Friday, 12 April 2013

My Struggles With Sexualised Males

I've been in two minds about whether to write about this or not because it involves revealing some things about the way I look that I'd rather not. I'm sure there are a few of you out there who are still like me; not keen on uploading your photos to Facebook and other social media sites and reserving them for people you befriend online. So describing my appearance is frustrating but, in this case, I think it's necessary. It's more personal than usual but I promise that this'll be the one and only time I rely on anecdotal evidence.

First of all, I've never considered myself particularly attractive and my teenage years, in particular, weren't the best. Spots were a problem. I don't believe I've ever been fat but I have struggled with my weight. I wear glasses. The thing that bothers me most about my appearance, however, is I have difficulty smiling. It looks awkward, feels awkward and, when combined with an unbearable shyness in my teens, made me a target for comments like "cheer up" from my teachers. That was incredibly annoying and I hated being singled out over it.

It seemed to stop after I finished secondary school and I forgot all about it until last year. My mother began creating a few items to sell at craft fairs and I went with her to help set up the table, take care of the money and things like that. The last time the two of us went to a craft fair, one of her friends came to visit her late in the day. I minded my own business but I caught his eye a few times and, shortly after, he said something like "there's no harm in smiling, you know".

It might seem childish or overly-sensitive but whenever I'm faced with a situation like that, from my teachers or my mother's friend, I just want to say "fuck you". What difference does it make to them how I look? How dare they judge me on my appearance? And why should I change what I'm doing to please them? I don't think there's anything wrong with looking unhappy and, for all he knew, I could've had good reason to look unhappy. It's probably a lot ruder to give that "cheer up, might never happen" approach to a complete stranger, since you don't know why they look unhappy, than it is to just let them frown.

Of course, I didn't say "fuck you". That's uncivilised and not something I could've got away with in school. What you really do when faced with comments like those is try to laugh them off and act like you don't care. Like when someone tells an unfunny joke at work but you laugh along anyway because you think it'd be rude not to. It's a pain but it's just what you're supposed to do.

It's not to say that I never smiled or that I was always shy. Naturally, when I was with my friends, we found enough to keep each other entertained and I smiled as much as anyone else. I came out of my shell when I was with them. One of the things we had in common was a love of video games.

This was the tail end of the fifth generation of consoles and the beginning of the sixth. We were all predominately Sony fanboys, so the Playstation 1 and 2 were our main consoles. We tended to argue a lot over different series though. Off the top of my head, the only two series I can remember us all liking were Metal Gear Solid -- teenage boys could earn hours of enjoyment performing impressions of Snake and Colonel Campbell -- and Final Fantasy.

One of my friends was a bigger Final Fantasy fan than I was and it was because of him that I ended up buying Final Fantasy VIII. On his recommendation, I also rented Final Fantasy X, which led to me buying that too. As much as I enjoyed the games, the main characters always irritated me:

The main culprits. Cloud, Squall and Tidus.

It wasn't their looks alone that I took issue with. It was the fact that they could do no wrong. Girls seemed to gravitate towards them. They were always popular, even when it didn't make sense for them to be (Squall was surly and distant, as was Cloud at the start of FFVII). And yes, their looks played a big part of my dislike towards them. They were always the best-looking members of their teams and they were the stars of their games, so I associated popularity with attractiveness for a long time. More importantly, none of the boys in my school looked like they did. From what I remember, they were more feminine-looking than all the girls too ...

For a while, I did relate to Squall though. I mistook his stand-offish attitude for shyness and even his teacher (Quistis) had fun at the expense of his unsocial personality, much like my own teachers enjoyed doing. It was only when replaying FFVIII in later years that I realised Squall was actually an uncaring jerk. Final Fantasy VIII had quite a few moments that unintentionally made me dislike their attractive characters more. For example, there's a character called General Caraway, the father of Rinoa, one of the game's party members. It's strongly implied that Rinoa's mother, Julia, only married Caraway because he was there to comfort her when "her true love went off to war and never came back". Her "true love" was the ultra-feminine Laguna, who was Squall's father and also a playable character in flashbacks:

Armed with a machine gun in battle. And a hair straightener outside of it.

Rinoa, for some unexplained reason, utterly hates having Caraway as her father but he doesn't do anything to warrant it. He's actually very protective of her, although "protective" in his case does mean attempting to lock Rinoa inside her home so she won't put herself in danger by interrupting a military operation (which she does). Rinoa goes so far as to take her mother's maiden name and join a rebel group that opposes her father's army. I know it was unintentional but it does seem like Square made sure to avoid giving credit to anyone outside the attractive, important main characters. There's another case like this involving a very minor character named Nida kind of being undermined as soon as he's introduced that bothered me too. It might sound insignificant but it all adds up.

