Feminist Frequency was the subject of a disappointing Kickstarter drama last year. Wanting to produce a series of analytical videos about gender issues in video games, Anita Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter campaign to bankroll it. Of course, a large fraction of the gaming community can’t handle the thought of women expressing views about gender, so the Kickstarter drama was more about the influx of trolls rather than the subject of women in gaming.
Fortunately, the drama might draw attention to her videos which (despite some tiny quibbles about presentation) are first class. Here’s the first episode:
The reaction from the gaming community was predictable. ‘Silly girl with your HARDCORE feminist friends, you have completely ignored all the examples of positive role models for girls in video games!’ Indeed, so common was the response that a friend of mine (an avid gamer) even threw down this magic card, using the word ‘balance’ to justify the position.
The view seems to be that the only way to tell if women are objectified by video games is to list all the games which objectify women and all the games which don’t — if the Good List is longer than the Bad List, then there’s no problem in the gaming community.
This is a rubbish view for two reasons.
The first is obvious: we shouldn’t be ‘balancing’ the two lists to determine the extent of the problem. The problem is that the ‘Bad List’ exists at all. As a straight white guy, I can’t think of a single game where my character analogue is anything less than a triumphant hero. If we’re balancing the lists for single white guys, the Bad List is practically non-existent. Yet when we discuss women in video games, we can’t criticise the Bad List without doffing our caps to the Good List?
The second is less obvious and something to which Sarkeesian alludes but doesn’t hit squarely on the head: guys are really bad at spotting gender issues. The idea of comparing two lists of female representation assumes that we can objectively identify which representations go on which list. Thus, one internet blowhard (who even went on to argue that Sarkeesian was censoring guys’ responses by disallowing comments to her posts…) listed Ms Pac-Man, Super Princess Peach, and Borderlands as examples of games Sarkeesian should have mentioned if only she’d done more research and wasn’t such a HARDCORE feminazi.
Ms Pac-Man, as we are all aware, is a complicated and multi-layered story about a young woman who eats giant dots and bits of fruit. Women identify with Ms Pac-Man because, like them, they wear a red bow in their hair, have beauty spots, and wear red lipstick. Here she is standing up against the objectification and sexualisation of women on the original arcade machine:
Snark aside, ‘female Pac-Man’ in the gaming community meant ‘sexy Pac-Man’. Further, the ‘Ms’ element is what we call in Aristotelean terms an ‘accidental attribute’ rather than an ‘essential attribute’. This essential vs accidental issue is a complicated problem at the heart of representation issues in culture. We see straight white guys as the norm, with each step away from that norm being a quirky twist. Captain Smith is a hard-edged, no-nonsense leader of a group of space pirates… oh, and she’s a woman! That’s what makes this series different to the others! Woman! President Jones is a kindly, gentle leader of the Free World… oh, and she’s a woman! How will she cope with all of her women’s periods?
In the case of Ms Pac-Man, this was literally the case. They needed a character who was different enough from Pac-Man to avoid a lawsuit but similar enough to be part of the franchise: thus, Pac-Man got some lipstick and high heels.
This might be dismissed as a trivial issue, but it has ‘real world’ implications (beyond telling the non-male gaming community that their identity is a quirky deviation from male greatness). There are court cases where people have tried to argue that the judge was biased because they were not a white male. White males are default neutral, anything else looks like bias. Does popular culture have a responsibility to change attitudes? Yes.
Super Princess Peach follows a similar argument but, this time, we’re talking about the story rather than the character. Here, Princess Peach is the protagonist and must save Mario. What reveals the gender issue lurking beneath the surface is that this is treated as a novelty. ‘Hey, guys. I’ve got this crazy idea for a new game!’ said one of the game developers, no doubt. ‘What if it were Princess Peach doing the rescuing instead of Mario?! Wouldn’t that be hilarious?!’
Super Princess Peach doesn’t mitigate the problem of gender in video games; it exists because of it. If gender issues didn’t exist in gaming, nobody would have thought to make this game where the object of the series transgresses against conventions to become the subject of a game.
