Post’s a day late. My bad. For those of you who want to do a bit of catching up, look below for last week’s article.
It’s not really any great secret- though women have made great strides in recent years, the gaming industry is, by and large, an exclusive “Boys Club.” Last week, we looked into why we might be suffering through such a landscape- from failing to credit the first female software programmers to the social stigma about gamers that’s only now started to fade. Now that we’ve got the historical basis, it’s time to look towards the present.
Shall we get started?
Women as Objects
Historically, as geek culture-of which gaming’s an integral part-is concerned; women, marginalized and disenfranchised, were “the prize at the bottom of the cereal box.” They weren’t the heroes. They weren’t the protagonists. Most of the time, they were little better than bit characters- at best, they were eye candy and plot devices. The badass warrior needs a reason to go on an epic quest? Toss in a captured Princess. Need a female villain? Better make sure she’s got the right “assets” first. Wanna add in a female party member? Make sure she’s do-able.
It’s something we seem to have gotten so used to that we just accept it. We take it completely for granted that, if there’s a female character on-screen, she’ll be defined by her breasts first and her personality second (that is, if she even has a personality). In games that allow relationships between characters, women might often become objectives rather than personalities. Many of us more privileged (read: male) types have even gone so far as to carry this unhealthy attitude over into our daily lives.
That’s a very, very bad thing.
I touched a bit on how women were treated as “The Other,” last week- how prevailing attitudes towards female sexuality and the female body influenced young men who had little to no interaction with real ladies- only gross simulacra. When confronted with a real woman- a living, breathing person- many of them might have had absolutely no idea how to act or react…so they let their hormones take over.
More than that, they fell back on what they knew- indeed, on what they’d been taught, by gaming and science fiction and comic books. They looked at a woman, this ‘strange creature,’ and they didn’t see a person. They saw everything sexual about her. Maybe some of them realized she as a person. Maybe they didn’t.
Maybe none of them cared, one way or the other. Here before them was a geeky goddess, a woman who had everything in common with them- with the added bonus of not being a man. A prize to be won, a trophy to be fought over. An object to be sought.
I should hope you can see the problem with this- even though I’m sure many of you believe you wouldn’t mind being fought over and worshiped in such a fashion.
Even characters billed as strong, powerful, or otherwise independent were defined more by their tits than by their traits. Lara Croft. Tifa. Every single female Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat character. Even Samus. What do they all have in common?
They’re sex objects. Everything else is secondary- their personality, their history, their strengths and weaknesses, their virtues and vices…none of these matter. Search your feelings, you know it to be true. For most men, the defining feature of these characters is that they were women- and, more importantly, they were hot.
And they almost always played second fiddle to the male protagonists, if there were any.
Tell me, boys, once you found out Samus was female, what was your reaction, after you got over the initial shock? You looked at her differently, didn’t you? You felt differently about her. By revealing that she had even a modicum of femininity, her creators inadvertently lead to her eventual objectification- the issue of Samus is a whole different can of worms, one which we’ll examine in greater depth in a moment.
You could argue that it was a matter of relatability- more men played video games, so obviously they’re going to relate more to male characters than they would to female characters. And sex sells, so obviously by including a formless, pliable collection of T&A in their titles, they’ll be able to better market them, right? After all, most gamers back then were lonely, horny social rejects, right?
Ah, there’s the social forces coming into play again.
Surely such blatant objectification’s not still happening today, right? I mean, we’re living in a more enlightened society now, aren’t we? Women are treated more as equals now, aren’t they?
Um. No…they really aren’t- but we’ll talk more about that in a moment.
At the current juncture, there’s something else that needs to be addressed- at this point, I’m sure there’s a veritable horde bellowing that men have it just as hard- that men are objectified in exactly the same manner as women. Sorry, but that’s utter bullshit, and I’m going to explain why.
The False Equivalency Argument
When you speak about how women are objectified in gaming-or, really, Geek culture as whole-I can pretty much guarantee that the first argument you’re going to hear will be an equivalency claim- “Well, men are objectified too! Look at Ryu, from Street Fighter. Or Dante from Devil May Cry! Or Superman!”
