The Escapist’s “The Big Picture” on the Objectification of Women in Games

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.

22 thoughts on “The Escapist’s “The Big Picture” on the Objectification of Women in Games”

  1. Yeah this video also bothered me to the fact that he separates the whole objectification thing and the costumes and seems to think if the women were posed heroically that would solve the whole problem. When the costumes are part of the problem as well, a BIG part and you can’t quite pull those two apart.

    1. I certainly can’t speak to what he was thinking in that regard, but for me what I can take away from this is that while costumes are part of the problem with comportment, the whole portrayal- inclusive of positioning, gestures, and so on- is what constitutes objectification. What signals sexual availability is the pornographic posing in addition to the costumes. The way the women are often positioned, precisely like models being directed by a man with a camera, and the orientations they assume are– as you well know– about the presumed male gaze.

      The other issue with the costumes are their ubiquity, the fact that they’re so common for precisely the above reasons, the fact that they’re the go-to costume for any woman character a developer can think of. This video was definitely not speaking to a fully feminist audience and I think it constitutes a good, brief initiation into a more complicated way of approaching the issue of objectification which– while considering the clip’s limitations– it does fairly well.

    2. The way I see it:

      Sexified costume + unsexified pose = a lot more ridiculous and awkward than sexy, while unsexified costume + sexified pose = not much less objectifying than sexified costume + sexified pose.

      And I’ve seen a lot of [-costume, +pose] ruining what would have been a perfectly good effort at keeping the player character sprites of both genders reasonably equal.

      I’ve also seen the occasional [+costume, -pose] in older games (thinking primarily of Rune: Halls of Valhalla) where you’ve basically got one set of skeletal animations to cover all sorts of meshes, and at least from what I’ve seen the +costume problem pretty much solves itself because no one would bother with it (except for some fringe pervs whose art sucks anyway and no one uses their skins).

      So I dunno, now that you mention it that way “if the women were posed heroically that would solve the whole problem” might not be wholly accurate but could be a pretty huge step in the right direction.

      1. Agreed – and it would highlight the ridiculousness of the situation – if you had a heroic pose, you could almost think that maybe the lady wanted to conceivably wear the costume. Not that comics are the best example, but you can take the favourite go-to examples of Wonder Woman and Powergirl, who essentially wear ridiculous bathing suits, but this doesnt preclude them from being strong characters, or having strong poses.

  2. Yeah, the reflexive Dworkin thing is slightly irksome but either way I was very pleased with the video overall. He more or less understood what objectification actually entails. It is not the portrayal of a woman as sexually confident, hegemonically attractive, or even scantily clad necessarily. It’s that A) these seem to be practically the only choices with far too many characters out there and B) these traits *define* them. He was very, very astute in pointing out the fact that in artwork comportment needs to communicate the character effectively: gestures, posing, clothing all say a lot. Yet almost invariably what the comportment of too many women says is “I’m hot to straight cis dudes, tee hee!”

    Even this by itself would not necessarily be problematic if it wasn’t the dominant running theme in most gaming, and if it weren’t practically the only choice for women (or for men who like to play as women). If the narrow sexual interests of a certain set of men did not dominate the creation of these characters there wouldn’t be a problem.

    It does give me hope to see videos like this, I won’t lie. ;) Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Alex, and well done on the transcript!

  3. While I liked many of the points made at the end, the false dichotomy of Feminist vs Gamer at the start really got under my skin. He does say he knows people that are both but I wonder how many viewers will instead latch onto that dichotomy, especially if it confirms what they already believe.

    1. I think the point was that when these issues erupt in public discourse, the gamer community and the Feminist community are at odds with each other. Which is true: us Feminist gamers are simply siding with the Feminist community in the debates. He phrased it inelegantly, which is unfortunate because it ends up sounding moderately antagonizing.

  4. I’m with Quinnae on this one. I would argue that once you give these characters personality and comportment that says something deeper about them, their costumes will start to look awkward and begin to recede (there are some difficult underlying assumptions about effective armor that need to be addressed, but overall a confident warrior wearing a silly bikini will start to seem stranger as she turns more into a person).

