Recommended Reading: Making of an Ally, Female Character Design, More From Film Crit Hulk

Lightning, the main character of FFXIII, sits casually on a white couch, holding a sword and staring straight ahead at the viewer.

I told you there was a lot of good stuff recently!

First, a post at Pax Valkyrie called (Trigger warning for sexual harassment) “No Flat Girls: How Allies Are Born,” which is the personal story of one woman in the game industry whose allies failed her when it came to dealing with sexual harassment at a group for game students.

I consoled myself that we would rant about it later, maybe over a beer or two. With every additional comment about big tits and their jiggle physics, though, I found it harder and harder to reassure myself. Instead of feeling like I was sharing a bad experience with the two guys in front of me, I began to feel truly attacked.

“Yeah, so he tells me her boobs have to be bigger! There are STANDARDS in videogames!” There were cries of assent, hoots and yelps not totally unlike hyenas.

I found it hard to swallow. I had never felt so casually humiliated in what was meant to be a welcoming, safe space. How could someone sit there and spew this kind of stuff? How could he joke and laugh about how horribly women are represented in games? Apathy would be bad enough, but this kid was lauding the fact that women’s bodies are engorged and contorted and exposed, that degradation is made synonymous with “sexy.” He was being cheered like a champion.

Silence might have been protecting my friends, but suddenly it was choking me.

The author goes on to describe confronting her friends about remaining silent and allowing this sort of behavior to go on in a space they created, reflecting on how her sacrifice was perhaps necessary to show just how sexism affects women and why it should be challenged.

Next, friend of the blog Latoya Peterson has a great piece at Racialicious titled “The Tits Have It: Sexism, Character Design, and the Role of Women in Created Worlds.” Peterson attended a panel at NYCC 2011 headed by Isamu Kamikokuryo, art director for FFXIII-2, and Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete, art director for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, talking about art direction “for a worldwide audience.” It seemed super interesting until Jacques-Bellêtete admitted that the most important thing about female characters, to him, is whether he would fuck them or not:

In describing his influences, Jacques-Bellêtete mentioned he was heavily influenced by Metal Gear and Final Fantasy. Then he went into a two minute riff about “always trying to have very beautiful female characters,” noting that these were characters he would want to sleep with. After making a semi-disparaging remark about female characters drawn in a North American style, he concludes “I’d rather have female characters from Final Fantasy or Soul Caliber to sleep with.” This draws chuckles from the crowd.

And there it was, the truth about character design that so many players know but most designers wouldn’t usually articulate: most of the egregiously sexist character designs are based on fuckability, rather than playability.

His comments are infuriating, even more so when you take into account the fact that he felt this was an acceptable thing to say in front of a room full of people. To top it all off, moderator N’Gai Croal had each artist interpret one of the other’s characters; Jacques-Bellêtete decided to depict Lightning from chin to chest, wearing a lacy top with a plunging neckline. Slow clap for Jonathan. Really well done.

Definitely read the whole thing, which has typically fantastic analysis from Peterson as well as Jacques-Bellêtete’s response to her question during the Q&A. (There’s also video of the panel available here; Peterson asks her question starting at about 3:30 in the third video.)

Thirdly, commenter Medicine Melancholy linked this in my link post last week: Film Crit Hulk posted a follow-up to his original Batman: Arkham City that is more thorough and responds to many of the common defenses of the sexism in the game (seventeen of them!). My favorite is Argument #1, debunking the idea that throwing around the word “bitch” constantly is just how the enemies in the game would act:


Hulk goes through sixteen more arguments, including some of our favorite derails that we’ve all seen before on any number of topics, as well as things like “GIRLS FIGHTING BAD THINGS = FEMINISM!” and “IT’S NOT SEXIST, IT’S LAZY!”. The post ends with a rousing speech about discussion and understanding that made me applaud my computer screen. Count me as a new fan. Read it.

BONUS: Have you been reading Denis’s PokeDrag series over at Gamers With Jobs? If not, Denis has posted the first five entries in one convenient spot for you. Denis is role-playing through Pokemon FireRed as a drag queen, with a drag army of monsters. It’s really cute and funny; check it out!

