Note: This article concerns this feature on destructoid.com
As I have intimated before in recent articles, arguments about the depiction of gender issues in games, and the conduct of the “gaming community” in dealing with criticisms, especially from women, have reflected poorly on it. There has been little reasoned debate and a vocal minority have quite effectively ruined it for the majority via hooliganish behaviour.
The Tropes Versus Women in Videogames project has come under a lot of criticism, much poorly expressed in the form of unwarranted personal attacks (while I may be often quite vitriolic in criticising someone’s ideas, I would not use insults or threats as a substitute for actual debate), and while I may not entirely agree with its methodology or conclusions (although I will reserve judgement until they are formed) I do not underestimate its importance or right to exist. I was particularly interested, therefore, to see a rebuttal of the project’s examples in the gaming press. What I read, however, was unconvincing and arguably symptomatic of the issues the project aims to highlight.
Carter, in his response, claims the following:
…People want to be sure that Anita is doing everything she can to truly make a difference, and not provide a face- value assessment of the subject matter, that may misconstrue the original developer’s intentions…
This is entirely understandable but I do not entirely agree. Developer’s Intentions sounds a lot like authorial intent and basing criticism on this is arguably flawed. Claiming a critical view of anything is based on getting it wrong would make IA Richards very sad – I prefer to believe there are no wrong critical views of anything, only those which are less useful. If Sarkeesian sees something in one way, and can justify this with reference to the material, then why should her view not be valid if it doesn’t align with authorial intent? Is this not interesting – a failure of the author to make their intent clear if a reader, or viewer, derives quite the opposite reading from their work?
Carter goes on to highlight a few of the project’s specific case studies as problematic, and it is some of these responses that I feel are lacking – notably his views of Rayman Origins and Gravity Rush, which arguably are similar.
Sarkeesian claims the characters of the nymphs in Rayman Origins are reductive; sexed-up damsels in distress who you save, and who are used for raunchy humour. Carter responds by saying firstly that these characters have existed since the start of the series of games (in some way legitimising their existence and role) and secondly that the game’s background story places them as creator-goddesses (in some way justifying their sexuality). This is problematic; it does not address the initial criticism at all – that the “damsel-in-distress” archetype is perpetuating traditional gender roles. Yes the cosmology of the game may contain creator-goddesses, and the etymology of the term nymph may suggest seductiveness, but what has this to do with the fact that it is still a game which has a damsel in distress in a cage who needs saving? Carter’s argument ends with the lazy fallback that:
“I also feel like the Nymphs are very comfortable with the way they look, and look down on Rayman from time to time as someone with a mischievous devil may care attitude”
This is a changing of the goalposts; Carter calls it “one example of the other side of the argument” but really what are the two sides? Sarkeesian says the nymphs are male gaze-y damsels in distress who need saving by strong men. Carter says the nymphs are supposed to be sexy and strong women – but yet in game terms the player sees them as imprisoned and needing saving.
This logic continues with his defence of Gravity Rush. Sarkeesian claims the protagonist’s outfit is impractical for fighting, since it reveals a lot of skin and includes high heels – a typical trait of female character design in a lot of pop media. Carter responds by talking about positive characterisation and begins his response like this:
“I can’t tell if Anita is trying to be funny here or not. Taken at face value, this argument is very tenuous, given that it doesn’t take into account the game’s world rules in any fashion. Kat’s powers allow her to fall from unforgivable heights and not break any bones because of what’s basically a force-field that’s built into her superpower abilities. Whether or not she has “armor on” or not is not relevant, as she could protect herself from harm regardless of her wardrobe choice. “
He goes on to make arguments about it being a “personal choice” and continues on about her strength of character (in a way which questions whether the author of Tropes is familiar with the game), but this is entirely irrelevant and only serves to muddy the issue. I doubt Sarkeesian particularly cares about the in-game logic for the protagonist’s outfit, or the character’s personality – they are not mentioned; what they care about is if, as Carter says, the protagonist can “wear whatever she likes”, why has that specific outfit been chosen? The argument that revealing outfits are “empowering” is as tenuous as Carter accuses Sarkeesian’s of being – this is a similar issue to my critique of Muv-Luv in the preceding article. Whether or not there is a fictive reason for the female lead to dress alluringly, it remains a conscious decision on the part of the producers of the medium and any strength of character is going to be diminished by this. Sarkeesian is not concerned in this case with any positive character attributes of the character – those are immaterial when the question is of their appearance. Arguably, the ass-kicking girl dressed to kill is more reductive than simply the damsel-in-distress because it’s appealing to male power fantasies as well as sexual ones.
Indeed, Carter, through his rejection and discrediting of Sarkeesian’s complaints in these cases, is showing the major flaw in gender-related discourse about games – if a question of the male gaze or gender stereotypes is raised, the immediate response is that the women are strong characters, confident in their own sexuality. Apparently having a feisty personality is enough to make the fact a character is dressed ridiculously completely A-OK. What Tropes thus appears to be critiquing is this attitude; that while these characters may be strong, charismatic and personable, they are still dressed in ways intended to appeal to the male gaze, which in some ways takes away this power.
To conclude, Carter’s response to the original subject is flawed critically in that it begins on the premise that Sarkeesian simply doesn’t get it (and thus Tropes is inherently flawed), and in these two specific examples tries to deflect the criticism away by turning the subject to something else – as if doing one thing right means it’s totally OK to do another thing wrong. This is not debate, unless you are a politician – and unless the question of the male gaze and the objectified female character can actually be debated on its own terms without this deflection, then there is still an issue.