Tropes vs Women: Body Language & the Male Gaze

So, when I first read Anita Sarkeesian’s latest video (and yes, I read them, and don’t generally watch them), my first thought, no fooling, was that it made her previous video look really, really bad. After all, it covers pretty much the same issues, but instead of being just a cheap, joking shot at a phenomena that, as it turns out, doesn’t actually exist, it actually goes over them in some depth and says some interesting things. But on later examination, I became much less impressed. As usual, when Sarkeesian is right, she isn’t saying anything new, and when she’s saying new things, she’s generally wrong.

She starts by praising Destiny for its gender-neutrality, which as it turns out is, I think, a major issue with her underlying thesis. At any rate, she moves on from that to talking about differences in how male and female characters sit in the game:

However, there is one way in which the male and female characters are differentiated by gender, and it has to do with their movement. Watch how a male guardian sits down, taking a load off after a long, hard day fighting the forces of pure evil. It’s simple. It suggests confidence. When a female character sits down, however, it’s a completely different story. She sits like a delicate flower. This is supposed to be a hardened space warrior and yet she is sitting around like she’s Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Now, I had to actually go and watch the video far enough to see the difference, and noted something right away. Let me start by talking about another game that had the motion capture be mostly gender neutral, which is Mass Effect 2. If you play through the DLC that gets you Kasumi, you get evening wear, which for a female character is an evening dress. As with most of the outfits in the game, you can use this as your default clothing when you aren’t in your armour or environment suit. Note that they don’t change the game animations, so if you put your Shepard in the evening dress — as I did — and run around in it, you get a fairly masculine looking run in an evening dress. This isn’t actually an issue in any way, understand, but just something to note (and remember for later).

Now, if you are replaying the game, you can start with all unlocked outfits, which includes the evening dress. In Chuck Sonnenberg’s review of the game, his female Shepard starts in that outfit, which leads to him making a joke about what the scientists were doing with the character while she was out (his joke is about it being a tea party). But, as we get to the cutscene, we notice something: the camera angle and the way Shepard gets off the table aren’t changed if you are wearing the dress, which is unfortunate, because you pretty much get a full upskirt shot in the video.

Now, this is almost certainly unintentional, as the dress came out only in a DLC later, and you could only see this if you left Shepard in the dress and then replayed. And even if it was noticed, it was likely going to be too much work and too expensive to fix. So what we have is, inadvertently, something that we know Sarkeesian hates: an upskirt shot.

Now, look at how the male character in Destiny sits. Note that you can view that from the front. So … how in the world would the Destiny designers arrange it so that you can’t get an upskirt shot from that, if the female character was wearing a skirt? Sure right now, as Sarkeesian says, the outfits are the same. But what if they wanted to offer a more feminine option?

And that’s where we start running into issues. I don’t find the way the male avatar sits in Destiny to suggest confidence, as Sarkeesian asserts. And I find the female avatar’s sitting posture — and getting into it — to be far more awkward than anything approaching sexy. So I disagree that it’s the case that the male avatar gets to sit confidently and the female avatar gets to sit in any way that would demonstrate “sexiness”, which is Sarkeesian’s big push on this, as usual. What I will say is that the pose is, in line with Sarkeesian’s description, feminine. But then we have to ask: should female characters and their body language be feminine?

One of the issues with women entering into male dominated fields and adopting traditionally masculine behaviour is that it faces resistance from women who, while they want to be confident and capable and all of that good stuff, still want to remain feminine while doing it. So, contra Sarkeesian, they don’t want to act and look just like men, because they don’t want to sacrifice their femininity to get that. Thus, things from feminism to commercials have tried to push the idea that women can, in fact, be as strong and capable and confident as men are while still retaining their femininity. And body language is, in fact, an important part of that, as even Sarkeesian admits that it can have a big impact on how a character is perceived.

Now, the ideal way to handle this is to, well, give choices. Instead of just sitting or having a default walk, let the players decide if they want their female character to sit femininely or masculinely, and the same for male characters. The problem with this is that motion capture for simple, repetitive motions is expensive, and so you only want to do this if you really need to. And you can’t just do the motion capture with a man and then reuse it for female avatars, because that will often look really, really artificial and stupid. And, other than people like Sarkeesian, most people won’t complain too much if their female avatar’s body language is merely feminine. So there’s really no reason to not just make male avatars have masculine body language, and female avatars have feminine body language. It’s likely what most of the players who create those avatars want anyway.

But what about sexualized body language?

By contrast, the way that women move in games isn’t just used to suggest their confidence or their skill or some other facet of their personality. It’s very often used, in conjunction with other aspects of their design, to make them exude sexuality for the entertainment of the presumed straight male player.

Catwoman from the Arkham series has a deeply exaggerated hip sway when she walks. In combination with her clothing and the game’s camera angles, all of this is meant to drive the player’s focus to her highly sexualized butt. In Resident Evil: Revelations, Jill Valentine somehow manages to wiggle her whole body while she runs. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Evie Frye is a character who avoids falling into many of the sexualizing traps that some playable female characters do. But she still walks with an exaggerated hip sway.

