Tropes vs Women: Lingerie is not Armor

So, Anita Sarkeesian has posted her next entry in the “second season” of “Tropes vs Women”, which is an odd way to put it since she’s completely redone her approach to the series, mostly because as she herself has said she doesn’t really have the time to do what she said she’d do in what was supposed to be a “single season” series. It also implies that there might be a third season, although given what she says in her explanation of the format change that doesn’t seem all that likely, as at least originally there is was implied that the change existed solely to allow her to, well, get the series actually finished at some point. But that’s all an aside anyway.

At any rate, this video talks about “Lingerie is not Armor”. If you’ve never heard of that trope before, the relevant trope on TV Tropes — and, warning, this is a link to TV Tropes — is “Stripperific”. Essentially, it’s the idea that especially female characters are dressed in outfits that aren’t practical for the role they play in a game, but are instead inordinately sexy, highlighting their … ahem … attributes more than you’d expect for someone doing what they’re doing. The most well-known example of this is, in fact, the “Chainmail Bikini”, so it’s been around for quite some time. Now, Sarkeesian, of course, needs to do more than simply point out that the costumes are sexy, because for her feminist arguments to work — meaning, her specific ones — she needs it to be the case that the characters are, in fact, completely sexualized and objectified by such outfits. If they are characters that also happen to be sexy, her arguments mostly fail.

At any rate, let’s start by looking at her first example. She talks about a ad for “Perfect Dark”, that definitely is highlighting the attractiveness of Joanna Dark and does play on both that and her femininity — with the “What are you going to wear?” line — in order to sell the game. But as I’ve said before, it’s going to be the case that even female players want a character that’s competent and confident as well as sexy and attractive and maybe even feminine. So that in and of itself isn’t a problem, and the text itself really sells that she is, in fact, strong, capable and confident:

“Welcome to 2023. Big businesses now merge with alien nations. An ancient war is being fought under the sea. The president is about to be cloned. And it’s your job to try and save the world. So you’ve got an important decision to make: What are you going to wear to work?

From the team you brought you GoldenEye for N64, meet special agent Joanna Dark in Perfect Dark, where you’ll find out that the only person man enough to handle a job like this is a woman.”

I won’t say that this description isn’t problematic — it is — but it does definitely highlight how capable Dark is. Contrast this with Sarkeesian’s “translation” for a male character:

Welcome to 2016. There’s a war out there…somewhere. You’re not sure where, exactly. Anyway, the important thing is, you’re Special Agent Jake Grimshadow. It’s your job to save the world. The only question is: What are you going to wear? …. WAIT… WHAT??

Sarkeesian says that this would never happen, and that it shouldn’t, and she’s right … because this is a commercial that relies on portraying the character as an utter moron who knows nothing and might even be someone who’s simply looking for an excuse to kill things (which seems to be Sarkeesian’s default interpretation of, at least, male game players). The only thing it keeps is the “What are you going to wear?” line, which can easily be interpreted as a line mocking that stereotype of women … one that, however, many of them actually live up to. The problem I have with that line is that that line, specifically, might undermine our faith in the character, making her seem shallow and uninterested in the actual mission, but it’s important to note that since that add was almost twenty years ago that’s based on a modern interpretation. Now, we expect women to not care about what they’re wearing that much, especially when going out to save the world. Then that sort of shallowness was more common, so common that it didn’t seem shallow at all.

In contrast, Sarkeesian leaves out anything that establishes the male character as being confident or capable, adds a line that doesn’t fit with the stereotypes of men, and then tries to get us to see how ridiculous this really is. Yes, what was done there was problematic, but when you use examples like that and that sort of gender shifting what you really want to do is keep the translation as close to the original as possible in both form and intent so that you can highlight the problem. If, for example, Sarkeesian had kept it the same but instead replaced the “What are you going to wear?” line with “Which guns are you going to bring?”, would it have had the same impact?

