Sexy Videogameland: If You Run Out Of Ammo, You Can Have Mine: the perpetuation of a misguided notion.
Perhaps it is a mistake to focus on one post in order to diagnose a continuing delusion regarding videogames and the representation of women, but the timing was simply unavoidable: I had recently shown the 2nd episode of John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing,” and the way that he succinctly and tersely identifies the gender politics and the crisis of subjectivity at work in the tradition of the nude in oil painting makes it effortless to diagnose just what is wrong with the female avatar in game design.
There is a widespread presumption (especially among young consumers of popular culture) that the resolution to the problem of sexism in videogames and game culture and other pop culture forms is the so-called “strong female character,” the one that isn’t “passive,” that has “agency,” and, in the case of games, “kicks ass.” (Quotes taken from way too many undergraduates.) I had found it difficult to explain the inadequacy – even the wrong-headedness – of this approach, my perception that these depictions still ultimately served male vanities and played on female anxieties, and that the male game player – his needs, desires, and qualms – still was being overwhelmingly served in games that were supposedly being targeted to both men and women.
I realized that I could not think of a female avatar that had a male lover that was not, in some way, a player-surrogate. No matter how much ass a female character kicks, there is no one and nothing that obstructs the fantasy of her possession by the player – in fact, when the avatar is a female body, the “ass-kicking” aspect itself is partially that very occupation of the character by the (male) player.
This isn’t true for male characters, who have lovers, wives, girl-friends, love-objects: Dante has his Beatrice, Duke Nuke’m has scores of people, Gordon Freeman (implicitly) has Alyx Vance. Carl “CJ” Johnson has his girlfriends, Viewtiful Joe has Silvia, Solid Snake has Meryl Silverburgh, etc. But I can’t think of a corresponding list of love-interests for female-avatar/characters. Lara Croft has an ex- or two, but there is nothing between her and the player (odd how the film gets closer to giving her a love interest than any game does, as I recall.) The robust sexuality which Leigh Alexander praises in Bayonetta is predictable free and available. No real rival exists for the player’s affections for the character. (The closest thing to it in Bayonetta is conveniently sequestered to another dimension – and, arguably, may only have a role as a surrogate for the male player.) When the female character has a love interest, that love interest has to be made distant, ineffectual, phantasmic – in no way a substantial rival to the player’s need to possess the character.
This is what Berger noted about the nude: her nudity, her sexuality did not exist for herself, but for the owner/spectator of the painting. The nude flatters or teases the viewer, but their nudity and sexuality is not a reflection of their interiority, of their inner life, but only a reflection of the desires of the viewer. Because painting is a medium of stillness, the female nude is passive in painting. The fact that female objects of desire in games aren’t passive doesn’t change this formula, and in fact confirms it: their activity, ultimately, exists for the player, not in reference to the inner life of the character.
When I think of what approaches an exception in major commercial game titles, I come to an ironic position: that a character seen by many Westerners as the most excruciatingly hyper-feminized may actually be more liberatory and more substantial than the Lara Crofts and Bayonettas and other ass-kicking caricatures. Final Fantasy X’s Yuna, like many Square-Enix characters, is depicted (melodramatically, of course) as having a rich inner life. She doesn’t generally kick-ass, at least in the first Final Fantasy X title, but she is shown as being in the center of a profound moral and existential crisis (more so than the rather oblivious player-insertion character, Tidus.) Of course, she is still the love-interest of the avatar, not the player avatar herself. But in the sequel (which, against popular opinion, I actually loved – elsewhere I compare the transition between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 as a reflection of the transformation of Japan from a tragic figure of war to a comic figure of post-war consumer culture) the dynamics get more complicated. Yuna moves slightly-albeit with a certain arch distance-toward the “kick ass” cliche I bemoan as a caricature. Yet, at the same time, she is a character with a love interest (or even three)- the (conveniently phantasmal) Tidus, the “its-compicated” Baralai, and the atavistic Shuyin.
The device by which Tidus may or may not be united with Yuna is complicated – it requires a level of completion in gameplay that may be more than most players fulfill, and it requires the consent of the player to see “him” again. Yet there is little doubt in most players’ minds that the object of Yuna’s desires is not the player, and that most of her rather-restrained sexuality is essentially not available “for” the player (even if glimpses of her figure are served to the male gaze with the usual sense of obligation.)
The “femininity” of Yuna – understood more as a crisis of responsibility than as passivity – offers a contrast to the “ass-kicking” yet sexually available female avatars which dominate game representations, perhaps because it does not pretend to a Colbert-like “color blindness” about gender difference, sexual politics and desire.