Opinion Why Feminist Frequency almost made me quit writing about video games: Part 4

Fighting back against the Fighting F**ktoy trope

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.

(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. It's strongly recommended to begin this series at part one.)

Many people defend the Tropes vs. Women series despite its flaws because it's right about some things. This reasoning absolves Feminist Frequency from any harm it does via its mistakes, and that reality has to be confronted. The selves of women and girls are too precious to be placed in the hands of those who make too many mistakes, and Feminist Frequency's outsized influence as a voice for all women in video games has led to casualties.

At the very least, those of us that see the mistakes and can communicate them without malice, must try to make the dialogue better, especially when we've felt the sting ourselves.

The title of this series refers to a crisis point I reached in the early days of 2015 when I saw a picture someone had taken of a talk by Anita Sarkeesian and posted on Twitter. The title of the slide Anita was presenting was "Fighting F**ktoys" and the first image underneath the title was Lara Croft.

Feminist Frequency has not, as of this writing, made a video on this point. Sarkeesian has, however, referenced it on Twitter and done talks about it, so the influence has been felt. I'd seen the Twitter bait, but for some reason the photo of some of the character examples she uses hit me especially hard.

Lara Croft

"If this is what the video game industry wants out of feminism," I thought, "I don't want to be a part of the video game industry, because this isn't feminism."

Before you go telling me that I need to grow a thicker skin, it's not about toughness. It's about wisdom. Too much toughness makes it too hard to know when you're overdoing it and hurting other people, which is precisely the line Feminist Frequency has crossed.

In mass media, free speech has been replaced by partitioned speech. Sure, everyone's free to express their views, as long as they do so within the correct echo chamber and don't rock that boat too much. I'm so disenfranchised by Hollywood and the music industry at this point that I find it hard to enjoy most entertainment products. I couldn't even get into Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead TV show. The Telltale Games version, on the other hand, I loved.

Video games might be the first medium that's been a global phenomenon since its inception."

Video games are the last form of media I can still actively enjoy. I love video games. I think they're the greatest form of entertainment currently available. I think that video games can deal with historical issues without being maudlin, and take artistic risks while still being accessible. I love that American developers don't dominate gaming the way that American studios dominate film and television and the politics that goes with them. Video games might be the first medium that's been a global phenomenon since its inception.

The Walking Dead Season 2
Telltale's The Walking Dead: Season 2

I care about video games too much to watch them have the life sucked out of them by cynical politics and cliques, the way film and television have. At least in gaming, for now, we troll each other on Twitter, out in the open, instead of saying snarky crap in emails that doesn't become public until it's leaked. All we have to do is pull the slider down a little bit, stop the online fighting from being quite so vicious, and we'd have a great marketplace of ideas. The trend, sadly, seems to be going in the other direction: factions retreat to their corners of the web, whip themselves into a lather, then unload on their perceived enemies.

That's not what gaming was supposed to be. Gaming was built by people who wanted to stop the bad guys and save the innocent.

But ideological turf wars tend to make things personal fast, and this latest Sarkeesian boob libel felt personal even though I knew it wasn't. I sympathize with Anita, and it saddens me every time someone suggests I position myself as the "Anti-Anita." I don't want to become defined by something I oppose, especially since I don't oppose her. I oppose her statements to this point. I suspect that we agree much more than we disagree. She just doesn't seem to recognize that women like me are still women.

The fighting f**ktoy trope is, as Anita applies it, a blanket condemnation of women who display openly sexual characteristics. Her application of the concept is indistinguishable from the way moral conservatives expect women to be uniquely modest in both attitude and dress. That's slut shaming, and it's harmful.

What exactly is FFT?

The fighting f**ktoy, or FFT, is a concept popularized by Caroline Heldman PhD. It's supposed to refer to a female character who appears to be empowered and carries an action-driven story, but when you look deeper, she's still just a sex object. Obviously this is a highly subjective classification and even Heldman casts too wide a net with it sometimes. But it makes sense when addressing films like Sucker Punch which are examples of "female empowerment with 100% less actual empowerment." It doesn't say that filmmakers shouldn't have the freedom to include cheesecake T&A. It's trying to combat the falsehood that aggressiveness and empowerment are equivalent.

