Sunday, April 22, 2012

FEATURE - Lollipop Chainsaw - should I hate this?

So in the upcoming Lollipop Chainsaw, there's a trophy for peeking up protagonist Juliet's skirt. 

Let's talk.

A while ago I did up a post about inequality in character design.  I'm pretty happy with it - but ever since I wrote it, the conclusions I came to have been gnawing at the back of my head.  I find myself rather annoyed, here and there, seeing examples of sexualizing one gender while glorifying the other as a source of power -  and now I see it so regularly that I'm in danger of normalizing it again.  

Luckily, other folks get just as annoyed at this crap.  Take, for example, the above promotional image for the upcoming Avengers movie.  Everyone's lookin' so buff and badass!  Except Scarlett Johansson, of course, who's presenting her ass for our approval.  

Artist Kevin Bolk took it upon himself to remind us what this image may look like if we treated our male heroes as we treat the ladies.  

That's right, Hulk.  Bend over and spread 'em.  

At the end of December's discussion on the subject, I concluded that the problem here is we tend to present heroic women as sexual objects, while male heroes are exclusively male power fantasies.  I reckoned that the answer is - in opposition to Japanese RPG's tack of offering both genders as sexual fantasies - to make both genders a power fantasy that represents that gender. 

The problem being, I have no idea what a female power fantasy looks like.  Is it this?

Anya from Gears of War 3.

It could be.

My knee-jerk reaction is that that's a woman shoehorned in to a male power fantasy - which seems counter-intuitive - there are female soldiers, after all.  Lots of 'em - but they don't much look like Anya, there.  

Soliders in New Zealand .

Perhaps it seems a bit off because of traditional gender lines.  When I was a kid and when you were a kid we didn't go to movies and watch badass ladies waging war and losing lives in defense of the personal freedoms we enjoy.  Those weren't our heroes.

Traditionally, strong women represented in popular media are... rarely role models - or outright villains.

Glenn Close as the evil, manipulative Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons.

More often than not, when women are given power in a movie or book or game - unless they are the protagonist - it is at the cost of their sexuality, or at least their moral compass. Popular culture and media repeatedly hammer home that women can sell their sexuality to gain success...

Britney Spears (popular)
...and makes no bones about what's really important.  Remember how popular Britney was when she became less photogenic?

Britney Spears (unpopular)

Popular culture repeatedly tells us that if a woman is to be powerful and successful without capitalizing on their sexuality, the only other option is to be a hateful, sour creature.  Bitter ladies, prone to frowning, who achieve success by rejecting accepted norms of behavior and social values.  

Hillary Clinton

Her husband was the most powerful man in the world - holding an office we attribute moral authority to - and that moral authority decreed that youth and a tight dress were of greater value than age and wisdom. Hillary Clinton, famously capable, strong and intelligent, will forever be the wife Bill cheated on with a younger woman - and is regularly vilified in popular culture as a masculine, angry, sexless bitch.   

The word 'bitch' is bandied about so regularly when applied to strong women - or simply women who refuse to accept popular standards of behavior - that some have even embraced it as a symbol of those willing to break from the norms and claim for themselves the same degree of entitlement and respect men enjoy.  

Tina Fey & Amy Poehler - Saturday Night Live
"You know what? Bitches get stuff done. That’s why Catholic schools use nuns as teachers and not priests. Those nuns are mean old clams and they sleep on cots and they’re allowed to hit you. And at the end of the school year you hated those bitches but you knew the capital of Vermont."
-Tina Fey-
Ah, Tina Fey.  Now there's something we can all agree on, yes?  Everyone loves Tina Fey.  She's ballsy, intelligent, hilarious and - yes - attractive.  I would love to go out to dinner with Tina Fey, listen to all her stories, go back to her luxurious Manhattan penthouse and make out 'till dawn.  

I don't feel the same way about Britney Spears or Hillary Clinton - and perhaps it's that mix that allows Fey to be a modern female role model while lacking all the negative stereotypes we attach to strong or successful women.  Perhaps being attractive really is a necessary ingredient, when mixing together a new hero.

Indiana Jones.  Mrowr.

With male protagonists - Nathan Drake in Uncharted, Kratos in God of War, Indiana Jones in... um... Indiana Jones - there's never a question of whether or not they have any sexual power, in addition to their physical or mental prowess.  Of course Elena loves Nate.  Of course Kratos gets busy with Aphrodite, and it's only natural for all the women Jones gets naked with to want to get naked with Jones.  He's a Doctor.  

We all have heroes in our day-to-day life who don't fit such molds.  Ian Ross will never grace the cover of Gentleman's Quarterly magazine (though he did sport Armani suits for a while), and my parents aren't exactly sex symbols, but they're heroes to me - but if we are creating heroes, as we do for popular culture, we must find the norms.  Find the standards.  Find the heroes that an audience will have no difficulty rooting for.  

And they are a good-looking bunch.  Or at least better looking than I am, as a general rule - and come to think of it, so are all the heroic dudes I enjoy playing as in video games. 

