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.
(Note: the following may contain various game spoilers and descriptions of things that may be triggering as part of critical analysis. Reactions may be strong. Please be respectful in your discussion of the issues. Starting this series from part one is strongly recommended.)
Thanks for sticking with me. Part two was a lot of really dense theory that I tried not to make too boring. I wish I didn't have to sound like a gender studies professor, but I think it's extremely important to demystify feminist... stuff... for people. Feminism is a philosophical anchor, and gender studies is a topic, not an approach or methodology. It's what's called an interdisciplinary speciality, which involves absorbing bits and pieces from philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, communications, art history, and political science. The experience of studying gender is a bit like being an octopus who has lost control of all eight tentacles, and so these tentacles all take turns smacking her in the face. Welcome to my world.
One thing that is central to feminism and gender studies is the concept of objectification, more specifically gendered sexual objectification. This is at the core of Feminist Frequency's beef with everything in video games minus the dozen games Anita Sarkeesian actually likes. ...Okay she probably likes more games than that, but there are only about a dozen recommended on her website as of this writing.
Objectification means treating a person like a thing. Sexual objectification means treating a person as a thing of sexual pleasure, disregarding their intellectual capabilities or other skills. For example, did anyone really care about the life-guarding skills of most of the women on Baywatch?... other than Alexandra Paul, who might as well have had a giant sign flashing over her head that said "Credibility Alert!"
There is a great deal of debate in feminist circles about whether a person can ever be depicted as sexual in art without being objectified. Let's sidestep that by acknowledging that it would be silly to deny that the media does dumb things when portraying women. It's my personal theory, however, that video games are catching some guilt by association because film, television and print media have collectively behaved so badly. People assume that similar character designs in video games must serve the same purpose. That's not usually so.
For instance, fighting games take a lot of heat for having objectified characters, but since each character requires a move set with unique strengths and weaknesses, that classification doesn't really hold. No one chooses a character in a fighting game just because they seem sexually available, although I do have an artist friend who discovered an interest in video games after being introduced to Cammy from Street Fighter.
Further complicating matters is the fact that playable characters are things designed to be played with. They're less objectified and more gamified. Without a real understanding of what makes video games unique as a form of entertainment, an analyst risks false positives when determining whether or not a playable video game character's primary purpose is to titillate. There's a massive difference in creating a character for linear media that a viewer wants to like and a playable character in interactive media that a player wants to inhabit.
Bioshock -- I keep using this example because it's one most gamers know by now -- combines an emphasis on player freedom in combat with a mind controlled main character. The player has a large number of ways to defeat enemies because of the large number of weapon and plasmid choices, while Johnny Topsider is the subject of the WYK "Would You Kindly" mind control experiment, so he himself is acted upon instead of acting. Is this character objectified because all he's really there to do is be a meatsack excuse for the player to shoot stuff?
Similarly, the God of War games put the player in control of a physically strong protagonist, Kratos, who himself is a literal slave of the gods and the player. Even after ascending to godhood himself, Kratos is still manipulated, tortured, and punished by forces much larger than himself. Kratos doesn't wear much either. Is he objectified? He's essentially a weapon with a backstory.
No one complains that these unempowered male characters, are examples of objectification. Some state that they cannot be objects because men are inherently subjects within a patriarchy, and to this I say "says who?." Those of us that support gender equality should set an example in analyzing all characters equally.
Kratos is possibly the most sexually objectified man in video games, although Geralt of Rivia might run a close second. In their respective games, they're both used for casual sex by women in cut scenes that focus on the woman's physical gratification. In Geralt's case it's because Witchers are sterile, and while the camera during the extremely dumb sex scenes in The Witcher does objectify women in those moments, they're clearly enjoying themselves. The punishing social consequences for these women in The Witcher games are a separate matter. Their in-game degradation does not negate his.
Kratos, on the other hand, seems to be really good at pleasing the ladies. But despite all the sex he has, he rarely smiles. In fact, during Kratos' sexual encounters, the sounds highlight the women's pleasure. Kratos doesn't utter a single grunt. That's the definition of a character who, in those scenes, exists for the sexual pleasure of others without his own needs factoring in.
