The Escapist‘s video series “The Big Picture with MovieBob” recently took on the problem of rampant objectification of women in video games. While the video starts out seeming to assume that “gamers” and “feminists” are two mutually exclusive groups (and can we stop using Dworkin as shorthand for “scary feminist”?), it quickly debunks that notion and goes into a clear and effective explanation of the major difference between how men and women are depicted in games, no matter how much clothes either one is wearing.
The video is embedded below, or you can watch it at the Escapist. I’ve also provided a transcript of the voiceover below and described the images when relevant.
The Big Picture: Gender Games
So, during last week’s junk drawer episode, I wound up covering the ongoing perceived impasse between video game culture and feminism as one of the things I hadn’t quite found a whole episode worth of material in yet. Judging by the response to that one particular part, I could evidently be trying harder to find it. But, hey, since we haven’t had a serious issue episode in a little while, and since I’ve got something kind of different planned for most of October, okay! Let’s dig into this a little bit.
Watching these frequent flare-ups with as much objectivity as I can muster, in my opinion, the whole “gamers vs feminists” thing seems to crop up a lot of the time due to a simple matter of the two parties–or at least, certain representatives thereof–talking past one another. Feminist academia seems to see gaming as wholly being represented by the likes of Duke Nukem, while many gamers seem to be under the impression that the entirety of feminism is represented by, say, Andrea Dworkin. [Image: Man with speech bubble that says "Who?"] Oh, look it up, I’ve got like five minutes for these things.
Anyway, as I in fact mentioned last episode, the most repeated rationale for ruckus regarding this realm tends to be the issue of how female characters are depicted in games, usually framed in visual terms moreso than issues with regard to gender narrative, though there are some exceptions [image: Box art of Metroid: Other M].
Here’s how it usually goes down: someone–frequently female, but not exclusively–raises a complaint or even merely a concern about, eh, let’s just save time and say this, for example [image: Ivy from Soul Calibur IV], and is immediately met by a torrent of response from gamers that don’t so much disagree with the argument as they do rage at the idea that there is an argument to be had at all. Soon enough–usually soon enough to be simply called “immediately”–this will descend into a chorus of anger at the perception that [image of baby crying] “WAAAH, the feminists want to spoil our fun!”
Now, folks, I’m just a guy. I’m not going to pretend to speak for women, know what women are thinking, or anything quite so presumptive or arrogant, but I do know quite a few women, including quite a few women who would be called both gamers and feminists, so I’d like to think I’ve been able to at least absorb the bare, basic jist of what it is about this stuff that sometimes bothers them and, you know, maybe give my particular take on it.
See, here’s the thing. I don’t know any women–gamers or otherwise–who are against sex, sexuality, sex positive characters [image: Bayonetta], or sexy costumes. Now, plenty of them are against the fact that “sexy” in a rigidly conventional, heteronormative sense, is the only design option allowed for female characters, as opposed to the vastly greater diversity available for male characters, but that is a separate discussion that everyone should be upset about but we’ll have to come back to another time.
When I stopped to listen to the actual complaints, what I heard was less about skimpy outfits and more about the way they’re worn. Or not worn, as the case may be. See, in a predominantly visual medium like video games (see also comics, painting, animation, whatever), characters are often asked to communicate their immediate feelings and overall personality by the way they comport themselves. Poses, especially default stances or hero poses, become incredibly important, or at least they do for characters who are men. When you look at an official still or an idle stance for a male character in a video game or comic or cartoon, or whatever, said male character’s poise and comportment are usually carefully set up to convey or imply a specific attitude in the moment captured.
For example, this pose [image: muscular dude from fighting game standing with one arm forward and scowling] implies strength, this pose [image: Marth from Smash Bros Melee standing at idle, sword and eyes forward] implies bravery, the implication here [image: Kratos wears armor and glowers at the viewer] is resolve, [image: a Dragonball Z character confidently crossing his arms] discipline, [image: Sonic] flippancy, [image: Duke Nukem smoking a cigar and cracking his knuckles] confidence. [image: Bowser sitting on a spiky throne] This pose implies that Bowser has a certain degree of power, but is not content with it and maybe wants more. That pretty much sums him up, right? Whereas this pose [image: Bowser from SSB: Brawl] implies, “I’m going to enjoy this impending fight.” Everything about Marcus Fenix always implies, “I’ve been through hell, which means I’ll get through this.” Why is Nathan Drake typically depicted grinning like an idiot while about to do something dangerous? Because it implies, “Chill out. I’ve got this.”
Women in games, however, tend to pose or be posed a little differently. While the men get lots of poses with lots of different implications, the quote-unquote “sexy ladies of games” get poses that all have the same implication: namely, the implication that there’s a full-length mirror somewhere just outside the frame, and they are checking themselves out. Or rather, that would be the implication if we didn’t all know what was actually going on. They aren’t posing in such a way as to reveal something about their character, they’re posing that way to break the fourth wall and put on a peep show for a presumably male audience.
I mean, let’s face it, you can get a pretty good idea of who Torneko Taloon [image: plump merchant from Dragon Quest IV] is supposed to be, personality- and disposition-wise, just by looking at him, but if you know anything about Mai Shiranui, it’s because you looked it up.
Now, yes, there are some instances where this has been done for intentional subversive effect, like Bayonetta, or the obvious sexy-body-monster-face gag at play with Malena, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The problem is not that these characters are sexy or even sexualized, it’s that the way in which that sexiness is presented communicates a message from the designers to the players that essentially says, “We assume most of our audience are heterosexual teenage boys, so we’re not even going to pretend to care about anyone else.” That sucks. That’s a problem, and that’s what needs to start changing. And unfortunately, it’s not going to change until certain factions of the gaming community GET OVER their knee-jerk aversion to feminism, and women’s issues in general, being part of the 21ist century gaming conversation. It’s high time for the gamer culture in general, and the entrenched male side of gamer culture in particular, to accept that this is an issue and join the voices asking the industry to address it.
I’m Bob, and that’s the big picture.