Thursday, July 19, 2012

Stripper, Censor, Gamer, Guy

I'm a man.  I intend to remain so.  Therefore, when it comes to women's issues, I can sympathize, but not empathize.  I do know what it is like to be prejudged.  It is with great care that I approach this next subject.  I really don't want to embarrass myself.  Here goes. 

Awhile ago I read "Video Games and The Male Gaze" on Gamesutra.  It echoes a growing theme: today's video game industry is misogynistic.  Video game creators are 90% male and games are targeted to a huge male audience.  Furthermore, fanatic sexists inside and outside the industry are making life difficult for female gamers and creators.  I suggest you read the article before you proceed with this post.

I agree that male chauvinism ought not to be tolerated as a witness or victim.  I agree that sexist themes are common in video games.  I also become enraged when I read some of things that men have written on message boards and forums that humiliate both their female targets and themselves.  Yet something about this article really bothers me. 

What bothers me is that it seems to broaden the definition of sexism to a level at which I become uncomfortable.  It is a level that promotes shame in men.  It is a level that seems to suggest censorship and self-censorship in art and expression.  It is a definition of sexism that does not come from prejudging, degrading or hating women, but rather is the result of societal hangups about sex.  It applies not just to "The Male Gaze" and video games, but other media and indeed real-life. 

When a story is told, whether fiction or non-fiction, the good ones tend to involve remarkable things.  We love to see, hear and read about a remarkable personality, a remarkably courageous act, weird happenings, an unspeakable evil, a huge explosion.  We enjoy escaping our everyday lives to vicariously live an interesting life different from our own.  Most people, for instance, would be very interested to vicariously experience the events of the picture embedded in this text block, even if they would intensely dislike actually experiencing it. 

Many people enjoy seeing uncommonly gorgeous women in their media for this reason.  Another thing that doesn't happen very often in real life is seeing gorgeous women taking their clothes off, completely naked, or wearing sexy outfits.  For instance, my life has a distinct lack of chainmail bikinis and I enjoy seeing women wear them as a result. 

Visual media allow also the viewer to stare.  Our society has a huge stigma associated with staring at women's bodies.  Enlightened types (like me) allow ourselves a glance at an appealing bit of exposed flesh but try not to be conspicuous and are mortified if caught.  Women on the television, however, can be ogled until the frame changes and are never offended by a male gaze. 

Basically, our society has a huge pool of people who like to freely ogle scantily clad, beautiful women.  (Have you noticed how I've been writing "people" instead of men?  Am I not sexual-orientation-conscious?)  Not just see them, but be them.  I assume some female gamers enjoy the experience of roleplaying extremely sexy woman, but more importantly, many men seem to like pretending to be a sexy woman even if acknowledging it makes them uncomfortable.  Millions of male Tomb Raider players can't be wrong.  With so many people wanting to see and be sexy, of course game developers and film producers want to cash in.  So, is it a bad thing?  Brandon Sheffield, the author of "Video Games and the Male Gaze" and many like him say "yes".  They say such images are sexist. 

Is that true?  Not necessarily.  Wikipedia suggests that sexism is prejudging a person based on their gender, believing in gender supremacy, or holding people to gender stereotypes.  Going by this definition, seeing a picture of Red Sonja and assuming she's a stupid whore is sexism.  Showing her body, seeing her body and admiring her body are not sexist actions because doing so makes no judgment on her competencies or the content of her character. 

What I believe these people are actually objecting to is the fact that she IS sexy.  They worry about how much skin is showing.  They focus on how long cameras linger on certain shots.  This is a deep-seated hangup that society has about sex.  Our culture has taught us that sex is dirty, naughty and wrong.  It has taught us to be ashamed of our bodies.  It has taught us that female nudity equals sex.  It teaches people that they are bad for looking.  The solutions of the prudes  inevitably force people to cover up and self-censor, stunt creativity and hide emotions rather than dealing with them. 

It is not sexism that is driving the demand for lovely naked women, nor the shame at seeing them.  It is Victorianism.  If our society was cool with casual nudity, as in naturist communities and some tribal settings, seeing a naked woman wouldn't be a huge deal, nor would filming a naked woman be an issue, nor rendering one from pixels.  Remove the social stigma on nudity and you remove all the bullshit that comes with it.  Yeah, it's not going to happen in my lifetime, but one can hope for the future.  For now, we're stuck with the stigma. 
Seeking to titillate is not wrong, nor misogynist.  It fulfills a societal desire, even if the taboo on nudity exaggerates it.  However, returning to the example of Red Sonja, one can still criticize the thought process that went into the creation of her image on a non-sexist level.  Most obviously, you might point out that her armour is going to get her killed.  If she doesn't freeze to death immanently, that scale mail is going to guide a sword blow directly toward her heart.  The urge to titillate has overridden logic.  However, comic readers are willing to suspend their disbelief because they like looking at her.  Once again, that is not wrong or misogynist.  It's worth pointing out that Red Sonja is an accomplished swordswoman, is powerful, forces her will upon the world and has a rich and developed backstory.  As tempting as it is to target her as a symbol of sexism, on her own, she is a fully-developed character with a preference for sexy, non-functional armour. 

