Opinion How Anita Sarkeesian (indirectly) gave me new hope for video games: Part 3

Evolution on many fronts.

Liana Kerzner

Published

By Liana Kerzner @redlianak

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, Metaleater Media as a whole.

As I said in part two, my takeaway from writing this series is that gamers, including pro-Gamergate gamers, are willing to read feminist game analysis. I think the critical factor is that the author should have a knowledge of, and love for, video games. It seems that it's not the feminism that puts many people off. It's the lack of knowledge regarding interactive media, coupled with a resoundingly negative approach.

I was touched by the sense of excitement and hope I got from respondents. I was humbled by those developers that took the time to send me support. Notably, Rhianna Pratchett was deliberately retweeting both my stuff as well as some of Brianna Wu's tweets. I thought that was a fantastic message-by-example.

Other developers actively advocated for my right to speak despite getting the anger from some of Anita Sarkeesian's fans. I can't express enough how radically my perspective on my place in gaming has changed because of this. In one week, I went from being afraid that developers thought women like me were disgusting to being reminded that most game devs don't care what race, gender identity or body type you are as long as you have something interesting to say.

Mass Effect 3

This is the gaming industry I love. It never went away. It gets periodically drowned out, but I've promised myself that I'm going to remember this experience the next time I feel alone so I won't feel so intimidated. Obviously that's a bit easier to say now, since a lot more people in the gaming industry know that I exist now. Moving forward, I can analyze stuff without feeling so wounded. I'd love to find a way to help others do the same.

While I was preparing this wrap up, Stephen Totilo at Kotaku wrote a piece based on Anita Sarkeesian's "brand new" list of things she wants the gaming industry to change.

So let's look at that list, because there are some notable improvements. I'd like to see Anita move away from the Tropes vs. Women format and into something more solutions-based. Granted, this is Totilo's take on Sarkeesian's talk, so we'll assume all of this stuff is preliminary. According to Totilo, Sarkeesian acknowledged the rough quality of the concept. I think that means there's an opportunity to improve it. Onward!

Avoid the Smurfette principle

Don't have just one female character in an ensemble cast, let alone one whose personality is more or less "girl" or "woman."

Yes! I'm very pleased to see Anita stepping away from the "Ms. Male Character" mess and focusing on a much more salient point. This is precisely the refinement I wanted to see on this issue! Great start!

Bulletstorm
Trishka has a strong sense of character.

Now I want to clarify, something like avoiding the Smurfette principle is a guideline, not a rule or a quota. It's difficult for certain types of games to shoehorn women in because they take place in real-world inspired situations where women are the minority. There are also games that succeed in having a great lone female character. Bulletstorm, for instance, had only one main female character, but Trishka was hardly a stock female trope. She had a personality that was distinct and made sense in the context of the game. The Smurfette principle isn't an automatic kiss of death. It's just something to be cautious of because of the inherent extra pressure it places on a female character.

Dress female characters as something other than sex objects."

Lingerie is not armor

No! This is such a tired, reductive, condescending statement! Gamers aren't idiots. Gamers know lingerie is not armor. A statement like this just talks down to people who like the silliness of fantasy wardrobes precisely because they're silly.

Whether a given fantasy wardrobe is appropriate entirely depends on the game and the character within that game. In most fighting games the wardrobes of men and women alike make no sense. In the SoulCalibur games, shirtless men face off against other male fighters in full armor. And Voldo. Equivalently, some female characters, like Hilde, wear full armor. Others, like Ivy and Taki, wear partial armor, while others still like Talim and Setsuka wear variations on cultural dress. There's no standardization.

And of course, Zangief from Street Fighter is pretty much in his underwear. He's not seen as a sex object because he's evocative of a wrestler, and that wrestler isn't Goldust. Then there are games like Quest For Infamy where the characters themselves call out the silly fantasy outfits they're in. Because the entire game is a spoof, it works well.

Sarkeesian's comment snarks on the legitimate artistic decision to create highly sexual characters with cause. Aphrodite is perpetually Sarkeesian's intellectual Achilles heel. She's seems unable to find a healthy use of heterosexual sexuality in any form of media, and this puritan streak weakens her significantly as an analyst.

Broadly speaking, games can be sorted into two categories, those that reflect reality and those that displace reality. The displacement model is used frequently in Japanese games, and it's designed to challenge, among other things, assumptions of gender and self. Media that exists on a displacement paradigm isn't seeking to examine or reflect the cultural norms of our world. They're designed to tell a story that eschews rigid social norms.

Taki

There is a point of note that in games, naked man parts are used to horrify or shock, while naked women parts are more often used to titillate, but that isn't the point Sarkeesian focused on, as reported by Totilo. Instead, she said "it's common to, say, see female characters' breasts jiggle and rare to see male characters' penises do the same."

