A recent article on Jezebel got my attention – “Superheroines Always Get Superboobs.” Iris Ophelia quite rightly rails against the limited selection of body types for female avatars in the upcoming new MMO DC Universe Online, which are limited to “tall and busty,” “medium and busty,” and “preteen and busty.”
Where’s “athletic?” Where’s “lean?” Where’s “pear-shaped?”
Admittedly, DCUO is a comic-based MMO and this sort of thing has gone on in comics since forever. But it’s also (mostly) gone on in games since forever, and it’s just getting kind of silly.
Boobs are Yes
The appreciation of the female form is understandable. Actually what I can’t get is why anyone would appreciate the male form. Men are hairy, angular and asymmetrical, have odd-looking stuff dangling off, and sandpaper on their faces. Women, meanwhile, are smooth and pleasantly shaped, with all the geometric symmetry and proportion of lines that men lack. They also generally smell nicer. And doesn’t it seem that the artists of DCUO are actually interfering with proportion in the female body types they’ve created?
Ophelia points out that the male avatars available in the beta aren’t much better – “beefy,” “beefier,” and “preteen” (what is up with that? Preteen again? That scares me a little), and maybe we’ll see some new body types in the release. By “we” I mean “Lewis,” because I’m not an MMOGer. Getting back to the point, though, there is a difference between busty and beefy. Breasts are sexualized; maybe they shouldn’t be but they are. In a happy tree-hippy commune world they’d be symbols of nourishment, of femininity, of procreation. In this world they’re tits, and while this world has made a lot of progress toward de-objectification, you’re a fool if you think we’ve reached the finish line… or maybe even if you think there’s a finish line at all.
Muscles are not sexualized. Athletic bodies tend to be more appealing than bodies that are out of shape, but there are no porn sites devoted to biceps. So the fact that there’s an even number of body types for dudes and chicks doesn’t reduce the issue at hand.
The issue I have is not with breasts. I love those. Boobs are Yes. The issue I have, and I think the issue Ms Ophelia had, is with how they’re presented: the odd, where-did-that-come-from assumption that not just big but immense, anatomically impossible breasts are the ultimate in desirability. These arcing ski-jumps permanently tipped with pencil erasers that seem to stretch out a foot or more from their owners’ thorax, an inch below the collarbone. It’s not the way breasts are attached, people.
It’s the Anatomy, Stupid
While I understand the desire to visit fantasy worlds in video games, worlds where things are idealized and exciting, it’s small-minded to assume that one specific ideal is everyone’s ideal. This is the point in any article about sexism in gaming where the author trots out Alyx Vance, the kickass, completely covered, realistically proportioned heroine from Half-Life 2. To be different, I won’t. No, I will.
Alyx is a character first and foremost, just as real to the player as any of the big-chested superheroines found in DCUO. Alyx is a great character to analyze, but I’ve talked about her character a lot, here and here as well as elsewhere. So today we’ll do what most game designers apparently do; skip discussion of character and focus on her chest. There she is, right over there:
Not exactly as front-loaded as the DCUO characters, is she? And it’s for the best, too, because Alyx spends a lot of time running around at top speed, climbing buildings, and laying flat on her belly when hiding from enemy patrols. Besides that they’re covered completely. Of course, Spider-Woman in this article’s top image is also covered completely, but Alyx is covered in a practical way, while Spider-Woman is covered in a look-at-my-knockers way. Alyx is covered completely by two layers. Probably four, actually; presumably she’s got a tank top or t-shirt and a sports bra on under that Black Mesa hoodie.
So what’s attractive about Alyx? Her beauty, definitely, and her body is a part of that. She is athletic and torqued, strong, lean, tough but feminine. And yet her body is just a part of the equation. Take another look at her. The duct-taped jacket, the grimy bandage on the sprained wrist, the filthy hair. Bearing in mind that Black Mesa went out of business 17 years before Half-Life 2 begins, and the state of humanity when it does, one can imagine how long it’s been since that hoodie was washed. Speaking of washing, there’s no indication Alyx has done it recently either. She spends a good 20 minutes of Half-Life 2: Episode One neck-deep in corpse-strewn sewer water, and she hadn’t exactly been playing in crystalline fountains before that. This is one of those examples where women probably don’t smell nice. But really what makes Alyx Alyx is her attitude and intelligence. Her stupid jokes, her loyalty to The Cause, her friendships with other resistance members, her ability to find something to stay upbeat about at the worst times, her almost catty possessiveness when it comes to Gordon Freeman. Alyx remains one of the most popular and looked-up-to female characters in video games, and so many others still don’t bother to see this when they boobilize the female characters in their games.
I have been present – physically – at game studios when doing consulting work, and sat in on meetings where a developer or publisher rep will look at a piece of concept art and say “make her tits bigger.” I’m not going to name names but it’s happened more than once. We live in a world where anorexic-chic is the new pink but gigantic breasts are expected to be tacked onto these bodies. As issues of Uncanny Valley still threaten the humanization of video games, in our own real world we are presenting a feminine ideal that is as unnatural as it is impossible to attain without surgery and eating disorders. And an entertainment media still perceived as for teenage boys – within and without the industry – caters to that whim with practically every game it produces.
