Tropes vs Women: Woman as Background Decoration (Part 2)

Sarkeesian continues her look at Women as Background Decoration in Part 2, where she starts by talking about certain ad campaigns that link sex and death/violence, featuring women:

The marketing blitz surrounding the release of the 2006 game Hitman: Blood Money featured several advertisements depicting the murdered bodies of sexualized women with captions like “Beautifully executed”. Even in death these lingerie-clad women are posed provocatively in a way designed to sexually arouse straight male viewers.

She also comments on a similar usage in ads for “L.A. Noire”, and points out that male characters are generally not portrayed that way. For the latter, it seems to me that that follows from something that I have considered problematic in the past: the idea that the main audience for the game will be male. Or does it? Are female players more likely to find that sort of depiction more appealing than they would seeing a male character similarly sexualized? No matter what else we might say about these things, sex and violence has some appeal to some people. I don’t particularly understand it myself — if I find a mix of sex and violence appealing, it’s the sex part that’s doing the heavy lifting for me — but there do seem to be a significant percentage of people who find that mixture appealing. There’s been a long history of horror playing on this mix, and it can be argued that the success of vampires owes a lot to this mix … and that this is one of the reasons why women themselves find vampires appealing. Could it be the case that women find thinking of themselves in the victim role more appealing than of thinking of men in that role? Well, given patriarchy, men who are considered victims are typically unappealing to women, and feminism hasn’t really changed that attitude all that much, even as it somewhat works to move women away from perpetual victim status. So certainly even women wouldn’t want to see those sorts of depictions of men.

That being said, even given its appeal, I don’t think the use of the mix in these cases works. I think we ought to be more forgiving of L.A. Noire, because it seems to me that the noire and pulp fiction genre that it was trying to evoke relied heavily on those sorts of depictions, and so trying to maintain that sort of atmosphere in its ads only made sense. I can’t see any reason for the Hitman series to do that, because despite some of Sarkeesian’s suggestions I don’t think that game is trying to that sort of atmosphere or mix as a major theme of the work, meaning that its usage in the ads — and even at times in the game — would be gratuitous and sensationalizing, and so something that we’d like to limit the use of, for various reasons. So I don’t really support the use of that mix in the advertising for Hitman, but I’m not an expert on the game and so if it has any real purpose or link other than simply playing off of a rather lame pun, I’m open to hearing about it.

Moving on, Sarkeesian goes on to list a number of cases where sexualized female characters are killed in front of the player, although at one point them merely flirting with the player is enough to be problematic in Sarkeesian’s eyes. The issue is that she fails to distinguish between cases where they happen to be sexualized and cases where the sexualization is deliberately designed to be a major point of the depiction, which is the issue with the “Hitman: Absolution” example from Part 1. While I don’t have the full context for most of these games — since I don’t play them and right now am too lazy to bother looking them all up — looking at her depictions I’d agree with Prototype and disagree with the ones that happen to be set in a brothel. Now, some might — and have — argued that using the brothel setting ought to immediately invoke the “intend to sexualize” interpretation, but I disagree, and again the Hitman example is, to my mind, a good example of this, as setting a scene in a strip club was probably overdue for that series. If the game or the series heavily relies on these sorts of settings, then that’s another matter, but if instead it merely uses them on occasion, then I think the argument doesn’t work.

Ultimately, I’m not comfortable with deliberate attempts to mix sex and violence and to sexualize violence, but I don’t think that doing so makes a game bad or necessarily has a great social impact. It just means it’s probably a game that I’m not that interested in playing, and as long as there are games out there that don’t rely on that mix that heavily, then I’m fine with ignoring them and playing the games that don’t really do that. Sarkeesian does not seem to be as forgiving I am.

From here, though, we move away from the mix of sex and violence to more traditional simple violence. Sarkeesian says this about the victims:

The women who fulfill this trope in gaming universes are sometimes designed to occupy minor narrative roles but more often than not they’re just hollow shells, empty representations with little to no personality or individuality to speak of.

Which, again, is how all NPCs in a game are treated. They all serve their purpose in the overall narrative, and their personalities are developed only so far as necessary to fulfill that role. So, then, what role does Sarkeesian think these NPCs fill?

Developers regularly utilize the brutalization of women’s bodies, and especially the bodies of female prostitutes, as an indicator of just how harsh, cruel and unforgiving their game worlds are.

It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.

After all, if the random thugs or villains are so heartless and vile they attack helpless women, then the player can feel completely justified and even take pleasure in murdering them in ever more gruesome ways.

All of this is designed to convey that the protagonist is a ruthless, unfeeling, morally corrupt character who is capable of anything. Again, we see female bodies sacrificed as a way to justify the ever more gruesome and extreme violence the player must commit throughout the game.

Essentially, the usage is to portray that the world, well, sucks. When these female NPCs are killed, we’re supposed to see this as an example of just how violent and depraved the world, villain or protagonist really is. Therefore, we’re supposed to care about the violence done against women, and think it terrible and totally unjustified, and we’re supposed to see that not because it’s done against someone who really doesn’t deserve it, but because it’s done against a woman. This holds even if, as Sarkeesian notes, the woman has no personality to speak of, and so we have no reason to care about her as a person, and no more reason than we have for any of the male characters that we can kill. So, then we have to ask why women are placed in this role and men typically aren’t? And the reason is that the deaths of men aren’t considered to be an issue. Men — even under patriarchy — are considered disposable, that their lives are there to be sacrificed for the needs of society and, most often, specifically for that of women. The hero in the Damsel in Distress is expected to risk his life for the damsel often just because she is a damsel in distress. It is rare that a female character is expected to sacrifice her life even for the man she loves, let alone a man who is a stranger. So the reason why female characters are used here is because if you put a male character in the same roles, no one would bat an eye … but when it’s a woman, then it says something that they’re killing women.