I agree with that. I strongly disagree that there's something inherently wrong with female characters who look and behave aggressively. An inherent flaw in the FFT trope is that it has, to this point, been exclusively applied to women. Since there is no comparative baseline for empty, poorly-written male characters, this attempt to call attention to objectification does some objectifying of its own. In previous installments I outlined some video game characters like Kratos from God of War that could be considered fighting f**ktoys but for exceptional writing. I don't, however, think anyone disputes that poorly-written characters are not good for video games.

But they're not good for art in general, and many lead male characters in romances are f**k toys: their physicality exists only to make them more desirable to women. A character like Christian Grey is only appealing because the gradual erosion of his controlling nature validates Ana Steele's plain Jane, virtuous sexuality. Without the "virgin whore overcomes patriarchy because she's just that special" element, Christian Grey is just a rich bastard trying to get women to sign abuse contracts.

And don't get me started on Twilight. Powerful vampire falls for teenager because of how she smells even though she thinks she's ugly and stupid? Isn't that a One Direction song?

Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight are dismissed as junk literature. That, coupled with their financial success, is what makes them relevant to this discussion. Yes, they're junk. They're junk that shamelessly sexualizes the male leads for profit. However, like most media that hinges heavily on sex and gender stereotyping, there's a boomerang effect that ends up impacting both genders.

Sucker Punch movie poster

Moving to back to video games, the closest thing to an actual male fighting f**ktoy might be the pansexual Qunari character "The Iron Bull" from Dragon Age Inquisition. Bull even says that he picked his own name because it makes him sound like he's not really a person. The Iron Bull is an optional party member in Inquisition who brings with him a mercenary company called the Chargers and a transman second-in-command named Krem. This is really the only meaningful function The Iron Bull has in the game, so I'm not sure why the two characters couldn't have been combined, since Qunari consider anyone who fights as a warrior to be male. Otherwise, Bull exists mainly to be the lone two-handed weapon warrior character among the Inquisitor's companions, as well as a Qunari racial token. He can be removed from the game completely without affecting any element of the campaign story.

The Iron Bull hits on almost every character in the game who doesn't totally creep him out. He spends much of the game shirtless, and his "romance option" storyline is almost purely sexual. He insists the Inquisitor needs rough sex, causing me to nickname him "Fifty Shades of Grey Man." He also mercilessly sexually harasses the female warrior Cassandra, playing fast and loose with Qunari gendering conventions whenever it lets him be a pervert.

He's merciless in his attempts to emasculate the gay mage Dorian in some weird form of pick up artist routine. He fetishes redheads and has orgies with the kitchen staff. He even refers to sexually pleasuring himself while thinking about killing dragons. What he doesn't do is make his own critical decisions about the lives of his mercs. He fights, and he f**ks. And he talks about both a lot.

In short, if he were a female character, groups like Feminist Frequency would likely have gone nuts. He's not, and that makes all of this acceptable. And I'm not saying it isn't. Flawed characters are fine. But men are allowed freedoms as characters that women aren't because of the increased scrutiny of female characters.

If we believe, as feminism states, in the equality of men and women, then all characters in video games of all genders must be judged based on the same criteria. If we keep placing extra burdens on female representation and feminine morality, we are reasserting patriarchy. (As an aside, I don't think that patriarchy is good for men either, especially men who don't conform to gender norms.)

Feminist Frequency's women-exclusive tropes create a system of separate, more restrictive rules that limit creative freedom for female characters. After the FFT I really don't know how they're going to get six more videos out of the Tropes vs. Women series, because there aren't very many female video game characters they haven't stomped on yet. Women in Refrigerators maybe? That's the only thing I can think of. (Note: I started writing this before the announcement of the new series, including one that looks at masculinity. I admit, I'm dreading that one if it's the same quality of analysis as Tropes vs. Women.)

Feminist Frequency also constantly confuses sexual attractiveness that is an element of a character's purpose for sexual attractiveness that is the entirety of a character's purpose. At no point do most of the female video game characters labelled FFTs ever actually have sex, meaning that the issue isn't the activities they engage in, but how they look. In order to make the FFT label appear to fit, Sarkeesian and other feminists who apply the terminology to video game characters cram and jam facts into unnatural arrangements and outright ignore other elements. They apply this term to Bayonetta, Lara Croft, and who knows how many other perfectly decent female characters who happen to have distinct costumes and large boobs.