The problem is that there are just too many characters who look like her.  Just about every female video game character is designed to be sexy.  This is where the misogyny comes in, as many of these characters are poorly-defined, with bust-lines deeper than their backstories.  It falls neatly into the definition of sexism by pandering to established gender stereotypes.  It seems odd that busty warrior-women in sexy costumes are a gender stereotype considering that I have never met one in person, but there it is. 

There are hundreds of butt-ugly, scarred, old, mud-spattered, hulking, weedy, or unappealing male characters to choose from.  Women video game characters are confined to a single young, athletic figure with varying boob/ass size and hair colour.  There's a world of different, real female body shapes and faces out there.  That's why this article excites me.  The author/creator has carefully made female avatars/protagonists who blow the traditional only-sexy character out of the water.  I would love to see more of what this mindset has to offer. 

I like seeing sexy women in my video games.  I never want to see them go, and I suspect they never will.  What I would like to do, as a consumer, is reward game developers, by giving them my money, who create awesome female characters.  Sure, let them include many realistically-bouncy boobs.  But I would like them to expand the definition of "sexy" to include several other body-types.  I would like some female characters not to be sexy, or at least not have "sexy" be their chief descriptor.  But most of all, I yearn for real characters that I can identify with, care for or hate, and maybe fall in love with as the story unfolds.

The best defense against chauvinism is understanding, and the best way to understand somebody is to identify with them.  If women in video games have true character with backstory, hopes, fears, and difficult decisions, people will identify with them.  When understanding is achieved, distinctions of lingering camera frames and sexy armour vanish.  

Here's an aside. 

A few years ago, when video game nudity was less common, Electronic Arts released a video game called "The Godfather II".  It's basically a Grand Theft Auto clone about walking around frightening people, murdering them and taking their money.  The combat system includes many bare-handed fighting and wrestling elements.  It has rudimentary strategy elements as well.  All-in-all, it was a real piece-a-shit, continuing the tradition started with the first Godfather game of horrifying Francis Ford Coppola.

Included in the game are strip clubs in which the protagonist can view and interact with topless strippers.  You can sweet-talk them and slap their asses.  You can also shoot them.  But if you try to grab them, something interesting happens: they slap you and you are forced to let go.  See it here:  Oh yeah, it's not safe for work. 

No other characters in the game cause this automatic grab-rejection.  Is it because the designers took to heart the phrase, "You should never hit a woman?"  No, because you can grab fully-clothed women.  Is it following the time-honoured tradition of "Never touch a stripper?"  No, because you can still punch them to death.

So why did they do it?  Probably, and this is a guess here, the creators knew that if you could grab strippers, social media would be flooded with embarrassing videos of topless women being manhandled.  They knew some concerned parent would see junior's video of himself pretending to hump a topless stripper and then murdering her, then come the outraged religious groups and censors and blah blah blah.  They didn't want to deal with that.  

So... that's sexist, right?  I mean, their paper-thin personalities and acceptance of ass-slaps makes the strippers a sexist presence to begin with.  But the game singles out a group of women to protect for societal reasons, so it's more sexist?  Or is it not sexist because it empowers the strippers with martial arts?  Should EA be applauded for not allowing strippers to be grabbed or are they a bunch of cowardly hypocrites for making a murder-fantasy game and backing out because of nudity?  Shouldn't the random murdering be the issue EA backs away from, not the presence of strippers?  

I dunno.  I'm just a boy.


  1. Dude, you're missing something important here. It's not just about how characters in games and comic books look, it's that female characters are more consistently and more overtly sexualized. Take the picture at the start of your post. Look at how the character is posed. It's a perfect illustration of the point made here:
    I think that says it better than I ever could.

