Sunday, December 11, 2011

FEATURE - inequality in character design.

Ellie Langford - Dead Space 2 (cosplay)

This is not the type of topic I usually concern myself with, but discussions of it in a few locations - which served to focus the issue, to me - made it something I wanted to chat about. As a general rule, I feel that my gender excludes me from... "the right" isn't the right way to put it...

I feel that, because I have a penis, I am perhaps not the best person to discuss this issue. I am well aware that ninety per cent of our popular culture is aimed at my demographic - or, more specifically, my demographic but five years younger. Sex sells, so they say, and it's simply part of our culture. But - so they say - the unexamined life is not worth living. So let's examine.

When I'm discussing the echoes of sexual violence in Alice: Madness Returns or coming to the defense of Duke Nukem Forever's ridiculous portrayal of women, there is one step I never miss: I get a family member who has a significant history with sexual violence to review it, and give it her stamp of approval.

This one's on me.

Y'ever notice how hot women in video games are? As a general rule, they are very hot.

Cammy - Street Fighter (figurine)

Take the ladies of popular fighting games, for example. Why does Cammy fight in a one-piece bathing suit? Is there a tactical advantage to flossing? I'm not even going to bring up Soul Calibur.

Y'know why she wears that one-piece? 'Cause it is sexy. Thank you, Mai Shiranui, thank you, Sarah Bryant, thank you, Lara Croft. You are all sexy.

Of course, there's a quick response to this attack on our beloved gaming fashion sense:

Zangief is, technically, wearing less than Cammy. So does Kratos from God of War - but that's not the point, according to those who argue a disparity remains in gender representation in gaming, comics and film.

For me, this whole question came up when I saw a Kotaku post at the beginning of December. It contained a comic from Reddit...

...this is, also, not the point. In fact, it may be completely wrong according to Kotaku commenter Seoul Sister.
"The Man-In-Loincloth is *not* the equal of the Chainmail Bikini. They are both wearing very little clothing, but they are not equal portrayals.

It has to do largely with agency and *why* the character is portrayed the way they are. Nariko is drawn the way she is for very different reasons than Kratos is drawn the way he is..."
Kratos - God of War
"...Characters like Kratos and Conan are male power fantasies. They are fulfillment fantasies. No, not the fantasy of every man, but broadly speaking, they are designed as male power fantasies. They have agency. They are who you are supposed to *be.* Their nudity is a reflection of their power and strength. Conan is such a bad ass barbarian that his strength and will can carry him through, unlike lesser men who wear armor. Maybe a woman might enjoy looking at them, but they are fundamentally designed for the purpose of a male, heterosexual viewer. Robert E. Howard didn't make Conan as beefcake for the ladies - sorry, that isn't what happened.

Chainmail Bikini characters are not this way. They are not some equivalent female power fantasy. They *can* be, some women might see them as empowering, but they are not created to be female power fantasies, they are created as male sexual fantasies. You can see this in the way the muscles are illustrated, in the poses they take, in how the camera lingers on them. Their nudity is not a symbol of their strength and their agency - it is titillating. It is expressly for the purpose of a male viewer."
Catwoman - Batman: Arkham City

Seoul Sister is right. She makes a lot of points that ring very, very true. There are no (or at least, very few) made-for-ladies female protagonists in western development, and even fewer from Japan.

Take one of the most recognizable manly men of the current gen, for example.

Marcus Fenix - Gears of War

I doubt Marcus Fenix was focus-tested and found to be a big hit with the ladies (while I'm sure there are a lot of ladies who are rather fond of him).

After reading Seoul Sister's post, I was convinced she was right - but I couldn't see the next step from her conclusion. I'm not a feminist or a masculist (hey, I made a word!) - I'd prefer equal treatment and consideration for all*  - but I found myself nevertheless handicapped by my gender and sexual orientation.

*[update] Turns out that's that feminism means.  I'm a feminist - thanks, Ozzie! [/update]

The problem was that I didn't see the problem. "Yeah," I said, "girls in video games are hot because that's what guys like, and guys in video games are power fantasies because that's what we (men) want to fantasize about. What's the problem?"