So what about the teenage boys who are gay? Or the ones who simply prefer a different body type? Even “Preteen” (!) in DCUO comes equipped with a monster rack. The popularity of women like Claire Forlani and Kiera Knightley suggest that maybe not everyone finds superboobs as appealing as regular ones.
The makers of DCUO might argue that their very comic-booky universe intentionally adheres to the classic spandex-and-DDs art tradition that has permeated comics forever. But it’s misleading to say that. Some of the greatest comics and graphic novels – the ones that have penetrated cultural awareness well beyond the comics niche – are notably more realistic in their portrayal of superboobs. The art of Pia Guerra (Y: The Last Man), Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Tony Harris (Ex Machina)… this is work that is decidedly fair and balanced when attaching assets to female characters. Tell me exactly, then, when some of these comics are considered the best in the world (as Half-Life 2 is considered one of the best games), artists and game developers insist on the boobs?
Dismissal of Personality
As someone who strongly believes in fair and equal representation of women in all media, and someone who thinks boobs are great, you’d think I’d be in a tough position here. But the fact is breasts do not make the woman. Alyx – grubby, snarky, terrible sense of humor, small-chested – is far, far more attractive to me than anything that the DCUO character creator seems capable of producing. What I fail to understand is not why game developers don’t feel the same way, but why game developers insist on this one path, this “make her tits bigger” paradigm when it’s been proven that tits won’t sell the game.
Masamune Shirow once said that he made Motoko Kusanagi, the female lead of Ghost in the Shell, a lesbian because he “didn’t want to draw a naked guy’s ass” for a sex scene. Well, fair enough, Shirow. It’s your work, it’s your call. And I suppose for straight dudes with artistic abilities, the fact that they can draw boobs whenever they want them may lead to an almost godlike sense of power. But is it necessary or fair to inflict your own ideal boobic perfection on everyone else? Maybe the rest of the world would prefer more normally proportioned women. After all, women have to deal with pudgy, doughy men who have no proportion at all, yet expect perfect form from Their Women.
Perhaps what the world needs is an all-woman comic company, or an all-woman game developer, committed to portraying men the same way men portray women. A little turnabout might be quite eye-opening. Sheri Graner-Ray, in her wonderful book Gender Inclusive Game Design, noted that it’s not sexually attractive women who are the problem. It’s women who are portrayed as always physically “ready for sex,” which is to say hypersexualized – something men are almost never portrayed as. She compares it to video games containing male characters who sport constant and un-ironic erections. What’s objectifying of women in games and comics is not that attractive women are favored, it’s that they are portrayed exclusively as sexual entities, with rarely any effort put into other aspects of the things that make characters human.
And that’s the key thing. In those meetings where producers say “make her tits bigger,” I have at times wondered aloud why her tits have to be bigger. In fact, at one such meeting, I had the following exchange with a publisher rep whose anonymity I shall protect by calling him “Hildebrand:”
HILDEBRAND: Make her tits bigger.
HILDEBRAND: Because it’s good marketing for the box art.
CONCEPT ARTIST: I can do that. It’s not a problem.
ME: Are we at the box art point yet? This is not a major character anyway.
HILDEBRAND: So why do you care?
ME: I just think that maybe one game out of a thousand should have regular women in it.
HILDEBRAND: So we should just have ugly crones in all our games?
ME: I didn’t say ugly. They can be supermodels. I’m saying that breasts come in a delightful variety of wonderful shapes and sizes.
HILDEBRAND: Look, I appreciate your opinion, but understand that we’re trying to market a game here.
ME: Yes, I understand that. And… you’re paying me to give you my opinions.
HILDEBRAND: Moving on.
On the rare occasions when someone verbalizes a pro-objectification stance, the core of their argument usually matches Hildebrand’s: so you’re saying we should have nothing but ugly crones in games. Which no one is saying. I say “rare occasions” because you’ll find very few people in the industry (on this side of the world, Japan is a whole other article) who will go on record with a “make her tits bigger” philosophy. They’ll say it in production meetings, they’ll support it when others say it, but very few people are going to come along and leave a comment to the effect of “women should be treated as sex objects in games.”
So where does it all leave us? Well, we have to tolerate it. And it’s fair to say that tolerating it isn’t all that hard, though it might be sort of anti-progressive. Nobody’s going to vote with their wallets on this matter and I wouldn’t encourage that they do, unless of course you’re dealing with something genuinely offensive. But it’s sadly ironic that there’s been a lot of recent press about the “new” Lara Croft. What’s the difference between her and the old one? This one is dirty.
No, not like that, I mean dirty, like covered in dirt. And a little banged up, too, it looks like. I suppose at this point, at Tomb Raider 187 or whatever this one is, it’s a bit too late to do anything about her ridiculous breasts, to a token effort has been made. But for titles just getting their start, whether it be DCUO or anything else, it’d sure be nice to see a fairer portrayal. No one’s saying everyone should be ugly. Games are idealized universes we want to lose ourselves in. But developers should remember that not everyone’s idealized universe is the same, and develop accordingly.
Send an email to the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.