It benefits no one to slap demeaning labels on women who choose to accept and embrace their own physicality. Around the seventh grade, girls start to lose their connections to their authentic selves, sacrificing that to survive as part of a socially restrictive, competitive group. Discouraging direct confrontation, ie: aggressiveness, is part of that loss of self. Furthermore, body shaming is a very real thing that voluptuous women encounter: we don't have many role models who are valued for being intellectuals or leaders, after all.

Video game warriors, male and female, are tough, strangely-dressed folks with exaggerated secondary sex characteristics. No one questions the absurd physicality of men, even though in the real world, men with that many muscles would be unable to wipe their own butts. No, seriously, there are stories of body builders' wives wiping their butts because they had too much muscle mass to reach back there themselves. I'd say men that look like they can't wipe their own butts are pretty objectified because butt wiping is an element of personhood. But we only speak of exaggerated physicality in moral terms when we focus on women.

This is slut-shaming: attacking women for transgressing against cultural limits on sexual practices and clothing choices. All cultures have conduct norms, but slut-slaming is a particular issue because the cultural goalposts in question tend to shift without warning, resulting in social acceptance being used as a weapon. Feminist Frequency is defining acceptable states of womanhood for their viewers, and shaming any depictions of women who fall outside that as "pernicious," "toxic," and "problematic." I'm not saying they're necessarily doing this deliberately, but it is happening through the impact of labelling.

It's well-documented that Lara Croft's ridiculously large bosom started off as an accident. So, contrary to Feminist Frequency's assertions of intent, this means that the dev team didn't go into the project saying "let's make a character with giant boobs that we can spank our meatsticks to." While it's undeniable that there was a cheesecake element to Lara Croft's final 1990s design, her physique has become increasingly within the realm of actual human proportions. I personally think that the decision to exaggerate Lara's chest that way was, in part, tied to the inherent reality that characters in video games back then all looked more like blow up dolls than human beings.

Now does that mean that the decision wasn't somewhat sophomoric? No. It was a fourteen year-old "hooray for boobies!" head space. But considering who games were made for back then, there's a purity to that. An adolescent boy's fascination with bewbies is normal and healthy. They shouldn't be shamed for an emerging attraction to the opposite sex. (Or an emerging attraction to the same sex, for the record.)

After Crystal Dynamics took over the Tomb Raider franchise, Lara clearly had still won the genetic lottery, but she didn't look like her spine was going to snap from the weight of her chest. By 2008, there was very little to complain about regarding Lara's anatomy. We all joked about it, but we weren't concerned that she had a glandular problem.

So people started complaining about the audio. Lara's voice work was obviously designed to sound pornographic in the Square Enix-published 2013 reboot, many said. So I asked a developer about that. He blushed, and said that the vocals were captured at the same time as the motion, so whatever sound the actress made while doing the movement was the sound they used. No, Lara Croft was not deliberately designed to sound like a phone sex operator. Sometimes women grunt and gasp for reasons that don't involve a penis.

The hilarious thing is that, for quite some time, Lara Croft's designers' motivating force has actually been to make the player care about Lara. While some may call that a benignly sexist attitude - we don't see it as a problem that players don't really give a crap about Agent 47's favourite food or whether Master Chief wants a pony -- it's hardly a deliberate attempt to make Lara Croft into some form of sex object. Lara Croft was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know": one of the few Byronic heroines in any media.

Lara Croft

Lara Croft could be the most iconic female character in video games."

Tomb Raider

Sadly, Crystal Dynamics determined that Lara's biggest weakness as a character was not that she was objectified, but that she had a "teflon coating" and people couldn't relate to her. So they took away that Byronic quality and made her a "brave survivor" instead. After all, everyone likes a brave survivor, which is probably the real reason there are so many kidnapped girlfriends, threatened wives and abducted kids - otherwise known as damsels in distress -- in video games. These things press the "Care Bear" button in our brains. It's not about making women into objects. It's about cheap shortcuts to "muh feelz" cut scenes. With all the divergent cultural perspectives video games must accommodate to sell bazillions of copies, kidnapped and dead loved ones are a safe, commonly understood motivation.