Catwoman is a bad example here, because it is a main point of the character that she plays on her sexuality, being a trope of the femme fatale/cat burglar. I’m not familiar enough with the others to say, although simply talking about a bit of hip sway might fall more into “feminine” than into “sexualized”, especially since as women wear high heels and high heels cause hip sway — as Sarkeesian says later — this might be just trying to make women walk, well, the way they often walk.

An example of actual sexualized male gaze and the impact on body language can be seen in Mass Effect 2, with Miranda Lawson, as has been pointed out by many people. I seem to recall reading somewhere that they did that to try to play on the same sort of “femme fatale” trope mentioned above, but it fails badly. And it fails badly because unlike other examples of male gaze, it isn’t the character or, in fact, any character that’s doing it, but instead the game doing it. We don’t shift into a first-person type of view — as seen in some of Sarkeesian’s other examples — or have a comment that reflects that this is the or a character doing this, and so is the game trying to present this to the player, as opposed to trying to present this to the character. And while it’s obviously the case that Miranda would try to use her looks to gain an advantage if she could, in many of the scenes, again, it’s not the character that gets to see it, but the player. So if they wanted to go for that trope, they missed by a mile through terrible execution.

But this raises the question of what counts as male gaze? Sarkeesian, as usual, is so broad as to be utterly unhelpful:

The male gaze manifests when the camera takes on the perspective of a stereotypical heterosexual man. An indisputable example of this is when the camera lingers, caresses, or pans across a woman’s body– although it’s not always that obvious. In games, it can be as simple as the in-game camera resting so that a character’s butt or breasts or both are centerline, it can be cutscenes that rest on a woman’s butt, it can be clothing that they are wearing or the way they talk, or it can be as basic as the way a female character moves around the game world.

So, essentially, anything Sarkeesian doesn’t like, in other words.

As a theoretical and overarching concept, male gaze can’t apply when the character is a stereotypical heterosexual male who, well, would be looking there. Male gaze, to be problematic, has to apply in cases where in terms of story and character where that wouldn’t be the case. Thus, it has to be the case, as pointed out the Mass Effect 2 example, where the game is doing this, not the player (ie it’s not under their control) and not the character. Also, in order to be problematic, it has to be the case that, as Sarkeesian puts it:

The male gaze reinforces the notion that the man looks, and the woman is looked at. Or as art critic John Berger explains it in the 1972 book Ways of Seeing, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.”

So, instances where a particular man does this won’t count, especially if there are women who are not simply looked at in that way. Mass Effect 2 might well fit this for a number of reasons; the camera angles are often odd and show off the attributes of the female characters. But you’d need far more than the examples given in the first part of the video to get to anything like male gaze in those games, at least. So I need more arguments and evidence here, which is a common trend with Sarkeesian’s videos.

And, again, Sarkeesian’s blinkered perspective impacts her comments on sexualizing men:

When male characters are depicted as shirtless or wearing little clothing–like the character sometimes dubbed “Hot Ryu” from Street Fighter V– their lack of clothing demonstrates their power and strength, rather than depicting them as erotic playthings or reducing them to sexualized body parts.

Except … those are masculine traits that women find sexually attractive, and they are physically attracted to appropriate and reasonably musculature. So it’s not really any different, then, than presenting a woman as feminine with feminine traits and then highlighting her sexually appealing physical attributes. Sure, it’s different if the woman is, in fact, reduced to only those parts, but that is pretty rare outside of — and even inside of — pornographic games. Miranda and Catwoman are given personalities along with their attributes and walk, as are pretty much all of the other examples Sarkeesian lists. So, at the end of the say, she hasn’t made a case that they’re that much different. Ultimately, for the most part the main characters in games are designed so that people who would be attracted to them are attracted to them, and that those who aren’t want to be them, or both. That applies to both men and women.

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2 Responses to “Tropes vs Women: Body Language & the Male Gaze”

  1. belobog131071 Says:

    “Except … those are masculine traits that women find sexually attractive, and they are physically attracted to appropriate and reasonably musculature. ” I think this really hits the crux of the problem a lot of feminist analysis of media has. There’s a huge overlap between the type of character men find attractive and women like to imagine being, and vice versa. Thus, in most cases, I’d find it equally plausible to turn the standard feminist complaint on its head: the male characters are eye candy for women while the female characters are a female power fantasy. Of course, you’d have to take into account that women typically value the power of social influence over physical strength.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, it’s funny that their analysis often is just as much from the male perspective as the analyses that they decry. If they had a more gender-neutral approach, they’d see that the men men want most to be are ones that attract women, and the same applies for women. So you can’t draw the line between “men are presented as having desirable traits, women are presented as sex objects” as sharply as they try to.

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