A Response to Some Arguments in Chris Carter’s Response to Anita Sarkeesian

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.

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4 comments

  1. Darren

    This is interesting, but I think certain assumptions are being made that need to be pointed out.

    “there are no wrong critical views of anything, only those which are less useful.” There has to be a difference between pointing something out (like sexism in video games) and expressing an opinion (I think this is sexism in a video game). Anita S. blurs the line definitely. I can imagine ways in which someone can point out that sexism exists in a work of art that are undeniable. It’s definitely undeniable if the author admits it one way or another. But someone expressing an opinion that can’t be proven wrong or even disputed isn’t interesting at all. Anita presents herself like a Rachel Maddow of sorts, not expressing her mere opinion but pointing out how, logically, everyone should see the sexism in this or that. On the other hand, if all opinions are valid, then the opinion that the games aren’t sexist are just as valid as the claims that they are. Now, I suppose, we must find which view is more “useful”. This of course depends on your goals. But the only goal that should matter is finding out the truth. In other words, if Anita is just spouting her opinions, there’s no reason to make any change because it would basically be just to please her and those like her. But if she is showing how it logically follows that these images are harmful, the images should be changed for the greater good.

    “Nymphs = Damsels?” I think this troupe and characterization is rather lazy. It’s as if the mere fact that a female is being rescued by a male makes it in itself degrading. Consider the history of this idea, you might say. Fine, but then you must admit that on the face of it alone it isn’t offensive. I mean, the mere fact that a female is being rescued by a male doesn’t in itself suggest that “all women are inferior to men”. And that’s another part of the laziness: their need to be rescued (and their boobs?) are being elevated to being their primary characteristics, not by Chris or the game designers or me, but by you and Anita. No one is reducing them to “sexed-up damsels in distress who you save” except those that want to. Are they weak women in need of saving? Chris brings up that they made Rayman in order to muddy the waters on that point. In the Aristotelian sense, the creator is superior to the created. Bringing them up as creator-goddesses isn’t a way to justify their sexuality, but as a way to turn the “weak woman” idea on its head. I guess my point is: it’s extremely lazy and reductive to say “oh look a male saving a female, obviously this is a statement that all women are weaklings that must be saved by big strong men”.

    The sexiness of the nymphs connects nicely to the sexiness of the character in Gravity Rush. When Anita complains about the clothes being impractical for the sake of fighting, it ignores that her power makes her choice of clothing irrelevant (from a combat perspective). What difference does it make if you’re wearing full plate metal armor or a bikini if your power means you can form a forcefield around yourself? That’s his point. Now there are plenty of examples of women in medieval setting games with bare midriffs and that doesn’t make a lick of sense, but clearly that can’t be used here in this game. So then it comes to a matter of choice, as you say. Look at what the men have her wearing, you might say. Surely this is sexism! I don’t know. Can’t a woman choose to wear that outfit and not be making some statement about all women? This illuminates a rift between anti-sex feminists like Anita and pro-sex feminists that can be found rebutting Anita on youTube. A woman can wear whatever outfit she wants. There are those like Anita who will point to the outfit and shake her head tsk tsk don’t you know you demean yourself and me by wearing that? Do you just want men to gawk at you? I think women can choose to wear whatever they want, and it seems like this is a feminist attitude to have. If we are to judge her, shouldn’t we be focusing on her character not her outfit? I don’t think her outfit diminishes her character, that seems rather shallow, but that’s your right to have that opinion. Just don’t pass it off as the gospel.

    But there we find the rub. If a female needs saving it’s bad. If she’s kicking ass it’s bad. What exactly would it take to please you? Need she don a pant suit ala Clinton?

    These aren’t even the most damning pieces of the article. How about when Anita refers to Zia of Bastion as “nameless”. This is just a downright mistake that shows either laziness or ineptitude on her part. She literally gets the facts wrong and there’s no justification for that. You don’t mention this, but I’m sure you read that part right?

    Now I agree that women don’t get the best representation in video games. I agree that male gazing design is a bit insulting (to both the male AND the female). There are some interesting and legitimate arguments to be made, but Anita doesn’t make them. In fact, she barely makes an argument at all. She focuses on the superficial and elevates the irrelevant and holds that up as her examples. Perhaps male gaze isn’t going away (I do have eyes and I hope to keep them), perhaps marketing is always going to be somewhat crass, but it isn’t sexiness in and of itself isn’t wrong.

    • r042

      Firstly, I didn’t challenge the Bastion example simply because I do agree there so there was no need to. This article was only focused on those specific examples I did disagree with and I made this quite clear.

      The issue of the male gaze is the most important thing here – it’s the defining feature of the examples provided.

      Really it boils down to the issue that things like many of Joss Whedon’s female characters, and the film Sucker Punch, fall prey to; false empowerment. The idea that what as you point out is a “good thing” (strong, powerful female leads) is appropriated into a male fantasy by combining it with a male-oriented view of sexual confidence.

      The idea of “confidence in sexuality” is not, per se, empowering if it’s used in a masculine way; “chicks kicking ass” can be as much an object of fantasy as demure damsels and it’s this pandering to fantasy that’s the issue. Simply giving a girl a gun and a foul mouth does not make her a strong character, and can be as reductive as the opposite because it’s an equally lazy stereotype. Indeed, what the Gravity Rush example points to is this reversal of empowerment in which yes, the woman can be a strong character, but she HAS to be outwardly sexual as well regardless of the situation.

      In short, yes, I do want strong female characters – but simplistic male appropriations of empowerment (the sexy girl with guns who can hold her own in a male world) aren’t useful because they don’t really address the problem.

      Otherwise, Sucker Punch, Muv-Luv and the Hitman nuns would be feminist masterpieces.

      • Darren

        Thanks for the quick reply. Speaking of Whedon did you notice he features prominently in Anita’s thesis? What’s that about?

        I asked what do you want, and I ask it honestly because if we are addressing women’s isses it’s of the utmost importance that women be heard (more than men even). I guess if Anita can bring that about, no matter what it’s a good thing.

        • r042

          Apologies if I seemed harsh – I asked on Twitter how best to clarify if needed (check my feed to see far more lucid explanations than I can offer).

          I think the reason many feminists take exception to Whedon is he makes efforts to have female protagonists but at the same time they are quite superficial and male-pandering in how they dress and behave.

          Really what people – both men concerned about gender issues and women the same – want is not simple superficial characters “strong woman” or “damsel in distress” but interesting, developed characters. They may be sexy, they may not, but it’s very much a more subtle distinction.

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