Tropes vs Women: All the Slender Ladies

After a few months off because I was really busy, let me return to my discussions of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs Women” series. In this one, Sarkeesian takes on body diversity and laments that it seems that there are a variety of male body types represented but that the women are all slender and arguably traditionally attractive.

Now, I’m not going to argue against body diversity. I really like the fact that when creating a character you can create using a wide variety of body types, faces, costumes, and so on and so forth. This was one of the best things about “City of Heroes”, as allowing that allowed for various superheroes and superheroines, with various powers and backstories, and even allowed you to emulate more heroes that you would otherwise. So while I’m not going to agree with Sarkeesian’s standard tough line about it all being so that they can be sexually appealing to straight male players, I think that having the choice of a wide variety of body types is good, whether that be for your male, female, or invited transgender species characters.

So there might not be much to talk about … oh:

When female characters’ bodies are liberated from the need to uphold narrow, limiting cultural beauty standards, the resulting range of representations can not only make games themselves more interesting; it can encourage us to see all women as the desirable, autonomous, fully human individuals that we are.

So this is about more than just allowing people to build their characters as they see fit, and in some sense being able to see people like themselves in games. We’re supposed to see women of all body types as desirable. This means that we aren’t going to give people the choice when building their characters, but are instead going to create characters with those body types and put them in those roles regardless of what the player — or society — really thinks someone in that role should be like.

To highlight the potential problem with this, let’s look at her examples of male body diversity. Specifically, let’s look at Street Fighter:

In Ultra Street Fighter IV, characters such as Dhalsim, Hakan, E. Honda, Rufus and Vega represent a significant range of male body types.

Except … these were pretty much all cultural or racial stereotypes. E. Honda is heavy because he’s the stereotypical sumo wrestler. Dhalsim, down to his powers, is a stereotype of India, and likely Hindu mysticism. Vega is a stereotypical Spaniard. Arguing that these represent a good example of a range of male body types is a rather odd argument to make since they are only that way because of racial stereotypes.

Which is a point that Sarkeesian misses. While she argues that male body diversity exists to allow male characters to show off their personalities, the problem is that it’s usually the other way around: the developers pick a personality and then pick a body type to emphasize that purported personality. This is usually based around a stereotypical idea of what body types go with those personalities. More importantly, this is often used to mock those body types and personalities, or to take a stereotypical idea of them in culture to do the emotional work for the writers … which is exactly the sort of thing she criticizes the character Jo Slade for doing.

Additionally, this reveals something that you can do for women that you can’t do as easily for men. The reason that they change the body types for men is that it’s harder — though not impossible — to represent differing personalities in any other way for men. For women, a lot of the visual difference in personality comes down strictly to clothing and hairstyle, but for men clothing doesn’t vary that much, and so it’s a lot harder to indicate personality that way. So it’s not unreasonable for them to stick with the same rough body type that most people find attractive in some way for women and use varying styles to reflect varying personality types. Note that in games that do rely heavily on costume and style to differentiate the personalities of male characters — the Persona games, for example — the body types don’t vary that much.

At any rate, in order to treat female characters the same as male characters here means treating female characters as stereotypically as male characters are treated. It’s interesting to note, then, that one of Sarkeesian’s examples here is of Kreia, who is presented in personality and appearance as a stereotypical witch. Note that we can contrast that with another Bioware character that fills the same “mentor” role — Wynne from Dragon Age — and note that that stereotype is not used. Flemeth and Morrigan are the witches … and don’t conform to the stereotype in appearance (Morrigan rather, ahem, visibly so). Again, Sarkeesian’s analysis seems to be based on shallow personal preference rather than real, detailed analysis, since she doesn’t mention Wynne at all and talks about how great Kreia is in multiple videos.

So, Sarkeesian is certainly not going to want women of differing body types presented as simple stereotypes nor as objects of ridicule. In order to have them be seen as, for example, desirable, she’s not going to want to give characters the option to skip them, either as playable characters or as romance options. If she goes as far as she usually wants to, this would mean creating, say, heavy women as the main character or as the main — if not only — romance option. This clashes with player choice. How many players really want to play as a heavier character? Do even heavier players, in fact, really want to play as a heavier character? Or would they rather play as someone who is at least more conventionally attractive than they are? If games are power fantasy — as so many of those criticizing games suggest — then even the audience Sarkeesian would want to appeal to here might not actually want to be forced into that role. Ironically, it might be the traditional straight male audience that might find that option surprisingly refreshing.

And the romance option becomes more problematic, because it might run into the issue that the player is forced into romancing an option that neither they nor their character would find appealing. We’ve already run into this in RPGs, which is one reason for the increasing diversity of romance options. But even doing that has its issues. If you don’t match the body type to its “stereotype” (personality), the character might be off-putting. If you do, then that’s stereotyping and not what Sarkeesian ought to want. It also runs the risk of a problem experienced with Samantha Traynor from Mass Effect 3, where male players found her the most appealing option — and, in some cases, the only appealing option — but couldn’t romance her because she was same-sex only (in my case, my Shepard was a lesbian female and so didn’t have that problem). The best way to do what Sarkeesian wants is to give the least physically attractive characters the most appealing personalities, but this could leave players with no reasonable romance option … an issue that happened to me a couple of times in “The Old Republic”. While this sometimes can’t be avoided, it hurts the game and the game playing experience if it happens. Since romance options are almost always determined by a combination of physical attractiveness and personality — like real-life romance options — this approach would make that more likely to occur.

At the end of the day, in general more player choice is good and less is bad. Sarkeesian’s attempt to insert Social Justice goals into games, however, works against player choice, or else all her desired gains vanish as most people holding the views she wants to change simply ignore all of the content … unless she forces it on them. But then it might ruin the experience even for those people she wants to help with her changes. I’m not sure a clearer example of Social Justice vs Games can be found.

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