Girls In Games—Not Just Eye Candy
Video games are seen to be the beloved hobby of men everywhere.
But for some odd reason it’s seen as a hobby mostly for men, not for women. Then of course women who actually partake in slaughtering a few zombies or saving the city of Gotham are ridiculed and insulted for their skill set.
“You shoot like a girl”
“They suck they must be a girl”
“Go back to the kitchen”
Outside of video games, females are seen as inferior; inside of video games they’re seen as ‘pieces of meat’, they’re completely over sexualized to satisfy the males that are playing these games. It’s not only that they’re seen strictly as eye candy, but the role they play in video games is rarely as the main character who saves the world, but rather the damsel in distress who is always getting into trouble, or the companion in the background providing some assistance.
For example, the ever so lovely blonde-haired blue-eyed pretty in pink Princess Peach can never seem to stay safe in the Super Mario world. The premise of the Super Mario games is easy to understand, Princess Peach is whisked away by the evil Bowser (a very violent looking turtle basically) leaving the loveable plumber Mario to save his princess. This happens in every single game. The damsel in distress can just never be safe and that’s all Princess Peach does, become captured and cry for help to be saved.
Except in Super Princess Peach
In the Super Princess Peach game released in 2005, the roles are reversed and Princess Peach must now save Mario, Luigi, and Toad. While yes, it is nice to see a game has been created with such role reversal and now a woman is the one to save the day, the game itself portrayed the female protagonist in an awful way. Princess Peach has four different abilities, all emotion based.
Now what is that saying again? Women are much more emotional than men?
These are her four abilities:
Joy: Basically a musical cyclone of happiness, changes the music to be faster and have a higher tone and pitch
Gloom: Peach cries, runs faster, jumps farther, and causes the tempo of music to slow down and be in a lower pitch
Rage: Enraged Peach catches fire making her invincible, burning her enemies and creating earthquakes when she lands, the music is significantly lower in pitch and has an angry tone.
Calm: A delighted Peach encircled in a bubble that restores her health, changes music to higher pitch and happier tone.
A game with a female leading character is always a nice change of pace considering most video games have male leads. However when there was a leading lady in the Mario franchise, they made her powers strictly emotion based. While her hero Mario destroys koopas and other silly-named enemies by bouncing on top of them or picking up power ups such as the ability to throw fire balls, the damsel can only fight off evil using her emotions. While the sexism in this game may not be blatantly obvious, it’s shown because of the emotion-based fighting and keeping Princess Peach as the pretty princess with the pink dress.
In Emma Goldman’s piece “Marriage and Love” (1910) she discusses the typical role that women are supposed to follow, an archetype if you will. The damsel in distress such as Princess Peach is the typical role they are to follow and is often the typical role women have in video games. There is a line in “Marriage and Love” that says “…condemns her to life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness”, while this does pertain to marriage one could argue this also supports the damsel in distress archetype in which the damsel is always dependent on the hero (Goldman 154). She discusses the certain role which society believe women are supposed to fill, and that is to be less than man. To be an extension of him and for women to be the lesser being in comparison to man.
Released in 2009, Bayonetta is a single-player action hack and slash video game following the title character Bayonetta, a shape shifting witch who fights using guns and magic to combat the Angels she fights in a battle between light and darkness. This sounds promising, doesn’t it? A leading lady who clearly is going to destroy everything in her path using magic and weapons. It seems like a good start for more female leads.
Well, not exactly.
The sexual themes in this video game may give Miley Cyrus a run for her money with her over-done racist and degrading VMA Performance. For Bayonetta you will have no problem understanding why this game has a mature rating. The title character wears a skin tight black body suit with a back so open that it just barely misses exposing her rear-end, and an open chest that is surprisingly not that revealing. The suit surprisingly covers a lot of skin although it clings to every curve, but that’s not exactly where the extreme sexualization lies.
Solidarity is For Miley Cyrus, while tackles the racial implications of her VMA performance it also tackles the dehumanization of the women who were participating in her performance. Racially, most leading females in video games are white women, with the exception of Mirror’s Edge in which the protagonist appears to be of Asian descent. This is an issue as it is showing Black women becoming excluded from main stream video games, as though they themselves can’t be leading women. This is much like the VMA performance in which Miley dehumanizes her backup dancers as though they can’t be important enough to be treated like human beings, just sexualized objects. Her sexualization of these backup dancers is like the sexualization of female characters, placed in games to provide a sort of fan service for the player rather than for engaging content or to serve a purpose aside from sexual appeal.