As Kratos personifies, a character is not necessarily a bad character because they're subjected to a level of objectification. Mortal Kombat uses objectifying costumes on characters like Kitana because she is, in fact, being oppressed by Shao Kahn. Patriarchy is used in the Mortal Kombat games as an expression of Shao Kahn's villainy. If you want to complain about Sonya Blade's outfit in the 2011 reboot, go ahead, but it's more effective to target that costume as unduly revealing for a special forces officer from our world, instead of blanket criticism of the fantasy wardrobe of all the women in the series.
Another similar example is Morrigan in the Dragon Age games. Morrigan is, by surface analysis, a character who is dressed in an objectifying manner because that's part of her story. However, she is a critically important character in the series with a defined personality and purpose, and her sexuality and tendency to display her body are central elements of this. If we forbid women from ever being objectified in video games, we lose well-developed, meaningful characters like Morrigan, and that would be a shame.
Now, that's not to say there aren't moments in games that aren't flagrantly immature, or demeaning. These moments just aren't the epidemic that Anita Sarkeesian claims through her cavalcade of tropes. Tropes are not inherently antagonistic to women, so the burden is on Feminist Frequency to prove that the selected tropes are actively versus, or an opponent of, women.
A trope is a common literary or rhetorical device, in essence, tools for a writer. Feminist Frequency's "tropes" are more accurately clichés, which tend to be indicators of lazy writing. That being said, we can't claim that the simple plots in the early days of gaming were lazy, because the entire concept of a game with a story was completely new. That doesn't stop Feminist Frequency from going after well-worn devices from the 1980s and 1990s with no context that easily recognized narratives -- rescuing a princess, for instance -- was necessary to introduce the entire concept of interactive stories when they were new.
Instead, Feminist Frequency insists that the damsel in distress trope normalizes "toxic, patronizing, and paternalistic attitudes about women." Well no, it doesn't have to. The Diary of Anne Frank, though not a work of fiction, still gains its potency from Anne Frank's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to hide from the Nazis. (Achievement unlocked: Godwin's Law) And I'd love to see Elizabeth Smart-Gilmour's reaction to the idea that her story is inherently toxic and patronizing. These are both real world stories of women who needed rescuing. Is Anita really suggesting that by relating their stories that we're patronizing and objectifying these women?
The damsel in distress trope traces its roots back to chivalric Medieval France, when protecting women was an essential part of a knight's code. Art depicting knights and their ladies frequently poses the knight in a submissive posture: he is kneeling, she is standing. A knight's relationship to his lady is one of service that rivals the fealty to one's lord.
Now it's true that the benevolently sexist concept of chivalry clashes with the modern concept of gender equality. Furthermore, I don't think anyone is arguing that the "save the princess / girlfriend / wife" concept hasn't been done to death in video games, as if game makers can't think of any other reason that the entitled hipsters who review games would get off their butts to help someone.
But that's not why Anita Sarkeesian doesn't like the damsel in distress. She doesn't like these damsels because she sees them as inherently objectified. Tropes vs. Women takes particular aim at Princess Peach for this reason, referring to her as a ball that Bowser and Mario play with. It's undeniable that Peach doesn't have a lot of agency when she's fulfilling that role in Mario games. The curious question is whether Mario does.
Video games, by their very nature, often feature characters that start with relatively little agency and gain it as the game progresses. Mario starts as tiny little Mario, easily squished by goombas and koopas, and unable to smash bricks. He then grows bigger via red mushrooms that allow him to do more things and more greatly impact the world. Once Mario consumes the fire flower, he can now shoot enemies with fireballs and destroy enemies he previously could not. The more power ups Mario has, the more choices he has. There's a reason they're called "power ups."
Of course, this is all veneer. Mario himself has absolutely no agency. Every action he performs is dictated by the player. He's a puppet on a string, or to use Sarkeesian's metaphor, the ball the character is playing with. Princess Peach is not a ball in Mario and Bowser's game. Mario, Bowser, and Peach are all balls in the player's game, and their interactions are defined by the rules of that game. Mario could be compared to the cue ball in billiards: the only ball the player can directly manipulate. This manipulation does not make him any less a ball. This is the difference between applying strictly social theories to video games and using ludosocial theories, those which contain an element of game theory as well as sociology.