At any rate, the question you need to ask is “Is Joanna Dark sexualized and objectified here, such that she is or is to be seen as nothing more than a sexual object for the enjoyment of the presumed male player?”. And the answer, I think, is “No”. You are supposed to see her as confident, capable and sexy, not just sexy.

Part of the issue with this video is that Sarkeesian wants to use fighting game examples to prove her case, which is that female characters’ outfits forgo reasonable protection in order to highlight their attractiveness and sexiness, but this assumes that the outfits in fighting games are, in fact, designed primarily for protection. So, for example, she highlights Cammy from Street Fighter:

Cammy from the Street Fighter series is a British special forces operative whose thong leotard does a better job of calling attention to her butt than of offering any kind of protection.

So, let’s compare Cammy’s outfit to that of the male characters in the original Street Fighter II game (because I haven’t kept up with the variants). Like, say, Sagat, who pretty much only wears trunks. The same is true of Dhalsim. And E-Honda, who wears the traditional sumo outfit. And Zangief. Even Ken and Ryu, who are mostly covered up, wear karate gis that, well, don’t provide a lot of protection. The only character who wears any kind of actual armour is Vega, because in character he wants to protect his pretty face. So, based on this, protection is not in fact a main priority in the Street Fighter series. So about the only complaint she can have when comparing her to the male characters is that her outfit and her stances show off her butt a lot. The latter doesn’t fit into a “Lingerie is not Armor” trope, and my reaction to the former is “Just what is your obsession with butts anyway?”.

Later, Sarkeesian talks about more practical outfits:

It’s not hard to imagine what more practical clothing options might look like for some of these characters. But if you’re having a hard time envisioning that, I will let you in on a little secret:

For those of you who aren’t familiar, there is this thing called a sports bra. Sports bras are designed to keep breasts held in place to better facilitate athletic activities. In other words, they are used to prevent “jiggle physics” in real life. In the real world, there are many female martial artists, athletes, and women in combat roles that developers could use as inspiration when designing and dressing their female characters.

So, then, we can look to an example that she missed, which is Sonya Blade from the original “Mortal Kombat”. Sure, her outfit bares her midriff, but is pretty much exactly what women wore while doing, say, aerobics at the time, and thus what people actually wore doing athletics. If Sarkeesian complains about how it doesn’t provide protection for someone who is actually fighting, then we have to look at Liu Kang and Johnny Cage who aren’t wearing any kind of armour either, and fight in what, well, martial artists wear, as seen with Sub-Zero and Scorpion as well. In general, in fighting games characters are dressed to, well, demonstrate their character more than being dressed for protection, mostly because if you try to introduce armour — and “World Heroes” did this with Jeanne — you either have to give it to all of the characters, give that character a huge advantage (because the armour would absorb blows that the other outfits wouldn’t) or else make the armour cosmetic only. The latter is usually what’s chosen in fighting games, which is why we have Jeanne because she’s clearly modeled on Jeanne D’Arc.

Thus, the outfits in fighting games tend to be modeled for character expression, not for protection, and thus also, in some ways, to provide maximum movement, which is why characters — male and female — often don’t wear all that much. In fact, in the Mortal Kombat movie, it’s actually a bit jarring that Johnny Cage fights in a shirt and dress pants, because fighters generally wouldn’t wear that (although, arguably, Cage is more used to that because in the style of movie he acts in that’s what he’d normally wear) because it’d be too restrictive. No, it’s in RPGs that we typically note the issue, because armours are supposed to actually provide protection, and the stereotypical “Chainmail Bikini” leaves critical areas exposed. Sarkeesian’s focus on fighting games, at least initially, hurts her case. Even focusing on first-person shooters runs into the issue that if one is going up again people with guns, until recently armour was not exactly likely to help much.