  2. The oversexualization of female characters is the point of this post. I fail to see what I'm missing.

  3. Part of the problem is that you adopt a 'on the one hand, on the other hand' approach in this piece. That's good in that you don't oversimplify, but it also makes it easy for people to read this in ways you might not have intended. I guess I responded because you seem to be saying that the portrayal of female characters like Red Sonja isn't sexist, and I'd say that it is. The point of the cartoon I posted is that the lone female superhero in the poster is also the only one pointing her butt at the viewer. They're all dressed more or less the same, but only one is objectified. And that happens a lot. Most characters in games and comic books seem designed with the preferences of heterosexual men in mind. There's a subtextual "no girls allowed" sign on the treehouse, and I see why it might be a legitimate use of the word to call that sexist.

    And then there's a different angle. Another test I'd apply to these images is whether I'd want my daughter to dress that way -- at least in public! You can include me among the ranks of the sexually repressed, but I wouldn't want any of my kids to be a stripper or to play one in a game. I'd rather -- and here we agree -- that there were plenty of strong female role models. Red Sonja's primary attribute seems to be attractiveness to men, not kicking ass. And in that sense, she's very different from the equally naked Conan the Barbarian.

  4. I don't want to repeat what I've already written here, so I'll just say that we agree on everything except two points.

    1. There is nothing wrong with portraying male fantasies. They appear because they must, and they should not be considered immoral, sexist, base or shameful. They are important and the only reason they are sexist is because a certain male fantasy keeps appearing over and over again.

    2. If our daughters, once they have the ability to be sexy, start flaunting it for attention or profit, is it really our place to tell them that they're being immoral, base or shameful? That's asking for them to develop a sexual hangup. Better to let her know about the consequences, good and bad, personal and societal, of such behaviour and let her decide for herself, then be loving and supportive. Yes, supportive and loving even if she becomes a stripper as an adult. You may not want that fate for her, but it's not your place to make her feel bad about it.

  5. 1. On this point, I don't think we disagree at all. I'm not condemning male fantasies, and I think you can agree that an emphasis on male fantasies can make women feel that the game or comic book is not for them.

    2. Here I don't think you disagree with me either, but you're glossing over an important distinction. You love and support your child even when they do something you disagree with, but that's not the same as actively approving of it. I'm thinking here of a colleague of mine who pushes students to consider whether they'd really want a life of prostitution for themselves or a child. He was trying to get them to see that even if they respect someone else's decision, they don't have to believe it's a good decision. And after all, it's easy to respect the decisions you agree with; respect for a bad choice is much more impressive. But I think this gets away from the point. It's one thing to say I'd support my daughter no matter what she does with her life, and another thing to say I want to her to play video games where all the women look like strippers. But you also agree with this, at least in some points of your entry.

  6. May I make just one question?I am a female and where most guys including my boyfriend like to play these games because all of the obvious reasons you pointed out,from my point of view these games make me want to kill myself because I have no boobs and these games make ppl portray life exactly in that manner.they become antisocial,depressive and get fed up easily of everone. These games also makes men become more attracted to strip clubs and strippers ,they start to feel better in there because let's face it strippers tend to make men feel very good about themselves.I have nothing against strippers because when I was single I used to take my male friends there for some good boyfriend had an addiction to strip clubs and strippers for a long time and he loved and still loves to play these video games I don t blame him cause women are portrayed so sensual vulgar and sexy but I still can't help it watching him play these games and reading comic books and stuff that are full of these female figures, I would like to understand this from your male point of view

  7. First... I don't know you, so just in case you were being completely serious when you wrote "make me want to kill myself", I'll take you literally. Please don't kill yourself.

    It sounds like you feel inadequate compared to the images you see, and you're also concerned about how hyper-sexual images affect people's minds. These are hard things to write about, because I know you feel terrible.

    The easiest way out of this cycle of bad feelings may, MAY be to take responsibility for only the things you can control. The only thing you can really control is you. Not your boyfriend, not the images, not strippers. Likewise, nothing "makes you" do anything. While you are lucid, you get to choose how to react to everything.

    Don't expect the media to change, don't expect strippers to change, because they won't. Your boyfriend may not even change if you ask him. But you can change yourself. Slowly, you can stop feeling inadequate.

    I hate my appearance. I think I'm fat and ugly. My subconscious wishes that I looked like Indiana Jones. But I'm also learning that being beautiful and sexy is more than my body mass or my big head. There's stuff about my appearance that I don't appreciate, there's how I carry myself, there's who I am. And on top of that, beauty is subjective. It's unbelievable to me, but I am sexy to some people.

    I don't know you, but you are so much more than your boob-size. Feel better about yourself, and it won't matter whose boobs are wobbling on the TV screen. Only you know how best you can get to that place. Whether its self-help, a book, exercise, some kind of therapy... you decide.

    That's not exactly a male opinion, but it's mine. I hope it helps.