And the idea that characters created for children to play with were ever intended to be sexualized was just a majorly gross, unnecessary criticism on Feminist Frequency's part. Sometimes a mushroom is just a mushroom, Anita.
Obviously, in games with more developed characters and narratives, the narrative analysis becomes more relevant. But Tropes vs. Women spent an entire video dealing with the Mario games in a way that didn't recognize them as games. There's a fundamental error like this in every single one of the Tropes vs. Women concepts, which undermines the required evidence that video games actually cause social harm. Tropes vs. Women, therefore, is just a collection of stuff that Anita and Jonathan personally find annoying. I'll fully agree that I find the Mario characters thoroughly derivative, but I'm not going to attempt to convince people that they're menaces to society.
Moving on to the Ms. Male Character trope, we find an example of a core concept that is solid enough, but Feminist Frequency stretched the definition of a very specific trope to make the issue seem more dire than it is.
The Ms. Male Character trope is just an examination of female Othering in video games -- the idea that in gaming, the natural playable character, or in-game Self, is male, and a female protagonist is seen as a deviation from that norm. That's not in dispute. But the issue gets muddied when the videos branch into the "Smurfette Principle" and female sidekicks. These aren't the same concept, but they're lumped together, and that led me to some interesting extrapolations while watching those videos.
Some would call Sarkeesian's on-camera plaid shirt style a symptom of "honorary guy syndrome." Honorary guys are women in male-dominated environments who trade some of their feminine identifiers for the increased respect afforded men. It's considered what's called a patriarchal bargain. This was called into sharp focus when the "Boob Frequency" porn parody appeared online, juxtaposing Sarkeesian's lady lumberlack style with the exposed breasts of porn star Princess Kora.
This is the problem with excessive labelling of people: Wayne's World taught us that Soren Kierkegaard said, "Once you label me you negate me." It's hard to tell with Tropes vs. Women whether the act of labelling, in itself, is objectifying these characters because it strips them of their individuality. Sarkeesian plays with fire when she decides that any female identifiers are inherently "problematic," because gender signifiers are granted meaning by the viewer; they have no inherent morality.
Honorary guys are women in male-dominated environments who trade some of their feminine identifiers for the increased respect afforded men."
For instance, Ms. Pac-Man is generally seen as a far superior game to the original Pac-Man. However, Sarkeesian labelled Ms. Pac-Man a Ms. Male Character as opposed to an improvement. The complaint is that Pac-Man is the original and Ms. Pac-Man is the copy. It's true that Pac-Man is a yellow disc and Ms. Pac-Man is a yellow disc with a bow on her head, eyes, lipstick,and a beauty mark. Sarkeesian sees Ms. Pac-Man's additional gender signifiers as negative, claiming that Pac-Man's original status is free from overtly masculine signifiers and therefore the default state for yellow balls that eat ghosts. However, she misses that the name "Pac-Man" in itself denotes that the character is masculine. It's simply not true that there are no overt clues to Pac-Man's sex. The player does not assume Pac-Man is male due to lack of any signifiers. The player is told Pac-Man is a man right in his name.
Sarkeesian's analysis also unfortunately caused me to imagine Pac-Man whipping out his round yellow schlong as an identifying male feature, but that's just the way my mind works. I always assumed that the added features on Ms. Pac-Man were displaying improved graphics in rudimentary character designs from the 8-bit era! But no! We have to make feminism look like something practised by a bunch of entitled idiots by obsessing over ghost-chasing two-dimensional yellow balls!
Granted, Midway engaged in the same silliness back in the 1980s, Ms. Pac-Man's maiden name was Crazy Otto. She took the name Ms. Pac-Man when she and Pac-Man got married because Midway had concerns about them having a child out of wedlock. That child went on to become TV personality David Pakman... that last part was a joke, everything else is pretty much in line with the actual development process of the game.
Can you tell I'm having a hard time taking any of this seriously? Anita expounded on this origin of Ms. Pac-Man during the Tropes vs. Women video at length, and those wasted minutes of our lives only confirmed what we've all known for a while: women have made significant advances in the Western world in the ensuing thirty years. You know what else was going on in the eighties? People were still just guessing that George Michael and Boy George were gay!
