Women in gaming. Some of you are already groaning, right? The issue of women in anything tends to be an uncomfortable topic. Part of the reason for that is that we collectively, consistently, screw up any attempt to talk about female representation in the media is that we're going about it in all the wrong ways.
The Hitman controversy? Missed the point.
The Borderlands 2 dialogue? A funhouse mirror instead of serious reflection.
We're really, really, getting this wrong. ALL of us, women included. I make them as much as anyone else. But we're going to get nowhere if we don't identify the issues. (Read this as: if you comment with "yeah but men get it too", you have completely missed the point.)
I almost didn't post this, because it's an article guaranteed to get trolled from both sides of the war. But then I thought, "That's mistake number five! Quit it!" So here's the list. Read on!
Mistake #1: We're too fixated on images
Pictures are worth a thousand words. A character is worth a billion dollar franchise, and relevance doesn't come from appearance alone. It doesn't matter that a particular woman is super skinny, or large-breasted, or huge-eyed, or whatever. It becomes a problem when ALL of them are.
We have examples in video games of women who do not fit the stereotypes. Fat Princess, Hannah from Fable 2, and there are plenty of older, bigger, non-traditional female characters in the Dragon Age franchise - Flemeth, Wynne, and Shale for instance. Gears of War made a conscious effort not to go too far into the fantasy women realm. Lara Croft has been re-imagined so that her proportions are not so silly. The industry is trying, but it's not getting any credit. The debate is not evolving.
"There is more to a woman than what she looks like." We repeat this concept over and over, but we don't actually listen: when it comes to discussing the depiction of women in games, we immediately jump to the visuals. But what do these characters DO? What are their stories and motivations? Lara Croft, enormous chest aside, has become a fascinating, well-defined character. She isn't just someone's girlfriend or mistress. Her independence, ambition and recklessness have made her an idol to many women desperate for a connection to a character that isn't stuck in our modern world of Jane Austen with ipads.
If you want to understand shame, walk into a bra store and ask if they carry a 30FF bra. It's a life-defining thing, never mind the ostracism I experience in "women gamers" groups: a favorite pastime in these groups is bashing big-breasted girls, and you're not treated very well when you object to that on the grounds of... being one.
I'm doomed to be a slut, and it's not possible for me to have any redeeming qualities, if you believe a lot of the ranting. Imagine what that feels like for a minute. Imagine how it feels to be commonly thought to be inherently bad because of the size of something that naturally grew on my body. To make matters worse, I'm a redhead. Naturally. So I'm both literally and figuratively double f'ed.
That goes for you too, guys. You don't get to tell me when I should feel oppressed. You don't get to tell me what is good and evil about the feminine. You don't get to tell me what to wear, how to wear it, or how much or little to wear of it. If you do, then you're reasserting the patriarchy, and I start using words I'm trying to avoid here. I also may punch you in the nuts.
I'm tired of being told what I should feel bad about by a bunch of dudes who don't even know what it's like to menstruate, but feel entitled to comment on the side effects. Fuck you, and fuck your privilege. Aw crap, there I go, using words I didn't want to use.
Exaggerated female anatomy in video games is a relatively small piece of the stigma facing women, but it takes up an aggressive majority of the dialogue. That's not a productive way forward, because these images didn't start in games. This takes me to point #2...
Mistake #2: We're missing the bigger picture.
For years, the Japanese have been distilling Western action cinema and spitting it back at us in the form of some very silly video games. It's easy to be horrified at the over-the-top quality of these reflections, but congratulations: you now know what it's like to be a black person in North America, constantly confronting cartoonish characterizations created by white media.
Men in games are not depicted as any less idealized than women, unless you believe that there are a great many men walking around with biceps bigger than their heads. This isn't, in itself, a problem in digital characters. I doubt anyone would care what digital men and women looked like if there wasn't pressure to look the same way in the real world. Despite rising troubles in young men, that pressure to look "perfect" still more powerfully affects women and girls. Masculists, take your privileged outrage and fling it at the walls of the science that says over and over that our girls are getting bombarded with messages that make them feel and act like crap. Fling it like a monkey flings poo.
Media representation of women is a problem. Not just video games. ALL media. We can't productively talk about images that women encounter by singling out digital stuff, because men still significantly outnumber women in core gaming consumption. Unless Farmville makes women all over the world feel fat and ugly, the damaging messages are coming from other sources of media - namely: film, television and print media.
