Tropes vs Women: Sinister Seductress

The next video of Anita Sarkeesian’s that I’d like to examine is the one on the “Sinister Seductress”. To be honest, on re-reading it to post about it it seems to me that Sarkeesian kinda mailed this one in. It bridges different topics on the matter as if they could easily be subsumed under the same topic, but doesn’t really work to do that. Sure, there’s potentially a link between using sexual elements in a disturbing way to bring horror and using a sexually seductive exterior to hide an inner horror, which you can link to female characters and particularly villains using sexuality to achieve their ends, but the main problem is that using sexuality to generate horror is quite different than using it as a tactic and plot element to show how a female villain achieves her ends, and even the horror cases rely on radically different elements in order to achieve their end. Getting from those disparate tropes to one overwhelming case is going to be tough …

With all of these character types, their femaleness or sexuality is an intrinsic part of what is intended to make them dangerous or repulsive. As a result, when male heroes defeat them, their victory is often explicitly gendered, emphasizing that the male protagonist has overcome the female threat and reasserted his dominance and control.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to have female villains who don’t reinforce the idea that female sexuality or femaleness itself is threatening or repulsive.

… unless, of course, you simply assert that the main thrust behind these disparate elements is an attempt to make femaleness or female sexuality repulsive or dangerous. Then you can do it without, well, really arguing for or understanding why these elements are used.

Let’s look at how Sarkeesian talks about the first element, in talking about Doom 3’s Vagary:

One of those new monsters was the Vagary, a monstrosity with the upper half of a naked woman and the lower half of a giant spider, who also happens to be pregnant with a demon fetus in her abdomen.

It’s no mistake that the Vagary blends female sexuality and fertility with elements designed to be unsettling or horrifying. The book The Making of Doom 3 reveals that the game’s creative team summed up the driving concept for the Vagary with the equation, “sexy + gross = creepy.” What the makers of Doom 3 may not have realized is that this equation was in no way new, original, or innovative. On the contrary, by singling out the Vagary, the only female enemy in the game, for her gender and using this to make her uniquely repulsive, the designers were participating in a very long tradition of creating female creatures who function to demonize femaleness itself.

Well, chances are that they already realized the link between sexual attraction and disgust that can be an important element in horror. If you take something that the viewer or player would normally find sexually attractive and pervert it in such a way that it is, in fact, disgusting, that can engender a specific horror reaction; one reacts stronger to the disgust than one would to something that is just merely disgusting. But the main reason for this is that it is the juxtaposition of the highly appealing and desirable sexual elements with the gross ones; normally, one would find it incredibly appealing, but not in the way it has been presented. In that sense it doesn’t serve to demonize femaleness because it relies on us, in fact, revering it. It can be argued that this works better for female sexuality than for male because in general neither men nor women find female sexuality — at least sexual presentations — inherently disgusting, but both men and women find male sexuality itself inherently disgusting and/or something to be feared. It’s only if you wouldn’t normally find, for example, naked breasts on your screen something disgusting, to be feared, or to be looked away from that your urge to look away now strikes you as particularly horrifying. Thus, it relies on female sexuality not being demonized.

And this carries on to the second category, which is the externally sexually desirable exterior hiding the monster inside. If people — men particularly — spend a lot of time and effort to try to get sex from them, it ends up changing from someone getting something wonderful to having that all utterly dashed by evil, which then feeds into the horror. However, the link between this and female sexuality in particular is a little weak. Sarkeesian lists some examples:

Among the most famous female mythological creatures are the Sirens, whose voices were irresistibly alluring to men who sailed near their island and heard their songs. But the music of the Sirens was as dangerous as it was captivating, and the sailors who were seduced by the sound soon found themselves shipwrecked and stranded. Some interpretations characterize the Sirens as cannibals who murdered the shipwrecked men and feasted on their flesh.