Sorry Anita, your relevance is in another castle.
As I said, however, It's not at all contentious that game protagonists tend to be men and any female character in that universe gets relegated to sidekick status, but I think that has more to do with the fact that Western storytelling traditions go all the way back to the idea that Eve came from Adam's rib. Quite frankly, "Adam's Rib" would have been a more accurate name for this trope.
Furthermore, the tradition does seem to be quite random, since there are notable successes in video games that defy it.
After all, how can we neglect that adorable, round, pink, genderqueer Nintendo character Kirby? Kirby is voiced by a woman, referred to as a "he" in manuals, but displays feminine gender signifiers in that he is pink.
Or the Dragon Age Origins character that punked all of gaming by being a female golem, Shale?
Or Nathan Drake? What? No seriously, when Uncharted first started exhibiting as a new IP, industry and press nicknamed it "Dude Raider."
I can make anything in gaming look like a problem if I only explore the instances where it happens instead of finding out the actual percentage of games that follow this trend. I could make the argument that men in video games are dehumanized with a clip reel of faceless, armored characters like Big Daddy, the Judges from FFXII, Fallout Brotherhood of Steel, Master Chief from Halo, Slender from Slenderman, Zer0 from Borderlands 2, Red Pyramid from Silent Hill 2 and so on. I could even give that trope a clever name like "Soulless Stormtrooper" and claim that it's proof that video games are against men.
Of course few would accept such a poorly constructed argument, because we don't have an internal bias that makes us inclined to agree with it.
The infuriating thing is that the Smurfette Principle is a legitimate point of artistic criticism that doesn't get its fair due because Feminist Frequency was mucking about with nonsense. The Smurfette Principle is a reference to the tendency for works of fiction to contain precisely one woman. Think Penny in the first season of The Big Bang Theory, Zoe in Left 4 Dead, or Wonder Woman in the original Justice League. The reason the Smurfette Principle is an issue is that it leads to boring female characters. That character ends up being "the girl," a representation of all women everywhere instead of being allowed to be a character in her own right, so she's homogenized while the male characters get to have unique character traits. It's a form of tokenism that you see in a lot of discussion panels talking about social issues. The go-to makeup of a talk show panel is "two white guys, the woman, and the minority," and the woman and the minority frequently get asked what they think "as a woman" or "as a minority" instead of being asked a question as an individual. You answer the question as honestly as you can, but if someone watching disagrees with you, you're somehow a gender or race traitor because you were supposed to represent them! It's extremely limiting. I frequently get stuck as a social issue Smurfette, so I can tell you first hand how utterly irritating it is, especially since the population is 50% female and discussion panels should reflect that reality.
So giving this Smurfette issue short shrift to ramble on about Ms. Pac-Man for twenty minutes was a big disservice by Feminist Frequency, as far as I'm concerned. It came across as setting aside a real issue to focus on a controversial attack on a beloved character. Because seriously, who doesn't love Ms. Pac-Man? Feminist Frequency has a tendency to prefer controversial arguments to solid arguments, which, sadly, is likely a contributor to the series' popularity: it leverages the stigma against gamers to gain fans in wider culture who are inclined to believe that video games are a spooky forest full of misogynist wolves.
The last thing I want to challenge regarding the Ms. Male Character videos is Sarkeesian's complaint that a game series gave a female ninja character noticeable breasts in the sequel. Breasts are not merely gender semiotics like a bow or lipstick. Breasts are part of the cisgendered female anatomy. Transwomen also develop breasts through hormone therapy. No matter how big or small they are, women have breasts and Sarkeesian makes snide comments about an inherently female characteristic. This is body shaming and it's not appropriate in modern feminism.
And the biggest boobs in gaming probably belong to Ellie from Borderlands 2. So what's the problem?! Oh, I know what the problem is: how can we complain that male gamers mock our breasts when the most prominent feminist in video games is doing it too!?
GAH! Okay... okay keep it professional Liana. You can do this.
That boob libel goes to eleven in the "Women As Background Decoration" trope, which Feminist Frequency defines as "the subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players."
The Smurfette Principle is a reference to the tendency for works of fiction to contain precisely one woman."