That being said, when fighting zombies where one bite can infect you and turn you into one, people should wear more clothes. Of course, again, regular, non-feminist gamers have already pointed that out:

I’m not trying to be a puritanical busybody, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s vacation here, but maybe if zombie bites are that much of a concern we should think about putting on some shirts and pants? The plastic sheen on your skin tells me you’re laying on the sunblock really thick. Maybe that’s good enough, but I’m just saying that having a layer or two of cotton and denim between your flesh and their teeth wouldn’t hurt. Just a suggestion.

Sarkeesian highlights the “hyper-sexualization” angle:

Because clothing can shape our first impressions of a character and has a tremendous influence on our sense of who they are every time they are on screen, sexualized outfits can contribute to what’s called the hyper-sexualization of female characters. Hyper-sexualization in the media occurs when a character is designed to be valued primarily for their sexual characteristics or behaviors. In hypersexualized characters, these attributes are highlighted above all else and made the center of attention, while everything else about the character is made secondary.

But the question then becomes: in any of her examples, does hypersexualization actually happen? Are these characters really seen primarily for their sexual characteristics, which everything else secondary? Is Cammy’s leotard, for example, seen as more primary than her being a British Special Forces agent? Sarkeesian, throughout the entire video, simply points to the outfits and says that they’re bad and the problem. She doesn’t examine the characters in detail to see if it fits or works for them, or if they are presented as characters that are competent, capable and sexy. In short, Sarkeesian doesn’t examine whether the sexiness is a defining trait, or a secondary attribute, while insisting that the problem with the outfits is that they, in fact, make the sexiness a defining trait.

Which is where she gets into trouble with an actual feminist theory:

Games and other media often work to frame this sexualization as a positive thing for women. They blur the distinction between female sexualization and female power, and as a result, sexualized female characters are sometimes celebrated for being perceived as “owning” their sexuality in a way that is empowering. But it isn’t actually empowering because the sexuality these characters exude is manufactured for, and presented as existing for, the presumed straight male player.

Sarkeesian has to ride that last part about it being designed for a straight male player very hard, because otherwise she runs the risk of being charged with “slut shaming”. The feminist theory is this: patriarchal society has always put strict limits on women and how they express their sexuality, which mostly meant that “good” women didn’t dress revealingly or sexually at all, and only to the extent that it was required in order for them to do what they needed to do. A woman who would dress “impractically sexily” was seen as, well, being a slut, and being openly available for sex. Thus, as soon as you saw a woman dressed like that, you were encouraged to think of her as, well, primarily a sexual object. The feminist response to that is, in fact, that women have to be able to dress sexy without having it be seen as in and of itself making her into a sexual object. Sarkeesian later references this point when she tries to talk about healthy sexuality:

The sexualization of female characters is about designing them, dressing them or framing them in ways that are specifically intended to be sexually appealing to presumed male viewers or players. Women’s sexuality, on the other hand, exists for themselves, and for those they care to consensually share it with. And sexuality can be expressed or experienced in any kind of attire.

But even here, she implies that women shouldn’t need to dress in sexy outfits in order to express their sexuality, implying that a woman willingly dressing in the way these characters dress is framing themselves as being appealing to men, not for themselves. But this is, in fact, the essence of slut shaming, which is the idea that a woman who dresses a certain way is to be seen as a sexual object for the pleasure of men, and nothing more. Thus, it is a perfectly valid feminist criticism of Sarkeesian to say that all she does is look at the outfit a woman is wearing and immediately concludes that, given that outfit, we should all consider her to have “sex” as her primary attribute, which means that she’s doing exactly the same sort of thing that the patriarchy does.

To settle this, then, we need to find a way to look beyond the outfit and determine if this is a character that wants to wear this outfit and one that is just wearing it because the game designers want to engage in some Fanservice. And the way to do that is to, in fact, look at the character herself and see if the outfit is something that that character would wear. Sarkeesian, unfortunately, has blocked herself off from this way of going about it:

Out of all the arguments that are tossed out to defend the impractical and objectifying clothing that women are made to wear in games, there is one in particular that I hear the most often and that is perhaps the most pernicious. That argument is: “Maybe that’s what she wants to wear!” Which is ridiculous. These women are fictional constructs. That means that they don’t dress themselves or pick out their own clothing. I can’t believe I have to say this. All these visual designs are deliberate choices made by the developers …

She also contradicts herself, however, when she talks about good expressions of sexuality:

These moments aren’t presented as titillating morsels of sexuality for players. Rather, they function as expressions of the characters’ sexuality that deepen our investment in the characters and their relationships to each other.

