Forgive the title. It rhymed and I’m going somewhere with this.
Female representation in video games. Huh boy. We’re diving into a subject that’s partially kept video games from being seen in scholarly circles as being on equal footing with literature and film for the longest time.
Well – maybe that’s not entirely fair. After all, the very early video games were quite simplistic – you wouldn’t place Pong on the same level of narrative depth as Lovecraft, and it wouldn’t be until after the advent of games such as Super Mario Bros. that thoughtful plots – even if they were as simple as “rescue the princess!” – found their way onto the gaming screen. Yes, it was simplistic, but it really was the slow evolution of an art form. I recall a letter to Nintendo Power (the go-to mag for fans pre-internet) where a gamer recounts his first experience with Mario Bros., and he wistfully describes the plot as “just like a movie!”
On that note, we shouldn’t forget that the earliest movies went through the same transition: at first those who suggested the medium be considered art were scoffed at, until filmmakers such as Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, Vampyr) showed the world they could certainly create the scholarly (read: decidedly limited) definition of “art” in an audio-visual context.
But even as narratives in video games became more complex, and new graphical improvements let designers bring their vision closer and closer to life, there remained one big elephant in the corner that some would say limited the appeal of gaming: the representation of the female.
To be blunt – it’s not pretty. Or, more literally, it’s a little too pretty for its own good. Two tropes stand at the front of my mind: the damsel in distress – the Princess Peach who is completely and utterly helpless when placed under the thumb of a male presence – and the female character who actually can hold her own for more than a second, but who is dressed in such a way as to completely undermine any of the character’s actual talents, in favour of a heaving bosom and clothing that TVtropes has graciously described as ‘wearing dental floss’. In other words, taking the potential intrinsic worth of a character, and turning them into eye candy for what game designers perceive as the mostly-male gaming audience.
Interestingly, one of these tropes gradually declined as the other one rose (SHARPLY): as game plots got increasingly complex and moved into more complex territories than ‘save the princess’, so did the graphical prowess of the industry ramp up, giving graphic designers more chances to implement their…’ideas’.
But how does it relate to other forms of narrative present in American media, historically?
Let’s not be so hasty as to blame video games for the trope of the hapless damsel-in-distress. Fay Wray can attest that that one’s been around for ages. For example, just have a gander at the numerous ‘captivity narratives’ that captured the attention of Americans when relations between indigenous peoples and settler colonies were at a point that could very gently be described as ‘touchy’. Notice the most common trope in these stories: the young white woman in her prime, spirited away by (non-white) brutes. In some of these tales, she escapes of her own volition (no doubt with generous heapings of symbolism that lead, either directly in a roundabout way, to some sort of racial statement that we in the modern day would see as heinous), but in others, it’s the daring man who has to sweep in and save the day.
In fact, Sharon Sherman writes, “I hypothesize [that Super Mario Bros.] perpetuates gender stereotyping.” She goes on to say, “The games are captivating to males primarily because […] they know this narrative well from multiple sources and are eager to actually become the hero in the tale.” It’s certainly an interesting light to be able to look on these games as actual folk tales: to look at Plump Jumping Plumber in the same light as Little Red Riding Hood, as it were.
Then you have the damsel tied to the railroad tracks by the cinema villain who dastardly twirls his moustache as he contemplates his evil deeds, the aforementioned King Kong hoisting Fay Wray’s character atop the Empire State Building (one of the most iconic images in all of cinema, Western or not)…there’s really no wonder why game developers in the early days of the art form, when “excuse plots” were the order of the day, fell back on this easy, well-recognized archetype. Let’s get real – players plunking down quarters for Gradius and Q-Bert were never of the impression that they were investing in an engrossing storyline.
And when we did get to play as the woman, chances are the character would have “Barbie syndrome” – a bust-size-to-weight ratio that would give the average chiropractor an aneurysm – and that would overpower whatever personality they had, or they would be clad in such a way that you could tell the design team’s mind was on exactly one thing. (See. Above. Picture.)
Anne-Marie Schleiner provides a brilliantly on-the-nose rundown of this phenomenon: “Lara Croft is seen as the monstrous offspring of science: an idealized, eternally young female automation, a malleable, well-trained techno-puppet created by and for the male gaze.” In other words, a sex symbol for a market assumed to be mostly male. (an assumption which may have been true at some point early in the art form’s life, but is at this point most certainly dreadfully erroneous)
It’s particularly jarring with fighting games: with the exception of Super Smash Brothers, if your cast doesn’t have at least one female character who fights in something that nobody would ever in their right mind fight in, chances are you’re not actually a fighting game.
And more recently (a year after I originally posted this article, at that; this paragraph was shoehorned in after the fact), we’ve got the Gears Of War developers saying that they don’t consider a female Gears protagonist a “feasible” idea, and that it wouldn’t sell (…). Frankly, I’m shocked that the developers of a series where the main cast is “unrealistically buff he-man, unrealistically buff he-man, and unrealistically buff he-man” would possess all the gender relations tact of Archie Bunker. Simply shocked.
In fact, it’s easier to list the video game heroines who haven’t been forced into one of these two traps. Actually – let’s do that right now, shall we? A game came out on the original Nintendo Entertainment System that featured a fully-armoured character spelunking and shooting through the deep recesses of an alien planet, almost like an interstellar Indiana Jones (not the comparison that often gets made with this character, but one that just came to my mind as I committed this to the page). The character worked alone against an army of monsters. The protagonist’s attire and name lent to a decidedly androgynous feel, and we as gamers didn’t particularly care: the game was fun, and had a level of detail that was previously unheard of on the 8-bit NES. Only once we beat the game did the character take off the helmet, only to reveal…we had been playing all this time as a woman. Shocker.