About Alex

Alex posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and Parks and Recreation on Twitter.
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42 Responses to Recommended Reading: Making of an Ally, Female Character Design, More From Film Crit Hulk

  1. Gunthera1 says:

    The drawing of Lightning that reduces an amazing character to a HEADLESS image centered on her chest was so telling for me. It was both completely infuriating and also a perfect example of how female characters are seen by some game designers/artists.

    • Alex says:

      RIGHT? Arrrghhhh. Lightning, of all characters =(

    • Olivia says:

      Yeah, this panel recap was pretty upsetting to me. I came very close to attending NYCC this year specifically to go to that panel; thank goodness I didn’t, I probably would have left close to tears had I been there in person. When I saw his rendition of Lightning, my jaw just dropped. I will definitely be avoiding any game Jacques-Bellêtete works on from here on out.

    • Ghostrocket says:

      It’s not just how he sees female characters, it’s how he sees females in general – have you seen the guy’s tumblr? Alongside all the random T&A there, he takes photos of women on the street without them knowing & posts them online…um, CREEPY MUCH!? So disappointing to see, as I thought his art direction for DX:HR was amazing, but I guess being talented doesn’t exclude you from being a douche…

      • SleekitSicarian says:

        D: Gah!
        I was already ticked off by the interview where he and Mary DeMarle talked about how writing a female protagonist would’ve ruined all their game design plans; now I regret buckling down and getting the game.
        …Well. Regret it more, what with the racism and the awful handling of female characters (the pilot aside).

        • Sif says:

          “I was already ticked off by the interview where he and Mary DeMarle talked about how writing a female protagonist would’ve ruined all their game design plans”

          Well, now I’m curious. Link?

          • SleekitSicarian says:

            Here ’tis:
            I overstated things a bit, mind, being bitter about it; it’s the usual lazy business – like Bioware wondering how they can design female turians, if not with lipstick and bows, or TeamICO’s insistence that a female character would have had to have a skirt. The idea that you couldn’t write the same story for a female character because ladyparts, and because women can’t be representative of a power fantasy.

            • Ms. Sunlight says:

              So infuriating to hear that same old argument again!

              It’s especially bizarre when you consider that she’s talking about the game that followed Deus Ex: Invisible War – did allowing Alex D to be female ruin that game?

              I would have loved another gender-neutral-name protagonist who could be male or female. Casey Jensen, anyone? (A skintone slider / choice of faces like the first 2 games wouldn’t go amiss either.)

              There is nothing about the Deus Ex: Human Revolution storyline that wouldn’t work with a gender flip, and I’m sure we can all imagine a stony-faced ex-SWAT security chief with girl parts; it is the year 2027, after all. If they wanted to keep it hetero, they could make Dr. Megan Reed into Dr. Morgan Reed easily enough.


            • Deviija says:

              @Sleekit and Mr. Sunlight: Indeed. There is absolutely nothing about Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s storyline that would not work completely the same with a gender-flip. Adam Jensen as Eve Jensen, and Megan Reed as Mark Reed would have worked just fine. The human and political and identity struggles would work JUST as well for either sex, there is nothing so specific in this game that the entire story would be broken if gender-swapped (or gender-neutral even, leaving the player customization rights over their own augmented dude or lady Jensen). Heck, the story would still function perfectly well if Adam Jensen had Mark Reed as love interest, or Eve Jensen had Megan Reed.

              Moreover, there aren’t many games at all that could not work if gender-flipped in certain ways. It would be more rare to see a game that WOULD NOT work if swapped. :P That writers believe this kind of power fantasy or set protagonist story is exclusive only from a dude standpoint, or that what issues are dealt with in Human Revolution are fundamentally male issues that could not be relevant for a woman, just blows my mind.

              Really, in this day and age, with our technologies and the state of customizability in games, giving players agency and choice over their protagonist and their story — even in limited ways — should be more the norm than the abnormal. Otherwise, I do fear we’ll be getting the same protagonists, same point of views, same heteronormativity, same hegemony, same stories over and over and over. Like it is right now already. :P

            • Corbiu Geisha says:

              “And she would be attractive.”