Finally, Borderlands. My brother plays this game. Here’s a woman from it.
Time to call it a day, Feminists. Borderlands has clearly demonstrated that women are represented accurately and in a non-sexualised manner in video games. If those breasts don’t scream ‘progressive’, well…
Let’s go for another recent example of this (and one that I’ve already written about). In Batman: Arkham City, Batman is aided by a paraplegic woman who communicates through radio, by a woman who breaks social conventions to become a sort of villainous hero, and by a woman with complicated links to one of the key antagonists of the game. One of Batman’s adversaries is a fanatical woman who acts out of a perverse love for the Joker.
Although Batman allows guys like me to play out their power fantasies of being Batman (plus, Batman is the world’s greatest conservative hero, so I’m totally on board with playing as him), he’s put into a world where there are lots of opportunities for female characters to be on a near-equal ground with our hero.
Instead, the script — written by Paul Dini — turns Batman into more than a bit of a pig. When receiving advice from Oracle, Batman acts like a jerk and rather unkindly reminds her which of the two is the Batman. Catwoman, on the other hand, does little but make vaguely raunchy remarks. Talia al Ghul, a woman who is presented to the viewer as a person Batman turns to for advice and guidance, is also presented to the viewer as a sexualised object. The game takes on an aggressively hostile attitude towards women, with inmates (who, admittedly, are bad guys) frequently commenting on how various female characters are sexually desirable or bitches.
Nowhere was this attitude towards women more notable than in the transformation of Harley Quinn between Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.
Here she is in Ayslum:
Sure, she’s probably not going to win The Germaine Greer Award for Feminism, but it’s still a garden mile ‘better’ than her appearance in City:
The new Harley had even fewer clothed on than before. This, by the way, was the original appearance of Harley Quinn in the cartoons:
That’s from the original Batman: The Animated Series. The more recent Batman had her looking like this:
Unless you count the face paint, neither version reveals any flesh at all. Yet in order to be acceptable to the gaming community (and, fair’s fair, the comics community) she had to bare skin.
What we see is game designers pandering to what they think the market wants: scantily clad women. In the case of Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, &c., I still recognise powerful women, but I’m encouraged to look at the characters as objects of titillation first. This is the problem we face when we ask guys to identify the good female role models for women: we have normalised the sexual component — fictional women are of course created for our visceral pleasure — so we can say with a straight face that these women are powerful, liberated role-models for women.
This, by the way, is but one of many reasons why I don’t think men can be feminists. Admittedly, as a straight, white, conservative male, I’m not sure why anybody would care about my definition of ‘feminist’.
So let’s wind this back up to the start. When we hear the complaint that Sarkeesian doesn’t acknowledge all the great female role models in video games, what we are actually hearing is the complaint that Sarkeesian isn’t viewing video games as a guy. When she is confronted by images of women being objectified, we claim that her reaction is misplaced and that she should instead think of all the women guys claim aren’t objectified (like Ms Pac-Man). What we are also hearing is that people like Sarkeesian have no right criticising males unless she acknowledges all the good things that guys do, like create novelty games for women such as Super Princess Peach. In short, if Sarkeesian doesn’t play by our rules when she discusses video games (the rules which make guys feel better about themselves), then we simply aren’t going to enter into a discussion about her point.
The balance argument is particularly noxious when we consider Sarkeesian as something of a pathologist. Here she is diagnosing a problem at the heart of gaming, yet her critics argue that she’s ignoring a perfectly healthy appendix. Her patient (the gaming community) says, ‘I refuse to accept your diagnosis of my diseased heart, Dr Sarkeesian, unless you praise me for what a healthy appendix I have.’
I, for one, am looking forward to further episodes of her webseries. I just wish she’d stop using French phrases followed by their literal English translation. Seriously, it’s my one quibble. If you need to translate the phrase immediately, then you don’t need to use the phrase.