Sexism and sexual violence are everywhere. A shining example is the blockbuster PG-13 rated film The Avengers. Other than Black Widow's opening scene being personified rape culture, she is the subject of a sexualized misogynistic slur. Isn't this the stuff people claim makes video games evil? How much money did the Avengers make? Why wasn't the vajay-jay-related insult an issue?
People defend the Avengers, and modern geek demi-god Joss Whedon, mostly because they didn't understand the word in question - a word I find so inherently petty that I will not give it power by repeating it. Instead, I will point out that it's completely warped that American censors think that kids can hear a woman being insulted for having a vagina, but they can't see an actual vagina. It's no wonder we have a serious problem with sexism in the media with that as a foundation: we're making the female body inherently dirty, by making its parts an insult and a taboo at the same time.
Meanwhile, the internet exploded over a stupid Hitman trailer with bouncy babes getting killed while wearing nun-like fetish gear... which required a date of birth verification to view. I'm not defending the Hitman: Absolution Trailer, because it did a piss poor job of marketing the game that has actually been made. I'm bringing it up to point out two things: firstly the ESRB is a vastly superior, more specific rating system to the MPAA when it comes to letting parents make informed choices regarding the media their kids consume; secondly, our entire system needs a rethink, instead of us all waking up only when Rush Limbaugh shoots his mouth off to a repulsively lunatic extreme.
Boys and girls alike are subjected to so much childhood sexism that they have to spend many painful years as adults rewiring their thinking. Due to the age of most people working in games, this is affecting the product they produce. Political correctness is confusing and exhausting, and games are fun for grown ups because they have an element of catharsis. If we're really concerned about protecting our kids from destructive messages, we're failing miserably. Meanwhile, we single out gaming, a relatively new niche within the media we consume for blame, because we don't really understand the core of the problem. Which is point #3...
Mistake #3: We talk about feminism without understanding it.
The word 'feminism' conjures up some pretty powerful reactions. Too often, they're negative. The weird thing about the negative perception of feminism is that it is based on the idea that feminism is a rigid ideology with a checklist of things you must believe to be considered a feminist, and that's just not true. The most baffling thing about the rampant misogyny that infects video game communities is that the video game industry could not exist without feminism.
Let's go back to Lara Croft: She owns her family's ancestral mansion -- that couldn't happen without feminism. She drives cars and flies planes -- that couldn't happen without feminism. She lives and works alone, in a male-dominated world -- that couldn't happen without feminism. She wears trousers and shorts -- even THAT couldn't happen without some real women, at some point in history, saying "Shorts are practical. I want to wear shorts." Women wearing shorts is still a scandalous idea in some parts of the world. Like Utah.
That male privilege has found a way to make shorts demeaning and objectifying is not the fault of men who like legs, nor is it unique to games. It's not a crime to find something attractive, provided the sexual urge doesn't end up places it doesn't belong. If we didn't find things attractive, we wouldn't reproduce. If we didn't reproduce, say bye bye to the human race. The problem is that when the topic of sex comes up, everyone loses their shit.
Sexy is not sexist. The very fact that women want equal rights and equal consideration is not an attack on anyone's sex life. In fact, contraception - a huge feminist victory - has meant more sex for everyone!
Yes, there are still games, as well as movies and TV shows, that are juvenile, obnoxious, and demeaning. It bugs me that the only woman in the Halo franchise that anyone can name is a naked computer program. I considered quitting Gaming Excellence when this site made Grand Theft Auto 4 game of the year. I will advocate for GTA's right to exist, but I don't believe that any game that contains gratuitous sexualized violence should get that honor. I lost that battle, but I haven't given up on the war. I think things can get better. They are getting better.
Things won't improve, however, if every woman with something to say quits when confronted with the reality that some morally reprehensible things get rewarded in a patriarchal, racist, heteronormative culture. Right now, things are temporarily shifting in the wrong direction because at some point, "male oriented" became synonymous with "demeaning to women". I don't know when that happened, but Chuck Lorre has made a lot of money off the phenomenon. Why else would Charlie Sheen have been, not too long ago, the highest-paid actor on TV... for playing Charlie Sheen?