Isaac Clarke (Dead Space), Batman (Batman) and Cole McGrath (inFamous)
...okay, I might be better looking than Isaac Clarke.  But let's be honest, when you were in high school, did you hope and dream you could be more like the less-popular, unattractive kids? 

I didn't.  

Now, having established that being easy on the eyes seems to be a required ingredient for male and female heroes, let us reiterate that there remains a big difference between the popular hero on the left and the popular hero on the right, below.

Mai Shiranui (King of Fighters) and Kratos (God of War)
Let us not forget that popular culture has provided us, here and there, with excellent female heroes.  Science fiction can be quite good at this. 

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley (Aliens) and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
Note that Ripley was on the Nostromo as a warrant officer - she was military.  Sarah Connor, on the other hand, was a waitress in a diner before the hand of fate guided her to become a somewhat psychotic badass.  

Where our heroes begin - be that a job that conflicts with traditional gender roles (Ripley) or does not (Connor) - has less impact on our perception of them as a whole than where they end up, and how they rise to the challenges their narratives present them with. 

Let us not forget that video games can regularly provide us with similarly positive protagonists.  I'm not talking about great sidekicks like Elena Fischer or Alyx Vance - I'm talking about heroes.  

Alice Liddel (Alice: Madness Returns)
Jade (Beyond Good & Evil)
Rubi Malone (WET)
...interesting that Jade here and Ripley above are both carrying a child, isn't it?  The mother as a hero - or even a divine being - is hardly new.  But it speaks to our predilection for established gender roles.  

Something feels... wholesome and righteous about it.  

As Rubi (the ex-black ops mercenary for hire) and Alice (the violent, angry girl with mental issues) show, heroes can easily spring from roles we don't traditionally accept as feminine and heroic, Ripley, Connor and Jade remind us that there is an inherent strength in symbolic roles we traditionally associate with women - in this case, motherhood.  

Let's get back to the first sentence of this article.  

In the upcoming Lollipop Chainsaw, there's a trophy for peeking up protagonist Juliet's skirt. 

If you've seen any media for Lollipop Chainsaw, you've already peeked up Juliet's skirt.  It's a significant challenge to locate a screenshot for the game where you can't see up Juliet's skirt. 

Juliet Starling is a super-perky, cheerful cheerleader in a high school named after famed horror director John Romero which becomes overrun with the living dead.  Like anyone with true school spirit, she takes it upon herself to defend those still-living students within the school, by way of an oversized chainsaw with a heart motif on the blade.  

Let's watch the debut trailer, shall we?

What... what can you say about that?

It gets its foot in the door by way of titillating footage of Juliet licking a lollipop, watching her bum shwish to and fro, jumping up and down with a big gleeful smile on her face.  It introduces her as a sexual object.  

Now here's the thing... 

I don't hate Lollipop Chainsaw. Hear me out, I got some reasonings.  

#1: Cheerleaders are totally a real thing, that happens. 

Totally a real thing.
#2: Cheerleaders and the undead have gone together like peas and carrots since Buffy the Vampire Slayer - and I'm not talking about the Sarah Michelle Gellar one, I'm talking about the original Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and Clueless (1995)

#3: It's not a bad thing to make a "valley girl" into a hero. Clueless was such a success because it took our prejudices about the "y'know, like, whatever" girl and presented her as a genuine, caring, emotionally strong and believable hero.  

Let us never deny anything the chance to challenge our preconceptions.  

#4: Cheerleaders are, I'm afraid, traditional heroes - traditional protagonists.  

When I was in high school, I ended up with a reputation as someone "who was good to talk to about stuff," and kids I'd never met before would often approach me in the halls - and yes, once or twice they were cheerleaders. 

They'd tell me that so-and-so had told them I was really good at talking stuff out and helping people with their problems, and was I busy for lunch?  So I would make up some instant cappuccinos and we'd sit down and talk for an hour about whatever was bothering them - and if there's anything I learned about cheerleaders, it's that they're just as insecure and neurotic and fucked-up as the rest of us - and equally capable of kindness and bravery.

As a dude, I never felt any great jealousy towards the cheerleaders in my high school.  I can tell you that, when in high school, I longed to be one of the jocks.  Or at least valued as much, by the opposite sex.  

I've little doubt that millions of teenage girls looked at the cheerleaders or star athletes in their school and wished they, too, could be just like them.  There's a built-in envy factor - a built-in I-wish-that-was-me factor with the cheerleader.  

So let us not count Juliet Starling out of the could-be-awesome race simply because she wears a sports bra and a miniskirt.  

The other question is one of all those lingering shots up her backside.  Is her super-hot body being exploited to arouse male players?  

Yes.  Yes it is.  

Could there be another side to it? 


