There are times when League of Legends really lives up to its acronym, I’m afraid. A close friend of mine who plays the game drew my attention to a forum thread where a male gamer complained about the oversexualised image of a new character being added to the game, Sejuani.
“She must be a strong lady to lift her flail and shield, or even ride her mount. But she doesn’t look it. None of the female champs look particularly strong. But the male champs are not only more varied, but their body types support their character. Strong warrior champs are big. Makes sense, right? Casters tend to be thinner. There’s a lot of variety among the male champs in terms of body type. But all the female champs are just lingerie models, regardless of the size of their weapon or the weight of their armor (I’m looking at you and your plate mail heels, Leona).
This is a problem with most games, and while I love League of Legends, they’re very guilty of falling into this trend. Men are varied and appropriately proportioned, women are thin and busting out of their tops regardless of who they are or what they do. I really wish Riot would change this.”
What makes this thread unique is that one of the senior concept artists- who goes by Iron Stylus on the forums- favoured it with a lengthy, revealing response. Before I go into it I should write the usual disclaimers about such criticism: I appreciate that he responded at all, that he seemed to put some thought into his answer, and that he did not dismiss the matter out of hand. But as per usual with comments like these, good intentions are all that can be praised.
“That being said, yes, often in the video game industry, and the entertainment industry, there is a “standardization” of female form. I’m as guilty of it as any other artist when designing. Leona is a tall curvy lady which in my mind is “idealized”. We’re artists, we like “ideal” and sometimes default to it. (REMEMBER! I’m keeping “Ideal” in QUOTES! “Ideal” is not an “Ideal” term for what I’m “Ideally” trying to explain)”
Often as not in arguments like this I will see defenders of the status quo move heaven and earth to prove their generalisations are not, in fact, generalisations. But there is a truth about fiction writing that applies just as well to non-fiction writing: show, don’t tell. Putting “ideal” in quotes doesn’t change the fact that by entirely de-gendering the issue he’s obscuring what the complaint actually is. Why is this character an ideal- excuse me, “ideal”? To whom is it an ideal?
“but let’s be honest, a lot of natural human tendency which is often hardwired into us makes us gravitate towards particular biological attributes. I’m not trying to defend that gravitation, but I am saying that we are many times inexorably drawn to it… no art pun intended.”
This is the point at which I’m checking off my Bingo sheet hoping this week’s prize is a pair of mittens (it’s cold up here!) I remember when I watched the British version of the Office and Brent was on a date with a woman he’d met online, making a fool of himself as he tried to argue that men were attracted to cleavage because cavemen often did it with cavewomen from behind and developed a hardwired association between cleavage and one’s butt crack. My first thought was “Wow, that is a hilarious satire of evolutionary psychology, well done, Gervais and Merchant!”
Then I found out it wasn’t satire, just ripped from the headlines.
The gleeful ignorance of how standards of pulchritude have evolved down the centuries and cross-culturally has fuelled countless justifications for sexism and objectification. As a woman who is attracted to other women, I will come right out and say that yes- I can find even objectifying portrayals of women to be “sexy.” The difference between myself and a lot of hetero men is that I don’t lie to myself about why that is, nor wrap myself in layers of pseudoscience to justify it.
If you find something attractive, just say so. Saying that you can’t help it clouds the issue and is actually very self-degrading.
This returns to the main issue: why is it that “sexy” is a prime characteristic for women characters? For whom is this an ideal and why? Why must women be limited to this?
Well, at least as LoL goes, Iron Stylus has an answer for us:
“Let’s also consider something. Readability. In the game, the characters are fairly small, nyez? So, we do often I believe have to make sure we’re making sure to make sure that the figure is readable as a girl or guy. How do we do this? Well, proportion, accentuation, exaggeration, etc. Want the feminine form to read in a game? Welp, guess what, it might have to be a bit more famine and/or stylized than usual to read at the proper distance and keep readable when moving. That’s just making sure we cover the basics of simple silhouette recognition. If we make her too broad, you might mistake Sejuani for a male, that’d be, ya know, not what we want.”
I have to say this is a first. “My game is special because the characters are really really small.” Never mind that it follows exactly the same trends as games where your character occupies a whole screen. And as to that last line, yes, gender ambiguity is not what “we” want. Can’t have that at all. Men and women are completely and utterly different and readily distinguishable from one another, always and forever no matter what. Indeed, “we” cannot bear otherwise.
Is it really that threatening for a man to have feminine characteristics or a woman to have masculine ones, even to the point of ambiguity? Irrespective of the size of the character on screen, why is that such a pressing concern? I appreciate the fact that at least Iron Stylus has dredged so many of these often subjugated lines of reasoning into the light. More than once I’ve looked at concept art and fan art of women warriors who wore full armour and saw people- almost always men- in the comments complain “she looks like a man!” Because if your tits aren’t hanging out and your hips don’t shatter doorframes, you’re clearly a dude, yes.
