Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Myth of Gender Equality in Video Games

So much focus lately has been on the over-sexing of female characters. From Lollipop Chainsaw to the newest Hitman with the latex nuns (seriously guys?), slutting up women is still the same-ol, same-ol. However, people haven’t been touching the other end of the spectrum: women that assume more male dominated roles.

When it comes to video games we’ll typically see women in one of the following roles: sexy eye-candy or military hard ass. All of the in-betweeners are few and far, or completely down-played that they border on being unnoticeable. The NPC effect. They exist to keep the story going, they are not the story.

While people have been discussing how women are interpreted in video games as sex objects, they have been overlooking how the “military hard ass” can be equally as deprecating.

“But how is that possible? Isn’t it a good thing that women are shown in a man’s position? They’re not running around in skimpy outfits. They’re charging the battlefield, bloodied up, toe-to-toe with aliens and what-not.” My question to you is, just because a woman is taking a man’s role, does that make it equal? There is a lot more going on, typically hiding in the walls of subtext, then what is immediately apparent on the screen.

When you look at something like Gears of War 3 or Mass Effect, which are more of the atypical models of women taking combative roles, it would be easy to assume that women are being treated the same as their male counterparts. It’s a nice thought that a woman is perfectly capable of saving the world/universe/galaxy the same as a man. With Mass Effect you swap out a gender and you’re still getting the same story, the same characters, and a lot of the same interactions. Gears 3 with Anya, you get a sense that she’s just like one of the boys and not the atypical, whiny, female character in need of rescuing.

That’s the surface. Games that give the illusion that women are taking control of their destinies and the characters in their world are completely ok with it. That’s the fantasy.

There are so many other things going on outside of the primary story that subvert whatever intent developers had for these characters. These women that are meant to represent the non-sexy, non-eye-candy of the video game world are still objectified, harassed, and made to feel inferior to their male counterparts. No woman character is immune from this.

Note: Because there are so few female characters in First Person Shooters, I’ll be pulling in from other game genres where the “military hard-ass” is a dominate figure.

Issue One: Armor. There is no such thing as Boobie Plates for armor. And yet, every woman has them! Anya from Gears 3 is the tamest because it best replicates her other squad mates who all have big, hunking circle pads on their chest. Anya’s is just a bit more prominent compared to the men to indicate that she is female. Although the lack of armor covering her arms and her waist being accentuated doesn’t help matters either.

There is a great piece on Mad Art Lab titled Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits that goes into detail on why the fantasy female armor makes no sense. Even with Anya and femShep, the Boobie Plates are counterproductive. They can’t work. Men and women are not naked under their armor. They are padded up and out for additional protection and to help with movement. Have you tried running around with metal armor on without anything underneath? I haven’t, but I’d imagine it would not only be uncomfortable but painful. Imagine that metal rubbing up in your business while you’re jogging across a field. Ow. But the point is when you have those additional layers of protection, everyone becomes flat- chested.

The boob plates do nothing but accentuate a woman’s body, making her into a sexual object. Simple as that. If you want to use the femShep example take a look at her normal clothing outside of the armor, and then in the armor. She goes from a B cup to a D in armor. How? Why? It makes no sense! If anything, that would give her even less protection because the armor is made to hug her every curve; meaning that less material was used and she would be more vulnerable to damage. Hmmm…no wonder my femShep seems to lose her shield faster. Or maybe it’s because I run her through Insane mode.

Issue Two: Speaking of clothing, there’s a lack of it on the female NPC’s and in social events for your main character. When you have these types of games, again the assumption is that everyone would be covered up to fight a war. It just makes logical sense, right? Even in “down-time” male characters are still fully covered. If you’re lucky you might see a shirt with rolled up sleeves. Sexy.

The women, however, are not so fortunate. Anya’s exposed arms and fabric covered torso are just the beginning. Final Fantasy with its glory of costume porn always seems to forget to give their women pants. No, the short-shorts do not count. Even now as I think about it, Alma the Chocobo Knight from FFX probably had the most body coverage of all female Final Fantasy characters, and even she was wearing cropped pants and limited armor compared to the male Knights. Even military hard-ass Lightning from FFXIII, who oozes every bit of the female trope, wears a mini-skirt. I didn’t know skirts were part of the uniform for her job, but there you go. The men get to wear pants. Women in skirts. More power to her for being able to fight with such a tight skirt on?

When you think about, none of the primary female FFXIII characters wear pants. Even in 13-2, they wear skirts. Skorts if you want to push it, but talk about double standard. All of the men are covered and maybe giving us a little big of a forearm. Women get skirts and low-cut tops. In their resolve to try and make more Type A personality female characters, they forgot about the pants. It’s still showcasing them in a sexual manner because they can’t be perceived as anything BUT an object of desire.

