This is sort of a casual thought. I’d have to do a lot of research to really pin down if this is true. So consider this an “opinion” piece — or I think I would rather say, an “observation piece”. I’d like to know in the end if this lines up with what any of you have noticed.
I was arguing about sexism in Other M on some forum. My position hasn’t really changed — while you can call the resulting story sexist, it’s more an artifact of bad writing (the game is also racist and all the characters are 1 dimensional). The discussion was mostly semantic, but then I said something that I think got an interesting response. I said that it was totally fine to show Samus’s feminine side (or at least for her femininity or lack there of to be addressed) — and in fact, probably a good idea. I said that the issue was in a totally awful execution and too much time spent on the issue). The responses were funny to me.
The beauty of Samus as a character is that she was never defined by her gender, and that’s what feminism is all about. Why is it females are considered to have certain traits that deviate from the norm, femininity if you will, by which they need to be defined?
Now, the first part is true. Samus is NOT defined by her gender (She’s a badass bounty hunter!) and I guess that could be considered a readers digest version of feminism (I’m never exactly sure)… But I didn’t say that, nor did I say anything thats implied in the second part. In fact, why would he suggest to begin with that feminine qualities are deviations from the norm? There were other examples of this by other posters, but this was the most obvious. An obvious sign of what I think is Male Gamer Guilt.
First let me state something I thought was obvious. The two genders are not the same. Equality is different from being the same. We have different loads of chemicals and impulses going through our heads, not to mention societal development. This isn’t to say that gender is a box that we’re stuck in, but like many other things, it’s one of the qualities that defines how we develop and makes the exceptions all the more interesting and this does not JUST apply to women. I have to imagine that the reason Poster-who-will-remain-nameless would think that female traits are somehow deviations is because video games are written mostly by men, mostly for men and most of us reading this are probably men (just guessing my demographic here). Men and our traits seem gender neutral because we’re fucking bias. Everything we play is made in and for our perspective. Now, I didn’t say Samus should have strong feminine qualities, but the general attitude seems to be that we should be afraid of such characters. We think they’re sexist! Why be feminine when you can be gender neutral like us men?
…. Which is to say they should act like men.
… Okay wait, that doesn’t sound like what we want, does it? But it’s kinda what a lot of us are accidentally saying, to various degrees. We might think male characters are gender neutral, but they’re not. Someone in the thread stated Hal Emmerich from Metal Gear Sold as an example of such neutrality, being a male character with what many would traditionally consider female oriented traits… but Hal is definitely defined by his sex. If Otacon was a female character, he’d be perceived much differently (some might even say he’d be a sexist character!). As a male though he is contrasting the cast of strong, muscly action males, particularly Snake and this is clearly intentional. He even serves to contrast with Meryl, who is a lot tougher than him. Gender plays an important aspect in social interaction and our perceptions of things. Clearly men don’t have to be manly and women don’t have to be girly, but it is the contrast between the two genders (be they biological or societal) that make deviation from the norm interesting. If you switched Hal and Samus’s gender you’d have a potentially offensive character and just another space marine. These things should not necessarily dictate or define traits and characteristics, but its naive to think they aren’t important. Characters should not be bound to be in one direction or another, they should be free to explore the various gender related nuances and have those nuances still not be the most defining aspect of their character.
I think this is part of why female characters fall so short. We’re so afraid of representing them poorly, that we always end up representing them 1-dimensionally. Lets look at Chell. Chell has been cited by people as an excellent example of a female protagonist…. Why would they say something so dumb? She has no character at all. She doesn’t say anything. The only things that ever speak to her are insane computers. Her actions don’t communicate anything other than a will to survive. She likely only has an appearance at all due to the portal mechanic. SO why is this a successful female character? Because Chell is inoffensive. She doesn’t talk, so she can’t do anything wrong and she’s not sexed up so she doesn’t make male gamer feel guilty or sleazy. She’s mostly gender neutral — the only time it matters is pretty much when it comes to Glados’s fat jokes. By lacking any characterization, she also lacks any bad characterization. What about Gordon you may ask? Well, we know he went to school at MIT and has a degree on Theoretical Physics. His thesis was titled “Observation of Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Entanglement on Supraquantum Structures by Induction Through Nonlinear Transuranic Crystal of Extremely Long Wavelength (ELW) Pulse from Mode-Locked Source Array”. We know his childhood heroes were Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Feynman. We see him interact with a number of characters with different dispositions toward Gordon and get at least some sort of vibe about who Gordon is. Also lets be real here.
