Friday, January 2, 2009

Subtle Sexism

I'm not a gamer. I wasn't ever allowed to have a gaming system as a kid, because my parents wanted me to be active or reading a book - which I happily did. The only game I was even ever remotely good at was Duck Hunt, and when we were younger I'd make my best friend play the game constantly when I was over her house. She enjoyed my play drum set when she was over my place, so it was all a wash in the end. Games in college sometimes left me (or the virtual me) standing in a corner spinning helplessly around and around (Halo), or coming in 8th at Mario Kart 22 times in a row. So sexism in video games is something that I haven't really experienced; that doesn't detract from lindabeth's excellent blog post "Subtle Sexism: Analyzing The Witcher". What makes the article such a good read is that she isn't highlighting merely problems in this one particular videogame, but how these issues are reflective of our society as a whole and of gaming culture in particular. Yes, she is discussing this particular game explicitly, but the problems in the game wouldn't be quite so severe if those problems weren't also highlighted out in the "real world".

She highlights several issues about the sexual nature of the game, including:
"After a sexual encounter, you obtain pin-up trading cards to represent that sexual conquest-players, collect them all! (mass-printed cards, authentically medieval, right?) The idea of "collecting" women you have sex with (proof of your masculinity?) is really troubling to me. And by having sex with all the women available, you have a complete collection of women-objects. Having sex with all the women you are able to, thus, becomes a goal for the character, even if the "reward" for doing so is negligible (bragging rights?). As one gamer suggested, "Women are COLLECTIBLE."
This would be troublesome in any context, but it becomes more troublesome given the fact that this is very much an idea present in society; men aren't exactly discouraged from having sex with a lot of women; he may be labelled a "man-whore" (the modification of which just goes to show exactly how sexuality and "bad" sexuality is gendered), but that isn't exactly something that society is shaming men about - unlike women, who if they're "whores" may be good enough to sleep with but not marry in the common meme. It also plays into the "women are objects" idea, something that is furthered farther down in the article:
"in the game, you as the male protagonist can choose whether or not to have sex with the women, but they cannot choose not to have sex with you - you will never hear a "no". They may not suggest sex unless you do/say/buy/pay "the right thing", but you won't hear a rejection. So women's sexuality becomes a matter of figuring out the right tactics, the right series of responses or actions to get her to open her legs up to whomever gets the combination right."
Again, this would still be problematic, but much less problematic if there weren't a crazy line of thought that this is true, that women owe men who do nice things for them sex, and that women should "give" themselves to men who do all those right things. That thought is at the very heart of the Nice Guy™ syndrome:

Which is also nicely demonstrated here:
It is the thought that somehow men are deserving of sex with whatever women they wish to have sex with, and that all women a particular man wants are attainable; it makes men and their sexual wants more important that women and their sexual autonomy. Women's sexuality then always belongs to men; they just have to figure out how to get it. It makes women "collectibles". That the game reflects this is no surprise; that the game reflects any of what lindabeth describes is no real surprise. The surprise are the things that don't passively fall into the same harmful patterns of the culture, the games and books and songs and movies and television shows that - either through design or accident - go the opposite way.

The final point I'm going to lift from lindabeth (and really, you should read the whole article because it is awesomely well-written) before then traversing the comments left both on her own blog and on her Feministing Community post is one relating to two separate issues, those being heterosexism (but only really it seems when dealing with male homosexuality), and a dismissal of women gamers and their concerns:
"at the same time, you are also limited to having sex with women. This makes me pause - for a feature that is considered "optional", thereby theoretically inconsequential, how come sex with men is not an option. I can hear the objections from the homophobes now. But for those men out there in game chat board world who say it shouldn't be a big deal for a woman to play a male character, and to have sex with various women to complete the full game, then what would be the "big deal" for the het men playing that character to have sex with men to complete the card set?"
This is where being wholly in reference to The Witcher becomes a bit tricky for the women gamer who wants to play something other than a male character, because the protagonist of the game is an already-existing character. And this is where it is important to look at The Witcher within the larger gaming context - where what is acceptable in this particular game given the surrounding circumstances becomes part of a larger pattern when viewed in context with other games that arbitrarily do not offer a female protagonist who can sleep with the boys. The response to this line of thought is telling, in both places it is protested. On "Don't ya", Paul says, "The reason there is no option for gay sex is that it would mess with the story, Geralt is a straight male, they aren't being homophobes that's just how the story is." Ausir on the Feministing post asserts that "the game does not follow the plot of the books, but is set after the last book in the series". Which leads me to this: gay sex - especially if it were an optional feature of the game and not part of the linear plot - would not mess with the story. The story as Paul knows it is over; the game is a continuation. And Buffy Summers had a lesbian encounter in her story's continuation after the final episode of the television series, even though she had been up until that point a straight female. And while I may have some issues with that lesbian encounter, my issue doesn't stem from the fact that Buffy is a straight female and that sleeping with a girl messes with the story. Because stories can grow and change in any of their mediums.