As this has happened, "feminism", along with its greatest victories like birth control and Title IX, became demonized. I think some young women going through video game design college programs would be very surprised to discover that they have the legal right to attend these courses without facing discrimination. Marketing demographics have overridden any sense of equality, since the thinking goes that men play core games more than women, so the standard male opinion should trump the expected female thoughts. However, the video game industry is in desperate need of new growth models, so maybe alienating over 50% of the population is a stupid ass move. Observations like this - that women do play games, and that matters - are what feminism can bring to the table, but feminism has become such instant grounds for distrust that many women refuse to self-identify as feminists.
So game hardware developed and marketed to attract women are notorious for generating epic amounts of shovelware. There are only a handful of really great Kinect and Wii games out there. The misconceptions that all women are ruiners of fun and destroyers of man caves lead to a dramatic disconnect regarding what games women want to play and what games are offered to them. Many people are surprised to learn that a huge portion of Raving Rabbids fans are women.
Feminist thought teaches people - men and women alike - to break down preconceptions and stereotypes and see them for what they are, so that a meaningful, productive dialogue can begin. The ultimate goal of feminism is not to steal men's power. It's to create a more inclusive and diverse world for both men and women who don't fit the gender stereotypes. This is a good thing, right? So why they trolling? Why the angry memes? Why the DDoS attacks on Kickstarter funded documentaries?
Greater inclusivity is essential, because some gaming topics are much trickier than analyzing GTA. For instance, the depiction of women in the Soulcalibur games, most notably Ivy Valentine. Stuff like this highlights what people DON'T get about feminism, which brings us to point #4...
Mistake #4: All women have to agree for something to be "pro-woman", right? Wrong.
The fallacy that women have to be kind, sweet, consensus builders takes us away from joining the ranks of the powerful. You can never be notable if you have to go with the crowd, offend no one, never express an unpopular opinion, and be all things to all people. Every woman cannot be a homogenous representation of all women. That's just not reality.
The stereotypical second year militant gender studies student takes one look at a video game character like Ivy Valentine, purple bondage gear and all, and goes "Phhhbt. Sexist. Demeaning. Misogynist." Ask them about Wonder Woman, however, and they'll think she's great despite her skimpy costume, because she's "empowered". I want to punch empowerment in the face, because the very concept of empowerment has lost its power. Like feminism, no one knows what it means anymore.
It's true that Ivy isn't an empowered woman. She believes herself to be beyond redemption. Her story is about her obsession with destroying an evil sword, expecting it will kill her in the process. She's cold, she's intimidating, and from a character perspective, she makes complete sense... okay, except for how she stays in her costume. You should see the welts I get on the back of my neck from wearing that suit.
However, she is definitely, without a doubt, not empowered. Unlike Wonder Woman, she has no pantheon of Greek Goddesses gifting her with strength and wisdom. She has to fight her own flawed battle with no help from anyone. This is more like the reality most women face... unless you're Kim Kardashian, who was gifted with the power of fame from a rich, famous daddy and a blindly ambitious mommy. Girls like Kim Kardashian really don't have to do anything terribly challenging, even though they work hard... because they're empowered. That's great for reality TV and the tabloids. It's not so good for a compelling story. There's a reason Shakespeare wrote tragedies about the rich and comedies about the common folk.
If we're not allowed to tell stories of women seeking empowerment because that means they're not empowered when they start, then we can only tell stories about women who have it all figured out at the very beginning. That's boring and annoying, and really terrible in terms of a playable game character who needs to level up.
So Ivy Valentine isn't empowered. But she's frikkin' cool. Still, her outfit is problematic. I won't get into the "costume is character" design argument, but I ask you to note the similarities between her and Voldo in both dress and back story. No one complains about Voldo, even though it's essentially the exact same costume.
It's not the job of a video game to empower all women everywhere. The job of a video game is to tell a great story about a woman or a group of women... and men and aliens and robots and dogs and cats and the occasional hamster.
There may be women who disagree with me on that point. That's okay. Because all women don't have to agree. Conversely, there is no such thing as "what women want", because women, like men, are individuals.
Being female is an integral part of who we are, but it is not ALL that we are. There are other elements - race, wealth, geography, religion -- that give us different viewpoints and that's a very good thing. This idea that a point isn't valid unless all women agree on it actually serves to shut us up: we're never going to all agree, so no one has to take us seriously.
