Last night I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (oh, sweet sweet Netflix auto-streaming to Xbox, how I love thee). It was pretty brutal – not quite as brutal as the book, which spent pages exquisitely describing sexual torture – but pretty brutal. Michael Nyqvist was great, Noomi Rapace was a revelation; Niels Oplev proves himself to be a solid, talented director. An excellent movie, but not for the faint of heart or those who dislike subtitles (it’s Swedish).
I learned something, too: the Swedish title of both the movie and Steig Larsson’s novel isn’t the same as the English title. Originally, it was Män som Hatar Kvinnor: “Men who Hate Women.”
It is an apt title. The girl’s dragon tattoo really has nothing to do with anything. She’s a girl, and she has a dragon tattoo, but that’s about the end of it. This is a story about men who hate women, about men who do terrible, terrible things to women. It’s scary. And it’s especially scary because The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t even try to explain why these men hate women. They just do. I can see why they changed the title. There’s something raw and disturbingly frank about a title like that. Men who hate women. Bam. It’s kind of off-putting, actually. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t topically specific, but it is much more intriguing and mysterious, and less unsettling.
The kind of victimization you see in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is designed to disturb, much more so than the schlocky “torture porn” that’s all the rage with the younglings these days. And as usual, you would never, never see something like this in a mainstream video game. My god, can you imagine the outrage?
But the movie’s not what this is about.
I don’t think many men in the games industry hate women. How could there be, when they spend so much time making games where your whole job is to rescue or avenge them? At least, I don’t think the proportion is any higher in the games industry than it is in anything else. If we’re talking about Girl with the Dragon Tattoo men who hate women – kidnapping, rape, torture, that kind of thing – that’s a fraction of a fraction of the population; it would surprise me if there were an unusually large percentage of men who make or play games that hate women.
What wouldn’t surprise me is if there were a larger percentage of ones who are afraid of women, or uncomfortable around them. Gaming is an escapist activity, more so than any other form of entertainment. Escaping social situations with which one is inept is just as escapist as using games to get away from any aspect of reality. And of course while there are plenty of dudes out there who maintain perfectly healthy relationships with women, romantically and otherwise, “gamers” are still often presented as male, sexually unappealing, and bumbling when it comes to matters of femininity. And in some cases – probably more cases than in the mainstream – they actually are. Remember, people choose escapist entertainment to get away from their current existence. The less happy they are with it, the more likely they are to try and escape. The stereotype of the basement dwelling, never-kissed-a-girl troglodyte has some veracity, however little.
Whether or not this is an accurate stereotype is irrelevant. The fact is that despite our advances in tolerance and equality throughout the world, there remains an unbelievable amount of entrenched, endemic intolerance that frankly we might never erase entirely. Or maybe “disrespect” is a better word than “intolerance.” Otherwise, explain what city-dwelling women like games journalist Leigh Alexander go through with the hubba-hubba and catcalls. That behavior is disrespectful, pure and simple; it suggests that men who act that way don’t value women enough to adhere to social norms. Explain why it’s okay to shout “nice ass baby” to a woman on the street when no one would ever do it to a man. Hell, explain “rape fantasies” while you’re at it. They’re about deriving gratification from hurting someone else, usually a woman. What’s up with that? Män som hatar kvinnor.
Then, today – and also from Leigh – I learn that Activision (shocking!) appears to have a policy against green-lighting games with female protagonists. They cite stuff like Bayonetta and WET as proof that such games don’t sell, ignoring femme-tagonist successes like Metroid and Tomb Raider, and obviously ignoring that both Bayonetta and WET were mediocre games. By their logic, Dante’s Inferno should have sold like crazy because there are boobs in it – boobs you get to admire, but don’t need to play the character they’re attached to.
And there’s an interesting point: the admiration of boobs. Within the experience, disrespect for women in the form of objectification manifests itself constantly in games. Some say it’s because developers are pandering to the audience they know they have: young straight males who like to look at hot women. Others say that developers are not good with women in the real world and are therefore exercising their fantasies by giving us characters like Bayonetta. Still others say it’s because games as a whole are juvenile, and objectification of women is also juvenile. But I still don’t think that developers hatar kvinnor just because they have no problem objectifying them. Still, objectification is disrespectful, a diminishment of one sex for the gratification of the other… but a form of disrespect so imbued that it’s almost more incomprehensible to picture a world without it.
Take a Picture, It’ll Last Longer
I get asked about this. Not as often as I get asked about violence in videogames, but I do get asked a fair amount – “do you think games are sexist?” Or some variant. Do they objectify women? Do they victimize women? Do they portray women only as sexual objects? In a word, yeah, they do. Not all of them, of course, but more than a share. Chief among these complaints is the objectification thing, because it’s most obvious.