I don't want to say that the attractive male characters offended me but I did resent them. I certainly felt self-conscious when either I had to deal with crap that they didn't because of the way I looked. I felt the same way about these men as critics of the fashion industry did about size-zero models; "it creates an unrealistic standard of beauty". They were the closest us boys had to Barbie, who faced similar criticisms. I didn't tell my friends this, of course, but I made sure to mention that I disliked the characters. When they asked why, I said I felt like they were portrayed as being able to do no wrong (which was partially true. They rarely screwed up).

So what does all this have to do with this blog, about men's issues in gaming? Well put it this way; have you ever brought up the unrealistic standards of beauty that male video game characters face and have been hit with the argument "it's a male power fantasy"?


There are no qualities in a Final Fantasy character that I fantasise about having myself. Dismissing the argument that men are portrayed unrealistically because it's a "male power fantasy" makes about as much sense as dismissing arguments against size zero models because being thin is a "female beauty fantasy". It's a way for the critics to have their cake and eat it too; they want to portray unrealistic female body types as a problem but don't want to acknowledge that male characters face the same issue.

It's interesting to note that when advocating for more female protagonists -- which I'm all for -- a line often comes up about there being "enough straight white male" characters, particularly with brown hair. By itself, that's fine but presumably the reason many female gamers want to see more female protagonists is because they identify more with female characters than male ones. However, I hope they aren't thinking that men feel the same way about male characters because that's a mistake.

There's nothing to say that I identify with a straight white male protagonist any more than I identify with every straight white guy I see walking down the street. The experiences he has been through in his life are unlikely to be the same as my experiences. Besides, if I'm playing a game that involves shooting person after person, how can I identify with them anyway? I can't relate to these people and usually, that's fine; it allows me to be unconcerned with playing as a female space marine or a purple dragon or ... the Hulk. In fact, depending on how they're written, I could easily relate more to any of those characters than I could a straight white male protagonist. To think that I identify more with them because we share a sex, skin colour and sexual orientation is very shallow reasoning. In fact, in the case of Final Fantasy characters, I actually relate to them even less than I normally would.

Oh, and on the "male power fantasy" argument ... as much as I enjoy smashing things up as the Hulk, I wouldn't want to be the Hulk. That's no fantasy of mine.

So I really hope people who've made the "male power fantasy" argument before read this and realise that that's not the case. How I felt about feminine-looking male Final Fantasy characters may be the same way another teenage boy feels about muscle-bound male Tekken characters or the plethora of shaved-headed, tough-talking male characters from modern games (just in case anyone's forgotten, here's IGN's take). Don't think that just because female characters are sometimes large-chested or their breasts bounce that women have the monopoly on being offended over appearance.

On the off-chance that there are any young men reading this who are upset about the appearances of men in video games and the media? Don't worry, it gets better. You'll stop caring as much when you get older. One thing I realised is that sometimes video game characters suck. Video games aren't the be-all and end-all of storytelling and you can find yourself disliking characters and stories in otherwise good games. They're not a big deal. I mentioned all the flaws I have at the beginning of this post. Now, I still have some of those flaws, including the inability to smile properly, but I've found quite a few things I like about myself too. I've become more comfortable with the way I look. I'm not saying "you must like yourself immediately!" though because you don't have to. It'll come with time.

One last thing before I go. I came across a link to this Tumblr today, by artist Aaron Diaz, featuring an "Inspired by Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women" original concept for a Legend Of Zelda game, with Zelda as the hero:

On its own, it looks kind of cool ... but I also can't help but point out a few things wrong with it. Firstly, a gender-flipped version of a Zelda game, featuring Zelda as the hero and Link as a "noble but naïve" prince ... still features a male villain? Secondly, there's at least one characteristic there that Anita Sarkeesian would actually dislike; she criticised Zelda in the main LoZ series for being kidnapped in several games as soon as she returns to her "stereotypically feminine" form. I can't imagine she'd be too pleased about Zelda spending an entire game dressed in masculine attire.

Thirdly ... the Zelda series has always done a good job of appealing to everyone. Between a heroic (albeit mute) male character, a wise female character (which "Prince Link" isn't) and cutesy visuals, it appeals to men, women and children equally. Because of little touches, I think the artist's "Clockwork Empire" is specifically designed to appeal to feminist critics more than any other group. Not to say that it doesn't look like it could be fun but let's examine a few things:
  • Female hero breaking gender roles.
  • "Naïve" male prince with rather effeminate outfit (the puffy shoulders are reminiscent of the dresses in old cartoons and on Disney princesses like Snow White).
  • Male villain. Still. Just sayin', it kind of stands out.
It is a really interesting concept, so I don't want to talk it down too much. Unfortunately, not much consideration is given to the male characters (or audience).

As always, feel free to leave a comment below or e-mail me at I don't check it every day but I promise I'll get back to you if you write.