Except … how can it be an expression of the character or, rather, how can it be more an expression of the character than the former is, that she just wants to wear outfits like that, or has a reason to? In both cases, you have a fictional construct and are trying to derive its wants and desires from that construct, which is done by the designers. So if you can’t derive a “This is an outfit that that character would want to wear!” argument from that, you can’t derive a “She’s expressing her sexuality!” from that either. So Sarkeesian ends up being limited to either arguing that the former argument is invalid and the latter argument is valid only because it aligns with her own thinking on those issues — and thus, all female characters have to align with what she thinks is reasonable, even if other women wouldn’t think the same way — or else she has to rely heavily on the “Well, games are designed with men in mind!” argument which leaves us unable to determine how a game aimed at a general audience ought to work, and ends up being nothing more than an argument of “Don’t just design games for men!” with no real guidance on how to design it for women, too. Neither of these are options Sarkeesian should want to take.

So it seems to me that what we really, really want to do is focus on the characters and not their outfits. Thus, as I said before, Catwoman gets a pass because the character archetype she’s playing would indeed highlight her sexuality, even as a deliberate distraction. Miranda Lawson gets a pass for the outfit, but the game doesn’t get a pass for the camera angles that overly highlight it. More demure characters ought to dress more demurely, and more, um, sexual characters should dress more sexily, according to the overall standards for the genre that it’s in. Even in RPGs, there are definitely going to be some female characters who wouldn’t want to wear armour that’s generically male; they might still want to look like a woman even while totally protected, and thus might wear more form-fitting and feminine armours. But the Chainmail Bikini ought to be right out, since it couldn’t provide the protection a woman in that setting would need.

So, great, we can do this if we can justify it from the character. But then we run into the problem of Ms. Fanservice, which here is more the issue of a character that, it seems, is designed with the idea of being Fanservice first and foremost, and has nothing else beyond that. This, it seems to me, is what Sarkeesian is really annoyed about here, even if she can’t identify it, because it is only here that the character has their sexiness as their primary attribute. Fanservice itself isn’t a problem with a character that is loved for more than that; a shower scene for the character that you most like for their personality is a bonus, not a defining trait. But here, arguably, the character is built to provide fanservice, and the most interesting traits of them are the ones that justify — even if weakly — the fanservice that they provide.

If we look at Sarkeesian’s examples of failed attempts to justify the costumes, it really looks like this is what she’s aiming for. I don’t want to talk much about Bayonetta because she’s arguably justifiable in terms of powers and personality and I don’t know enough about the game to say one way or another. But Cortana and Quiet can provide us with an interesting way to try to assess the situation. Cortana:

The superintelligent AI companion Cortana from the Halo franchise has always been depicted as naked, and when asked about why this is, franchise director Frank O’Connor said, “One of the reasons she does it is to attract and demand attention. And she does it to put people off so they’re on their guard when they’re talking to her and that she has the upper hand in those conversations. It’s kind of almost like the opposite of that nightmare you have where you go to school in the nude, and you’re terrified and embarrassed. She’s kind of projecting that back out to her audience and winning intellectual points as a result.”

Meanwhile, male AIs in the Halo universe do wear clothing; the idea of them trying to “win intellectual points” by walking around naked is ridiculous. But we rarely question the extremely widespread association of sexualization and power when it’s applied to female characters.

And Quiet:

So you see, she can’t wear clothing because she breathes through her skin! These ludicrous narrative justifications don’t “make it okay.” Regardless of whatever absurd explanation a game might provide, it should go without saying that the only real functionality of outfits like this is to titillate the presumed young straight male player base.

