Friday, 17 May 2013

The Sexism Of Lollipop Chainsaw

I'm going to be upfront about this; I don't own Lollipop Chainsaw. Partly to do with having a limited budget to buy games with but mainly because I just don't want it in my collection. I wasn't very impressed with the look of the gameplay and I'm very tired of games with zombies in them. Plus, even though I know Grasshopper Manufacture made the game, it was directed by Suda 51 and I haven't played a Suda 51 game since Killer7 (which I wasn't a fan of, to say the least). Plus, while I know what the game is about and know why there's a scantily-clad cheerleader on the front of the box, not everyone else would. It's the kind of game I wouldn't want my parents or non-gaming friends to look at too closely.

I know people might dislike the idea of me criticising a game that I don't own. It sounds bad to say "I've never played this game but here's what's wrong with it". I'm certainly not going to argue that I can give a more comprehensive analysis of the game than someone who owns it. Much like I did with Far Cry 3, I'll be honest about what I've seen and what I haven't seen and, if I get anything incorrect, feel free to correct me. I suspect that might happen when Juliet or another character elaborates on something during the game that I haven't seen, because I've only watched the cutscenes (and a very small amount of gameplay, which I'll get to eventually). So if I end up quoting things out of context -- pieces of dialogue that are later expanded or retracted -- it's accidental.

The reason I wanted to look into Lollipop Chainsaw in the first place was because of an article written by Jim Sterling on Destructoid last year, all about his interpretation of some of the events that take place in the game, revolving around Juliet's boyfriend, Nick. At the very beginning of Lollipop Chainsaw, Juliet Starling is getting ready to meet up with Nick but she ends up running late and, as a result, Nick ends up bitten by a zombie. Juliet, being from a family of demon hunters, has an idea; she cuts off Nick's head and performs a ritual to keep him alive, but only as a head. Jim Sterling compares Nick's treatment as a literal object to the objectification of female characters in other games. I recommend you read that first because I might refer to it occasionally.

I don't think I need to go through the entire story scene-by-scene like I did with Heavenly Sword because only certain cutscenes are important. Basically, the story revolves around a student named Swan who is determined to break down the barrier between the human world and "Rotten World" (Lollipop Chainsaw's equivalent to hell). To do this, he summons Rotten World's five generals -- the Dark Purveyors -- who serve as the game's boss fights. They each utter an incantation when they're defeated, which serves to open a gateway and summon the final boss.

Most of that isn't important for this blog. All the important stuff concerns Nick and how he takes to being lugged around on the hip of his girlfriend. The reason I take issue with Jim Sterling's opinions on Lollipop Chainsaw is that, much like Jeffrey Yohalem did with Keith's rape in Far Cry 3, he can acknowledge instances where men are victims but think that they must be representative of female issues.

Not that every cutscene where Nick is mistreated is sexist or a men's issue. For example, shortly after the first boss fight, Nick is talking to Juliet about how he doesn't like being just a head. Juliet defends it by saying that she can sneak him into movie theatres so he doesn't have to pay and that no other girls have a boyfriend who is just a head, which leads Nick to say that he doesn't want to be an accessory. It's mildly insulting to Nick but the main point it gets across is how shallow Juliet is. For the moment, Nick's frustration over just being a head is secondary to establishing what a ditzy individual Juliet is.