I’ll let Iron Stylus explain further:
“Particularly though, at least speaking for myself, I also want to know how that armor or lack thereof functions! But, what is the trade off? Do I think Sejuani might need to make a trip to Sports Chalet and get some heavy winter gear? Possibly.. BUT! I also want her to be wearing something more interesting than a Columbia snowboarding jacket and I also want her to read clearly when I play her. That’s a whole lot in the equation.
“There’s trade-offs to everything, and sometimes we don’t even know those trade-offs on a conscious level. If you saw Sejuani in a head to toe outfit, or heavily armor-clad, or maybe beefier, well, that actually presents a slew of other visual problems to work out. We then have problems with whether we could tell her gender or not. The boar (Let’s take get a betting game going to see if you can guess the boar’s name) might indicate, given another armor or outfit situation, that she’s a guy. Thickening her up, while addressing how a chick could wield such a weapon comes at a risk of her looking like a male also. We wanted her to be fit and vicious. Adding particular types of clothing, mass, armor, etc might detract from that…”
This is why I tend to roll my eyes whenever people say that folks like myself are imposing politics on gaming. Paragraphs like this prove that these games are already expressing a political point of view, just one that has the privilege of being considered apolitical. We’re down to even her mount, a boar, somehow suggesting masculinity. At this point I’m grateful Sejauni wasn’t assigned a feline mount with a furry bosom and painstakingly drawn cleavage. You know, in case you might mistake her for a male.
But this is expressing a clear series of points of view about gender: what makes a woman? What makes masculinity and femininity? What is a desirable or worthwhile woman character like and how does she change with the signifiers that surround her? Stylus has answered many of these questions, and they are fundamentally political answers about what women ought to be and for what purpose.
My job has never been to insert politics where it didn’t exist before, but to add a badly needed countervailing point of view to an ongoing discussion.
“Now, that said, and I may be at bit too full of microwave mashed potatoes at this point, but I do have certain issues with certain champs and their body types. I do flinch here and there when I consider the logistics that certain clothing might entail. However, as an artist, as a gamer, I’m looking for something that’s rewarding to my eye. Sometimes that might be a dynamic silhouette, sometimes maybe the nuanced movement of a character, possibly the hardwired biological aspect, or any other pleasing imagery. As a gamer and as an artist, I want a visual reward. That’s a lot of what gaming is and art for that matter. Engagement -> Reward.”
Once again we have to be specific here. Why is this highly specific kind of sexiness “a visual reward”? For whom is it a visual reward? Who does this exclude and at whose expense does this come?
The friend who showed me this thread works out on a regular basis, boxes, and with statuesque proportions often describes herself as “built like an Amazon.” She’s hardly alone in this, and took exception to the strong suggestion that muscularity is a male signifier. There are plenty of ways, as an artist, to make a woman or feminine person “pleasing” without emphasising a particular kind of sexuality.
Note also that I’ve been at pains to say “a particular kind of sexuality” rather than just “sexuality.” One of the most pernicious myths to emerge from these debates about portrayal is that the choice is between sexual liberation and Puritanism, that there is only one way to be sexy and it is the way that that a certain clique of heterosexual cis men want you to be sexy. What is attractive to people varies widely, regardless of their gender or sexuality. What constitutes “sexy” is not only culturally and temporally contingent, but personally so as well. The media-driven mythology of unitary, male-gaze-pleasing sexuality, cannot be allowed to set the terms of discussions like this.
I and many other gamers “engage” for an altogether different kind of reward.
“Regardless, I’m not sure if this is all making any sense. I’m pretty tired. Also, ya know. Mashed potatoes. Either way, I enjoy these discussions and I’d like to keep having them. There’s a lot we go through over here when we design champs artistically and believe me, nothing you’re saying hasn’t been discussed or not thought over. In the end, we’re having fun, and we hope you are too!”
Well then, here’s to an ongoing debate, hm? I just hope that we can keep it honest, instead of wandering through the hall of mirrors where white cis men tell us what they know about what they know about what they know. Let’s talk about why portrayals like this are desirable, why they are “rewards” for engagement, and for whom without redounding to the lazy excuse of DNA or neurology—the latter day equivalent of “the Devil made me do it.” It is a poor substitute for intellectual discussion and always has been.
One professor of mine once said that you should “occupy your sexuality.” He was right about that, and although he said it to encourage people who were not represented by the mainstream discourse on sex, I think it applies to Iron Stylus as well whose sexuality is rather well represented. Why not admit to and own your preferences instead of leaning just on biology?
Our appetite for food and thirst for water is biological, yes. A culture where one eats with forks or chopsticks, eats with their elbows off the table, and out of a bowl or plate, ending the whole process at a porcelain throne is not, however. Sex, like hunger, involves biology. But it is profoundly mediated by culture. How we direct, channel, and manage our various urges is a significant part of what comprises this thing called “society.” If we’re going to have useful discussions about objectification, what is sexy, and why certain images predominate, we should start there.