And even the innocent are guilty. The most liberal, equality-minded men in the world are still human beings. Speaking personally, I would never, never fail to offer a woman the exact same salary and responsibilities as a man. I can’t even fathom a situation in which a woman is less qualified or capable than a man (even peeing standing up), or less worthy of the same recompense. But I prefer Samus in the Zero Suit to Samus in her yellow armor. Now, that latter may be simply because absurdly huge shoulder spheres and day-glo costume colors bother me, but the point’s the point (this article doesn’t really have one, BTW, so if you’re looking for a point please go away). Does this make me a pig? I hope not. I’d hate to think that getting the Not A Pig trophy means I can’t appreciate the Zero Suit. But it’s objectifying: it doesn’t leave much to the imagination and I see that it must be pretty uncomfortable to wear, like high heels, though I think it’s probably practical when she’s always popping into that armor. It would be a big pain if she had to change out of jeans and a sweater every time she needed to suit up to fight some Metroids, though I was relieved to see that the upcoming Other M suggests that Samus’s closet does in fact contain more than just the Zero Suit and her power armor. Neither would be really appropriate at a casual gathering, or in the workplace. Of course, I’ve always had a little crush on Samus Aran, so maybe she’s not the best example.
I remember during a Christmas visit my brother Marcus and I had installed Prince of Persia: Warrior Within and were playing happily away. His wife came in to see what we were up to at the exact moment what’s-her-name, Slutrella or something like that, put in an appearance. “Oh, that’s nice,” said G.G. Which is probably the kindest thing a woman could say about Slutrella’s outfit and demeanor. Unlike the Zero Suit, there’s simply no practical reason for her to dress that way – it offers no protection, it looks uncomfortable as hell, it rains where she lives, and she works with guys who almost certainly behave like Leigh Alexander’s wolf-whistlers. I wanted to spring to gaming’s defense, but in that instance I really had no leg to stand on. If G had come in at any other moment I might have been able to sway her, but as it was I simply felt childish and ashamed. This was the game’s fault, mind, not G.G.’s – she does not make people feel childish or ashamed. She just calls ‘em like she sees ‘em.
I faced a different sort of dilemma when considering the way women dressed in Final Fantasy XIII. Obviously, this series has long been a staple for character designers to put in really weird anime-inspired outfits, even back when the polygons were blocky. And though this may be my first FF game since the first, I’m hardly unaware of the franchise, and even know the basics of some of the main characters from each installment.
I believe in an earlier post somewhere I said that I wouldn’t let my daughter dress the way the female leads do in Final Fantasy XIII. That’s assuming that my (hypothetical) daughter is of an age where what I tell her she can and cannot do has any impact on her decisions, though in anime protagonist ages usually fall into that category. Anyway, the girls in the game dress… revealingly. Not as bad as Slutrella, but still. They were designed by a man, animated (mostly) by men, had their concept art and poses done (I assume) by men, and they are not ungenerous with the assets they show off. The dudes cover up a lot more, even the dude I spent half the game mistaking for a chick.
Let’s take a look at Lightning, FFXIII’s central character. She’s by far the least of the offenders, but I like her, because she’s tough and doesn’t take any crap and her bitchy, tormented attitude sits well with me. And since I like her I use her as my party leader all the time, and so I think of her as the face (and body) of FFXIII. She’s also the only one of the three lead girls I find particularly attractive, if imaginary pink-haired anime girls can qualify:
My first reaction when I got a look at Lightning was “that’s really a lot of buckles to buckle every morning.” I am not the first to have commented upon the abundance of buckles in Final Fantasy games, but there you have it. My second reaction was that her outfit might look nice in a video game, but probably couldn’t be carried off in real life. My third reaction was that her skirt was awfully short for someone who spends a lot of time flipping around and running on walls and stuff. Turns out, though, she wears these kind of spandex shorts things underneath so her modesty, such as it is, remains protected.
As I played along through the game I spent a lot of time thinking about how Lightning dressed, and how it just didn’t seem like a great thing to be wearing when you’re trying to save the world. Eventually I thought to myself, “Steerpike, if you were a girl, and you had a body like that, you might dress that way too. After all, if you look that good in a buckle outfit, wouldn’t you want to show off?”
That logic held for a while – Lightning’s just self-assured and doesn’t mind showing off the fact that she’s in great shape. But then I realized that first off, Lightning is not self-assured (not a subject for this post, but I’ll get there one day). And I started thinking about the specifics of saving the world, and how it involved fighting a lot of things with claws and/or guns, and even some things that could dissolve you. Within two hours of setting off on her world-saving, Lightning’s legs would be so covered with burns, bruises, scratches and holes that they’d resemble a head cheese. Her white coat would be scorched and shredded and stained with her blood. So much for kicking ass and looking hot while doing it. She’s not even wearing knee pads, for crying out loud. I don’t care if they’re unflattering, if I’m going to save the world I’m bringing some freakin’ knee pads.