One of the areas where I feel Jim Sterling really misses the mark, however, is with these two paragraphs:
"The scene that truly made me stop and think about Nick's role in the story was one that involved the entire Starling family, consisting of Juliet, her two sisters, and her father. While the Starlings plan their raid on the next undead target, Juliet's youngest sister, Rosalind, is forcing makeup onto Nick's face. Holding him forcefully in place and delivering a humiliating makeover, neither Rosalind or her sisters are capable of understanding why Nick is upset by his treatment -- treatment made all the more worse when Juliet's father tells Nick off for screwing around and threatens to deal with him if he continues being disruptive. It's all played for laughs, of course, and is quite funny, but when you look at what is happening to Nick, you see him suffering through several issues that commonly affect women, especially in the game industry.
Mr. Starling in particular seems to embody a particularly alarming issue in modern culture, made all the more pertinent by the fact that he is a male character -- victim blaming. Blaming the victim is something that people seem to love doing more and more these days, especially when women are concerned. Whether it's guys insinuating that a woman dressed as a "whore" was asking to be raped, or that someone being made uncomfortable by sexual harassment should have "said something" despite the pressure she was under to keep her mouth shut or politely smile, there's a lot of blame being thrown around by society's peanut gallery, and a less than deserved portion of it ever seems to reach the person who started whatever problem occurred."
Putting aside the fact that Sterling jumps from "comical makeover cutscene" to "rape victim blaming" alarmingly quickly, not once did I ever feel like that cutscene was an analogue for the treatment of women in the gaming industry. Nick's treatment was too light-hearted to carry the weight that Sterling gives it and I can't say I spotted anything to link it to victim-blaming, particularly that of women.

No, instead I think Nick's treatment during this cutscene has a lot to say about male disposability. During this cutscene, Rosalind is casually throwing Nick around before giving him a makeover, without any consideration for his well-being. By this point, Nick has already been bitten, beheaded and used as a weapon by Juliet in-game and Rosalind's lackadaisical attitude towards Nick's suffering reflects the average gamer's apathy towards slaughtering the men who make up the majority of enemies in most games. Rosalind is playing games with Nick's head and is completely blind to the fact that Nick is a human being. She's as relaxed about mistreating him while playing her games as we are towards men when we play ours.

There's also a lot to be said about Rosalind giving Nick a makeover; one of the stereotypes of men is that we all have to be strong, brave and protective of women. Except for Nick, the heroic male characters in Lollipop Chainsaw -- Juliet's father (named Gideon but usually referred to as just "Dad") and her sensei, Morikawa -- embody these qualities. They both have the chance to show off their zombie-killing skills, whereas Nick is bitten at the first opportunity because Juliet was running late and wasn't there to protect him. So Nick is "unmasculine" and Rosalind's treatment of him is a constant reminder; she refers to Nick as "it" repeatedly, rather than "him" -- dehumanising him and not even using male pronouns to refer to him -- and gives him a humiliating makeover to entertain herself, in spite of Nick's protests. Obviously, this ends with Nick looking incredibly feminine, further emphasising his lack of masculinity. His failure to live up to male "standards".

I don't think Juliet's father blaming Nick for "screwing around" is as big an issue -- in context, it's actually very clearly the "overprotective dad" cliché taken to its logical (and funny) extreme, blaming Nick when he clearly has no control over what happens to him -- but it could be argued that he represents the fear of what happens if men come forward about their mistreatment. If Sterling wants to bring rape into the equation, it could be said that Juliet's father's blame represents the fear that male rape victims won't be taken seriously if they report that they've been raped. The fear of being dismissed or mocked for "coming out" about their abuse is unsurprisingly common.

The most questionable moment comes up later. I'll let Jim explain it:
"The sheer selfishness of the heroines seems to mirror the attitudes that many men can have towards women, an attitude typified by Juliet when she refuses to kill Nick. At one point, her disembodied boyfriend begs for abandonment (and the inevitable death it would result in), having zero quality of life and feeling like he's lost everything that made him a person. Even as he asks for mercy, Juliet refuses, and gives a reason that sums up the relationship between them perfectly -- "I love you." Her reason for keeping Nick alive in a state that's less than human is because of her feelings and what she wants.
It reminds me of certain justifications for problems that have arisen in the gamer community before. It's been said by some that sexual harassment is just a "part of the culture" of online gaming, as if to say that anybody who has a problem with it needs to go away and not express their feelings of discomfort."
I do think there's something to this but there's a big problem with the way it's portrayed in Lollipop Chainsaw; let's just say that even though Nick is annoyed with Juliet at first, he ends up telling her how much he loves her, sacrifices himself for her and is resurrected with his head on Morikawa's body (don't ask) at the end of the game, with the two of them staying together. So while Juliet's selfishness could very well be an allegory for selfish sexual harassment at conventions, the outcome of Lollipop Chainsaw apparently encourages exactly what Jim Sterling is discouraging; the idea that it's completely fine and the victim should just accept it.