First off, what does "presumed straight male players" mean? This is where facts must triumph over snide politicking. It's undeniable that the majority of AAA console action game consumers are men. There's no presumption there. The challenge for game companies is making games that are appealing to their primary demographic without alienating secondary demographics, because the industry needs new consumers without losing the existing ones.
The question we should be asking, first and foremost, is "Why do male developers think male consumers want unrealistic female characters who personify the type of woman who would never even talk to them in real life?" Unpack that issue and there might be some useful findings, but we don't get that kind of in-depth analysis from Feminist Frequency. No, we get clip reels. Feminist Frequency attempts quantitative analysis of qualitative issues, but uses sample sizes too small to really be relevant. The question we should be asking is not "Are these scenes harmful?" but "Are these scenes part of good storytelling?"
The first Background Decoration video starts with a female prostitute character engaged in negotiations with a player, immediately confusing a gameplay mechanic for "background texture." Vendors and shopkeeps aren't background decoration in video games. They're a mechanic that matters greatly: if a game economy isn't balanced, it's frustrating. Prostitutes in games always intrigue me, because they're in-game exchanges that entice the player to give up in-game currency for encounters which often do absolutely nothing of real benefit. Prostitutes in games say an awful lot about the role of sexuality in masculine validation: sexual activity is apparently seen as such an inherent part of manhood that men will pay for it even when it's not real.
The "Women as Background Decoration" trope spends a lot of time inaccurately conflating sex worker and sex object. It also paints sex tourism, high-priced call girls, and sex workers who work the streets with the same brush. It doesn't recognize that every prostitute's story is a unique one. A prostitute can only be seen as a victim if they are in unsafe working conditions - like in GTA - or if they were forced into the business unwillingly - like in Watch_Dogs. A sex worker who enters the profession willingly and who is not forced to sleep with undesirable clients isn't a victim. After eliminating that concern, the "Women as Background Decoration" trope can only really be seen as a negative if an overtly sexual woman is seen as a negative.
So we're back to "boobs are evil," the Feminist Frequency boob libel.
Vendors and shopkeeps aren't background decoration in video games."
I'd hazard to guess that if game designers felt like they could get away with putting male hookers in their games, they'd do that too. Homosexuality, however, is not yet seen as sufficiently acceptable by moral conservatives to take that risk. Furthermore, if a game is set in a major North American city, every single one of them has a district frequented by prostitutes. Denying their existence would have these games criticized for sanitizing reality. I've seen "ho stros" in Los Angeles, Vegas, Chicago, Miami and my home city of Toronto. They're real. They're really real.
That doesn't mean that prostitutes aren't sometimes used as interchangeable set dressing in games. However, Feminist Frequency uses clips that don't match the assertion that the prostitutes are always there to titillate. For instance: the Watch_Dogs scene in which Aiden Pierce infiltrates a human trafficking ring. In context, that scene is uncomfortable because the women placed on objectified display are there against their will and are obviously frightened. The game makes it clear that these women are sometimes brutally beaten by sadistic customers. A player has the option to complete a set of side missions to free the women and break up the human trafficking ring, and Aiden is never rewarded for that with a roll in the hay. According to Feminist Frequency, these victims of human trafficking in this scene are there to titillate straight men, but their actual in-game role is to horrify the player. I don't know why the people at Feminist Frequency found that scene pleasantly arousing, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't the reaction Ubisoft intended.
The problem with claiming that the Watch_Dogs human trafficking ring scene was intended to titillate is that it confuses an act of consensual sex - which is an understandable ego boost -- with rape -- which is an act of violence. Sex with a trafficked sex worker is a form of rape because she is not empowered to say no. Sex with a call girl making Charlie Sheen-level money is a totally different paradigm.
Anti-rape advocates have spent years making the distinction that rape is a crime of violence, not of sex, and yet Feminist Frequency insists that video games use the victimization of women to titillate players. Most men do not get turned on by rape. To imply that they do demonizes male sexuality, and that's not fair critique.