Well, first of all, the problem is that the number of girls and women playing video games is fast approaching fifty per cent. We're not the significantly controlling interest, any more - and equality means equal consideration for all - but still, what harm is it doing?

I didn't find the answer to that until a week or so later, while reading one of my favorite webcomics, Shortpacked.

Shortpacked by David Willis

And that is the harm it does. Lemmie bold that.

...and this doesn't just apply to gaming or comics, of course - it applies to almost all popular media. Fellow gentlemen, imagine if everywhere you went - everywhere - attractive men were represented like this:

Camili-Cat by Patrick Fillion

I suddenly understand why so few men are anorexic. We're not subjected to this. Women are - constantly - and that's rather awful.

It begs the question, though - what's the next step? What is the road we need to start walking down?

Raiden - Metal Gear Solid 2

...oh God.

Oh God, just think about it. They're ahead of the equality game. For all our jokes about tentacles, Japan's already done it!

Vaan - Final Fantasy XII

They've been doing it for years. Basch was the main character in Final Fantasy XII until he focus-tested badly with women and they invented Vaan to shore up the female demographic. JRPGs have men that are (ostensibly) attractive to women and women that are (ostensibly) attractive to men.

Have all our complaints about bish┼Źnen characters in JRPGs simply been a North American man's reaction to what women are subjected to all the time?

Is this the future of equality?

Noel & Serah - Final Fantasy XIII-2

Maybe... maybe that's just the Japanese interpretation of equality in gaming. Lots of western developers have done great things with both genders, lately. Alyx and Faith and Elena Fischer and Nathan Drake and Isaac Clarke and Ellie Langford...

Maybe we're on the right track. Look at Commander Shepard. that... good?

I don't even know any more. This entire exercise seems to have robbed me of what little perspective I have. I like cool, sexy game protagonists. I like Nathan Drake and Cole McGrath and Eleanor Lamb and Faith and Rubi.

If I can't have that and have half the gamers in our hemisphere be comfortable with how their gender is represented... well then, what's the answer?

Perhaps it's the sexuality applied to the characters that's the problem. There are tons of complaints about Cammy and Ivy, but no one complains about how Marcus Fenis and Kratos are depicted, because they're not designed to titillate anyone.

Perhaps that's the solution. Make male protagonists the power fantasy of that gender, and female protagonists the fantasy of women.

...I wonder what a female power fantasy looks like?

Brawlin' Ladies by Kuroi-Tsuki

...I dunno - that's an awful lot of pink - and Samus's zero suit leaves very little to the imagination.

Here's a better question - does it make anyone uncomfortable?


  1. Honestly, no comments? Son, I am disappoint.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Eee!

      I'm so glad you like it! Your Kotaku post was hugely influential.

  2. Pretty excellent article actually!

  3. You've already said everything that needed to be said.

  4. I started reading your blog after you linked to your "Golden Abyss" review on Penny Arcade's forums. I read the review, loved it, read the sidebar, misunderstood it to mean that you had just started writing again, and started checking literally every day to be an encouragement to you. Heck, I even sent you an email to help you "stick with it." Then I realized you've been doing this for a long time. [facepalm]

    Anyway, that "Shortpacked" comic really resonated with me. Heck, the whole article did. But that last panel... wow. As a bepenised individual, I can be pretty dull in recognizing the marginalization of people who aren't like me, but that really drove the point home well. And I think you summed up the issue pretty handily—the sexualization of videogame characters is the basis for our current situation.

    And who knew that Squeenix was actually—amidst mockery of creating ladyboy protagonists—being the most forward-thinking company in the room? Wild.

  5. Part 1/2 (Maybe 3)

    This is an old article, but I would like to present a few different viewpoints to think about nonetheless. It may be a bit long, so I don't expect anyone to really read it all the way through.

    I agree that characters are not designed equally, and sometimes, it is pretty offensive to some women. (I say some, because a single design will never please every person in the audience.) I believe this is a very big point. There will be women who are empowered by attractive, strong women in skimpy clothing. You don't agree? What were all the "slut walks" about then?