              No wonder DE:HR wouldn’t work with an Eve Jensen. Because it is a given that female protagonist must all be titilating to the straight male gamer, right?

    • Ikkin says:

      I don’t think one could come up with a better illustration of the objectification problem if one designed it, honestly.

      It’s not just a headless image centered on Lightning’s chest, which would be bad enough. It’s an image that renders her generic through apathy and ignores her personality for the sake of “sexiness” — the longer part of her hair is drawn over the wrong shoulder, and her choice of underclothing is out of character (would a woman whose sister gives her a survival knife for her birthday really wear a lacy push-up bra under her everyday clothing?). And, on top of that, the symbol being focused on is something that’s a mark of dehumanization in several ways in the context of its source narrative — in Final Fantasy XIII, that tattoo represents forced servitude to a being that considers humans mere tools and causes its bearers to be seen as a sub-human threat to society by everyone else.

      That last part, of course, is likely completely unintentional, but it serves to underscore the objectification already there anyway — in being reduced to her partially-bare chest, Lightning is reduced to the very thing used to turn her into an object in-game.

  2. I got into an argument with a friend over this. It frustrates me that they used those same arguments without even acknowledging the counter arguments. I can’t stand people that take offense to an article without even reading it, it’s not as if you even have to play a game to get it.

  3. Corbiu Geisha says:

    May I be allowed to say that Hulk is smashing?

  4. Also, with regards the first story, this immediately came to mind –

  5. Sunflower says:

    Great articles, thank you very much!

  6. ProdiGal says:

    Argument #12 in Hulk’s followup has always baffled me. People talk about how a certain demeanor or appearance “makes sense for the character” without really acknowledging that characters themselves are mere constructions made by real human beings. So saying Catwoman is a “femme fatale” as a defense for certain character choices in AC doesn’t really hold up well to scrutiny because more often than not, the femme fatale is a powerless fetishization of female dominance and authority for the sake of men.

    • Sunflower says:

      I am conflicted on this point..on one hand I feel like we need more portrayals of women who are sexual and who enjoy sex on their terms to show that exploring sexuality is acceptable. On the other hand it often does not feel authentic, like their exploration of sexuality just happens to coincide with what is acceptable and non-threatening. A lot of people really hate Samantha from “Sex and the City” because she has some qualities that do threaten people and that backlash makes me think you’re right about how most characters are just an extension of their creator’s issues. I have not seen any popular characters that explore asexuality authentically, for example, or who really expect men to be the ones to decorate themselves and look good while they don’t bother much with their own appearance, or any other number of ways they could go.

      • ProdiGal says:

        “On the other hand it often does not feel authentic, like their exploration of sexuality just happens to coincide with what is acceptable and non-threatening.”

        I think that’s really at the heart of the issue. The dominant paradigm in the industry is still “games are for white, straight, cis guys”, and any attempt to really flesh out different point of views – especially for female sexuality – is most likely going to devolve into… flesh being out. And nothing more.

    • I don’t think that means the concept of the Femme Fetale should be written off as universally sexist. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but there could. There were probably more in comics in the 70s when “Women’s Lib” was a big thing. Catwoman has had her moments though, it would be interesting to see someone a take a less misogynistic approach on the character.

      Comics are a bad example no matter what. People complain about manga/anime, and Japan does have some pretty messed up standards, but there are just so many more positive female role models.

      • Amy says:

        This. The actual concept of Femme Fatale can work. It’s refreshing seeing a woman embracing her sexuality while still being a kickass character who exists for more than just fanservice.

        My main problem with Catwoman’s portrayal in Batman: Arkham City is that they didn’t just stick with the femme fatale portrayal. They had to show massive amounts of cleavage too, and have her crawl around on all fours with her ass in the air (seriously, how can that even be a comfortable way of crawling? She must have the worst back problems from all that arching). She isn’t just a femme fatale in this game. She is basically just fap-material, only existing to look sexy and spew out sex-related quips. FFS at least zip up her damn top. She’s supposed to be a stealthy cat-burgler. Not only is a large expanse of pink chest going to be noticeable if she’s hiding in the shadows, but it doesn’t make sense that someone who does so much jumping, running and climbing would want her breasts to be at risk of falling out or painfully bouncing all over the place (ouch! running must be painful!)