But is that the case with both of these? How can we tell? Again, fanservice in and of itself isn’t a problem, and a female AI that’s learned that it can seduce or bemuse men by presenting itself naked seems more sexist towards men than women (ie “Show some skin and men fall all over themselves for you!”). As for Quiet, the idea that she needs to absorb oxygen (ie “breathe”) through her skin is an interesting one and has that implication (it would be a plot hole if she was still fully clothed). So how can we tell how to interpret the character and these reasons without doing what Sarkeesian does and dismissing them out of hand?

Remember, the idea is that the “Ms Fanservice” character has those traits only or primarily to provide an excuse for the fanservice. So if that trait isn’t just for that, it should matter to the character for important reasons beyond that. It should become a character point and, ideally, a plot point. So, for example, for Quiet there should be a scene or scenes where you can’t take her along or where you have an issue because you can’t have her swim out because she’d be submerged in water and thus would drown, even with a breathing apparatus. Or, alternatively, you can have her complain about how men don’t take her seriously because she can’t dress more modestly. In fact, you can pair her with someone who dresses modestly and discuss the differences in attention they get from men for that. There are numerous ways to make the point be important to the character more than it just being something that lets then dress sexily, and this is arguably precisely the sort of thing that Sarkeesian wants in how characters in games are built, thought about, and characterized.

I say “arguably” because when Sarkeesian gets into talking about sexuality she seems to kinda miss the “characterization” part:

The Last of Us: Left Behind features female characters who express romantic feelings for each other, rather than exuding a sexualized energy that is directed outward at the player.

And in Firewatch, though it’s only heard and not seen, Delilah expresses sexual desire for the player character, Henry.

Now, I originally had a throw-away point about Sarkeesian potentially treating workplace sexual harassment as healthy sexuality, since Delilah and Henry were co-workers. And then I went to look it up, because I wanted to make sure that I was right and discovered two things: 1) Delilah is Henry’s supervisor and 2) Henry is married to someone who is not, well, Delilah. Thus, one of Sarkeesian’s main examples of healthy female sexuality, in fact, fits the paradigmatic definition of sexual harassment and encourages adultery (because there’s no indication that Henry and his wife have an open relationship). How can she think that that is a reasonable and good depiction of sexuality?

So, even interpreting her charitably leads to a conclusion that Sarkeesian does not consider a supervisor suggesting a sexual encounter to an employee to be sexual harassment … if it’s a woman doing it to a man. After all, she constantly exempts cases where men are put into similar positions to women in her tropes analysis on the basis that given the social context it’s not an issue for men as it is for women. But here, the reason that a supervisor approaching an employee for sex is seen as always being or at least risking harassment is because of the power imbalance; the employee always has to worry if this will impact their job. Sarkeesian can try to claim — a la the sociological definitions of sexism and racism — that men have power and women don’t, but here it is the woman who definitely has power here. She could try to use the idea that the man would never turn down an attractive woman in this situation and so doesn’t this should be seen as always welcome (and so we should ignore the general case that even if welcome it’s a bad idea) but this is just fostering the idea that men want sex with all women all the time, which is as harmful as many of the attitudes she decries. She could argue that because of the way society is he needs to fear losing his job less than a woman would, except that female supervisors can still retaliatory fire and a man that’s out of a job is looked on more negatively than a woman would be. About the only argument that’s left is that he could get a job easier than a woman could, which isn’t true in this economy.

And none of that would justify the encouragement to adultery.

Fortunately — or unfortunately — it’s equally consistent with what Sarkeesian has shown in the past to conclude that she didn’t really play or understand the game when she used this as an example, or that she didn’t think of the implications of the scene. Pick the one that you like the best.

Now, moving onto the examples, what Sarkeesian gripes about in other examples is this:

But sadly, when consensual sex does occur, it’s often presented as a transaction or as a reward for player accomplishment. Whether that accomplishment is completing quests, or just choosing all the right dialogue options to get the sex cutscene to play.