I should point out that this may be where my lack of insight into the actual game lets me down. I get the feeling Juliet and Nick exchanged some dialogue in-game between this cutscene and the next that explains just why Nick is so willing to forgive Juliet and tell her he loves her. If that's the case, feel free to call me out on it.

Let's focus on the cutscene where Juliet refuses to leave Nick behind to die, however. It's not just the fact that Juliet is selfishly unwilling to let Nick make his own decisions simply because "she loves him". It also has a whole host of grim implications because of Nick's "condition". It's ableist because Juliet is forcing the helpless Nick to accompany her when he doesn't want to. It borders on stalking because Nick can't get rid of Juliet, even though he asked her to leave him. To me, this is less of an analogue to sexual harassment of women in real life and more of a gender-flipped parody of books such as Twilight; a knowingly-sexualised female character stalking a powerless male one. Unlike Twilight, however, Lollipop Chainsaw's abuse isn't treated as romantic -- not by Nick, anyway -- but it's not described as abusive either. Between this and the relationship between Meryl and Johnny in Metal Gear Solid 4, I have to wonder if we'll ever see abusive relationships actually described as abusive in-game. Particularly if they break the taboo of acknowledging men as victims.

Jim Sterling's view seems to be that if there's a situation where Nick is mistreated, it's representative of real-life issues that affect women. I disagree, for reasons that Sterling didn't go into; Nick isn't the only male character in this game who is portrayed negatively.

All the male characters in Lollipop Chainsaw are either evil or perverts. Juliet's father is introduced rubbing his wife's behind. Each character is introduced with a retro comic-book drawing of themselves with a list of a few facts about them, such as their favourite food and their hobbies. One of the activities listed among Nick's hobbies is "masturbation". Juliet's Sensei, Morikawa, is the biggest offender, however. One of his hobbies is "collecting women's underwear" and much of his dialogue reflects this. Even the short amount of gameplay I saw featured male perverts; one of Juliet's in-game objectives is to save civilians being attacked by zombies. At school, some of the people being attacked are her fellow students and even they are given sexually suggestive (or even just plain blatant) lines of dialogue, such as "maybe we can hang out after school," and "I never thought I'd be saved by someone with such great tits". All spoken in nasally nerd voices, of course. Even a few zombies sneak in a suggestive line from time to time.

The thing is, I have a hard time accepting the idea that the mistreatment of male characters in Nick's case is simply parody while the stereotyping of male characters in the case of the perverted characters is played completely straight. Jim Sterling may very well be correct and Nick's treatment is an allegory for the treatment of women. In which case, Suda 51 and Grasshopper Manufacture couldn't care less about how they treat male characters in their games. On the other hand, maybe they were genuinely trying to tell a dramatic story with Nick and possibly say something about the overall treatment of men too. If that's the case, then the perverted portrayals of male characters are completely counter-productive. It's contradictory to the story they wanted to tell with Nick.

Unfortunately -- and I do mean unfortunately -- I think Suda 51 and GM were going for the former rather than the latter. Even if they weren't necessarily trying to say something significant about the treatment of women, there was nothing in Lollipop Chainsaw that said they cared at all about men. You'd be hard-pressed to find a positive male character in the game. Even Nick, in spite of being sympathetic and slightly more sane than the rest of the group, isn't very bright and is rather weak-willed. Not that the female characters are much better but I could probably find more to praise in the three Starling sisters than in Nick, Morikawa and Juliet's father.

As for Lollipop Chainsaw itself, I can't say I'm disappointed that I didn't buy it. I like that it doesn't take itself seriously and that it features zombies brought to life by mystical means rather than scientific ones (it might seem like a small quibble but I'm so tired of scientific zombies). Other than that, it didn't win me over.

As always, feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at