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Sexism is sexy: Women leads in video games

posted on March 6th, 2007 by christian

The debate about female leads in gaming is fascinating because it rarely makes sense. There’s a lot of talk about who the best and worst women in gaming are, what can be done in the future, and of course, plenty of discussion over who is the sexiest. The main thing we have to realize is that with the current state of gaming, the role of good heroines is a sticky one, and sometimes I wonder if all the right issues are being mentioned.

My first concern is that the gamers pushing for “strong female leads” aren’t pushing hard enough, or rather, they don’t know what exactly that means. I think about the truly strong women characters in games, and other than maybe Alyx Vance, I draw a blank. I know the names that are often waved around like spear, but I don’t agree with them. Lara Croft is “strong” in an almost supernatural way, which makes her hard to swallow and distills her down to a sex symbol. Beyond Good and Evil’s Jade might be strong, but I can’t really say because Ancel’s unfinished epic did a poor job of developing her character. All I know is that she can fight, just like an endless list of other game characters. Then there’s the ever favorite Samus Aran. I love Samus as a character, but not because she’s a girl who can “kick some butt”, but because she’s a character who goes through hell and back in each of her adventures, and I get to go along on the trip with her.

I’m trying to remember the last lap dance a man gave in a video game.

The point is that none of the above characters are strong because they are women. You could easily put a man into any one of those games without serious detriment. The only possible exception is (believe it or not) Lara; I had seen it theorized in the early days of Tomb Raider that some gamers made a connection with her where they felt they had to protect and guide her through a dangerous trip, but that angle goes to shit pretty quickly as the series delves further and further into mediocrity. It appears that all you need to do to please the intellectual crowd is make an ass kicking character and switch the gender. Double points if she isn’t overly sexualized. That seems to be as juvenile as the sex objects we see dominating the majority of games these days.

But what can be done? That question is difficult to answer. It is obvious that there are many other ways to portray woman characters, such as showing how they might be strong in general, or when dealing with something concerning their nature as a woman. For example, Jade takes care of several children in her lighthouse. How much does the game actually explore those maternal emotions? Why not take a character like The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3 and further explore her role as a leader in a world of men?

Of course this is all easier said than done. Quite frankly, it seems that developers are stuck in a catch 22. No one is going to eschew the “hawt babes”, because sex sells in any medium, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to make money. At the same time, we should not quickly accuse them of being afraid to push the boundaries. If I asked the men reading this how many of them would shy away from a novel written by a woman about a heroine and the issues in her life, we’d all scoff and say “not me!” But raise your hand if you’ve honestly read Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, or Rebecca at your own leisure (and actually enjoyed them fully). The crowd thins out. Now apply this question to the entire gamer community. I bet the percentage drops even lower. There isn’t much incentive to push for deeper stories and characters when so many men are afraid to admit that when it comes to characters and conflicts in literature, we haven’t lost the “girls are icky” mindset.

It’s impossible to take Samus seriously when she’s out of her suit and in form fitting spandex.

This then leads into the issue of sexism and gender roles, an absolute minefield that media even older and more experienced than video games have trouble navigating. Discrimination and bigotry have been strong for just about all of human history, and even as society seems to get better about it, some people stop and think – are women and men essentially the same? Does gender predispose us to certain things after all? Should we worry about this thing or that? There’s a lot of work to do when it comes to gender relations, and gaming is going to have to be careful about it, just like any other medium.

Here is a fantastic example, courtesy of selectbutton. What if Shadow of the Colossus were about a woman reviving her dead lover? It’s an interesting question, with some interesting responses. Some would say it would have no effect. Others might feel that it’s stereotypical, that all this character can think about is love and romance. Others might be shocked at seeing an ordinary girl acting so violently towards the beasts (more so than the ordinary male Wanderer). Just changing the gender of a character, leaving everything else the same, can have a drastic effect on our reactions. Of course, one could also play devil’s advocate and claim that most games are so much based around sex, violence and action-hero themes that in the end gender won’t make that much of a difference for the industry as a whole.

Gender in gaming is one of the trickiest subjects out there. It is also one worth fully exploring. To do this, we not only need some developers to be a bit risky, but we also need industry voices to take the topic more seriously. Far too often we hear recaps of speeches at a conference or expo about female characters or female gamers, only to find the solutions are the same cut-and-dry fluff about feelings and emotion and communication. I hate to break it to you folks, but real women aren’t that simple, and neither is the answer to this issue.