Sarkeesian notes the issue with these depictions of helpless female characters:

Plot devices that capitalize on female trauma for shock value function in much the same way as the hitting a child, or kicking the dog, tropes do.

It’s casual cruelty implemented as an easy way to deliver a quick emotional punch to the player by presenting attacks on characters specifically designed to appear pitifully vulnerable.

But simply presenting depictions of women being abused, despondent or suicidal does nothing to make them less sexually objectified and does nothing to challenge patterns of perpetual victimhood.

So, the idea is that this supports the idea that women are simply helpless victims who need the protection of a man. Which is a fair comment. However, this can be fixed by doing what Sarkeesian constantly says will not solve the problem: depict women in a variety of lights, from helpless victim to strongly competent hero … or villain, even. It’s a lot harder to fix the attitude and depiction of men as being disposable.

Sarkeesian then tries to link the use of violence against women and domestic violence as a strongly negative trait to domestic violence as a whole, in an attempt to show that even though these things are depicted as being very negative and are condemned in the game that this is still causing harm:

So when games casually use sexualized violence as a ham-fisted form of character development for the “bad guys” it reinforces a popular misconception about gendered violence by framing it as something abnormal, as a cruelty only committed by the most transparently evil strangers. In reality, however, violence against women, and sexual violence in particular, is a common everyday occurrence often perpetrated by “normal men” known and trusted by those targeted.

The truth is that the vast majority of cases are committed by friends, colleagues, relatives, and intimate partners. The gendered violence epidemic is a deep-seated cultural problem present in the homes, communities and workplaces of many millions of women all over the world. It is not something that mostly happens in dark alleys at the hands of cartoon villains twisting nefarious-looking mustaches.

I should also note that the problem cannot be solved by simply finding the bad evil men and killing them all – as these game narratives invariably imply again and again.

But … how is this different from the depictions of games of any other crime? You aren’t going to solve, say, gang violence, by going out and shooting all the gang members, as games often imply. Taking out a gang or bunch of criminals isn’t going to stop crime. And all sorts of violence and evil actions can be taken by people who seem normal. Games, in and of themselves, are not meant to provide that sort of realistic take on the world. They aren’t supposed to teach lessons and be public service announcements. They’re supposed to be fun to play, and part of the fun is giving people a sense of power and an ability to change the world. Or, alternatively, to boil the narrative down to a simple and clear one so that players can ignore the complexities of the world for a while. Games, primarily, are escapist. People don’t typically play games because they’re exactly like their own life, but instead because they aren’t. So when Sarkeesian says this:

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.

The response is that most games aren’t, in fact, intended to be critiques of society in general or these situations specifically, and so challenging them for not doing so isn’t reasonable. What we need to note here is that the games rely on people seeing domestic and sexualized violence as bad things. If they didn’t, then the tropes would fall flat. Sure, people may have misconceptions about what that’s like in real life, but since games aren’t trying to teach people that it’s hard to fault them for not doing that. As long as people can tell the difference between imagination and reality, the depictions ought not do any harm, and so if people think that real life is like that it isn’t because games depict things that way, but instead because people don’t know what real life is like, and think that the games are reflecting reality instead of simplifying it.

Now, there is definitely room for games that do explore and critique these situations. And Sarkeesian is free to promote games like that being made. What I think it unreasonable to do is to expect that all games will do these sorts of critiques, and her comments here seem to suggest that that’s how she’s thinking of games.

I think it only fair here that I address her comments on realism, since it relates here:

This dominant narrative surrounding the inevitability of female objectification and victimhood is so powerful that it not only defines our concepts of reality but it even sets the parameters for how we think about entirely fictional worlds, even those taking place in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. It’s so normalized that when these elements are critiqued, the knee-jerk response I hear most often is that if these stories did not include the exploitation of women, then the game worlds would feel too “unrealistic” or “not historically accurate”.

What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable.

Well, it’s not, as we can see from games like the AD&D games that swept all of that under the rug, at least mostly. But as games get darker and grittier and present less happy and more crapsack worlds, all sorts of negative things have to bubble up to the surface. It is unreasonable to think that you have a world where people don’t have basic human rights, but that somehow it got feminism. So in any nasty world, women are going to be exploited, because if people are willing to kill people at the drop of a hat it’s not reasonable to think that they wouldn’t, say, rape or beat women. To do that would be to sweep the violence that women experience under the rug, insisting that, somehow, even these really nasty people wouldn’t hit a girl … even though in real life even less nasty people will do far worse on a regular basis. If a game is set in a historical setting where women were not equal to men, presenting them as such merely hides the actual sexism that took place in that setting. If a game is set in modern times ignoring the things that Sarkeesian herself talks about is hiding the fact that it happens and is bad. Sarkeesian seems to not want to see this at all, but this suggests that Sarkeesian really does see games as escapist entertainment, and wants to find games that let her escape from the things that she really hates. Given that, her frustration at many AAA games leaving in the things she hates is understandable, but the answer then is to push for the option of games that don’t have those things — and not insisting that all games leave those out — and playing games that don’t contain those elements, or where they can be optional or minimized. This interpretation also hurts her attempts to criticize the social impact of these games, because as escapist entertainment people ought to be able to realize that this is not how the world works … and Sarkeesian hasn’t actually proven that games really do have those impacts.

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One Response to “Tropes vs Women: Woman as Background Decoration (Part 2)”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    It’s so normalized that when these elements are critiqued, the knee-jerk response I hear most often is that if these stories did not include the exploitation of women, then the game worlds would feel too “unrealistic” or “not historically accurate”.

    Isn’t she blatantly contradicting herself? Wait, are we supposed to make games more realistic, or less realistic, or, or…

    I dunno.

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