Context matters in other ways as well: in a scene included from Dishonored, a brothel is used to shock the player because it's the location the antagonists have hidden young Emily Kaldwin. Corvo doesn't enter that brothel to look at women. He enters the brothel to get a girl he cares about and swore to protect out of there. Yes, the various prostitutes provide texture and flavor to that endeavour. Perhaps some people are titillated and the developers were fully aware that was a side benefit, but the primary reason they're there is to shock because little girls shouldn't be kept in brothels. There are a lot of extremely interesting moral choices in that level that make it more satisfying to play if the player sees the prostitutes as people instead of objects. Unlike Watch_Dogs, Dishonored does have an in-game moral compass that manifests in what kind of leader Emily becomes at the end. The game relies on a paternal perspective, complete with theories that Corvo is Emily's father, and Feminist Frequency turns that into porn. Responsible men don't get porny with their daughters in the room!
And unlike Feminist Frequency, I'm not going to criticize a male character for being paternal with girls. It's when men are paternally patronizing with grown women that it becomes a problem. Feminists should encourage men to have close, caring relationships with their children (and healthy sexual and non-sexual relationships with adult women) in defiance of male stereotypes.
In other references, Sarkeesian correctly identifies that sex tourism elements are often included in games, but she uses a clip that's a reference to the movie Full Metal Jacket. If you're aware of the reference, it's about as sexy as the condom buying scene from Leisure Suit Larry. It's designed to make you laugh. Using that example weakens the argument that sex trafficking in games is not dealt with maturely, which is unfortunate because that's a point I actually agree with. For every game that gives an honest, uncomfortable look into the practice - like Far Cry 3 and in a more fantastic way the Dragon Age games -- there are plenty of other games that have exoticized prostitutes in roles that really oversimplify the realities of modern sex slavery. It's shouldn't have been that hard to compile a clip reel that didn't take cheap shots at games that aren't the problem.
Like Mass Effect. The clip of the Asari nightclub dancer was a clip of a character that looks like a woman, but isn't actually a woman as we understand the concept. The Asari are a mono-gendered alien species without concepts of male and female. They can reproduce with any other organic life form, male or female. An Asari dancing on a table is not doing it to make herself a better sex object for male enjoyment because she doesn't have a concept of males. The Mass Effect games even say that the species is highly misunderstood because of this difference. This is where gender performativity theory can give us a more accurate analysis than rigid "male gaze" theory.
It's moments like this when I understand why people accuse Feminist Frequency of not playing the games they criticize. I just think they can't see past their pre-existing biases to provide objective analysis. In the case of Mass Effect, they were trying to claim that sexualized depictions of women were being used to pander to a presumed heterosexual male ego even in games that have an option for a female playable character. This is a ridiculous accusation to level at a game, and studio, that actually panders to a gay and gay-friendly crowd. The idea that a sexy woman in a game always means the game is looking for male approval is strikingly heteronormative, and is therefore regressive gender analysis because it omits lesbian and bisexual women and even gay men who still enjoy looking at pretty women... like Madonna, Cher and Lady Gaga fans.
At least in this video Sarkeesian finally started talking about games as games. Unfortunately she gets the application wrong. She implies that games are more harmful than films because they encourage players to actively participate in objectifying women; it's actually more the case that pervert players will act like perverts and everyone else won't. And even when someone pervs in a game, they're likely doing it with the awareness that the woman they're leering at isn't real. Unless a film is a cartoon, an objectified woman in a movie is a real actress, who can then get treated like public property as Jennifer Lawrence did in the unsanctioned release of her private topless photos that the internet dubbed "the Fappening." This won't happen to a video game character.
These are just a few examples of fairly obvious errors in Feminist Frequency's videos. The unfortunate thing is that most of the time the core of an issue they approach is valid, just not widespread enough to justify forty minutes of video. So it begs the question: Why is there so much filler in these pieces? Is it willfully exaggerating the issue, or do they really not understand the nuances of the games they're holding up for scrutiny?
I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that their intents are good. However, Feminist Frequency's negative, hostile approach to gender criticism in video games is causing real harm, which I'll unpack in the next installment. Up next: the last straw from Feminist Frequency that finally made me snap.
Images courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment, Warner Bros. Interactive, Sony Pictures, Ubisoft, Bethesda, Bandai Namco, DC Comics and Feminist Frequency.