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10 Comments

  1. TrueTallus said on March 8, 2007:

    Neat article, and good on you for not copping to a simple answer.  I guess I’d say there are at least couple more gender exclusive heroines than Lara: Parasite Eve 2 and Silent Hill 3 protagonists both dealt with  themes of motherhood.  Silent Hill 3, in particular (depending on how far out there you’re willing to let your interpretations go), had a fair amount of framing involving female sexuality and reproductive rights issues.  I’d also say that the extensive inner monolouge for both Aya and Heather helped flesh out the characters and lent them substance- a substance that in many cases was tied to thier gender identity. 

  2. jay said on March 8, 2007:

    This topic is very confusing to me. I think I’d argue games should work on making better characters in general. Duke Nukem is 2 dimensional and an objectification of male sexuality, even though we don’t usually think of it that way because most gamers are men. We don’t need stronger women, or women doing things that are womanly like having babies, we need complex characters that aren’t objectified.

    Laura Croft could be considered a good female lead if she weren’t so obviously torn from a 15 year old’s wet dream. Carla from Indigo Prophecy is another example of a decently done character that is entirely destroyed by her comical figure. On the other hand, designers can make flat women who only want to shop, or only want to kill, or only want to do any one thing and they are still 1 dimensional boring characters. There’s nothing wrong with weakness, which many Hollywood movie writers and game designers forget. A strong lead isn’t invincible and always right, because if you are those things you are not very interesting as a character. A woman who is emotionally weak but physically strong, or vice versa, can be interesting, whatever stereotypes it may defy or accept.

  3. Matt said on March 9, 2007:

    Good points, Jay. Developers need to make good characters first and foremost. I recently played Panzer Dragoon Orta, and SmileBit seemed to do a good job with creating a genuine character within Orta. She has been chained for her entire life, and knows nothing of the warmth a kind soul can bestow on someone. So she comes off as bland and confused, but because that’s exactly how a person in her shoes would react. The one scene where she politely asks the Dragon to follow Abadd. She’s not going to be like "Alright, let’s follow that bastard!" No, the only thing that seems to know anything is Abadd, so she has to follow him. Then, because she’s been a slave, she needs to ask, and not tell. That’s how a defined character should play out. Developers shouldn’t assume women only want to have babies or look hot just because they’re a woman. It’s who the individual is under the hood that defines her actions, not the gender. I know there’s some basic "instinctual" things that would be interesting, like Jade’s motherly aspects that Christian hit on, but don’t make it so stereotypical. But that SotC example would probably come off as stereotypical, in just basic terms. There would be people complaining about it, even though I think the game would be able to go past that kind of mentality with the fact that nothing is ever told of the relationship. It still could have been her brother for all we know. But that’s a damn good point on the situation.

  4. mackenzie said on February 2, 2008:

    hot game

  5. Yaoumei said on March 14, 2008:

    So far there are only a few games I have played that have female leads who are just females. Grimgrimore is one who has a sweet female lead, but then one of the characters she interacts with was barely dressed, and just used as a sexy symbol. Another is Odin’s Sphere, and Suikoden III. Sadly to say though, you can pick and choose they titles out of thousands of games, there are that few.

    I love the Metroid games as well, but as you can in Smash for the Wii, they messed that up. I’ve heard from plenty of guys that they get off on seeing her jump around in that spandex.

  6. jay said on March 14, 2008:

    I am actually also very disappointed that Nintendo made Samus a porn star. Way to kill any good will created by making a strong woman lead.

  7. Jimmy said on March 23, 2010:

    Video Game Women and Sexy go hand in hand. Besides, if you make the Female character a “Plain Jane” somebody will make a Mod or Skin that makes her sexy (As she should be).

  8. kat said on May 17, 2010:

    How about encouraging developers to embrace uniformity?

    I cannot play video games, especially adventure/RPG ones where the females are skipping around with barely there clothing while juxtaposed against armor laden males. Seriously, it makes me chuckle. It simply looks preposterous. What does the thought process consist of… – “Yeah! Let me strut around in my skintight bikini to take care of those monster hoards! It just makes so much sense!”

    To me, it is not cool, or sexy, or “hawt”; it is merely silly. I feel the same way about male characters who go around in those open-chested, body-grafted outfits.

    Silly, silly, silly…

  9. christian said on May 17, 2010:

    kat, thank you for a fine comment to this old article. I might have to do an update sometime.

  10. thelawnz said on June 11, 2010:

    i agree that samus was made into a sex object in smash bros. brawl. but zero suit samus is my second best character. i think she plays a fine role in the other games though. and she is attractive.
    signed – male metroid addict

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