Gordon actually isn’t a particularly great character, we just love a nerdy scientist kicking ass.
And Chell? She could be a male and it wouldn’t have been all that big a deal. Now, theres nothing wrong with Chell, she fills her role fine, but is this REALLY what we consider an example of a good female protagonist? A bland, uninspiring, riskless character? If we’re trying not to offend women, is this even a character that they’d like?
What do Female Gamers Want?
Good question, I wish I could answer it! I can say that our (male) assumptions are generally off at best, though. I’ll use an example of a character I’ve seen cited by a number of ladies. Bayonetta.
WHAT?! But she’s a skank and is pandering and is oversexed! She embarrasses me to even play!
Yeah, well get over it, sissy. I’m not sure if Bayonetta would be cited by a ton of ladies (but I’ve noticed a surprising amount of them), but it begs the question — why is it wrong for a woman to be sexy? Why is it wrong for a woman to WANT to be sexy or stylish or beautiful? We can fantasize about mackin’ it with the hotties but girls can’t appreciate an empowered female who is sexually intimidating to males? Bayonetta’s sex appeal is from the female perspective, not ours. She’s the one in charge. Bayonetta has the gender upperhand in her world. To quote this article…
As a woman, I haven’t often been satisfied by female character options that effectively boil down to “the same thing as a man, just with breasts and a ponytail.” Thanks to its innovative approach to the idea of female power, Bayonetta is the first action game heroine that’s made me directly conscious of how cool it is to be a girl.
I already know that women can do all the same things men can. This time, I get to see a woman do plenty of things men can’t. And I love it.
Also let me throw out what I think is a great comparison (In fact, I don’t think this is even mine! I think it came from some video I watched. If someone knows what I’m talking about give me the link)! Now like I said, I enjoy Ivy’s horrible washed out trashy milf pornstar look in recent games, but she’s actually a pretty shitty character entirely. She dresses all sexed up but her character has nothing to do with that. She just looks hot and whips things and sorta… is Ivy. Sexy isn’t sexy for her self or because of who she is, she’s sexy for us. That sex appeal she’s showing is not in any way part of her character, while for Bayonetta it IS very much a part of her character. From talking to female gamers about this, the impression I got from most of them is it is TOTALLY OKAY for characters to be sexy and hot…. Why would that be a problem?
Don’t us men want to be sexy? Don’t we want to walk around with no shirts on, showing off our abs like some underwear model? Don’t we want to impress women with our sexiness (or other dudes, if thats your thing!). Dante came before Bayonetta and he’s basically the same thing. Sure, he doesn’t get naked when he uses magic, but thats another story. He’s someone many of us guys wish we could be and someone many girls wish they could get. When Bayonetta came out my friend April said to me “Now I can play a DMC game without being horridly attracted to the main character!”. The visual media of video game almost demands attractive, stylized characters.
This isn’t JUST a desire to impress the other sex either, it’s a self esteem thing. Now the modern male worries a lot about this because socially women are still catching up and many unreal standards are placed upon them and rightfully so, but we seem to worry about it more than they do. There is reason for this guilt, but we shouldn’t let it blind us.
Now this isn’t to say female gamers want hyper-sexual female protagonists. I think most are fine or even, like us, like sexy stylish characters, as long as their primary goal isn’t to pander to the opposite sex (Bayonetta weirdly seems to be a sex goddess from a female perspective). Sexiness aside, a lot of the other characters listed are the same as many of the ones we’d list. Pre-Other M Samus, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, Lightning, The Boss. What this shows to me is that we all want bolder, more characterized women in our game, but to help that happen, I think we have to stop being uncomfortable about feminine qualities. It’s not inherently sexist or exploitive to do so. At the very least we need to realize that us guys are probably being way pruder about this than most women. At the very least we need to not assume as much, because of us (Even me with this post) can be talking out of our asses.
Here is also an older article I read about how we get the ‘strong’ in ‘strong female character’ wrong. I think it’s worth a read.