    Another point I take issue with is the fact that when a female is in skimpy clothing it's offensive, but when a male is in skimpy clothing, it's a power fantasy. Both of these put the male at fault. I'm a male and would much rather play as a feminine male protagonist. I actually avoid games with overly muscly characters as it doesn't really appeal to me. Nor do I even like the "power" aspect of it. Hell, I'll always play the weak wizard or witch who uses knowledge to best their enemies because it's a much more interesting character, in my male opinion. Additionally, where does the "Amazon" archetype come into play in this situation. Is that a power fantasy for women? Should it be disallowed? Should we be looking into that too?

    I'd like to go on a little bit of a tangent here, but the way males are portrayed in video games are often much worse than the way females are. I really don't want to turn this into a finger pointing match, but why does no one ever think about the way males are portrayed as murderers, rapists, thugs? You don't see many females getting these roles in video games. Sure, females are downgraded to the role of "eye-candy" a lot of the time, but surely we can do something to fix both of these issues at the same time. Make an ugly female a serial killer. Make a male effeminate and in touch with his feelings. Hell, do it in the same game and we might be on our way to dispelling some of these horrible arguments.

  6. Part 2/2

    Anyway, back to business, You state, "I suddenly understand why so few men are anorexic. We're not subjected to this. Women are - constantly - and that's rather awful.".

    I don't know what you think about this on a deeper level, but it seems like you are implying that males do not have self-esteem issues. Why are so many young men dying from steroid abuse? Why do so many young men wish for a less scrawny body? The way males are presented in video games are causing body issues among young males as much as the female designs are for young women. I fortunately would much rather appear feminine than masculine, but this isn't the case for all males. And it can lead to some pretty bad self-esteem issues.

    I particularly like this: "If I can't have that and have half the gamers in our hemisphere be comfortable with how their gender is represented... well then, what's the answer?"

    It seems like a tough question with an even tougher answer. How do you solve this when different people get enjoyment from different things, even within the same gender. I personally love "out-there" designs, for I am playing a video game and I want to experience things I cannot in real-life. However, I know there are people who are much more fond of "realistic" designs.

    "make ... female protagonists the fantasy of women."

    I encourage women to get into games and start making their own fantasies. I encourage everyone to have their own fantasies. You should just be aware that not everyone is going to agree with it - which is fine. Different things for different people.

    I guess the biggest question of all is, is it really bad that characters are designed like this? It is an art-medium. One where artists can create an entirely new world. Why stick to the humdrum. The everyday. Perhaps we should teach that these are not realistic illustrations of the genders (both sides), rather than teach "these illustrations are bad.". Both genders can have their fantasies as long as everyone knows they're just that, fantasies.

    1. I'm always a bit nonplussed when folks see these articles as an attack on men, or as somehow condemning men. Nobody complained when I defended the alien-rape imagery in Duke Nukem Forever, but articles like these really seem to hit a nerve with some folks - which I suppose is a good thing.

      An anonymous person had a similar reaction to an article in which I again discuss how women are represented in media, explore the construction of female heroes and - in a roundabout way - pre-emptively defend the character design of Juliet in Lollipop Chainsaw.

      For a TL:DR response, I'll reiterate what I told them: "It's not about condemning - though I do wish things would change. It's about looking at a piece of media or a pair of character designs and being mindful of what you're seeing. And the why of it."

      The why of it is that we do live in a society that is slowly emerging from the patriarchal norms which have held sway in Western culture for the past two thousand years. That there is an imbalance in how the genders are represented in video games.

      This is a generalization, of course. Not all women in video games are designed purely for titillation in the same way not all men in video games are "murderers, rapists and thugs". There are hundreds of examples of positive male and female role models across all of popular culture - and most of them are very good looking.

      You are correct in that what is offensive to some is inoffensive to others, and that what one may see as an affront to their gender, another may view as an ideal to aspire to. Your power fantasy may be the wizard, while mine (if we're talking say, Skyrim or Dragon Age) is a stealthy assassin - and neither of us are wrong.