Another critique of lindabeth's article, by azazeloo5, saying "The assertion that sex is never "refused" is because of the tale, not the gender's [sic] involved". Except that isn't exactly true; when the tale plays to cultural norms of gender, then it isn't strictly about the tale. The tale isn't a biographical narrative telling of a life that actually occurred; therefore, the tale and everything in it is contrived, and that contrivance follows the norms of the culture it stems from. And while this is hardly the most provocative, it still is representative of a sexist culture - and a subtle sexism because unlike rape or job discrimination or outright objectification, people like Paul or azazeloo5 can dismiss this as not being part of a grander narrative, and of merely representing this one particular tale that is by some stroke of luck or genius divorced from the world in which it was created.

And then there is from zarr, arguing, "Homosexual relationships are not included in the witcher for the same reason that the protagonist of Mass Effect is always portrayed as a male (even though you are given the option in the game to play as a female), audience. How much of the witchers [sic] audience would have cared for a homosexual relationships [sic] (cared enough to warrant them taking the time to put in such a feature)? I would argue a rather insignificant amount as the vast majority of people are heterosexual". And yes, the vast majority of people may be heterosexual. But at least 50% of the people are female; for girls playing the game who may not want to always sex up girls, it could be a nice addition - to not consistently and constantly fed objectified and commodified images of women while you're trying to play the game in its entirety. Not to mention, a good 10% of the population is homosexual - and that is leaving out the bisexuals, and the transexuals and everyone who does or possibly could fall under the "queer" category in the vast experience of humanity.

The last problem I'll mention is this, from Rhett Butler, saying, "The Witcher is puerile escapism and wish fullfillment [sic]. Geralt is the kind of character every guy wishes he was - famous, tough, cool, desired by lots of beautiful women. That's why he never gets turned down, becuase [sic] being turned down for sex is not on any guy's wish list". This actually leads into a problem I have with comic books, a problem I've been meaning to blog about for forever with nice visual representations but haven't yet because I'm just lazy (editor's note: Sorry, John! It will be coming soon, I promise!). And that is this: I have no interest in video games, and not for this issue. But I do have an interest in comic books, and I am frequently turned off from them for exactly this issue. The way most games and comic books are set up make it clear that not only is this a man's world but that it is intending on staying a man's world. This obviously isn't true for every comic book and every video game. But enough comic books have disembodied female parts (boobs, butts, etc.) on numerous pages - and gratuitously - for me to be massively put off. And enough video games objectify women characters and make men the only option - or the default option - that I can imagine it turning a lot of women off as well. I still read comic books - sometimes enthusiastically. And I know plenty of women who not only play video games but revel in them as well; that doesn't change the fact that it truly does suck to have that sinking "not again" feeling, to know that the male gaze is more important than the women readers/gamers, and that the guy wish fulfillment is more important than making games that respect women who want to play them. I'm not up for male objectification; I don't really think that equality should be attained by diminishing the other gender. But I am getting awfully sick of the idea that gaming and comic books have male target audiences just because, without recognizing or analyzing or acknowledging that one of the reasons why some of these things have a disproportionate male audience is the way women are portrayed (or, in some cases, not).


John said...

I have a feeling this will turn out to be a very long comment. Buckle up, kids!

A) Having sex with all the women you are able to is EVERY straight man's goal, whether he admits it or not. It's science fact. It's not for the sake of objectifying women into some sort of human Pokemon (gotta **** 'em all!), it's just for the sheer love of sex.

B) I tend to think of Nice Guy Syndrome a bit differently, being someone who is usually referred to as a "nice guy." Not everything you do is a lie to get the person you're attracted to into bed, but it is a way of using what your Dear and Fluffy Lord gave you to get some of that good lovin'. We can't all be athletes or musicians or glittering vampires, after all.

B) As for the heterosexuality issue, Fable II actually does let you pursue homosexual relationships (both gay and lesbian.) It gets around the narrative argument by being a game dedicated to responding to the player's choices, from which quests to take to which villagers to save (or terrorize) to whom to marry. If The Witcher is continuing a story from an established property, they probably would not want to deviate too far from the character's personality traits (like sexual orientation.) Buffy is an unfair comparison in this case because Joss Whedon (the man who decides what is or isn't true to the character) was the one sending her to bed with another lady, and he did it in a way that elevated it above mere slashfic (which is what a gay Witcher scenario would doubtless be called by fans of the series.)

C) The Mass Effect comparison is also inappropriate here. The developers at Bioware actually deserve some credit for their openness to different lifestyle choices (players can choose to play as a man or a woman in an egalitarian society, and can choose either a heterosexual human romantic relationship or a romantic relationship with a monogendered alien.) They clearly included the option because they wanted players to feel immersed in the game's world, and lack of freedom of choice can hamper immersion.

