Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Objectification Double Standard

This is a very long blog. Put aside some time.

The very first blog I wrote on gender issues in video games was about two things; a “Games For Girls” advertising campaign here in the UK at the time and the subject of attractive men and women in video games. This was way back in January of 2008 on Gamespot. First of all, I'd like to point out that I did object to women being objectified in video games if it was particularly blatant, such as Dead Or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball or a Metal Gear Solid 4 trailer from the 2007 Tokyo Game Show that featured Dr Naomi Hunter talking into a video camera and it just happened to bump into her cleavage. You can watch it in the first fifteen seconds of this video, if you're interested.

However, outside of extreme examples, I was reasonably indifferent to the idea of attractive women in videogames. While I know there are certain parties who react strongly to every female character who shows a bit of skin or has a large bust, I don't fit into that group. Here's a paragraph from my old blog on Gamespot:

"The traditional heroine in a videogame is, apparently, any lead female character with large breasts. This stereotype presumably comes from Lara Croft but it's astonishing how few female characters follow this model. In so many developer videos discussing character design and the lead female character, it's often said that they seek to "break the stereotype" of the videogame heroine. Aside from Lara, there are very few noteworthy cases of this. Nariko, despite being scantily-clad, had small breasts. Jennifer Mui from the Mercenaries games, Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 and Elena Fisher from Uncharted: Drake's Fortune were all fully clothed with a normal, proportionate physique. As are all of the Final Fantasy women up until FFX-2. In fact, Lara Croft herself's breasts were reduced in size for Tomb Raider Legend, although more of her midriff was shown and her bum was "peachier" than ever as a compromise."

Even five years ago, Lara and Nariko were my go-to female examples. Although that last line about Lara is even truer today than it was then; the Tomb Raider reboot seems to have dispensed with Lara's exaggerated physical attributes entirely. Here's a picture that was hosted on GamesRadar:

So while I do object to the more blatant examples of objectification in games, I don't see anything particularly wrong with scantily-dressed female characters or women with an emphasis on the more sexually-appealing parts of their body. Such as Lara, or the majority of female fighting game characters, sans boob jiggle. I could do without that, even if the majority of fighting games don't do it to the same level as Dead Or Alive.

I don't see it as damaging or detrimental to the female characters who are portrayed this way. After all, Lara Croft was awarded "Most Successful Video Game Heroine" by the Guinness Book Of Records. That says more than enough to state that Lara has done well enough to stand on her own two feet as a character, rather than just as an attractive fictional woman. Basically, I think the critics need to get over their dislike of female characters who show more skin than they'd like or have a body type they disagree with or "grunt in a sexual manner when hurt". None of those qualities are anywhere near as detrimental to a female character as the critics think.

We also need to deal with the fact that, yes, there are issues with the appearance of men in video games. I'll say right off the bat that I don't feel anywhere near as strongly about the appearance of men in games as I do about violence against them. That's obviously the more significant issue. I'll also say that I have absolutely no doubt that women are sexually objectified more than men in games. However, that's not to say that the appearance of men doesn't play a role in video games at all and I have taken issue with the appearances of some male characters in games before.

Top row, L-R: Cloud, Reno, Sephiroth, Vincent (Final Fantasy VII), Squall (Final Fantasy VIII), Zidane (Final Fantasy IX), Tidus (Final Fantasy X).
Bottom row, L-R: Vaan, Larsa (Final Fantasy XII), Dante (Devil May Cry 3), Octavianus (Shadow Of Rome), Jutah (Silent Bomber), Sion (The Bouncer), Wander (Shadow Of The Colossus).

I don't want it to seem like I'm picking on the Final Fantasy series in the above image. I was just looking at my games collection when making that picture and the Final Fantasy games were the first ones my eyes went to.

I'm not as irritated by the young male "pretty boy" characters, or "bishonen", in video games as I used to be. The first time I read about size zero models and Barbie dolls creating an "unrealistic standard of beauty" (keep that sentence in mind) for women was when I was a teenager. However, this was also the period when the Final Fantasy series was at its peak and that was my main exposure to the characters above. For me to be irritated by them, they had to have two qualities: handsomeness (obviously) and "Mary Sue" characteristics. For those who don't know what a Mary Sue is, here's an excerpt from TV Tropes to describe it:

"She's exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool or exotic name. She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her "flaws" are obviously meant to be endearing."

"The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn't love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal."

That paragraph describes a female character but a male variant -- the "Marty Stu" -- exists. So appearance alone wasn't enough for me to be irritated by bishonen characters. They also had to display Mary Sue characteristics. Sure enough, some of the characters above don't display those traits (but they'll be just as relevant later on), such as Octavianus and Wander, but there are also several who do. And I apologise to Final Fantasy fans but their main characters were often prime offenders.