And there are endless other mythological creatures created explicitly to demonize women such as the succubus: a female demon who sexually lures and seduces men; the harpy: a screeching bird creature with the face of a woman; and of course the classic witch, a dangerous myth that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of real women across Europe and the American colonies in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Well, first, I’d like to point out the oddity of listing “witches” here, when later Sarkeesian again talks about how great and non-stereotypical Kreia from KotOR 2 is … despite her being old, unattractive, harsh, and someone who relies heavily on magic and, in fact, often “black” magic (Dark Side powers). Sure, she’s arguably Grey, but her powers lean more Dark Side than Light Side, as you’d expect from, well, the main villain of the piece. How is it that Kreia is non-stereotypical, while someone like Morinth from Mass Effect 2 is, and how does Kreia escape critical analysis as the main villain — and, for a long time, a party member — while Morinth, an option side character gets called out as being particularly problematic? Even when, as Shamus Young says her potential introduction is clearly a major plot point for the character you’re really supposed to recruit, recruiting her is something that almost no characters have any reason to do — good characters won’t want to recruit a psychopath over a space paladin, and evil characters have no reason to trust to want to put up with Morinth’s tendencies — and the main victim — given much empathy through dialogue with various characters — and the only one that has to be involved is a woman. Sarkeesian would have much more reason to complain about Samara’s outfit than about Morinth (which, yes, Shamus complains about as well).

Second, there are no shortage of male monsters that fulfill similar lines. For example, we have a direct link from succubi to incubi, which is the male version and works in pretty much the same way. And mixes of human and monster are often seen as, well, monstrous, and so are often used in horror. You can’t get from harpies to demonization of femaleness.

And finally, while she mentions the Sirens, she ignores the long standing ur-example of the “monster behind the incredibly attractive mask”: vampires. Despite being a self-identified Buffy the Vampire Slayer enthusiast. At any rate, the prototypical vampire is a strangely attractive man who seduces women and kills or turns them into his servants. While I’m sure that Sarkeesian can find some misogyny there, what she can’t find is demonization of female sexuality in the vampire itself. It is more reasonable to think of vampires as representing what was the worst view of male sexuality: the outwardly charming exterior that hides the demon inside that defiles the innocent women who fall for it.

Now, I’m not going to argue that vampires demonize male sexuality, because that would be a stupid argument. What I am going to argue is that the mix of sex and monsters, titillation and horror, is a long standing and effective on in horror, that has nothing to do with demonizing sexuality. Like the first case, it relies on sexuality being desirable to be the bait in the trap, and the horror often comes from the conflicting feelings of attraction and fear. There’s a reason why a lot of vampire seduction scenes are, in fact, so seductive.

So, we have to turn then to the final category and the one that is most related to the title of the video: female villains that use their sexuality to their advantage in order to get what they want:

This tradition of sexualized, evil women in the temptress mold includes characters ranging from the Dark Queen of the Battletoads games to Elizebet from Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. In Hitman: Absolution, if players track the target, Layla, to a secret room in the penthouse, she strips for Agent 47 in an attempt to distract him before drawing a gun and trying to kill him.

The problem with these representations is not that they depict female characters who are sexual. It’s the way that sexuality is presented, as a threat or a weapon rather than as something to be enjoyed by these women and those they choose to consensually share it with. It’s a false notion of female sexuality rooted in ancient misogynistic ideas about women as deceptive and evil.

Um, except that these women are aware that they are attractive, are aware that they can use that to get what they want, and are not averse to using it to get what they want. Morinth is a bad example because she wasn’t a psychopath just using sex to get what she wanted — killing people — but instead was someone who needed to feed on people. She’s definitely more in the “vampire” camp than the “vamp” camp. But all of these women villains are, in fact, comfortable with their sex and sexuality, so much so that they are willing to use it to their advantage whenever it would do so. The standard criticism of this dynamic is actually the opposite, that it presents the world as “bad girls” are comfortable with — and enjoy — their sexuality in any way they can while “good girls” save it for marriage or for “the right man”. But these “bad girls” in fact treat their sexuality more the way Sarkeesian would want them to, despite her protests otherwise.

Once again, Sarkeesian misunderstands the tropes she is criticizing, to the point of criticizing one trope for the things that she ought to like instead of the things she ought not to like. Given this, it is unlikely that she could change these tropes to something that would maintain the purpose of the tropes and thus the unique elements they provide while removing the things that she finds problematic, because she finds the use of any aspect of the trope itself problematic, not the problematic elements themselves. But these tropes exist and are popular for reasons, and I am not convinced that the reasons Sarkeesian asserts for their popularity are the right ones, to say the least.


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