I admit that seeing Lara Croft turned into a frightened child made me want to vomit, but if Lara was intended to be nothing more than a sex toy, making people care wouldn't be a concern. Developers who are attempting to draw out an emotional connection are really screwing up this "objectification" thing.

In short, Lara Croft could be the most iconic female character in video games, and Anita Sarkeesian reduces her to a fighting f**ktoy. I've lost track of who exactly is holding back women in games in this scenario.

Is Bayonetta's image more representative of a bad girl or a hypersexualized figure?

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is a bit more complex regarding whether or not she is, at the end of the day, a character primarily designed to excite straight men. Most people attempting to counter this provide the rationale that her artist was a woman, but that isn't a panacea against objectification - Anita Sarkeesian does plenty of objectifying herself as she seeks to slap a label on every female character in gaming.

What saves Bayonetta from FFT status is that the game associates her with stigmatized femininity. Bayonetta definitely identifies as a bad girl because she was ostracized for being the product of a forbidden union. She's called a Dark Witch and draws some of her magic from demons. She has to battle level bosses which are embodiments of the Cardinal Virtues. So it fits that she's sexualized because she's everything a good girl shouldn't be. While Japanese games hinge on a different concept of self and personhood than Western ones, Bayonetta is an exploration of the "bad girl" in a much deeper way than the fighting f**ktoy designation gives it credit for.

Bayonetta

Bayonetta definitely identifies as a bad girl because she was ostracized for being the product of a forbidden union."

Bayonetta 2

Some of you may be wondering at this point why I have such a radically different perspective on these characters. I think it's because I analyze these games as games, not as interactive movies subjected to traditional communication theories. Action games move so quickly and require so much concentration that you don't have time to stare at the playable character's ass. The so-called "male gaze" doesn't apply when your attention is focused on a targeting reticule. The player works with these third-person protagonists as a team. While the player may find their partner attractive, the relationship isn't a simple one of subject and object, as we've dealt with in previous parts of this series.

Okay so Anita is wrong. Again. I was used to that. Why did this trope get me so ragingly, blindingly upset, when the others were things I dismissed as just silly?

Firstly, Feminist Frequency has a lot more influence in the business now than they did when the damsel in distress vid came out, both with developers and the public in and outside of gaming. Anita is influencing the perception that the rest of the world has of the hobby and making video games seem like a very mean world.

Secondly, this one felt personal, as I said. I'm sick and tired of the boob libel -- I've spent my entire adult life being defined by my chest and I've had it. If a character has large breasts, Feminist Frequency works overtime to find something wrong with her. I think it's because they have a competitive emotional reaction to a well-endowed character getting positive attention, but we'll never know for sure.

Anita Sarkeesian
Anita Sarkeesian introducing her Tropes vs. Women Kickstarter.

So "feminists" will throw quite a lot of money at Anita Sarkeesian, the Queen of Feminist Hearts, to reassert the idea that large-breasted, conventionally attractive women are evil dirty sluts and we're inherently objectified. Now obviously there's been a backlash to that, but it hasn't been a backlash willing to pay for sober, reasonable intellectual disagreement. Instead, Sarkeesian's detractors are going crazy throwing money at things that oppose so-called SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) and not viable alternatives that will actually create positive improvements for women in the video game industry that don't make straight cisgendered men out to be the enemy.

Meanwhile, Queen Anita keeps pointing at beloved characters, characters that many women see themselves in, and saying "off with your head!" Or, more accurately, "Off with your boobs I've determined are immorally large!" With the fighting f**ktoy trope, my number came up.

I'd been under a lot of fire for the last four months because a catty "right wing pitbull" decided to claim I make a living exposing my breasts in response to me challenging his reporting methods. As "proof" of this, he started circulating photos of me in a chainmail bikini from a men's magazine photoshoot I did years ago. If these pictures of me existed, how could I possibly be anything else?!

I was being treating like a fighting f**ktoy. These pictures allegedly put the lie to my empowerment.

