Anita Sarkeesian has put up her latest Tropes vs Women video, “Strategic Butt Coverings”. To my surprise, this video is actually shorter than her bonus mini-episode on DLC. As it turns out, this is how things are going to be from now on as she tries to finish the series off. From her Kickstarter post on the subject:
We plan on completing Tropes vs Women in Video Games within the year but it’s going to look a little bit different. Instead of incredibly long videos that focus on one trope and deconstruct hundreds of examples, we are going to break it down into smaller bite-size pieces. We’re going to publish shorter, more focused episodes, by taking the theories and concepts from the remaining tropes and presenting them in 5-10 minute long videos around a very focused topic.
Huh. The main issue I had with most of the videos so far was that there was too much focus on trying to find and sometimes force examples as if posting a huge amount of examples would say something interesting, instead of taking a small number of examples, making reasonable claims based on that, and focusing more on the analysis and making it deeper and better argued. It turns out that generating all of those examples was taking up too much of Sarkeesian’s life, and so now she wants to focus on smaller videos that hopefully she’ll be able to get out faster so that she finally finishes the series. There are two important things about that related to my post here:
1) I’m going to end up saying far more about this specific topic than Sarkeesian does, and this may well carry forward into the future.
2) Given this, it would seem that videos will have to be focused and not have the time to drift into irrelevant topics that would be mostly aside jokes.
So, let’s look at this video, “Strategic Butt Coverings”, which has as one of its main points … the idea that game designers are going to great lengths to cover up the butts of male protagonists, a point so important to Sarkeesian that it’s pretty much what inspires the title of the video.
Anyway, onto the content:
Third-person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full-body view. A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games, which are presented from a third-person perspective wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen, a camera orientation which, along with the sexualized clothing the designers chose to outfit her in, places a tremendous amount of emphasis on that part of her body.
In dozens of third-person games with playable female characters, the character’s butt is brought to the forefront and that’s where the player’s focus is directed.
Let’s contrast the way that women’s butts are emphasized with the sometimes absurd lengths taken to cover up or hide men’s butts. If some of this footage looks jerky, that’s because in some games, trying to get a glimpse of male characters’ butts can feel a bit like wrestling with the camera.
Common ways men’s butts are hidden are by preventing the player from seeing below the character’s waistline, or employing a more over-the-shoulder camera angle, which has the added benefit of keeping the character’s butt safely out of the frame. The most amusing solution is to simply include a cape, tunic, long coat or very conveniently positioned piece of tattered fabric which actively prevents the player from getting a clear or sustained look at the protagonist’s butt.
The problem is that this idea that the male protagonist’s butt is habitually covered up in first-person games is, well, generally false. In all sorts of games, especially the games I play — RPGs and MMOs — and especially in the games where you can create your own character and choose their gender — which is the majority of the games I actually play, unless I’m playing JRPGs — in the third person view you get to see the entire character (see TOR, KotOR, Sith Lord, Suikoden III, Shadow Hearts (which is generally only a male character), Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc). This has led to a very common joke — so common that even I’ve heard it — which I’ll illustrate with Shamus Young’s take on it from his series on LOTRO:
So… character creation time. I’m going to play as a female, because, hey – if I’m going to be staring at an ass for hundreds of hours, it might as well be…
…shaped like a dumpling? Hey baby you got any fries to go with that bowl of yogurt?
Typically, if you play a third-person game, you are going to be staring at a butt for the entire game. Male gamers have joked that this is one main reason to make the main character female, because at least then you’ll be staring at a woman’s butt instead of a man’s butt. And in the Mass Effect case … it didn’t seem to work based on Sarkeesian’s own comments on the game.
And, as it turns out, one of her main examples — Batman in the Arkham games — is plain wrong:
For the purposes of this video I tried to get a glimpse of Batman’s rear end, but it’s as if his cape is a high-tech piece of Wayne Industries equipment designed to cover up his butt at all costs. I like to jokingly refer to this aspect of a male character’s costume as the strategic butt covering.
Except that you can get capeless costumes for old Bats, and it turns out that Nightwing is in the game and can be played for a period of time, and he doesn’t have a cape. In both cases, you’d get to see their butts. So if they were going to extreme lengths to hide them, they didn’t do a very good job of it.
Of course, not all games with male protagonists keep the character’s butt obscured or out of frame like these games do.