      I'm not saying that men don't suffer from body-image issues. I'm not saying our gender are mindless, slavering beasts who cannot control our raging libidos. I'm saying there is an imbalance, we should be aware of it, and I'm endeavoring to explore what the answer may be.

      To be clear : I don't want to live in a world where nothing offends and no one is free to break the mold of popular consensus, speak their own mind and paint their own lushly endowed heroes. But I sense an imbalance in the force, and it distresses me. I want to explore it, and make sense of it. And that's what this blog is for.

    2. To cy_borg:

      I'll probably have to answer this in more than one reply, also. I apologize for Anon'ing this, but I hope you'll understand that it's deeply personal to me and it's a bit like reading you my diary, yeah? Some of it is just blatantly grotesque and not appropriate for everyone who knows me to see. So,


      I agree, males are realistically the only gender being portrayed as murderers, rapists, etc., but this is not just a reflection of the negative image we have of men. While it is perpetuating a negative stereotype that only men commit these crimes, it's also perpetuating the negative stereotype that women never "do" anything and just exist in the shadows of men. And again, it's true that men are usually stuck playing male characters that appeal to a ridiculous power fantasy that the player doesn't necessarily have, but this is just as true for women. I would also love to see characters with brains that are hot and not fucktoys, which is how I see myself in real life, but hardly anyone in real life seems to see me or any women this way, no matter how blatantly obvious it is.

      You pointing out some of the problems with the ways males are portrayed in videogames is not invalid, but it is a bit like pointing out that some birds actually don't fly. Obviously that's true, but overwhelmingly, flying is a trait that people naturally associate with birds, just like respect, individuality, intelligence, strength, etc. is a trait that people have no problem attributing to men. This is not true for females, i.e. mammals, if we're going to grasp onto the dumb metaphor that I've made...

      The problem with these images being fantasies is that it perpetuates ideas that make us women extremely uncomfortable. I know that you are trying to understand it, but I don't think you really "get" it. As a woman, I have had to listen to men/boys talk about my body in a sexual way since before I even understood why people like sex. And yes, this is precisely why women are overwhelmingly anorexic (etc.) while men are not. Before even understanding that sex is supposed to be pleasant, I've learned that I have to act a certain way -- not too "this," yet not too "that" -- so that boys will be comfortable around me.

    3. (2/2):

      I remember once, when eating a PB&J sandwich at the age of seven, my grandmother rolled her eyes and proclaimed that what I was indiscriminately shoveling into my mouth was "the most fattening thing in the world." At the age of 11, when I decided to start starving myself, my own father told me that I "looked good." He's not a pedophile by any means, rather, it was like a dog owner was "good-girling" his dog after it successfully peed on a newspaper instead of the floor, but it made me just as uncomfortable as any pedophile has (yes, has). Girls at school congratulated me when I stopped wearing the clothes I liked ("boy clothes," literally, from the boys' section) and started wearing "feminine" clothes. This also provoked the boys in my class to finally start being nice to me and they started putting me on their "it would fit" list, the members of which they would publicly announce every day during lunch. If you're wondering what it means to "fit," it's referring to the idea that they felt that their genitals would be hard enough to "fit" into our genitals at a moment's notice. Again, I was in sixth grade.

      Why does anyone have the right to even comment about the way that I look? Why does anyone feel that this is appropriate, ever, at any age? Yet people have been commenting on the way that I look my entire life, positive or negative. Obviously, there are times when I see my family playfully jabbing at a male relative when he is getting unhealthily fat, but never at such an age and never with such seriousness or sincerity. I wish I could just transmit all of these memories to you, because I don't think that anyone could not understand after living through it.

      The problem is a very large and complex issue, but part of what is making it all a-okay is this endless cycle in which men dominate a field, like videogames, create it through their own personal lens, i.e. they feel it's totally cool and not disconcerting at all to create female characters who exist solely for the purpose of being spank bank material, and then when someone decides to disspell this attitude, everyone jumps in and says, "Yeah, so what? You're just whining about something that's not important/there are rare instances in which this doesn't happen and therefore they're logically equivalent/women are perpetuating that image by buying into vanity." Although I know you mean well and you're trying to make sure that we all get every side of the coin, you're missing the point and you've failed to actually make an attempt at empathizing with us.