I had expected that to be unequivocally, universally, understood to be wrong. It wasn't. Far too many people, male and female alike from across the political spectrum, insisted I'd deserved it. The only on camera nudity I have ever done is as experimental endeavors done as a documentarian. I did one segment that showed how un-glamourous photo shoots actually are, complete with wardrobe malfunctions -- that people splashed on image boards because they haven't been able to silence me. I did another art book that showed how a person can look unrecognizable with the right pose, hair, makeup and lighting without a touch of Photoshop. They haven't found that one yet, but they probably will eventually.

I didn't know until recently Anita Sarkeesian was using the exact same arguments as the very people she claims to oppose. Now that I know, I can't expect any better treatment. I've been labelled a fighting f**ktoy, and gaming's Queen of Feminism has decided that I and many of my favourite characters, are objects suitable for mockery.

This is why I'm an unrepentant fan of Ivy Valentine from the Soucalibur games. When you're built like Ivy is, like I am, you spent your entire life knowing that you have to be smarter, more strategic, and be able to perform more complicated moves than your opponents. Relying on people to support and defend you leaves you with missing pieces of your soul. Being "nice" and "likeable" leaves you further behind because other women are so much better at that. Your remaining viable option is to become an intimidating, undeniable embodiment of female aggression and make everyone around you squirm.

One mistake, and you're screwed. You need to dominate fights from start to finish, because if you lose momentum a character with less-complex special moves will shred you. You have to keep enemies at a distance and choose your moments or get in close and grapple as if your life depends on it. There is no middle ground.

Your own weapons are tools of your own making, because the people who were supposed to give you opportunities took from you instead to fuel their own ambitions. And you fight not for yourself, because "sluts" like you are inherently evil and everyone knows that. You fight to destroy the evil that brands women sluts in the first place, with the tiny hope that with that evil destroyed, you'll be redeemed from the villain status the whole world layers on to you because of choices they do not care to understand.

The brilliance of Ivy Valentine isn't her distinct look. It's how her look, weapon, and move set work together. She's a perfect metaphor for going through life wanting to stand for something more than a massive rack. Where but in video games are you going to find a character arc like that? Maybe Joan Holloway on Madmen?

The thing that people like Anita Sarkeesian don't understand is that when you're a woman with giant boobs, sometimes you accentuate them as a way of saying "They're here, so leer, then get used to them. Can we please move on? Kthanx."

But no. We can't. Because Anita Sarkeesian keeps using her high-profile soapbox to send the message that images of women with large breasts are inherently damaging to women, despite absolutely no evidence that this is so. Even Bioware apparently fell for that noise, because the only character in Dragon Age Inquisition they allowed to have a low-cut shirt was ice-queen social climber Vivienne.

I had no idea how much I depended on Bioware games to not erase me. As much as I rolled my eyes at the desire demons, at least there were female demons. Now even the spirits of compassion are male. And if I joined the Inquisition, I'd have to deal with constantly being perved on by a 300-pound aggressive Qunari sex fiend with fetishes for redheads and rough sex. But cleavage? No keep those out please. This is the result of Anita Sarkeesian's brand of video game feminism.

Ivy Valentine Ivy Valentine

This brand of feminism is encouraging video game companies to believe that telling human stories about certain types of women is a bad thing. Feminist Frequency appears to be convincing the most progressive wings of gaming that voluptuous women and sex workers deserve to be erased from fictionalized reality while we face real stigma in the real world.

So I'm screwed if this continues. I'll never be able to get attention for my ideas because of physical realities I can't control. That's why I almost quit writing about games.

Obviously, I'm still going... for now. I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to with the sheer amount of stigma surrounding women like me. But I have to try. So there's one more part to this series: my suggestions for actual solutions to gaming's gender challenge. I don't practically expect anyone to listen, but maybe someone, somewhere, will. And women like me will stop being erased from games.

Thanks for staying with me on this wordy journey. I hope you'll continue for the more hopeful conclusion. And please, keep respectively sharing your feedback. Read part five.

Images courtesy of Eidos Interactive, Telltale Games, Square Enix, Warner Bros. Pictures, Sega, Nintendo, Namco Bandai and Feminist Frequency.