Sunday, 25 November 2012

Women as Men's Motivation

I wrote about damsels in distress last time but didn't write all I wanted to on the subject. I've been thinking about it quite a lot since then and have some thoughts I wanted to bring up.

In video games, as well as television shows, films and comic books, there's this idea that women are a motive for men to save the world/defeat the bad guy. In my previous blog post, I used this in reference to damsels in distress but it happens in other situations too. For example, I know comic book readers will be familiar with the idea of "women in refrigerators"; for those who have never heard of it, it's the idea that a female character is killed off solely to create drama for a male character. She becomes a plot device rather than a character in her own right (she lacks agency, something I wrote about in my last post). I'm not going to go into the concept any more than that -- this is a blog about video games rather than comic books and this is just an example anyway -- but just for the sake of this example, let's assume that the "women in refrigerators" concept is completely flawless. The reason it creates drama is because the woman is the catalyst for the man to do something, even if that "something" is get depressed. The problem is that a man is dependent on a woman for mental and emotional stability in this situation. He relies on her and that's what I want to write about today.

Having said that, "women in refrigerators" and women dying in general isn't a good example for this; that should illicit a strong reaction and it often does when male characters die too, right? Not only that but for me to criticise the lack of independent male characters in video games when female characters are being killed off left and right would be rather hypocritical; in my last blog, didn't I write that it irritated me that men were treated as expendable so often in games but feminist critics focused on women's lack of agency instead? So that's why I used the qualifier "let's assume that the 'women in refrigerators' concept is completely flawless". Because actually, it's very flawed. Not only does it ignore male character deaths for the same reasons (or trivialise them, or try to justify them) but has also been blown out of proportion by fans, often branding all female character deaths as examples and even rarely to the point where comic book fandom can deem a mischaracterisation or reducing a female character's exposure in a superhero team book to be an example of "women in refrigerators".

However, it's a fine example of a lack of independent men. So how does this apply to video games?

Well, think about the heroes who save damsels in distress. Mario. Corvo. Crash Bandicoot in his very first game, before Naughty Dog wised up and made the sequels' plotlines about saving the world instead. I briefly went into this about Dishonored but the damsels in distress in these situations are characters that feminist critics would describe as lacking in agency. Like I said last time though, how can Corvo be considered to have anything resembling "agency" if he lacks any mental and emotional independence? How can Mario and Crash?

These characters need their damsels in order to function as effective heroes; without the women, they're nothing. They may as well not exist. They are entirely reliant on the female characters in this situation. Maybe not physically, but certainly emotionally. It's the bumbling sitcom dad, needing his more-intelligent wife to constantly bail him out of the mess he's got himself into. He's reliant on her just like our heroes require the women in these situations to make them the heroes they are.

The women's necessity for mental and emotional stability is even there when men aren't involved. Let's go back to my old favourite, Heavenly Sword. Before the final battle, Nariko basically states that she only fights for Kai, her sort-of-adopted little sister. While Kai was very briefly a damsel in distress, she's also proven herself to be a more capable fighter than any of the all-male clanmembers, who also serve as damsels in distress at one point. She proves herself to be a more capable fighter than Nariko's father and the clan leader, Shen, who is a male version of a damsel in distress too. Nariko fights for none of them, even though they're more in need of her help. In fact, after Kai fends off Shen's attackers, she cartwheels right past him to go and help Nariko. Shen has no value; he provides no emotional or mental stability for either of the female heroines by that point. They look out for each other and nobody else.

Before anybody thinks that I'm just picking on Heavenly Sword (again), it's not the only one. Let's look at Final Fantasy XIII and its sequel, XIII-2. Lightning and Snow do everything for Serah, who is Lightning's sister and Snow's fiancée. This, in spite of the fact that Lightning spends a large chunk of the game partnered with Hope, a teenage boy who could really use her guidance rather than her cold indifference. Fang and Vanille are two women who are insanely protective of each other. In XIII-2, both the hero, Noel, and the villain, Caius, are set on their quests because of their adoration for Yuel, a teenage girl. The only male character from either game who earns this emotional/mental stability value is Dajh, the son of Sazh, and that's probably only because he's an innocent little boy. None of the other male characters receive this sympathy.

This even applies to female characters when it makes little-to-no sense; in the first inFamous game, Cole McGrath split up with his girlfriend, Trish, before the beginning of the game and runs into her a few times throughout the story. Even if you're going for an altruistic playthrough of the game, Trish is incredibly standoffish towards Cole. And if you're going for an evil run of the game, he still mourns her after her unavoidable death. She earns sympathy because she's female, nothing more. Her negative qualities are ignored and Cole, dependent on Trish for his emotional stability, is shown to be so smitten with her that it's remarkable he doesn't scribble "Cole + Trish 4 Eva" in a notebook during cutscenes. Again, a male character who is physically independent but mentally and emotionally helpless.

You might be wondering what my big problem with this is. I'd like to say that I'm not necessarily saying that the portrayal of men in these situations is worse than women so frequently being damsels in distress (although they don't always have to be damsels, as mentioned above). Over the course of debates with people online over men's issues, the phrase has often come up that "this isn't a zero-sum game". That's correct, of course. It isn't. Where feminists and men's rights activists differ is they have different opinions on which sex is in more urgent need of help, or believe that solving the problems of one sex will go further towards helping the other than just focusing on that sex in the first place would.

The problem is that female characters are motivation for others to continue on/succeed at their quest, in a way that male characters aren't. There's been such a huge rallying cry for characters who fit into the "strong, independent woman" archetype over the past fifteen to twenty years. Yet for all the talk of sexism not being "a zero-sum game", there's been no criticism of developers who make these male characters that basically pander to an outdated form of chivalry. The criticism of damsels in distress boils down to the idea that the female character shouldn't need a man to rescue her. However, the opposite isn't true; "men need women" is the message being sent out by a lot of these games. While our media happily hands women the "you don't need a man" attitude that is routinely applauded, even heroes in games -- and films and television series, lest we forget -- are tainted by developers that think the purpose of men is to cater to women. The men lack independence even while there's been a huge push for -- and focus on -- "strong, independent women". So if fixing gender issues isn't "a zero-sum game", why wasn't this male emotional dependence on women decried along with women's physical dependence on men?

If fixing gender issues isn't "a zero-sum game", goodness knows what it'd be like if it was. As always, leave a comment or send me a message at