  7. This is an all-around great post and I love how on top of discussing the problem of sexist designs you sprinkle it with great exemplifying images and quotes... BUT I take an issue with one thing:

    "After reading Seoul Sister's post, I was convinced she was right - but I couldn't see the next step from her conclusion. I'm not a feminist or a masculist (hey, I made a word!) - I'd prefer equal treatment and consideration for all - but I found myself nevertheless handicapped by my gender and sexual orientation."

    Did you suggest that feminists don't stand for "equal treatment and consideration for all"? Really? You wrote a feminist article without even knowing what the definition of feminism is?
    Considering it's a very old post I really hope you learned the difference between misandry and feminism already.

    I'm planning to link the article on my tumblr blog devoted to deconstructing sexist warrior character designs, though I'm afraid how distracting it would be if I needed to comment on this problematic bit in the description more than on actually thought-out content.

    Also, fun fact: there are radical men's rights activists who actually use the world "masculism". Check #Ineedmasculism on Twitter or Tumblr to see it played both ironically and non-ironically.

  8. You could just say "here's an all-around great feminist post written by someone who doesn't actually know the definition of feminism." :)

  9. Two words: thank you.

  10. You miss the point on Cammy x Zangief
    she says she like to swap with the guys
    so Zangief accept because he only wear a thong and if they trade clothes
    she will be topless XD

    But if you think it right girls in real world are always dressing in sexy
    clothes miniskirts big cleavage small shorts etc so is not very different games.

    Girls that say less clothes are offensive in games are the ones that don't have a body to dress like that they are too fat or have flat chest ugly faces,so is easier call it sexist than make a diet.
    You never see a model or fitness girl saying bad things about that.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Edit: Apparently i'm too dumb to italic and bold parts of my post AND cant find a better way of doing it, Bravo me.

      Great read, but Currently frowning at this:


      But if you think it right girls in real world are always dressing in sexy
      clothes miniskirts big cleavage small shorts etc so is not very different games.

      Girls that say less clothes are offensive in games are the ones that don't have a body to dress like that they are too fat or have flat chest ugly faces,so is easier call it sexist than make a diet.
      You never see a model or fitness girl saying bad things about that.


      I think, mate, you missed the point on the entire piece.

      If a woman wants to dress provocatively in the real world, regardless of her size or figure it can be to her own empowerment and enjoyment.

      In the case of media? Most of the time it is for the enjoyment of the consumer. No more then titillation for the viewer and to no greater merit then that.

      Take a look at this, at the very least, look at the two pictures. One is her being powerful within the context of the situation, the other is for you to gawk at, "Omg boobs and butts", if you will.

      Now personally? I find the first one hot as hell, im a guy whos instantly attracted to power and confidence, not pose and fan-service. But hey, different strokes, different folks.

      Enough on this now, good read again Chance, i dont normally reply to this kind of thing so... Heh.

    3. Italics in blogspot comments are just simple HTML code, but instead of the square type of brackets, you use greater-than and less-than symbols: < and >

      So like < i > to open the italics switch, < / i > to close it (without spaces) - voila!

  11. I keep coming back to this article because of the great points. I re-read it. This time I want to comment on your last point, the "awful lot of pink" thing.

    Recently I was reading something on tumblr about strong female characters and how ass-kicking women tend to be portrayed as unfeminine, because we associate femininity with weakness. What the tumblr post said was that so many girls were huge into Sailor Moon because she was kind of a ditzy girly-girl and her Sailor Scouts were all different kinds of girls and they could be pretty girls while kicking ass.

  12. As a straight man, I'd LOVE for men to be regularly portrayed like that picture, "Camili-Cat".

    I guess I just like it when everything is hyper-sexualized, regardless of whether it gets me off or not :/

  13. This post is fucking awesome. You, sir, have won the internet.

  14. Lagertha from Vikings is the closest thing to a female power fantasy on TV. Check her out. ;)