Bayonetta (2010)

2010's Bayonetta is the most technically accomplished, well-designed brawler (on a mechanical level) ever created.  It remains, to this day, peerless, and features a busty, leggy, deeply sexual protagonist.  
"Bayonetta gets naked-er as she uses more powerful attacks. She spends most of the game with a lollipop in her mouth, and the camera spends ample time examining her curves and posterior - but after getting my hands on the game, I find I agree with Leigh Alexander's appraisal [note: Leigh Alexander's article entitled Bayonetta: Empowering or Exploitive? has since been removed from]. 
Neatly ensconcing a game of madhouse action and glorious violence, Bayonetta is perhaps the first game I've ever played that quite intentionally - consciously - celebrates womanhood. From the lips that serve as your lock-on indicator to the lilting voice of a lady singing Fly Me To The Moon, the game allows the unique power of femininity (and so, uniquely feminine sexuality) to inform everything from the way Bayonetta throws a switch to her ostensively maternal relationship with the tiny, adorable Cereza. 
Never until Bayonetta have I beaten the hell out of enemies to cries of "Yay, Mummy!," and I have to admit - for some reason I cannot explain - I really liked it."
-from the review-
Back to Juliet Starling.

Writer James Gunn has always enjoyed attacking and blurring the traditional, and has a rich history with the horror genre.  He penned 2006's Slither, which was the liveliest mainstream horror movie in years.  He satirized and condemned Hollywood violence in 2010's Super.  He went after bullshit solutions to real problems with mocumentary LolliLove and even the porn industry in James Gunn's PG Porn

Even the oft-ridiculous-and-little-else Suda 51 did interesting things with the traditional video game hero's motivation and traditional damsel-in-distress in last year's Shadows of the Damned.  

It's entirely possible that Juliet may end up as confident and badass as Rubi Malone, as kind and well-intentioned as Jade, as brave and self-reliant as Alice.  

Can I say, with certainty, that Juliet Starling will be more than a bit of T and A?  I cannot.  The game hasn't released yet.

But neither can I assure you that that's all she'll be - and it's entirely possible that this impossible-to-not-get  trophy may prove more of a winking condemnation of folks who would write her off, or objectify her just because of her uniform - without taking the time to sit down with her over a cup of instant cappuccino.


  1. i personally loved how infamous set up two separate love interests. But then pulled a bait and switch with sony and made two ultimately un romanced three dimensional characters instead.

    I just knew that if i played the hero, Kuao would have no choice but to fall for my charms.

    Spoiler alert! that's really not what happened.

    And I applauded.

  2. You make some very thought provoking ideas. I like how you don't jump to one extreme and say that all video games are sexist propaganda, but at the same time ignore the issues which are there.

    However, I don't understand the point of view which is that females are sexualised, whilst males are just male power fantasy. Both of these seem to 'blame' men. Do women not find males in good shape to be attractive? I feel sexualisation (the emphasis on feminine or masculine traits) goes both ways. In addition to the males being sexualised, they're also providing unattainable images for small boys - much in the same way models and/or photoshop ruin small girls' self-esteem.

    These points never seem to be addressed, or merely glossed over and replaced with arguments where the male is always the one in the wrong.

  3. I meant to say "don't ignore" in the second sentence.

  4. I just woke up and I'm feelin' kinda' buhhh but I'll try to answer as best I can:

    I don't feel it's about assigning blame to men (or women) - it's about being cognitive of the what and the why. The what is that yes, this goes on to a great degree throughout popular culture, including video games.

    The why is that most of modern culture is the product of a patriarchal society dating back thousands of years. We're sixty years from the days when all men wore hats and women were expected to stay home and care for the children. I don't think people hate men - or women - any more now than they did then, but because the separation of the sexes was so normalized for so long, it's important to remain conscious of it.

    Again, as I said above, being attractive seems to be a necessary ingredient for male and female heroes - but I don't feel that He-Man when I was a kid or Nathan Drake nowadays, who are both some good-lookin' fellas, impress upon young men that what's most important is their sex appeal.

    They're power fantasies first, romantic prospects second.

    The problem with (many) females in popular culture and video games is that their sexuality is of the highest consideration - take another look at Scarlet Johansson's pose at the top of the article - which hammers home to a generation that no matter how smart you are, no matter how good you are, now matter how brave you are, the first thing that people will consider is how pert and round your ass is.

    That's the problem. That lopsidedness - and the level of discomfort I expect it instills in fifty per cent of the population.

    So yes - male and female heroes are a good-looking bunch - but with different purposes.

    Again, the "blame" for this isn't on the artist who created the image at the top of the article, it doesn't rest solely on Brittany Spears or whoever designed Mai Shiranui - it's a product of ancient cultural norms, which progressive societies have been attempting to shine a spotlight on.

    If I asked you the first word that came to mind when you think of Nathan Drake or Link, words like "charming" and "brave" would probably come up. Now, ask yourself, what are the first words that come to mind when you think of Lara Croft?

    I doubt you thought "brave" or "well educated" - which she is - but that's not what we're told, through design, through art, through cutscenes, are her greatest strengths.

    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.

  5. Oh, also - thank you for the fantastic comment! I was like "oooh! Nom!"