocular medium such as gaming is that the expressions of violent sexuality become more and more graphic, disturbing and explicit. Lara Croft firing guns in a tanktop was considered risqué in her day, now we have a nearly naked women gyrating in the fresh blood of an eviscerated opponent. Given how the objectification of women is derisively addressed in our culture, the femme fatale trope and its enforcement of patriarchal thinking, is extremely problematic. Especially for male gamers, who spend hours devouring content where women (even “strong” ones) are debased.
But it’s important to note that this is not always the case. Female characters in gaming can be sexy and also kick ass. Characters like Chloe from Drake’s Uncharted, Miranda from Mass Effect 2 and Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII are both combat-ready and attractive. But they also have backstories, relationships, perspectives, feelings, and a sense of agency in their own dress (i.e., what they wear makes at least SOME sense for the worlds they inhabit). Things that actually constitute a human being. As opposed to a murderous sex toy.
I like it when women kick ass. Most dudes do. But to actually kick ass, better yet, to kick patriarchy’s ass, developers must endeavor to create female characters that are accorded values beyond aesthetics and a purpose beyond killing and being a dude’s love interest. By doing so, we can create female characters with legitimate sexual empowerment, intrigue, and agency.
* I purposely left Bayonetta out of this list because, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the game, I never thought the creators intended for the audience to think of her as sexy or legitimately enacting her own sexuality. I interpreted the entire game as camp and parody of the action genre. Just my opinion, though.
**Although women comprise a sizable portion of all gamers – roughly 42% – the femme fatale trope is most apparent in the Action and Fighting genres of gaming, which are (arguably) more targeted to a specific male audience
***Homophobia plays a major part here; men who aren’t aggressive or are sensitive are called sissy, homo, fag, etc. etc.