D)Re: your Editor's Note - In the words of Transmetropolitan's Mitchell Royce, "Where's my ****ing column?!"

E)You're both right and wrong about comic books. I wish that the ratio of exploitation/objectification to empowerment was at least 1:1, but it's sadly not. For every cleverly-written and exciting female protagonist, there are at least fifteen generic silicone-infused barbie dolls in physics-defying (not to mention impossibly uncomfortable!) costumes. For every Runaways, there's a Bomb Queen. In the meantime, I can only support the books I think are great at crossing the gender "divide" and recommend on my blog that others do the same.

petpluto said...

"Having sex with all the women you are able to is EVERY straight man's goal, whether he admits it or not. It's science fact."

I very rarely disagree with you, but I'm gonna have to call bull on your "not objectifying women" thing. Wanting to bone every woman ever - be her Ayn Rand or Kristin Chenoweth - is very much in the vein of objectifying women; plus, there has to be at least one woman a guy is totally uninterested in pursuing, because even with a sheer love of sex - a love plenty of women also share - there are just people that don't rev the engines. Also, there is a huge difference between potentially wanting to have sex with all the women you are able to, and actually achieving that goal. If the video game is described accurately, it removes any and all agency from women, and perpetuates the myths that all girls are going to "give it up" - you just have to find the right buttons to push. Trust me, there are some guys I'd never do no matter how much flattery or baubles they bought me. But the game does not allow for that scenario, instead perpetuating a rather damaging one for both men and women - though in this case I'm concerned mostly with the women.

And then there's this: video games aren't an inherently straight man's domain; so why in the good gods are only his desires played to? I ask this in all seriousness, because I find games such as this to be (perhaps unintentionally) hostile to women players, not to mention ze gays. It fosters a "boys' world" mentality, and puts up a slight barrier - one that says, "Well, you can play the games, but we're not going to change the game to make it any more inclusive for you". So instead of feeling welcome, at most you feel tolerated; which could be a bit of me projecting, because I feel that way (again) about the state of the comic book industry - and the industry is separate from the shining examples of comic books that actually go against that grain of thought. Or rather, those few books are separate from the industry that spawned them.

" tend to think of Nice Guy Syndrome a bit differently, being someone who is usually referred to as a "nice guy." Not everything you do is a lie to get the person you're attracted to into bed, but it is a way of using what your Dear and Fluffy Lord gave you to get some of that good lovin'."

No, see, this is a common misconception. The Nice Guy™ isn't a nice guy. You are a nice guy. No caps, no trademark. Because you are genuinely a nice guy. A Nice Guy™ isn't a nice guy; the Nice Guy™ is the guy who plays nice because he figures if he's nice enough, he'll get some booty out of it; that nice guys are the keys to all women's vags, and if the girl doesn't put out, well then she must not want a nice guy and instead is going to go with that asshole over there. If he's listening to his female friends' problems, it is less because he is genuinely their friend and more because he figures if he does then they will see him as a selflessly caring individual and reward him liberally for it with ze hot lovin'. The Nice Guy™ is also generally the guy who wants to know "What Women Want", and then comes to the crashing conclusion that the "Women" are bitches because you hold the door open for one of 'em and she screams at you, but if you fail to open the door for another she thinks you're a dick. Instead of recognizing that these are two separate women and therefore two separate people, the Nice Guy™ uses these experiences to confirm that women are indeed all universally and sadistically nuts - and what's more, not a one of them have offered to sleep with him yet even though he's found their secret button that will make them rip off their clothing and have their way with him.

Long story short: you are actually a caring guy who - as this is just an observation based on anecdotal evidence - actually does nice things and cares about his friends as friends. Unless you are indeed one of the Nice Guys™. In which case, um... ;-D

"Re: your Editor's Note - In the words of Transmetropolitan's Mitchell Royce, "Where's my ****ing column?!" "

Um.... This weekend, I promise. Otherwise, you have the right to... I don't know. Make me eat lima beans or something.

MediaMaven said...

Pet, I understand your version of the Nice Guy (TM) syndrome much better now. But can this be translated to girls?

petpluto said...

"But can this be translated to girls?"

Sure, though it has less to do with being "nice" than some other things. I don't know how much time I have right now, but I'll definitely get back to you tonight!

John said...

from now on, when I'm exaggerating for the purposes of sarcasm or what-have-you, I'm going to use the notation *bucket*. It should make these comments a bit clearer.

I was exaggerating when I said that every man wants to have sex with every woman, but not as far as you might think.

Sounds like those Nice Guys(TM) are absolutely not all card-carrying members of the Dirty Filthy Liars' Club. *bucket* Believe me, I'm terrible at lying and deception. If I were one of them, I'd be even more obvious than that guy from college who makes my blood boil. You know the one :P