    1. I agree with this as well although it brings up the sad truth that currently people aren’t willing to design a female character in a less sexualized way for their games.

      The thing about this is I feel that a good deal of video game characters barely rely on their gender for characterization at all. Some do of course but at least almost of your older legacy characters are not defined by their gender, more so the way they present themselves (ex: would we loose anything if Mario was a woman?). Women video game characters however, are almost always shown as the old standard of the heteronormative female but in the most shallow way possible.

      1. Oh, I’m not saying that legacy isn’t problematic. What’s sort of strange (to me) is that super-flexible interpretations of gender REQUIRE better writing in order to prevent female characters from becoming “men with tits”. But if gender roles/traits/actions aren’t paired to biologic sex, then we have to (and should) throw out the traditional tropes associated with each gender, which will require some innovative thinking and writing.

        Maybe we should relax the demands on designers write women correctly in order to encourage palate-swapping re-genderings? I mean, outfits aside, would making link female by changing his physical features be acceptable (I am setting aside the WHOLE issue of trans* because in silent protagonists, you’d have to work EXTRA hard to disclose an interior monologue. If all I know about someone is how zie looks, can I be blamed for assuming zie is cisgender?)?

        I realize I’m talking around in a circle a bit, but I find that once we wander away from the idea that costumes are silly that the territory becomes somewhat murkier (http://aboutwaifuz.tumblr.com/post/10487027858/why-not-the-other-way-around). Of course, if I’m wrong on this, I’d love for someone to set me straight.

    1. I had the same thought. I usually go to The Escapist for Zero Punctuation, but I might have to start watching these on a regular basis as well.

  5. I thought this video and the message he is saying (particularly by the end) is great. I understand that the intro wasn’t strong and that it may seem vague as to whether he’s saying that scantily-clad women representation is not an issue so long as the character is fully fleshed out and not posing pornographically for a specific demographic. But all in all, I believe he meant that we need to start banding together to push the industry into making better representations and non-exploitative conditions for women characters in our games. And that in itself is a good enough message.

  6. Whatever withdrawals you have about this video I still think it is important that the discussion is being had on a website with as much influence as The Escapist. I personally think he presented a very concise argument on a subject that few gamers in the core demographic rarely think about in depth.
    I’m sure a lot of people who typically wouldn’t give much thought to the issue would give it a lot of consideration after watching this and that can only be beneficial surely.

    1. Agreed 100%. No, it’s not perfect, but its intended audience is [on average] even worse, so overall it’s great.

  7. well, it doesn’t bother me that much. He says pretty clearly that costumes ARE another issue but that he wants to handle poses because they tell much more about a character than just a costume would say. And therefore the core issue of females in games is that they lack character bseides “eye toy/companion for boys”

    One of my most favourite artists draws all different kind of stuff and is especially good at character design. And of course she will draw something more “revealing” if her customer asks for it (even if she really excels at realistic armor and detail), but I found even her most revealing characters less bothersome and stripperific because they made sense and seemed to have a life of their own and got some charisma. (Oh and maybe because she’s doing realistic proportions, no T&A shots and no balloon boobs with organ-crushing ribcages)

  8. I’m with a few of the other commenters here in that I see his point as the first step in fixing the problem: that being, once you stop trying to “present the goods,” so to speak, and have female characters use normal, evocative poses indicative of their personality, the ridiculousness of their costumes should become apparent, with the entire thing will landslide into an awesome gaming diaspora of equality and high fives.

    But I’ve often thought that, if you can get just one point across, one admission…admitted… then many will follow.

    1. Another interesting thing about avoiding suggestive poses is that the amount of clothing a character wears probably plays into whether their pose seems suggestive or neutral in edge cases (say, a rear shot showing the character looking over their shoulder, which could look natural for a fully-clothed character but will inevitably seem like an excuse to show off the character’s butt if she’s wearing thong armor). If they’re paying attention to the poses, they’ll probably find it easier if they tone down the costumes too.

  9. I’m not going to retread others’ good points here. Just wanted to thank you for making a transcript. I tend not to watch videos of people talking.

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