        Game designers need to remember that a woman can still be sexy without needing to have their breasts on display to the point where they might fall out if she breathes too hard. Just look at Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Catwoman in Batman Returns. The only skin you could see on her entire body was the bottom of her face…and she has more sex appeal in her pinkie than Arkham City’s Catwoman does in her entire body. She’s a better character in general, though.

      • ProdiGal says:

        I definitely agree with the idea the the femme fatale archetype isn’t automatically bad. I guess what I’m saying is more akin to Quinnae’s excellent post on matriarchies in fantasy back in June, about how powerful women often become mere caricatures of patriarchal expectations of and beliefs about women, rather than having actual agency in their presentation and demeanor and truly “owning it”.

  7. Korva says:

    The “Allies” article was really moving. And intense. I’m glad such a horrible experience was a kick in the butt for her two male friends, at least. I know I myself would likely have been to mortified and disgusted to find proper words, too — not to mention that being in a room full of (apparently, mostly) complicit men as the only woman can feel damn threatening to boot.

    On a brighter note, the same blog mentioned that the Girl Scouts of Colorado will now accept anyone who is presented as a girl. That is awesome. I’m not from the States, but what I have heard about the movement painted the Girls as significantly better than the Boys overall.

    And ProdiGal: word!

    • Ms. Sunlight says:

      Korva, it feels threatening because it is explicitly a threat – when men do things like that, it’s a dominance manoeuvre to show the lone woman that she does not properly belong in male space and that she cannot remain there on equal terms. It is not accidental; it belittles, humiliates and excludes as a mechanism for removing the offending woman.

      I had a very similar experience when I was quite young (about 19) and met my dad in the street. He was heading to his local pub for a lunchtime drink and suggested I pop in with him. The disgusting things that one of the male regulars said and did (he even grabbed me and mimed as if to push me down onto the pool table and mount me) astonished both of us, especially as they knew I was his daughter, but I was a female invading what would normally be an almost exclusively male space during the daytime.

      Not one of the others said anything, not even my dad.

      I never went back in there.

      • Sunflower says:

        Ms. Sunlight (I love your name), that is a terrible experience :( I completely agree it’s a dominance behavior. I think some men do things like that to prove their masculinity to other men, so it’s even worse than just pushing women out of their space, it’s actively using women as tools in their sick hierarchy games. I don’t think men who do that even see women as people, but just as items they can use to show their status. It makes me appreciate the men who speak up and who don’t stand for it and who are aware of it that much more.

        I think it must be extremely hard for a woman in that situation to speak up. I don’t ever blame women who don’t. I think it must be hard for men too because men are taught that their whole existence and worth basically depends on their masculinity and facing that reality at that moment must be paralyzing. I don’t want to excuse men standing by idly, and it makes me angry, but I do know how hard it is to break that helplessness. I hate that sexism does that to people.

        • Missy H says:

          I definitely agree with this sentiment. It think it can be difficult for people of either gender when it comes to such situations. Women get harassed by men, and those who stand up to it are accused of having no sense of humor or being “frigid” or whatever. And men who stand up to their friends’ insulting behavior or those who don’t join in on the “joke” are accused of being a “faggot” or a “girl” or whatever.

          I remember waaaay back in high school my best friend once stood up for me after a particularly nasty guy made some sexual remarks about me. For the rest of the school year, my friend was known as “the faggot psycho” because all the guys in class agreed that only a “faggot” or a “psycho” couldn’t take such a “joke”.

          It’s sad that society has come so far in some instances of equality, and yet come so little in other instances. :(

          • Sunflower says:

            Wow, Missy, that sucks! I’m sad that happened to you and your friend. What an awful consequence for being brave and an ally! It must have been so discouraging. I think that school is such a messed up place in a lot of ways. I remember someone wrote a great article comparing school to a prison society. Now I have no idea how accurate it is exactly because I have not been in prison and I’m sure not all prisoners are awful people, but I think that when you have strict hierarchies, even supposedly beneficial ones, people start fighting for status and the most scared people fight the hardest. It seems to me the less worthwhile a person thinks he/she is, the more they grab for one of society’s prefabricated status awards, such as being white, male, well-off, attractive, American, etc. and then use that standard to suppress others. It is so loathsome. And we all have a little of that malware, sadly. I keep trying to root out the unthinking stuff and it’s hard because it’s so prevalent and often so unquestioned.

