Regrettably, it won’t surprise anyone that the internet – and gamers with internet access – are not always the most forward-thinking bunch. One of the latest instances of this is the response to the Tropes vs. Women Kickstarter to do a series of videos based specifically on women in video games.
Unfortunately, this is just one in a long line of issues, whether with the portrayal of female characters in video games or the treatment of female gamers or the position of female game developers, to hit truly repugnant levels. There’s an outcry and blogs and strings of comments everywhere, some inflammatory, others seconding opinions.
But everyone’s preaching to their own choir, most of the time. The state of women in games is complex, to say the least, and some of the hard parts of the issue get lost in all the shouting. Dix and AJ try to have this conversation, maybe ask some difficult questions, and try to feel out the facets of what is, plainly, more than just a two-sided topic, with a minimum of sandwiches and death threats.
Dix: So a big part of the reason I was interested in doing this kind of discussion is that often, when this stuff happens, we get a lot of soapboxes and a lot of sound and fury, but not a lot in between. And the fact is, when we get into it, I feel like everyone’s speaking from extreme perspectives, none of which I quite hold with. But it seems like whenever someone says, “Well, wait, that highly vitriolic fellow might maybe have a slight point here that needs addressing,” there’s this sense from both sides that if you aren’t with us you’re against us.
To be sure I definitely think the kind of response that things like that Kickstarter get is NOT OKAY at all. It’s just that the discourse is highly polarized, I feel, and there’s no room to even consider anything the other side might’ve maybe said.
AJ: Yeah, I think so. I would definitely put myself forward as a feminist. I think that’s clear from issues I write about. I don’t always want to write about the issue of women in games, or being a woman that works on or writes about games. Sometimes I just want to write about games, full stop. But, being a woman, and a gamer, this is always part of my world and it’s something I find myself addressing pretty often.
Now I wouldn’t call myself an extremist either. I think I have a weird perspective in that many of the things that bother feminist game writers don’t bother me as much. For example, I think there’s a room for impractical-yet-sexy outfits in games. I think there’s room in the world for games that are sort of exploitive, like Girlfight.
But when we’re talking about real women being harassed, that’s a different story. I used to take the hard-line stance that people could tell the difference between fiction and reality. But the more I immerse myself in internet gamer culture, the more I’m not so sure.
Dix: Well, I think there’s no question that harassment (or worse) is bad, whether it’s directed at a woman or not. But the internet gaming community has definitely demonstrated that women who have chosen to try to be part of that community are favored targets.
Now, I tend to agree that there’s no call to throw out all chainmail corsets ever or anything – there’s a certain kind of place where that fits. But if I play devil’s advocate for a minute, here, one thing that usually comes up eventually in these conversations is the fact that sometimes female gamers complain about characters who are oversexualized or objectified, but point to characters who have similar design to them as “good” female characters, or even cosplay as characters who have some pretty revealing clothing sometimes, if cosplay’s their thing.
That doesn’t excuse anything on the other side, but I can understand how that sort of sends a bit of a mixed message. Thoughts?
AJ: I agree that it sends a mixed message. However, I think it’s important to realize that there’s not necessarily one voice on the “feminist” side, but a number of different opinions about the topic. And everyone has a personal line; one person’s exploitive dress may be okay to another.
I think in some ways, it’s easy to just take a hardline stance about character portrayal. If you say something like “women fighters must always wear reasonable armor” you at least come across as consistent. Whereas if you’re someone like me, that enjoys a variety of depictions, it’s easy for a critic to ask “why is this one okay and that one not okay.” Usually, the answer to that question is “context.” Context can be hard to unpack.
I personally think it’s great if female characters look sexy. I’m not great with it being their only function, ever, though.
Dix: True, as with any conversation as heated as this one is, it’s very easy to get this idea in one’s head about “the Feminist” (or “the Misogynist”) and the particular set of attributes that that involves, and usually those attributes are the ones held by the most vocal. I know I’ve been on both ends of that particular difficulty.
So the context question creates some problems, of course, because context becomes very subjective very quickly. What does a female character need to do to be more than just sexy? Sometimes a character is pretty obviously just there for sex appeal, but other times I feel like a developer’s tried to make the character more and simply done it poorly. Does that rate the same? I don’t think it would, but obviously one could argue the point of why a character does or doesn’t work, and how intentional that is.
To invoke Lara Croft as an example, there are definitely people who would argue that the context of her sex appeal crosses a line because of the “toy Lara” argument. Which I understand: I’ve read my share of essays about it, and debated it, and thought on it. And the thing that stops me in my tracks is that I’ve just never felt that way about playing a video game with a female avatar (Lara or otherwise). I didn’t before I was aware of the academia, and even if I’m considering it while I’m playing I don’t relate to the player depicted in the argument.
Then again, maybe I’m some kind of crazy outlier. Pop culture and academic discourse alike generally tell me that guys are supposed to think about sex every seven seconds, and that’s just not how my brain is wired. Which makes me wonder sometimes whether it’s society or me who is doing it wrong. But I digress.
AJ: The seven seconds thing is a myth. How would they even measure that? Rest assured, that’s not a real number you should be worried about living up to. It’s still important to talk about, though, because it ties in to the idea of societal expectations. The truth is, society has some weird expectations of men, as well as of women. For starters, there’s this expectation that all men are sex-starved perverts, when men should in fact be perfectly capable of handling sexual thoughts like human beings. This discourse that men are powerless, just powerless, against their own urges is really bad for men and women. It’s a way of saying, if a man behaves badly, he shouldn’t be blamed.
Oh, and tied in with that is this myth that women never want sex, and have to be coerced into it. This is also a lie. But again, it dovetails nicely into an excuse to make a man blameless for exploiting a woman.
So going back to your original question: there’s the possibility of a character being clumsily handled. There’s the possibility of a character being maliciously handled. And there’s this whole spectrum of possibilities in between. To paraphrase an old saying, I don’t like to attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance. And sometimes, even if you aren’t ignorant or malicious, this water is hard to navigate. No one can ever please everyone. As I mentioned, some people have a different tolerance for what’s exploitive to them. It may just be easier sometimes, as an artist or designer, to throw up your hands, and go with what you know. It can lead to upset people, sure, but it may ultimately be a purely-business decision. We talk about games as an art form, but they’re still a business. That factor goes into all these decisions.
Dix: That gets at, of course, one of the big problems with the depiction of women in games, or really the depiction of anything in anything: most of our entertainment is made by businesses who are concerned about profit. They’ll do what sells, because that’s quite literally their job. Part of the reason these depictions of women proliferate is because things with these depictions have succeeded in the past (whether there’s causation there is, of course, up for debate).
It’s sort of a catch-22, of course. In an ideal world I’d say “vote with your dollars,” but often times you have to pay to play, so if you’re dissatisfied with what you get, it’s too late to stop the company from making money from you. Worse still, talking about why this game or this movie or whatever else has a problem is a double-edged sword, because while you might turn away some people from playing it, you’re also basically generating publicity for the product. And heck, I know I’ve played games I wouldn’t have otherwise because I’ve heard particularly negative buzz and I wanted to see what the fuss was about.
Anyway, this is obviously a huge topic and we can’t do it just in one article. In the future we’ll have more features like this to try to get at some specific sub-topics within this whole question. In the meantime, leave your comments below, as ever, but please: keep it civilized.