If you haven’t heard about the Tropes Vs Women Kickstarter, you should really read this article. Regardless of one’s opinions on Anita Sarkeesian’s gender-studies analysis of pop culture, the response to her project from far too many internet denizens (before the inspiring counter-volley from others) was appalling.
Male gamers and geeks struggle to overcome generations-old stigmas about our relationships with women and our ability to be grown men. Female gamers fight to be taken as the serious participants and co-players they are. And now we have a vocal flock of hateful man-children pretty much reminding the rest of the world how far we have to go.
So, you know, thanks guys. Real credit to the team.
I recognize Sarkeesian’s study might raise some knee-jerk hackles. With broadly accusatory topics like “The Sexy Sidekick,” “The Man With Boobs,” and “The Fighting F#@k Toy,” her study is easily dismissed as simple vitriol. And after having read some of her Tropes Vs Women series it’s understandable why a (male) audience might feel as if they or the things they love are under attack. Reducing a pantheon of oft-beloved characters to simplistic caricatures (and implying that creators, and by extension their audiences, really see their heroines this way) is bound to stir outrage.
But getting angry at Sarkeesian or her conclusions isn’t really productive, largely because the woman has a point – however confrontational or accusatory her tone or how much you disagree in the particulars or even want to argue about positive takes on these archetypes. These are details in a broader discussion that needs to be held, and one almost every other medium can have without nearly so much white-hot fury.
The inexcusable reaction against Sarkeesian is eloquent testimony – gaming and the gaming community may have come a long way, but our world still has a segment with an attitude problem when it comes to women.
American cartoonist Alison Bechdel popularized a simple test about gender bias in movies known as the Bechdel Test or Bechdel Rule. A movie passes by:
- containing two (named, in many versions) female characters
- who spend at least one scene together
- talking about something other than a man.
The thing about the Bechdel Test is that a lot of perfectly good works don’t pass it, and a lot of relatively sexually exploitative works (for instance, lesbian pornography aimed at males) pass it. It means exactly what it says it means and nothing more – there are no mitigating factors, and it’s entirely possible to reinforce gender stereotypes while still passing the test.
So the Test isn’t some sort of minimum quota for a work to be considered good or acceptably feminist. The social value of the Bechdel Test is broader than trying to peg bad and good works individually. When a significant proportion of works fail the Bechdel Test, regardless of individual merits, it can suggest a bias in the creative environment that produced them – such as the belief that it’s more important to appeal to the male audience than the female one.
By the same token, broad discussions about games and sexism aren’t necessarily aimed at damning the typical game or even character. They’re often about the underlying assumptions that govern the industry as a whole.
I don’t believe the use of archetypes like the Damsel in Distress or the Sexy Sidekick are bad because you present a girl who needs rescuing, or because you portray an attractive sidekick to the protagonist. This is the point where so many gamers (myself included when I first read Sarkeesian’s project) bristle and stop listening, preferring to get angry, because it truly sounds like an accusation of thought-crime. We’re used to being the butt of others’ jokes and critiques, and the imaginary allegation that we’re a bunch of sexist pigs and the games and movies and stories we love are a hotbed of misogyny is bound to get us angry.
But nobody we should be paying attention to is trying to take the things we love away. Appealing, sexually desirable, or vulnerable characteristics can be parts of a vibrant, full-formed character, male or female. Demonizing desirability or fantasy isn’t the point. But the fact that these fantasy traits are disproportionately applied to women rather than men – there are few male sidekicks for leading ladies noted for their sexual appeal – is.
More often than many of us would like, objectified traits are the core of characterization for female characters – a cynical calculation of how they would appeal to a presumed male audience.
Again, it isn’t a sensible reaction to demand that no woman ever be attractive, or a sidekick, or need rescuing. It is a sensible reaction to observe and question why the women of games so overwhelmingly need plenty of rescuing, are overwhelmingly secondary characters used as part of a man’s story arc, or are overwhelmingly portrayed in a titillating fashion while their male counterparts are not. And these normative roles assign relevance based upon upon a relationship with males – either the invariably male protagonist or the presumed male gamer. They risk making the characters accessories to the growth and gratification of men.
Of course, not every character in a story is necessarily going to be of equal story importance. So why is it so frequent that the protagonist is male and female characters relegated to secondary roles? Witness the controversy over the latest Tomb Raider publicity, where it was assumed that the (male) gaming audience would want to “protect” Lara Croft rather than identify with her, as if the male audience couldn’t be asked to empathize with a woman in a horrific situation. How are we supposed to embrace female audiences if our creators so often implicitly tell them “someone like you isn’t cut out for the leading role?”
This is the question that occupies our minds. No broad-base industry can be considered “mature” and continue to place not only half the human population but an increasingly large proportion of its own audience into second-class status.
We may be doing much better than we have in the past. We may disagree on how much sexism continues to be a factor. But if you need proof we have more thinking to do, just look at the angry responses to Sarkeesian.