I’m talking, of course, about Samus Aran of the Metroid series.
That’s right, Samus was the bomb. And I’m not just saying that because of her ability to defy all known laws of mass conservation, roll into a ball and lay bombs. I mentioned Indiana Jones, but the more common comparison to be made is with Ellen Ripley of the Alien series (not-so-coincidentally, the series that inspired Metroid), and for good reason. In both cases, here was a female protagonist where the focus was not on her body. She was as strong-willed as any man in the art form could be, had an actual personality, and was generally lethal on a planetary scale.
I think it was a bloody touch of brilliance that the character was first introduced to the world as androgynous, because that’s such a perfect way to break down the gender binaries that dog video games. It’s like this – here’s this character, and you come to like the character, and at the end of the day, you realize that it really doesn’t matter if it’s a guy or girl, because it’s a strong character either way.
And that’s what helped Samus to become an exceedingly strong symbol of feminism in video games. She is everything that Princess Peach and Laura Croft aren’t, respectively.
But the comparisons with Alien don’t stop there; the theme of maternity runs deep in both series. In Metroid’s case, the SNES game Super Metroid revolves around the kidnapping of a baby metroid (the series’ eponymous alien race), the last of its kind, that Samus saved from death in the previous game, at which point the leader of the antagonistic Space Pirates, who calls herself the Mother Brain (seriously, it’s not even subtext at this point) wishes to clone the hatchling a million times over and nuke it to super-strength with gamma rays. All jokes about how “it’s just like your parents’ custody battle” aside, it’s interesting how this recurring theme of maternity both works against the “traditional” American ideal of the ‘Angel In The House’, while spinning the trope of the Femme Fatale in a noteworthy way. The theme effectively supplants manhood with femininity as the de facto force that drives the wheels of the plot. In fact, Super Metroid doesn’t have a single major male presence in the story other than Ridley, the Mother Brain’s draconic lackey who kidnaps the hatchling in the first place, and – to put it in a way that critically endangers my scholarly image here – he’s a bit of a tosser anyway.
However, something happened more recently in the Metroid series, or more specifically the fanbase, that really drove home just how deep Samus’s position as a feminist symbol is in the gaming community.
The Wii game Metroid: Other M is the second appearance of Adam, a character who in the timeline, used to be Samus’s C.O. Throughout the course of the game, Samus keeps her weaponry and abilities at a minimum out of respect to Adam’s orders, even if it flies in the face of common sense: she runs through a whole super-heated section of one area without the suit enhancement that lets the player run through hot areas without taking extreme damage, for example.
The fanbase got up in arms: not only was it a cheap way to keep the player underpowered throughout the game, but it represented the submission of a strong woman to the passive hand of a man. (Yes, that was their exact concern; perhaps the gaming community is better at close-reading narratives than the world gives them credit for…) What intrigues me is that Other M was seen largely as a betrayal of the very principles that Samus’s role in Nintendo’s canon had built up.
By the by, Other M was also a departure from the series norm in that it was developed by Team Ninja, who are also responsible for the series that spawned the first pic in this article. Make of that what you will.
All that said, it does speak to how respected Samus as a character is in the gaming community, while statements such as the ones I made above about damsels-in-distress and scantily-clad female heroines are by no means unique, being echoed across every chamber of the gaming community. Nowadays, it’s fair to say that these old tropes are being railed hard against by a community of gamers who has increasingly grown up with classical feminist ideals in their heads: the idea in particular that women should be treated more-or-less equally as men. See the treatment of Perfect Dark’s Joanna Dark as more-or-less an equal to James Bond, while the Metal Gear Solid series weaves female presences into its (very, very, very…) complex plots just as integrally as the men.
It’s an idea that blossomed while certain American fiction genres were kicking off: as point of fact, around the time classical feminism was making waves, just about anyone in America who didn’t have the good sense to be born a white, straight Christian male was fighting tooth and nail just for the recognition of their existence and not to be, as Ralph Ellison perfectly said, ‘an invisible man’.
Because at the end of the day, it’s a question of representation. How are women represented in this media? The answer comes when you realize that it’s the outliers who represent the most commendable examples.
Representation is integral, after all. Let’s think about American history as one big, constructed game of King Of The Hill, with the aforementioned white, Christian, straight male on top. The blacks and the gays and the women are all clamoring up the hill, only to be swatted away each time by the influence and power wielded by the king of the hill, all while the indigenous sits over somewhere the white man doesn’t have to remember he exists. American culture has been one big struggle for identity, agency, and the agency to exert your identity on the world. We should really make it worth our while to make sure female identity in this relatively young of art forms isn’t irreparably damaged by the tropes and stereotypes it’s forced on itself.
A last-last-last minute addendum, added in February ’13: More specifically for video games, I think that people like the Gears Of War developers, if you clicked the link up there, have demonstrated that the video game realm has unfortunately fostered an environment where it’s seen as “okay” to be sexist – not just in subtext, but ridiculously overtly in the case of that article. I’m not trying to be “politically correct” by saying that this is a mindset we should actively discourage, because silly things like that hurt everyone. After all, who’s to say I don’t also have a problem with the unattainable, beyond-cliched and (worst of all) uninteresting portrayal of “Hoo-rah!” masculinity in Gears Of War?
The point is, I believe that video games are just as valid an art form as any other: that the art has dredged itself up from the rustic simplicity of Pong to the ability to tell multifaceted epic stories that compel you just like a good book or movie. Games now wield great power over their audience and for good reason. And to take a great bit of advice, with great power comes great responsibility. The art form deserves more than regressive gender cliches that perpetuate stereotypes that do no good to anyone in the long run.