Her suit is actually controlled by her hair, (wait for it there’s more) and when she is performing a finishing move (actually called a climax) to destroy her enemy her suit seems to disappear and her hair takes on a life of its own leaving her naked as her hair performs a rather grotesque death move. Then there are her punish and torture attacks, some involve beheading while some involve a deadly spanking (very serious on that one), there’s a giant high heel boot that crushers her enemies, then there’s the most perfect example of sexualization at the 2:55 marker.
Video would better describe these movements:
(Also, there isn’t exactly blood in this video game, but there are lovely rose petals that show in place of blood)
What’s so interesting is that the creator of Bayonetta, Hideki Kamiya, also created a popular game series known as Devil May Cry another action hack and slash video game. These games are nearly identical with each other aside from different story-lines and main characters, the premise is the same: magic and guns to kill angelic or demonic beasts. Yet the main character in Devil May Cry, Dante is shown very differently. He does not wear a skin tight body suit with cutouts strategically placed; rather he wears several layers of clothing. His powers do not come from his hair, his special moves do not involve his clothes coming off and creating a giant high-heeled boot to crush his enemy, nor does he whip them, bind them, and snap their spines. Actually, most of his moves involve him obliterating his enemy with something that is neither an emotional state of being or sexual. I know, it’s very strange isn’t it?
Here we move into a female character meant to be portrayed as a femme fatale meant to be more three dimensional-shot down by media as a sex symbol for gamers.
Samus Aran shocked the video game community when it was revealed at the end of the 1986 video game Metroid that the main character in the suit of armor was in fact a female. Samus Aran could be compared to Amazonian women with her tall stature and her fighting ability. This turns around to be something that demotes her strong stature and abilities by how she is physically seen—as a beautiful tall, blonde woman with blue eyes in a tight body suit. Even when the character exhibits certain traits in story lines such as anxiety lead to her being weak and a typical female. Now if it’s not that she’s a weak and typical female then she is the other extreme, a man-hating ice queen.
Really, there’s no pleasing anyone.
A strong woman is an ice queen; a sad woman is typical and pining for male approval.
For every female lead in video games there is a dozen more male leads. For every Lara Croft, Princess Peach, Samus Aran, there’s Batman, Commander Shepard, Nathan Drake, Desmond Miles, Mario, and Master Chief. In most video games, you can’t choose to be male or female, and many games have a male lead with a female damsel or companion that simply assists the lead. The exception is role-playing games which allow character customization including gender, race, and other physical attributes.
Then there’s the Saints Row franchise…
While yes in the first game Saints Row the character is definitively male, from Saints Row 2 and on the character’s gender is able to change, leaving even more customization to the player. Now the only definitive trait is that the protagonist is taller than other characters in the game. A noticeable customization is the breast size of the female character. Yes this is sexualizing the character, but they also have control over the size of the penis for the male character, equal sexualization for both. This franchise is coined as being a ‘ridiculous version of Grand Theft Auto’ with its exaggerated weapons and silly downloadable content, but even while it is quite ridiculous it gives equality between the male and female characters. There’s an expansion pack titled ‘Enter the Dominatrix’ so one can assume the women are scantily clad—but so are the men.
The gangs in the game aren’t exclusively male either, there are males and females that all have different areas of specialty which contribute to the game. The game doesn’t cater to just a male character lead, it remains exceptionally gender neutral, and if there’s sexualization there’s a balance between both genders, although the sex isn’t the main focus of the game.
Mirror’s Edge and More Options
Mirror’s Edge is a popular game released in 2008 with a female protagonist who fights against a dystopian society with a sham democracy. Now it’s coming out with a soon to be released sequel, again with the same leading lady.
This is good news for women in games!
It’s another chance for a leading lady in popular gaming that isn’t extremely sexualized, nor will she fall in the typical niche of being a damsel in distress. It could potentially pave the way for more video games with strong leading women who aren’t idolized just for their bodies. Perhaps we may even see more leading ladies who aren’t just White women.
(By Amanda Vila)