But enough of this. The important issue here isn’t one of objectification. It exists, for better or worse, and it’s not going anywhere, despite the fact that we might wish it would. A girlfriend once asked me why guys never get sick of staring at breasts or legs or necks or collarbones. The answer is: geometry. Staring is rude, but sometimes it’s hard to look away from really good geometry. That’s not a defense of the objectification of women as objects in games, just a feeble explanation of it.
A Veritable Pinata of Damsels and Distress
As I said, I get asked a fair amount about the objectification of women in games. But that question is maybe a bit off. The more important issue isn’t objectification. Let’s talk instead about a question I’m almost never asked: “do videogames allow women characters to reach their potential?” No, no they do not. After all, how many games are about rescuing women? Or pummeling the guys who hurt them?
From a certain perspective, this is okay. After all, rescuing a woman or beating up some dude who hurt or killed her is sort of glamorizing the battle against victimization. The problem lies in the fact that in order to argue against victimization, you need to have victimization in the first place. There is an implicit suggestion there that women are helpless – or, more specifically, that they require male help. Män still don’t hattar kvinnor based on this, but it’s interesting that we still see so much of it in video games.
The Girl from Double Dragon was probably wise not to mace that asshole and run for it when they came to kidnap her – after all, Willy’s in the back with an assault rifle. Dude’d smoke her like a Christmas ham. Sometimes it’s safer to go quietly and hope for the best, which in the case of Double Dragon would be identical twin brothers coming to the rescue, then one beating the other to death so he could “have” her. So the Double Dragon girl is kind of between a rock and a hard place.
What about Princess Peach, though? Has it honestly never occurred to her that a rape whistle and a few Tae-Bo classes might make Bowser leave her alone for good? Bowser is a turtle. He’s a turtle. How tough can he be? If Peach delivered one good kick to wherever turtles keep their gonads, she might be able to relax and get some pipe laid with Mario rather than getting kidnapped every other Tuesday.
Then there’s Braid, a game that turns those rescue scenarios on their ear. In this case we’ve got a woman who isn’t looking to be rescued – a woman who left, because her relationship wasn’t working. That protagonist Tim has embarked on his metaphysical journey to “rescue” her, based on his own revelation that he was a crappy boyfriend, illuminates the blinders of ignorance in which anachronistic chivalry is often couched. Tim struggles to rescue a princess who doesn’t want to be rescued, and at the end we discover that Tim himself is the very “monster” he’s been trying to rescue the princess from.
A lot of people obviously didn’t understand Braid. The plot requires an IQ above double digits to fully appreciate, and the game is really hard. Creator Jon Blow has said he meant Braid as an indictment of many things he considers stalled within the games industry right now, and while I’m not sure that damsel-rescuing is one of them, it certainly seems likely. In many ways this hearkens back to Activision’s apparent “no girl protagonists” position: the stalwart indie developer struggles mightily to move games beyond the lunkheaded me-Tarzan-you-Jane juvenilism, while the monster company that actually has the resources to produce many more innovative games stalwartly refuses to even consider it. Le sigh.
So do so many games involve rescuing or avenging women because developers hate them? No, I don’t think so. First, that plot device has been around for a long time and it’s got its start in literature that far pre-dates the video game. More important, though, is that it’s an easy concept to communicate, and one that’s likely to raise the hackles of most societally normal people, male or female. When what’s-his-name sucker punches The Girl in the opening of Double Dragon, it’s still somewhat shocking to this day. Earlier still, it was simple enough to put a pink bow on a yellow block and call it a “girl,” then have it carried off by a large grouping of green blocks that vaguely resembled a dragon. With videogames it’s important to remember that technology plays a role in storytelling, so back in the day designers had to make do with simple storylines they could tell with a minimum of technical fuss. Of course, the fact that we’re miles past that technologically now means that it’s probably time for designers to begin experimenting with more subtle and sophisticated narrative tools, which to a small degree they are doing. Activision refusing to allow female protagonists in its games, alas, is something of a backward blunder. Perhaps Activision hatars kvinnor, or at least what it believes kvinnor do to its bottom line.
I’m really tired of complaining about Activision – the company’s like a comic book villain by this point – but there’s something deeply troubling about the implication that games starring women do not (at least, in the eyes of one publisher) sell great numbers. In a world where much of the industry is clamoring for more innovation in theme, narrative, style, gameplay, mechanics and so forth, that something so simple and obvious as gender equality be ignored is upsetting. Of course it happens all the time in all media, but that doesn’t make it okay to be happening in mine.