And, in fact, most of the third person games don’t do it at all. So why did you name your video after this supposed phenomenon that doesn’t really exist?
The real issue is one of emphasis and definition; a significant portion of third-person games with female protagonists call attention to those characters’ butts in a way that’s meant to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.
Yeah, we know that sometimes or even often games draw attention to the sexual characteristics of women in odd ways. Shamus Young highlights the issue with Miranda in Mass Effect 2, and this was a well-known trope among gamers longer before his latest series, again, so well know that I’d heard about it. I believe that Chuck Sonnenberg over at SF Debris brought it up in his series on The Old Republic, commenting on the exaggerated sway of the hips of the female characters, which made me wonder why I hadn’t noticed it (reason: that’s the one MMO where I only have one female character, which I haven’t played since I joined the first time). Mostly, however, that’s in cutscenes, or in general costuming. And the latter, at least, is something that Sarkeesian has already talked about. So beyond the almost non-existent trope of strategically covering up the butts of men — so limited that it’s not even worth calling a trope, really — there’s nothing new here. Surely if Sarkeesian is going to have more focused videos here, she’s going to have to focus on things that are really there and are really important, no?
Rather, the solution is to deemphasize the rear ends of female characters, so that players are encouraged not to ogle and objectify these women, but to identify and empathize with them as people. This is not an impossible task given that game designers do this all the time with their male characters. It’s time they started consistently doing it with their female characters, too.
Why can’t we do both?
In the same post that I found out about the extra costumes for Batman in the Arkham series, a commenter mentioned JRPGs and their issues with sexualizing characters. Which is true; the character in JRPGs are often dressed up in very sexual and often fetishy costumes, with an emphasis on their … attributes (usually not the butt, oddly enough). Yet, JRPGs that do that also often push us to identify and empathize with them as well, particularly the “dating sim” type of games, where thinking of them as people is rather the point of having to choose which one, if any, you end up with at the end of the game. Let’s take Conception II as an example. It is a very juvenile game, where your female companions dress in very sexy outfits for your dungeon-crawling, tend to be very well-endowed — except for Serina in her normal form, which is a character point for her — and they combine this with rampant Gainaxing (I noticed this with Miss Chloe in the dungeon after one of her special moves). Given that the Classmating mechanism is a thinly veiled allusion to sex — so thinly veiled that, well, there might as well not be a veil at all — this is a game that should embody the sort of objectification that Sarkeesian talks about.
Except … all of the female companions are interesting characters with distinct personalities, so much so that you can’t help but like some and dislike others. My favourites were Chloe Genus, Narika Shina, and Fuuko Amicis. Chloe is smart, strong, capable, caring, and responsible, and was my favourite. Narika is caring, shy and a little unsure of her own abilities, but is just so incredibly nice that it all works. Fuuko is nice as well, but lacks confidence in a way that annoyed me more, but she’s also more outgoing than Narika. As for the others, Torii is utterly flaky but in a way that others might find cute, Ellie is cute and fun and funny but still a bit too flaky for my tastes, Feene tries to mix, it seems to me, eccentricity and cool elegance and it doesn’t work for me, while Serina has a massive chip on her shoulder that just irritates me. But all of them could be interesting and could be interesting to get to know depending on what you personally like. While they all may be somewhat stereotypical, they are also people that you are supposed to get to know and care about, and literally bond with (bond points are the mechanism by which you do good things like produce Star Children and pull off special abilities). You do that by hanging out with them, finding out what is going on in their life, and what they like and don’t like. In short, you treat them like people.
In Persona 3, given the right outfit, you might get a good look at Mitsuru’s butt when she gets a critical. And yet her personality, in game and in her S-link, is developed enough to almost make her my favourite female character ever. Sexy to men and a person aren’t mutually exclusive … and often have to be combined.
Given that, Sarkeesian is focusing too much on shallow appearance in determining if a female character is objectified. What we have to do is look at appearance and, more importantly, how the character is portrayed, and in particular how they are portrayed — ie in what depth and detail — when compared to all the other characters in the game. A game that characterizes no one doesn’t objectify a female character if they fail to characterize her, and a game that characterizes everyone except the main love interest objectifies her even if they put her in baggy pants and don’t show her butt. We need to look deeper, not shallower, if we are going to make games better, keeping what people like about them and adding things that ought to be there.