      • Amy says:

        Oh my God! That’s disgusting! Did you tell your father how it made you feel afterwards? I…I can’t even express in words how much your story has affected me. I couldn’t imagine being humiliated and degraded in front of my father’s friends, and having nobody (especially my own dad) say something. That’s truly horrifying.

      • Korva says:

        Yes, you’re definitely right. Your experience is even worse than the one in the linked article. :( A lot worse. I’m sorry you had to go through that. And then some people wonder why many of us do not feel safe in many situations — it’s because we aren’t safe.

        I’ve been wondering if one experience of mine, which wasn’t even remotely as bad as yours or the one in the article, was a vaguely similar sort of macho display. It was in a pen&paper roleplaying group, with me as the newest player and the only woman. It was nice enough until one night when the GM decided to portray one NPC as rather lecherous towards my character. I wasn’t comfortable with it, but didn’t want to make a fuss and just half-joked that if he got any closer, I’d hit him a good one with my staff. The GM’s reply was “Yeah that’s what he wants to do to you too.” Totally harmless joke from a bunch of totally decent guys? Maybe. Probably. But for me the lights went out at that moment because I saw it as a threat and they were laughing about it. The game session ended soon afterwards and I never went back. I still loathe myself for not sending the GM a private mail to explain my utter discomfort, but I just felt so dirty and not-safe that I couldn’t.

        Never been able to make up my mind if it WAS just a harmless moment of banter and my social phobia made me totally overreact. However, even if it was harmless, I still feel it was wrong, insensitive at best. Sexual harassment just isn’t a joke.

        • Ms. Sunlight says:

          Thanks to everyone for your kind words. Yes, I did speak to my dad afterwards – I think he was quite shocked, he hadn’t expected the behaviour so he did not know how to react. I like to think if it had got any worse he would have stepped in. My dad does love me and is protective of me as most people would be of their child, whatever their age.

          I never blame women who don’t speak up in that circumstance. Most of us know how to react in social circumstances through practice and habit. You don’t expect that kind of behaviour so you don’t have an automatic response ready. I know I felt shocked and frightened and afterwards thought of loads of things I should have said and did but didn’t.

          • Sunflower says:

            Ms. Sunlight, I so agree. I sometimes like to think to myself that if I’m in certain situations I’ll be “brave” and speak up but in reality I don’t always feel like I am free to. Even in situations where there is no immediate harm and the consequences would be very mild. It’s strange because I have little trouble standing up for myself in some ways and yet in others it doesn’t even OCCUR to me that there is a choice. That’s the most insidious part for me. I don’t even feel there is a path other than the one that’s laid out in front of me. This happens to me in business all the time because I have absorbed so much of society’s rules about what is “professional” and “appropriate”– (and a lot of those terms are used just to keep people from giving real and potentially unpleasant feedback!)

            I’m so glad you talked to your dad about it and shared your feelings. Your dad sounds like a great guy actually and I’m sure he would have broken out if things went further. I think that also men don’t really have a clear channel to make space for themselves to stand up to that stuff. I mean society has not created that space for us so individuals have to carve it out themselves and that’s so difficult… I was thinking the other day about how much women who have come before me in the business world have carved out so much space that it’s pretty easy for me to talk to people and tell them what I do and get respectful feedback, where even 20 or 30 years ago it would be so much harder to do even that.

        • Sunflower says:

          Wow, Korva, that really sucks. I misread the GM’s reply at first as “That’s what he wants you to do” and thought that was creepy enough! You say you wonder if it was a harmless moment of banter…I get what you mean but I think it was not harmless because of what it did to you and also to the group. I mean it basically opened the door to making that kind of stuff more acceptable. So maybe they didn’t mean to do it but harm was caused regardless. I’m not trying to nitpick you in any way or anything in case this comes across that way. I am saying you had every right to be upset and react the way you did and good for you for listening to your instincts and taking off!