For the hat trick, Leigh Alexander wrote a fascinating piece at Kotaku about how she plays differently when she’s playing as a female character. Using the PSP remake of Persona 3 as her basis – a JRPG in which the only available protag was a dude until this remake – Leigh commented thoughtfully on how she found herself making different decisions in the same situations, because of an almost innate or instinctive sense of how to behave as a woman versus a man. Such behavior might be part of the cultural tableaux, almost biological at this point. Look what Leigh has to say about it:
The formation of relationships is directly correlated to a gain in power, so interacting with your classmates in the game’s hip high school setting becomes less about making friends and “being yourself” as it is about telling people what they most wanted to hear in order to gain their confidence.
I liked that subtly sinister way of behaving in the game when I played as a male. But it makes the social interactions of Persona 3 Portable inherently more complicated when I’m a female playing as a female. Swap the gender and suddenly my ideas of who I’d like my character to be – aloof, clever and a little dark, as my Persona 3 male character was – collide with my own knee-jerk reflex to conform to the sort of social expectations women are often told they should fulfill in order to be likeable.
Persona is an especially rich field for study. The third installment of the popular Japanese import includes some pretty stirring (and difficult to watch, if you’re sensitive) reflections on teen suicide and what it means to truly sacrifice for friendship and things you believe in. That Alexander – a huge admirer of the game – would find herself experiencing it so differently simply because she was a woman playing as a woman is really interesting. Unfortunately the Kotaku readership isn’t exactly the most nuanced in the world and she’s taken some unfair flak for an article that I at least found to be both enlightening and courageous.
Leigh has always made a point to not include her gender in her video game journalism. When she talks about it, it’s hesitantly; she’s stated right out that she’s not interested in being The Woman Who Games, she’s just a gamer and her gender has little bearing. I respect that position, though since she’s one of only a few female game journalists out there, and I often find it frustrating when I’m looking for a woman’s perspective on this or that. Since she’s one of the journalists I admire most I’d much prefer her feminine perspective than that of many others. And being a dude, I am uniquely unqualified to produce a female opinion myself.
With companies such as Bioware and Quantic Dream clumsily exploring sexual relationships in titles like Dragon Age and Heavy Rain, we are seeing some expansion in that area. But a lot of it – even Bioware’s and Quantic’s stuff – smacks a little bit of män som hatar kvinnor. Heavy Rain was brimming with undertones of violence against women, and those women who were not victimized through the course of the game were typically presented as either ineffectual punching bags for their husbands or as prostitutes. Bioware, try as it might, can’t seem to treat women with much respect in its games, from slutty Morrigan and Miranda Lawson to God-crazy Leliana. I know that Bioware really thinks its knocking itself out of the park in terms of showing off adult relationships in games, but to me their stuff usually comes off as trite and sleazy.
If you look at roleplaying as a punnet square, you’ve basically got four options: male players as male or female avatars, and female players as male or female avatars. Most of the games I can think of in which I’ve played a female, gender doesn’t enter into the equation that much: I tend to play a dude when the option is presented in RPGs, and in games like Mirror’s Edge the protagonist’s gender is well-presented but relegated to second place by the gameplay. Next time I start a new RPG I’ll try to play a woman and actually behave differently than I normally do, to see if I can experience in reverse what Leigh Alexander described in her Kotaku article.
I like games. I like the idea that games can be serious, important, meaningful. Nine times out of ten, as far as I’m concerned, relationships are what allow games to be those things. In order to fully realize what the medium is capable of it’s important to develop the most three-dimensional characters possible, male and female. And while I have only a moderate understanding of the history and theory of women’s issues, women’s studies, I think there’s a need for them, particularly in a medium like gaming. It’s one initially dominated by men, viewed as socially clumsy, and still often puerile – that means boyish; even our scholar-speak is sexist – despite attempts both misguided and genuine to see it improve.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about men who hate women. It’s neither as violent as some movies that victimize women, nor as cruel; the reason the film and novel are so brutal is that these men who hate women are so bluntly portrayed, without apologies. They are men who hate women, and moreover, they act out their hatred in terrible ways. It doesn’t shirk or shrink from presenting this, it makes no excuses, but neither does it revel in it.
It’s possible to see demeaning attitudes, objectification, and even victimization in everything if you look too hard. There’s such a thing as missing the forest for the trees. For every woman in gaming that’s presented as nothing but rescue fodder or eye candy, some developer somewhere is trying (although probably without success, if owned by Activision) to create a female character whose sexiness comes as much from the beauty of her strength and intelligence as it does from her body. For those who are quick to condemn gamers as nothing more than män som hatar kvinnor, they are doing a disservice to the medium as well as those who create and consume it. Sure, there’s plenty of distance left to go, but as a fan of the Zero Suit I think it’s important that we stop and take stock along the way, so as not to wander too far down a self-abnegating path of overcorrectness.
Email the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.