The first Mass Effect does decently enough for the female characters on your crew. Excluding the boob armor, you don’t really feel that the characters are being sexualized until you pursue a romantic relationship. Even with Tali’s curve hugging suit, her presentation and characterization are not one of an object of desire. She’s still a tool being used to extract information about Saren, and we can go off into a million different directions on that one.

But when it comes to the non-Normandy crew-members, sexify! Matriarch Benezia alone is a head shake. She’s boob-tastic. I can only speculate that the reason she wears such a low cut dress is to prove how awesome her biotic powers are. Gravity would never keep that top up, so she has to keep her biotic senses active 24/7. And all of the Asari…just pick one. Any of them. If they are not in a super clingy dress, they have everything hanging out in the bars and clubs. Not to mention the constant reminder that the Asari are deemed beautiful by every race in the galaxy. More sexual eye-candy. Your only means of escape is to stay parked on your spaceship, and not get a damn thing done.

Aside, has anyone else found it odd that there are no females of the other species available anywhere in Mass Effect? It’s as though they don’t exist. But we know they do. When you get into the background of the game, you find out that every one of these species has a male and female to make bebies. Asari are the odd ones. So what the crap happened to all of the other women? You get humans, Asari, and Quarians, the latter two resembling humans. Again this is further pushing the eye-candy factor. The citadel is littered with pretty, half-naked, human-like women. Reinforcing those stereotypes.

Issue Three: Forced Romance. I’m going to use Gears 3 for this example, because it’s the most tragic. Anya is presented to us as a very strong person with a connection to her feminine attributes. She knows she’s a woman, but carries herself as a human-this combo of male and female where she doesn’t act like one gender, but both.

And then! Anya falls hopelessly into love with Marcus. One of her primary reasons for moving from Communications to the Front Line with the other gearheads is to be closer to Marcus. She has an unrequited, secret love for him. And that just knocked her into the first category of “clingy, sexy woman.”

The only thing that I can determine as to why developers keep doing this to our heroines is so that we, the female gamers, can feel some real-world connection. Because we all, apparently, have a secret love interest and are willing to bend our entire lives around just to be near that person. Right. (Please note the sarcasm oozing from the last two sentences.)

I understand the need to identify with the heroes. However, when a woman loses her shell and becomes a stereotypical character again by being that clingy girlfriend, you have lost the intent behind identifying with the character. She’s no longer this strong woman that we look up to. She’s the woman willing to completely transform her life and risking it for a man that barely knows she exists. Great. She just got typecasted again. Thanks Gears. 

Issue Four: Warrior /= sexist free zone. The future and war is not a place where sexism magically vanishes. Unfortunately. Video games make it very apparent that women are still, and always will be, fighting for equality.

I have to use Mass Effect 2 for this example, because it caused me to stop and try to determine if what happened did in fact happen. So we’re on the Omega station, signing up to join a mercenary group to take out Archangel. Or rather subvert the entire effort to take him out and add him to my team. femShep walks up to the recruiter and  the offensive dialogue of being a woman merc starts flying. Ok really guy? Do you not see the giant ass gun strapped to her back? There’s a Renegade option to punch his lights out, but I was so stunned that I couldn’t react. maleShep would never have to deal with that. At most he’d be picked on for being a human.

On the one hand, I can appreciate BW taking into account that a woman would probably have to work twice as hard just to get the recognition a man would. She’s going to get berated and questioned because of her gender. However, there’s no risk/reward system for being a woman. Any extra effort you put into the game based on your gender doesn’t pay off. To put it in another way: as femShep you hear the comments and can’t do jack crap about them. I found myself getting kind of pissed off at certain segments because now I have the viewpoint of being a woman, not a soldier. I’m jaded and the responses I hear from NPC’s put it in that light, versus the super-soldier self that my character is suppose to be.

Anya doesn’t get much better treatment. She gets called a bitch a lot in Gears. One moment is more memorable than the rest because her team attempts to protect her. (Oh how sweet. We need big strong men to help save the poor little woman and defend her honor.) But there are little bits that you hear throughout the game that reinforce the stigma. Being a soldier means you’re a man. Being a woman means you’re a bitch, slut, whore, or some combo of the three. You’re never looked at as anything but. These games do no better than those that relish in the bikini armor and latex.

For all of their attempts at realism by creating women that would be the heroes of tomorrow, females are still being held back in these types of video games. They still become objects of desire, sexual fantasy figures, and stereotyped into degrading roles that we all know too well (housewife, clingy girlfriend, sexpot, bitch, slut, I can keep going). While at the surface they may seem like much better role-models, they are no better than their gaming counterparts.

Additional Reading: Technorati and The Mary Sue

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