Furthermore, this idea of "What Women Want" is horrendously destructive. Some women want to play the Sims. I HATE the Sims. Does that mean women shouldn't play the Sims? OF COURSE NOT! We DON'T all have to agree.
I also hate Miranda AND Ashley in Mass Effect. Does that mean Miranda and Ashley are bad characters? OF COURSE NOT! We DON'T all have to agree!
Feminism is not a hive mind. Moving forward based on the idea of female consensus instead of the influence of individual women means we don't move forward at all, which is the final massive thing that we're doing wrong...
Mistake #5: We're talking a lot, but we're not doing anything.
We do the panels. We have the conferences. We make the documentaries. We howl and scream on the internet. But what's really happening? Not much. The structural changes aren't taking place, not just in games, but in all media. Furthermore, female representation in the media has declined in the past year, especially in writing and production. I don't expect lightning in a bottle, or for everything to be instantly super better like we just got released from the Dark Place in Alan Wake. But this backsliding I'm seeing right now is alarming.
The world wants its women, both on and off screen, to be Wonder Woman - the empowered, peace-loving demi-goddess. However, we already have Wonder Women, and we don't need to keep replicating that trope over and over and over again.
After all, most women who are passionate about games are more like Ivy Valentine - aggressive, intimidating, combative, and scrabbling through life by sheer will, armed with homemade weapons. The great female thinkers are not going to come from Ivy League schools. They're going to come, as they always have, through non-traditional paths. The problem is that the world hates and fears female trendsetters who aren't pop stars. Remember when Hillary Clinton was the great Satan? Now that she's working for Obama instead of against him, everyone loves her.
We will not get anywhere while we're still judging women on whether they're "likable enough", to borrow from the damming statement Obama used against Clinton when they were rivals. We need to get more comfortable with Ivy Valentines and Lara Crofts in the corporate world: straight-shooters armed with whips, who aren't afraid of the body parts that make them women, and that goes for ALL women, not just those DD and up or size six and lower.
There is no shortcut to great fictional women: they must be created with real life women as part of the process. Bioware creates great characters because it hires multiple women on their writing teams. You need more than one woman present to have a debate about what women want from games.
Unfortunately, women are being subjected to the "last hired, first fired" principle as the gaming industry contracts. The guys I know in the business are having a hard enough time. They're not going to replace a guy who's been with a company for fifteen years with a woman with a defined bitch streak. So women are going to have to create their own start-ups. Unfortunately, the best place for that is in social gaming, that highly-stigmatized "for girls" portion of the market that hardcores love to crap on and investors are fleeing from like a house on fire.
Alternatively, more women need to be brought in from other media. Sadly, there are so few established female TV and film writers, and even fewer understand games. We're out there, but our resumes don't have the magic words that an HR department wants to see. So the industry is making do as best they can with female play testers. That's a start, but it's no substitute for women being an integral part of the development process.
Oh yeah, and every time we speak up to try to improve the product we love, we get hardcore flame trolled, which makes us fail the "likability" test, and this is why we can't have nice things.
The trolling happens because we've been tagged as easy targets: picking on a girl on the internet is a great way to cause a big deal, fast. Not only will male trolls help out, but there is a nasty and growing contingent of women who use the internet for power, and they're jealous of anyone who gets attention that isn't them. The feminine is such a weak position that some women attack others of their gender to gain power through disassociation. Little has changed in that dynamic since Shakespeare's day.
The innovators are not the ones that fit in. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates were/are hardly easy people to know. They are driven and flawed and complex, and not one of them is considered traditionally "hot". They are allowed to be successful through this combination of things because of their maleness and their whiteness. This is a hard truth to swallow, but it is a truth nonetheless. (Yes, Steve Jobs is Armenian, but he was not obviously 'ethnic" looking.)
There is a path forward. It's uncomfortable, but it's there. You just have to stop wanting us to be so nice. When we girls stop being nice, that's when we become interesting, and one of us might have the next multi-million dollar idea. It won't look like anything that's come before, but that's precisely why it will be the next big thing.
Clean up the schools. Get innovative with your hiring. And stop the insane crunch deadlines. Forget the idea of production orphans... I mean production babies. And don't be so afraid of women with opinions. That means EVERYONE, women included.
And a Special thanks to Katie Williams over at Kotaku for reminding me that we still need to talk about this stuff!