What saggy ass boxer short wearing men is she hanging around that she expects junk jiggle from running?!

Joking aside, this is a classic Sarkeesian headline-grabbing generalization that just makes people upset. Her inappropriate comparisons are not only intentionally provocative: they tend to be glaringly ignorant of realities that can be uncomfortable or even painful.

In this case, she's being insensitive to the fact that the male sex urge is frequently depicted in media as predatory or a point of mockery. We have a two-pronged problem here, and both cisgendered sexes are ending up feeling shame. It's even worse for transmen and transwomen because we're still creating social norms regarding the inclusion of transgendered people's bodies.

I think that the general valid argument that can be mined from Anita's glibness could be incorporated into the next point in a less condescending way.

Zangief

Have female characters of various body types

This is an absolute no-brainer... or should be. Still, this point still seems to be a work in progress for Sarkeesian, since she isn't yet able to open up her view of the world to women whose bodies violate her moral paradigms. The slide Totilo included of Sarkeesian's "positive female characters" contains a series of women who all look ironically like... Anita Sarkeesian: brown hair, modest bust, vaguely non-white features. And then, of course, Gone Home's awkward Sears Portrait Studio family group shot. It's highly ironic that her pro-diversity examples lacked... diversity.

As I said, this could be an opportunity to add "and wearing attire appropriate to their character as well as their male counterparts" to this point, and get away from the slut shaming of "lingerie is not armor."

The challenge for Sarkeesian here is to lead by example and find examples of female characters of all body types that she can, pardon the pun, support. If she truly believes in this principle, she should set an example and overcome her own bias on this issue. Otherwise she has no right to tell other people to be inclusive when she's incapable of it herself. Basically, she's telling developers to diversify beyond what they personally find attractive, and that's a big thing to ask when there's money on the line and they want their product to be as appealing as possible. So some leadership here would be good.

Don't over-emphasize female characters' rear ends, not any more than you would the average male character's

I'm torn on this one, because it's something of a valid point. I just would have phrased it differently. Essentially she's saying "Don't turn female gender performance into a cartoonish display," but she's doing it via the awkward language of gaze theory. This makes the point fall apart under scrutiny.

I can't think of that many modern games that go out of their way to highlight female characters' backsides outside the fighting game genre, so why the fixation on butts? The examples provided via Totilo aren't helpful in that way. Sarkeesian apparently criticized the way Catwoman's butt sways in Batman: Arkham City, which is an odd choice. Firstly, video games didn't create Catwoman's hypersexualization. Secondly, yes, Catwoman is a silly character, but show me a Batman character that isn't silly. I mean, Nightwing's butt is on full display in Batman comics. How many female ass credits does that buy us?

Furthermore, women tend to have broader hips than men, so our posteriors are kind of naturally more greatly emphasized. Except in Dragon Age Inquisition. Dorian's ass deserves its own screen credit in that game for that one scene. Add popular fashions to the mix and there's a lot more emphasis on women's butts than men's. The reasons for this have homophobic tones, and that's why I get uncomfortable with the focus on butts.

There are also pitfalls inherent to terms like "average," and "normal." Who personifies the "average male character"? Mario? Link? Master Chief? It's really pretty vague, isn't it? It's hard to implement change when you don't have a clear starting point.

Catwoman

Include more female characters of color

While I appreciate the attempt at intersectional feminism here, it's an odd comment coming from Anita Sarkeesian: expert in not liking stuff. This point made me try to figure out which existing female characters of color also meet "Sarkeesian-approved" American vanilla sexuality guidelines. Aveline from Assassin's Creed Liberation? Vivienne from Dragon Age Inquisition? Chun-Li from Street Fighter? Riley Abel from The Last of Us: Left Behind? Clementine and Christa from The Walking Dead? If any of these characters are actually ones Anita likes, she'd send a stronger message by championing characters she supports in AAA games. Even Rochelle from Left 4 Dead 2, who was included in the presentation, was dismissed as a Smurfette.

The Last of Us: Left Behind
Riley and Ellie in The Last of Us: Left Behind

But there's another issue here that makes this point really tricky: in her presentation she equates skin color and cultural background through her praise of Never Alone, a game with an Alaskan Inuit woman as the main character. A game could take a woman of the exact same ethnicity, put her in a city, and tell a realistic story about how Canadian Aboriginal women go missing and murdered by the hundreds. Sarkeesian would likely hate that game because it's violent, even though it deals with a legitimate cultural issue affecting Aboriginal women. This, of course, brings out the devil in me and makes me dream of creating a video game character who's a Jamaican Dance Hall Queen.

