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Women and/in Video Games


I was remembering myself playing a video game earlier, while at the same time noticing one of my friends got a new girlfriend, and then remembering that, when I went to see an action movie recently, this friend had asked me if he could bring that now-girlfriend along. Then, the three thoughts collided in this. Why is it that women tend to like action movies, as do men, but many women don’t particularly care for video games, at least the way many men do?

Notice I’m using the absolute term “many” instead of the relative term “most.” I’m trying desperately to avoid stepping into stereotype territory.

Anyway, after pondering this for a while, I thought of something that had been bugging me concerning various video games I’ve been playing in the past. I’m particularly interested in the stories video games present, and by extension I love getting to know the characters in the story. But one thing that has bugged me recently is noticing how the female characters in video games (at least, the female lead characters) always tend to be cookie-cut from one of three designs. Male leads are generally varied in character (let’s forget Final Fantasy V exists for a moment), but female leads usually get the same general treatment. Or, one of a few general treatments.

First, is sexualization. It’s always bugged me how female fighters in almost every game apparently decide it’s a fantastic idea to wear armor that covers up only their chest, crotch, and rear end. Actually, in many cases it’s just their crotch and…nipples, I guess? Honestly, the breasts surrounding the nipples are basically a common sight these days.

Now, being a straight male, it’s not as if I’m complaining from a visual standpoint, but…when these female characters are supposed to be important to the plot, it’s irritating because it makes it hard to take them seriously. What if Hermione Granger walked around in a string bikini all the time instead of school robes? Again, if that were the case, it’s not as if I wouldn’t, ahem, take in the sights, but you have to admit it would make the character much more difficult to take seriously.

It is true that women are frequently sexualized in movies, but at least in that case the sexualization doesn’t involve wearing a bikini in the middle of the arctic tundra or pumping up the women’s breasts to twice the size of their head. (And to be honest…eww…) Additionally, though men are frequently shown shirtless with bulging muscles (which can similarly be seen as an impossible-to-obtain standard of manliness, and is again seen in movies), generally, a dominating man with huge muscles will actually be taken more seriously as he is deemed more powerful and/or important.

I know some guys might call me a traitor for saying this, but I just calls ’em as I sees ’em. I’m definitely not one of those male feminists, you can be completely sure of that–but really, let’s get some realism, no? Would YOU want to play as, say, Edward Vampire-Emo? Nope–because while it is attractive to (many) women, men just can’t understand why. Men CAN presumably understand why women are attracted to someone like Ryan Gosling, just as women could probably understand why I and many others are attracted to, say, Mila Kunis. But if women openly wanted all men to be like Edward Shiny-Chest, you have to admit you’d probably be pissed off. Or, what if all the male characters in movies started being portrayed similar to Edward (er…Stalkerhands? Get it, like Scissorhands? Ugh…)? Wouldn’t that make you rage about how none of the men in movies are real?

Second, is the way many female characters are put into stereotypical roles or given stereotypical personalities. Now, I’ve never played Metroid: Other M, which apparently sparked rage in people for what they did to Samus’s character, and I’m not clear on those detailes, but that game aside–Samus is bad ass. An actual woman inside a robot suit, kicking ass everywhere SHE goes. I remember when I first met Samus, while playing the original Super Smash Bros. When I called that robot I was controlling “him” and my friend corrected me, I was shocked. (eventually I discovered there was something called the “Zero suit” and…well, let’s just say that yes, she is a woman) Why? Because women just usually aren’t portrayed as badasses like that. It’s unfortunate but it’s also been the trend. So what kinds of roles DO women usually get to play?

Mainly, it’s the “damsel in distress” role. By that, I mean, a woman who has no power herself, except when pushed by other characters. Take, for exmaple, Terra (Tina if playing the Japanese version) from Final Fantasy VI. When you first meet her, and play as her, she is basically the quintessential damsel in distress, who is all emo and weak until she is saved by Locke. Pretty much the same thing happens with Celes, the other adult female character in the game, though not a lead. But Terra goes through almost the entire game as the damsel in distress, even at one point literally deciding to quit to become a stay at home “mother” (though not of her own biological kids) because she doesn’t like fighting. Before I go on, I want to say: there is NOTHING wrong with stay at home mothers. But the problem is it just plays further into the seeming inability of game designers to write really good, powerful female characters.

Another thing I want to make clear is that there’s also nothing wrong with softer female characters. But even softer female characters don’t have to be portrayed as if they can’t do anything for themselves. For example, Rydia of Mist from Final Fantasy IV. Unfortunately, the designers made her into an example of the previous issue. But while she is portrayed as a softer female character, she’s probably the most powerful fighter in the entire game. Dat Bahamut summon:

She is also pretty strong as a character, though soft and compassionate. Again, perhaps unlike some others, I don’t see a problem with a soft or kind female character. It’s weakness that bugs me. And kindness is not weakness–in fact, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a downright positive personality trait that provides its possessor with more credibility in my eyes. Which is why I also like the Cecil character. The weakness I’m talking about is the kind of “I’m always unsure of myself and I need help all the time” demeanor they used with Terra. Sure, she finds some inner strength (much) later on (and that’s not even a required game event!), but it would have been nice if the designers didn’t make her act so helpless up until that point.

One game worth discussing in this respect is Iji. Iji, for those who don’t know, is an indie game made with Game Maker featuring a female protagonist. In the game, Iji starts out VERY unsure of herself–but it makes total sense, and she grows immensely as a character from start to finish. In that game, Iji wakes up after an alien attack to find that she’s the only human left in the building, aside from her brother talking to her through the PA system or something, who tells her she needs to grab a gun and take out the invaders all by herself. So of course she’d be completely unsure of herself. In that game, it works. (Not to mention a great deal of “underlying” strength is implied in Iji just from the fact that she actually decided to go out and banish a hostile alien race rather than just balling up in the fetal position like I probably would have.)

Yet all too often, the unsureness and frailty is built-in from the start, for no discernible reason. And that’s where the problem starts. When there’s no reason for the sexualization, no reason for the weakness, the character starts to reek of stereotype, and as we should know from our political correctness class, stereotypes are easily offensive especially when they imply some member of a group is not to be taken seriously for no reason other than “that’s the way it’s always been.”

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