So, returning to “Firewatch”, we note that in that game you can choose how to react to Delilah, including ignoring her. So, presumably, if you ignore her, this scene won’t happen. Thus, you’re going to have to choose the right dialogue options to get that scene. Otherwise, she’ll offer to have sex with you no matter how you treat her, which isn’t healthy sexuality at all. Thus, it is just as much a transaction as anything else she talks about. Also, this implies that in her first example that relationship occurs no matter what you do, which takes away player agency and so in allowing them to create the story to their standards. That’s a huge step backwards for games! Modern games are improved by allowing the player to decide who the PC loves or doesn’t love, hates or doesn’t hate, kills or doesn’t kill. For some reason, Sarkeesian wants to take huge leap backwards in order to prevent, it seems, straight male characters from having any fun she doesn’t like. Okay, okay, that’s too harsh, but she wants to take away something that I really like: the choice of romances and the quests and dialogues that lead to them.

But even as a point of female characters expressing their sexuality, the point fails miserably. See, those quests and dialogue options consist, in most games — Bioware being the leader in these sorts of interactions — of you picking the dialogue options that are right given the character that you are talking to. Heck, even the dialogues are tailored to the person you are interacting with. In Conception II — a game that Sarkeesian will dislike intensely — your interactions with the characters that build towards getting a relationship with them are in conversations that relate to specifics about the characters. You have to help Miss Chloe balance singing and being a teacher, Fuuko with her confidence (and with a ghost), Narika with her fear of public speaking, Torrii with her odd inventions, Feene with her photography and loneliness, Serina with her, sigh, A-Cup Angst and Ellie with the fact that she’s not quite human. Even the thinly veiled analogy for sex — so thinly veiled that it might as well not be there — is actually critical to advancing the relationship, which is why I, myself, never managed to get a relationship in that game when I played through it, because I stopped doing the “Classmating” because I had enough Star Children and wanted to save the Bond Points for combat. Sure, you’re “choosing the right options”, but the right options depend on the person you’re dealing with, and you have to also spend time with them to increase the bond with them.

Also, in Dragon Age, in order to build your relationship with someone you had to give the right responses to other people based on what that person wanted you to do. This is what drove my character to move from a bitter, cynical City Elf to a much better person because of the love of Leiliana, as she had to act nicer to others to keep that relationship up. Again, it’s choosing the right options, but the right options for the character you are dealing with, meaning that it forces you to think of them as more than just an object for sex.

And the quest that I had to do to get the relationship with Josephine in Dragon Age: Inquisition? Challenge her arranged suitor to a duel that I, as a mage, was going to lose and then when asked why I did it say that it was because I loved her. That’s definitely thinking of that as more than simply for sex.

Maybe Sarkeesian doesn’t mean these sorts of things when she talks about only choosing the right dialogue options, but we don’t know because she laments how rare “healthy sexuality” is and then never mentions these as examples. So does she know about them and hate them for some reason, or does she not know about these examples from, well, relatively well-known games that follow the model she’s criticizing? Who can say?

In conclusion, Sarkeesian does a more shallow analysis of the “Stripperific” trope than has already been done. We need to look more at how the outfits fit the character than simply say “Look, boobies!” and think that that reflects some kind of interesting meaning, and Sarkeesian fails on multiple levels to do that, ironically leaving herself open to criticisms from feminists, non-feminists, and gamers in general. A quite astounding achievement for one small video to pull off …

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2 Responses to “Tropes vs Women: Lingerie is not Armor”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    But we rarely question the extremely widespread association of sexualization and power when it’s applied to female characters.

    It’s almost as if our culture is more obsessed and concerned with female sexuality and visual characteristics than male characteristics, and a smart and powerful female character would exploit this and work it to her advantage, whereas men don’t affect people nearly as much via looks and instead utilize power primarily through their (normally) superior strength and fighting ability.

    Surely not.

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