Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Women Are More Innocent (and more on Anita Sarkeesian)

Women aren't as evil as men. Everyone knows that! Although in case you didn't, game developers have a helpful way to educate you; if there's a female villain in a game, she's the most likely of the bunch to switch to the heroic side or she'll have been hypnotised or brainwashed into being evil instead. One of the two.

Although I try to avoid referring to TV Tropes too often -- I'm a fan of the site but I know Anita Sarkeesian is criticised for taking it at its word a few too many times -- but it has some information on this on the "High Heel Face Turn" and "Females Are More Innocent" pages. The "Sorting Algorithm Of Face Heel Turning" is also worth a quick look ("face" and "heel" are the professional wrestling terms for "good guy" and "bad guy" respectively, in case you didn't know).

The "High Heel Face Turn" trope gets the basic point across but I think it's missing something; going by the definition on that page, the female villain would have to be the lone female on a team of villains to qualify. Not that it's incorrect or any better when it's only a single female villain rather than several but I can think of a game series where all the female villains either switch sides, aren't as villainous, are coerced into being evil via brainwashing or repent how evil they are shortly before death. If you don't want to be kept waiting, I'm thinking of Metal Gear Solid.

Let's start with some others though. Back when I blogged about Batman: Arkham City, I wrote the following:
"There are barely any bad women in the game. Catwoman is an anti-hero. So is Talia Al-Ghul and her all-female army of assassins. Poison Ivy keeps to herself. Harley Quinn is the closest thing to "evil" a woman gets in the game and she plays the comic relief role."
Meanwhile, Mr. Freeze is the closest the game has to a male villain switching sides. He's a lot like Poison Ivy, in that he wants to keep to himself. Even so, he acts pretty selfishly; while Poison Ivy only attacked when Catwoman entered her territory, Mr Freeze shattered a vial of a cure that could save Batman from the illness that plagues him throughout the game purely out of spite. Well, leverage supposedly -- he wanted Batman to help get his wife back but there was nothing to suggest Batman wouldn't have done so anyway -- but clearly spite.

One of the traits that is always present in Mortal Kombat's messed-up canon is Kitana shaking off her brainwashing and joining the good guys. She's raised to believe that she is the daughter of the villain, Shao Kahn, but it doesn't take long for her to find out the truth; that Shao Kahn killed her father, forced her mother, Sindel, into marrying him and adopted Kitana himself. Kitana switches sides, as does her best friend, Jade. Jade was only siding with the villains to keep watch over her best friend. Depending on the timeline you look at for the Mortal Kombat games, Sindel may follow suit and join the heroic side too (but in that particular timeline, so do Ermac and Smoke ... and Raiden turns evil. It's a bit of a mess as the series continues). Kitana and Jade's side-switching is a mainstay of both the old and new Mortal Kombat timelines though, so it looks like there's no way of keeping them evil.

Even in games where the male and female villains are evil for the same reasons, there can be subtle differences. Take the first Mass Effect game, for example. Saren (a male Turian) and Matriarch Beneziah (a genderless Asari but physically female, like all Asari) are both evil because they're in the thrall of Sovereign, a massive ship-slash-AI with mind-controlling powers. Even then, however, Beneziah is given a more sympathetic backstory than Saren.

Then there's Metal Gear Solid, a series where all the female villains have excuses for being evil. In Metal Gear Solid 2, Olga Gurlukovich switched sides because her daughter had been taken from her by the real bad guys (which is an oversimplification but for the sake of this blog, a longer explanation isn't needed). Fortune also turned against at least one of her former villainous colleagues, going so far as to save the good guys' lives before dying of a gunshot wound. In Metal Gear Solid 3, we had The Boss. Long story short, she was never evil. She posed as being evil but the actions of one of the villains led to her plan spiralling out of control and she eventually had to be killed. In Metal Gear Solid 4, there's an all-female team of villains called the Beauty & The Beast Corps. All four women share the same backstory; they all suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Their fragile mental state was exploited and they were each given hi-tech suits to make them deadly soldiers. They're tragic figures more than anything else (or they would be, with a bit more character development).
Sniper Wolf from Metal Gear Solid is the only female villain who didn't either switch sides before dying or get her start by being coerced or brainwashed. Even she is given the noble death that she wants and isn't as much of an extremist as some of the other MGS villains. A few other male villains receive treatment along the same lines as Sniper Wolf -- Vulcan Raven, for example, and Grey Fox is probably more of a tragic figure than anyone in the B&B Corps -- but none along the same lines as, say, Olga or Fortune. Even characters who are supposedly doing good things resort to extremist tactics to do so; this turned out to be Revolver Ocelot's schtick by the end of the series.