Inclusion of people of different races is extremely difficult in the negative gaming environment Sarkeesian has helped create. Different cultures have different relationships with sexuality. Depictions of, say, Yoruba or Santeria Orishas would be considered "exoticized minorities" by Sarkeesian's standards, because her depiction criteria are so narrow. Many African and Latina women would violate Sarkeesian's "emphasized butt" clause. It's impossible to open up and close off at the same time, so Anita has to decide whether she wants to choose true diversity, or controlled sanitization of feminine experience.

Animate female characters to move the way normal women, soldiers or athletes would move

Another attempt to define "normal." Another wreck of a talking point because gaming is far too diverse to determine "normal."

Anita also comes dangerously close, in her related criticisms of the character poses in Destiny, to suggesting that women in certain societal roles must give up any feminine gender performance. She strongly implies that the pose for a "hardened space warrior" is, by default, the male one. That's benign sexism.

There's no point in a game offering a selection of gender if the player's choice doesn't result in differences that evoke that gender. Furthermore, depicting a woman with her legs spread like the male Destiny character's could be perceived as sexualized. The focus should be on plausibility, or physical performances that don't seem out of place or distracting.

I personally think that this issue with solve itself as motion capture becomes commonplace. With real people performing the movements, realism happens naturally.

Record female character voice overs so that pain sounds painful, not orgasmic

I outlined the problem with the assumption of sexualized intent in my series. In short, it's so hard to know for certain that audio pornography was intended. For all I know this could actually have happened in some games. I just don't personally know of any examples, and I'm pretty sure I play a lot more games than Anita does.

Furthermore, I listened to the audio example from League of Legends she offered in her presentation. I found myself wincing at the exhausted whimpers. I don't know what kind of sex Anita is having, but if that's what it sounds like, maybe more lube would be a good idea.

Include female enemies, but don't sexualize those enemies

What? Why not?

Bad people are now not allowed sex lives just because they're women? Why does it matter what a woman is wearing if she's trying to kill you? In run-and-gun video games, the killing is usually in self defense! I'm not sure why she has to say this after already saying that lingerie isn't armor, so I can't help but think that this is her personal hang up making itself known again.

Sexuality is a part of life. Sexuality should therefore be a part of games. Sexuality just needs to be less stupid in all media. Does it add something regarding character or plot? Great, put it in. Is it just pandering eye candy? Then leave it out. Nothing needs to be banned outright!

The combination of sex and danger has been a part of mythology for as long as we've had mythology, and female enemies have been a part of storytelling tradition that goes back all the way to Beowulf. Why are we even considering eliminating an avenue for exploring evil women of all kinds?

The Silent Hill nurses (and numerous other monsters from that franchise) are fantastic examples of sexualized female enemies that absolutely make sense in that game. Sarkeesian slags the God of War games, but there are numerous non-sexualized female enemies in the God of War franchise, like Clotho and Gaia. Furthermore, maybe some people find the gorgons and harpies sexy, but I didn't. Yes, there are other female enemies in God of War who are more conventionally attractive, but the game draws from Greek myth. They're picking pre-existing characters! The overtly sexualized women tend to be sexualized with cause. Megaera, for instance, is the fury who punishes marital infidelity. Other sexualized female characters, like Aphrodite and her handmaidens, are left notably unharmed. I think that if male characters are allowed to be physically flawless specimens of their sex then women should be allowed that too, provided it makes sense in the story and a video game isn't making every check-out girl, schoolteacher and cleaning lady look like a model.

If Sarkeesian is being honest with herself, there's no need for her to single out enemies as a type of character that needs to be desexualized: she doesn't seem to support any sort of sexualized character. I'd rather she just stated that she doesn't support artistic depictions of sexualized women at all, instead of going around in circles on the issue through multiple points. More than half her list deals with sexualized or gendered depictions of women in some way. Seven out of the nine points deal with how the characters look. Only one deals with how characters actually behave. Sarkeesian's own analysis turns many complicated female characters into objects, ignoring anything else about them that may explain why sexuality is an important element of their respective characters.

But thanks to my experience with the sensation that is Sarkeesian, I have renewed hope that the industry is ready for an alternative to sex-negative analysis. And I have Anita Sarkeesian and Feminist Frequency to thank for that, because if she hadn't pushed, I wouldn't have pushed back, and this whole experience with this series never would have happened. So I'd like to leave you with my wish list for how to improve the experience of gaming - primarily for women, but in essence, for everyone. That's going to be the last part in this series... since it makes for a better video on its own.

Images courtesy of Epic Games, Bandai Namco, Capcom, Sony Computer Entertainment, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Riot Games.