Let's start with Squall, since his example is the best, in my opinion. When I was a teenager, I was a lot more shy than I am now and Squall was a very aloof character in FFVIII. I read his dialogue and thought, "OMG I can sooooo relate". Then I grew a bit older, played FFVIII again and realised that Squall was actually a stand-offish jerk. Yet over the course of the game, Squall is made "commander" of Balamb Garden (the headquarters of FFVIII's good guys), in spite of the fact that, as far as I know, he was only made a SeeD (special forces agent) that year. One of the most recent promotions to SeeD, in other words, so he wouldn't be qualified to lead. At another point, Rinoa, the love interest, is lecturing Squall on how the party all wishes he would trust them enough to talk to them more, to the point that she eventually says, "we all love you. There, I said it". But why does the rest of the party love Squall? You could argue that he's done things worth respecting as their leader but love? That was too farfetched for me, especially since he insulted most of them at various points during the game.

I don't want to go into every single one but the other characters have similar examples; Jutah lectures his female commanding officer (and love interest) to prove how battle-hardened he is to the player. Tidus is a cocky douchebag who irritates strangers by climbing all over them and stealing their binoculars but Yuna (the love interest, again) still wants to make him one of her "Guardians" only two days after meeting him and after they've had only a few conversations. Dante, especially in his Devil May Cry 3 incarnation, was the most ridiculous show-off you could ever see in a video game. He gets stabbed by demons to no effect, spouts silly lines and nods his head to awful music on his jukebox ... all at the same time. Be honest, DMC fans; if you met a guy in real life who acted like Dante -- not a demon hunter, just a random guy in your office -- you would think, "what a jackass", right? In fact, I was probably the only person who was happy about his DmC redesign. Not because I thought it was good but because everyone finally hated him as much as me! There are more examples for each character but I get the feeling this blog will be long enough as it is.

Now why is all this important? Well being a bishonen on its own is fine but when it's combined with the traits of a Mary Sue, it becomes a problem. It equates good looks with success because a character like Squall is awarded a huge promotion when there are, presumably, people far more qualified for the job. It equates good looks with popularity because love interests and party members immediately gravitate towards these feminine male characters regardless of negative qualities, such as Tidus being made Yuna's guardian in spite of the fact that he's a boastful ass who she barely knows. For anyone who's not a perfect-looking specimen of humanity and has the same flaws that everyone else does, all these infallible male models can become annoying after a while.

To show that I'm not being unfair towards bishonen characters, I'll give you a few examples that I don't mind because they lack the Mary Sue qualities. Octavianus in the above image is one. His femininity actually plays a role in the gameplay; all but one of his gameplay sections involve stealth and he can adopt disguises to avoid detection. One of the disguises he can use is a maid's uniform, so it'd look very odd if he was a burly hero. He also displays a knack for speaking in a woman's voice during a cutscene. This is a far cry from FFVII's Cloud, who, during his crossdressing adventure, is described as "a tough-looking guy like that". Besides, Shadow Of Rome is a game that doesn't skimp on masculine male characters; the other player character, Agrippa, is a mountain of a man. Likewise, I mentioned in a previous blog that I'm probably one of the few people who liked Final Fantasy XIII and one of the bishonen characters in FFXIII was Hope, a teenage boy. During the game, Hope blames fellow party member Snow for allowing his mother to die and mentions how much of a jerk his father is. He's wrong on both counts. So for once, the teenage idiot in an FF game is treated like a teenage idiot. That's a realistic and praiseworthy portrayal of a teenager who blows things out of proportion and misunderstands the situation, rather than silly stoic/arrogant warriors that teenagers in other FF games are.

There's also an issue with series' that replace their masculine male characters with more feminine ones after several games to appeal to the demographic that is used to bishonen main characters. While the West equates square jaws, broad shoulders and big muscles with masculinity, Japan is the opposite, seeing more feminine characteristics as the height of masculinity instead. So, as an example, Devil May Cry 3 was a prequel, so DMC2's masculine Dante was replaced with a more feminine one. However, Capcom didn't want Devil May Cry 4 to be another prequel, so they aged Dante up and added -- surprise, surprise -- cocky smartarse Nero into the mix too.

Seem familiar?

So with all my criticism of bishonen characters, you'd think I'd love masculine male characters, right? Not quite. Earlier, I wrote, "I'm not as irritated by the young male "pretty boy" characters, or "bishonen", in video games as I used to be." That's because they've largely become a minority in the current generation of consoles, to be replaced by this:

That's an image from IGN called "The devolution of character design". You can see their point.

In recent years, games have become home to the "gritty" and "badass" characters over other types. They'll talk in a gruff voice, they'll probably mix a few curse words into their sentences and, the worst part in my opinion, they'll deliver "joke" lines that aren't actually funny ... but aren't meant to be either. They're meant to add to the character's "badass" persona and nothing else. They'll have a slight edge and they're intended to make the player smile, but in a "OMG that person is so badass" way rather than a "OMG that line was so funny" way. I don't know about everyone else but this character archetype doesn't appeal to me; rather than finding them "badass", I find them boring.