          I was in a Rifts campaign where the GM kept getting annoyed that we players did not want to just mindlessly assassinate our targets, so as a way to stir up moral outrage he made all the bad guys into rapists. I quit that campaign shortly afterward because it was extremely miserable to keep hearing about something so awful and prevalent being used as a plot spur!

          • Korva says:

            It’s not not-picking at all, don’t worry. I think we (women but also “minorities”) are expected to downplay our feelings, not to cause a stir, laugh along, just be friendly, stop overreacting — that was certainly drummed into me. And with that comes a tendency to second-guess ourselves and not permit ourselves to stand up and say “this was wrong”. Combine this with a culture of victim-blaming and abusers’ strategies of testing/pushing boundaries to see who’d make a “good victim”, and it gets really ugly because IF something happens then all this “be nice, can’t you take a joke” crap becomes “you lead them on” or “why didn’t you stop it”. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And that means it’s sadly better to “overreact” ten times (or even a million times) than to give the benefit of the doubt once too many.

            I just wish I’d been able to articulate any of this to that gaming group. How will they know if no one points it out? And yet … how can they not know that sexual assault is never a joking matter, and that one woman alone with five snickering men in the middle of the night can find the situation hurtful and dangerous?

            Full agreement on what you said about that Rifts campaign, too! I hate it when rape is so casually tossed around in stories, especially if the victims are invariably, exclusively female and have no existence in the story except to be “fridged” to motivate the heroes.

            • Sunflower says:

              Yes, I have been told too many times to count that I “overreact” and that “it’s not a big deal” and “it’s just a joke” from childhood on. It has and will always make me angry to have my emotions and concerns dismissed that way because some people just can’t understand them and won’t take the time to try. I have met many people who try to test boundaries not just sexually but in business and other activities. I think it’s because people who are invested in their status and dominance only look for coercive relationships because cooperation equals feedback.

              I don’t know how they could not know. It could be that they just never thought about it because their experience has been completely different in terms of fearing rape. Or it could be that you were right on and that what he was doing WAS boundary-pushing and you were in danger. Or you know what, it may be that both are true. I mean there is no guarantee that once someone pushes at you sexually in one way they won’t do it in other ways, because it doesn’t occur to them not to. I don’t know how to put this well but if someone generally doesn’t have any idea that someone else’s experience is fundamentally different, and they are interested in doing a dominance display, it may not even occur to them that what they are doing is wrong. I have read that there are many rapists who think they didn’t do anything wrong at all. I don’t mean to imply that those men are rapists or anything like that. It’s just that you can never be sure if they even think the thing they are doing is rape. It may be that it doesn’t even occur to them to stop and think “is this rape?” or “is this coercion?”. In our society we have been taught that men must always be pushing and women must always say no until it turns into a yes. For a lot of people that’s normal and therefore unquestioned. Ugh, this is making me have all sorts of creepy shivers. Sorry for the long post, all.

  8. Deviija says:

    I posted a response on the Hulk blog a day or two ago. I really, truly appreciated the posts and the very touching, empowering note at the end of the latter of the two. It resonates with me since it is how I feel each day, when continuing these ongoing discussions and trying to have this sort of public dialogue with others. I want to see that betterment for everyone.

    Anyway, the Peterson post really disappointed me and repulsed me. Jacques-Bellêtete was the fellow that did the video podcasts with Mary prior to DE3’s release, yes? I thought he seemed like a very chill guy when the two of them were discussing various subjects about the game and its material. But now, after that panel, I am wholly put off by his view and art design scope. Every lady character created with the scale of beauty and whether he would want to sleep with her or not? Seriously? Ugh. Just… ugh.

    So glad I did not buy DE3.

  9. Raja says:

    Lightening is probably my favorite female character in the entire FF series

  10. Doug S. says:

    Have you seen the Moe Moe Rebellion video yet? After being exploited for fanservice one too many times, anime girls finally decide to fight back…

  11. Grigory V. says:

    I hope more character designers would be influenced by Valve games (Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, Portal series). These are really “for a worldwide audience”.

  12. Nathan of Perth says:

    That was a huge run-through from Hulk; I really think I like the guy…

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