That last one’s my favorite.
Kick back, kiddies, and I’m going to challenge your worldview. The argument that men are objectified in the same fashion as women is, quite frankly, about as true as Scientology. Yes, characters like Ryu wear revealing, flimsy clothes. Yes, there’s a certain sexual charge to many male protagonists in gaming. But at the same time, it’s completely different from the image we’ve painted of the female body.
It’s all about perspective.
See, when a guy looks at an immensely muscled, terribly under-dressed male character, sexuality most of the time doesn’t even come into their minds. Is the man objectified by his portrayal? Is his appearance presented as the definition of his character? Is his entire character defined solely on the fact that he’s a man?
Somehow, I doubt that it is.
See, the thing is, since men are at the top of the pecking order, we’ve found a way to turn such things to our advantage. A muscled, half-naked man is a power fantasy. A sexualized male isn’t defined by his sexualization. He’s a man, so obviously there’s more to him. Many don’t see him as an object, we want to be him.
We look at him, and think about what must have happened to get him to the point he’s at. How quickly could he lay out anyone who tries to fight him? How tough is he? Now, what about female characters? Think about it. You see a sexualized female character…and what more is there to her?
I think you all know that answer to that.
Further, most of these characters are designed by men, for men- and that includes the female characters. Now do you see the problem? Most men in gaming literally can’t be sexualized in the same fashion as women, because they’re being presented by a male. They’re the male idea of ‘real men,’ and attraction-and sex appeal- very rarely enter into the picture.
Matter of fact, I’d argue that most of the male characters that women consider ‘sexy’ weren’t even designed to be sexualized- but that’s a discussion for another day.
The problem with the highly sexual, objectified image of women presented by gaming-and, indeed, the media as a whole- is that this is men telling women how they should look, and how they should behave. Every time you see a character who’s more perk than personality, you’re seeing the old power dynamic coming into play. The sexual objectification of women disempowers them, it makes them something ‘less’ than men.
And we just accept it. The worst part is, most of us don’t even realize we’re playing into it.
Modern Attitudes- and Why They Have to Change
I made reference to Samus earlier in the work- and it’s time we revisited that. See, back when Metroid first released, no one really knew who Samus was. A badass, quick-witted, resourceful intergalactic bounty hunter who fights alien monstrosities with the same sort of attitude most of us have when we catch the bus?
There’s no way that’s a woman, right?
Wrong. Players who beat Metroid were greeted as follows:
She’s strong, she’s powerful, and…yeah. She’s wearing a bikini for no apparent reason. Still, Samus remained as one of the strongest female characters in gaming, for a time. Unfortunately, the prevailing culture would win out, and her character continually eroded, until we got…this. Say what you will about the game, but the portrayal of Samus in Metroid: Other M irritated the hell out of me. She went from an independent, capable bounty hunting badass….
To a whining, emotional wreck obsessed with men and subservient to the male figures in the game. What’s more, Samus’s gender is tied into traditional female gender roles (motherhood and babies are two very common motifs in the game) to form some sort of bizarre, malformed club, which is then used to beat players over the head. Repeatedly. Over and over. The fact that Samus is a woman becomes less an incidental element of her personality- as it should be- and more her goddamn defining characteristic.
Yeah. More than a little offensive.
This, sadly, still seems common. Women have made great strides establishing themselves in society as a whole- and in the gaming industry in particular- but we still have a very, very long way to go. Sure, we’ve made some great strides, but…we’ve still got a long way to go. As long as stories like this one keep popping up, there’s never truly going to be a place for girls in gaming.
As long as the prevailing attitude towards women veers towards “gaming is for men,” or “women who game are goddesses,” we’re never going to make any real progress. And as long as female characters are designed as women first and characters second, there can’t be equality.
So what exactly can we do about it?
That’s a topic for next week. I’ve nattered on long enough, for now.