Let's just focus on appearance for the meantime though. Take a look at this bunch:

Clockwise from top left: Chris Redfield (Resident Evil), King (Tekken), Nathan Hale (Resistance), Marcus Fenix (Gears Of War).
These are all examples of various face and body types you're likely to see on male characters in games:
Chris Redfield is your typical modern Hollywood action hero; not the most masculine hero you'll ever see but, hey, he's athletic, he's got stubble and he speaks in a dull voice. He fits the criteria.

King is an odd one. According to Tekkenpedia -- not the most reliable source, I know -- he's 6'6". I used to watch wrestling (don't judge me) and, even though it's not impossible for a wrestler that tall and with a perfectly-sculpted muscular body to perform standing moonsaults and flipover hurricanranas (Frankensteiner), it's rare. Mexican wrestlers are usually shorter and with more lithe physiques than King. Still, this is a game with fighting robots and people who can transform into devils, so maybe we're not meant to take it seriously.

Nathan Hale is a prime example of a modern video game hero. He emphasises the "gritty" nature of the archetype, more than Chris Redfield, and Resistance was a PS3 launch title, meaning he predates many of the IGN characters above. In fact, at the time of Resistance's release, he may have been the most generic example of this type of character.

Marcus Fenix is a square-jawed mass of muscles who, along with his squadmates, slips "F-bombs" into every sentence. I would be fine with this if he was parodying this kind of gritty character in some way, just as Duke Nukem was for eighties action heroes, but he seems to be intended to be a serious example. Sure, the Gears Of War dialogue is less serious than that of most sci-fi games but Fenix is still intended to be an example of the ultimate "badass" character.

I know this blog is long enough already but trust me, I'm building up to a point with all of this. However, before we get to it, there's one more video game hero we need to mention:

Yep. Ryu of Street Fighter fame.

The reason I've singled out Ryu is because, as you can see above, he's run the gamut of appearances of the years, from feminine to masculine. Compare the first image to the second and third ones. The hair and cheeks are rounder, softer. His body is muscular, without question, but it suits his youthful features. The second picture is ... odd, to say the least. His hair is more spiky but curved at the back, his jaw is lower and his cheeks more angular. His body, on the other hand, is frighteningly muscular! I'm not quite sure what the artist was going for but I'm reasonably confident that they didn't want him to look like he was hooked on steroids. Just focus on the face instead. The third picture continues the trend. The third Ryu's jaw is the lowest of all and his hair is spiky all over. His neck is the thickest and his cheeks aren't curved at all.

Now, I'm sure there are plenty of people reading everything I've written here and thinking, "well so what? This doesn't really prove anything about the appearance of men in video games. All you've said so far is that bishonen Mary Sues annoy you. The Ryu pictures were even just different art styles and you used that as proof!" Yes, and that's the point; no matter who the developer or character designer is, they all have one thing in common; they all have a different idea about what masculinity is. If you asked five different character designers to all design their idea of a masculine male hero, they would return to you with five different male characters with very different physical attributes emphasised.
To the critics who would either (A) criticise Lara Croft as a bad female character because of her breast size (or any other female character) or (B) say that male objectification in games doesn't happen, can you honestly look at any of the pictures above and say that certain male physical attributes aren't emphasised over others?  Can you say that Ryu's muscles in the second picture aren't more prominent than the ones in the first because the artist had a different idea of how to emphasise Ryu's masculinity? Or that the first one doesn't have softer features than the first because both artists had different definitions on what a male hero should look like? Can you say that King's muscles make much sense for a man who can perform standing moonsaults, rather than them simply being aesthetically pleasing for the designer? Or Cloud -- "a tough-looking guy like that" -- giving off a different idea of "masculine" than Nathan Hale?

Basically, we've got the whole gamut of face and body types here and a whole mess of "unrealistic standards of beauty", exactly like female characters in video games. You could argue that it doesn't show their sexual characteristics as prominently but their masculine ones? That's all there is to any of these characters, even the ones who, by our Western standards, seem feminine. Half the characters look androgynous and half should be filling the pages of Muscle & Fitness. They're all bombarding us with the message: "This is what a male hero looks like. This is masculinity".

I'd like to point out one final thing that a reader said to me in an e-mail. He said, "just to be clear, I don't believe any game designers are evil because they use ideal or powerful features in characters". I completely agree with that. Game developers are allowed to make the game they want to make. For all the talk of "gamer's entitlement" surrounding something like the complaints about the Mass Effect 3 ending or DLC on release, what is demanding a change in character designs if not gamer's entitlement? Let's just try and deal with it because you know what? I'd hate it if games featured nothing but realistic characters. We're on the road to that already with the IGN examples above and I dread to think where we'll be in years to come if the trend towards realism continues.

As always, leave comments below or contact me at if you have any feedback or suggestions.