This isn't to say that you won't find male villains switching sides or female heroes crossing over to join the bad guys. These few examples aren't the be-all and end-all of female turncoats either. All the games listed do have examples of male characters either switching sides or being coerced into being evil ... but often, the subtle differences between the male and female villains send out different messages. On its own, a female villain switching sides wouldn't matter very much but it raises questions when male and female villains are evil for the same reasons -- like Saren and Beneziah -- but the woman comes across more sympathetically than the man. It's hard not to wonder if there's a motive when, in a game with an even split between male and female villains -- like Arkham City or the Metal Gear Solid series -- the male villains are more evil than the female ones. There's no real reason for it and it can feel like a slightly insulting gesture.

Anyway, onto other things; there are two big important pieces of news this week. Firstly, the blog has a banner! It doesn't fit properly! I'm too lazy to fix it!

Secondly, a blog called Vicsor's Opinion rooted out something surprising about Anita Sarkeesian's damsel in distress videos; none of the game footage shown in the videos were recorded by Anita herself. They all come from Let's Play videos on Youtube and the owner of the blog, Vicsor, has comparison screenshots to prove it. He also made sure to contact some of the owners of the channels hosting the Let's Play videos and posted a reply on his blog to confirm that Feminist Frequency did not contact them to request permission to use their videos in her series.

So what does this mean for Feminist Frequency? Well it doesn't confirm anything except for the fact that Anita didn't use any of the $158,922 she received from Kickstarter to invest in a capture card. It throws up a lot of questions about how the money is being spent, however; we don't know whether there's been any investment in audio/video equipment at all, given that there's no visible or audible change in the quality of Anita's videos. The only difference is a new introduction logo. We also have to wonder if the many months in-between Anita's videos are spent playing games or simply watching Let's Plays. I know it sounds cynical and before this information came out, I wouldn't have even suggested it but hey, who's to say now that it turns out Anita didn't use her own footage?

This is just another addition to a long line of Anita's screw-ups. Questionable money-making methods. Flawed, occasionally sexist arguments with cherry-picked examples. Complete bastardisation of a study to fit the point she wanted to make. And now, stolen footage.

Anita's supporters may think I'm being too harsh. Maybe she doesn't own the games she took footage from. Maybe some were too old to get hold of and it wasn't wise to invest in dated games and consoles. Maybe they were released after she went on the initial spending spree that produced this famous picture. Even so, none of those points explain why she didn't ask permission to use other footage from other people's Let's Play videos. The only explanations for that is that she was either hiding behind "fair use", she didn't think she'd get caught or she arrogantly didn't think she had to ask permission. It's also worth mentioning that on Feminist Frequency's Kickstarter page, Anita states that she plans to reward large donations with a DVD featuring all the episodes of her Tropes Vs Women In Games series. It isn't clear whether she actually plans on selling these DVDs -- personally, I doubt it, considering how large a donation it takes for just one to be given away -- but even giving them away will probably be difficult if even one person takes offence to Anita using their footage in her series.

You know what else this means? Any one of the people whose footage was taken has a legitimate reason to flag Anita's videos as inappropriate and have them removed. I don't believe their case will be watertight but as far as I can see, they may have a chance with factor one of the fair use guidelines. Time will tell.

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

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Problem With Patriarchy

I'd like to take a short break from writing about video games specifically and focus on another often-mentioned feminist theory that is constantly brought up when discussing gender issues; patriarchy theory. I thought I'd switch to a different topic because (a) this blog is meant to be about gender issues and video games, albeit focusing on one more than the other and (b) I'm having trouble finding a video online of a cutscene -- and obscure postgame (I believe) cutscene from Star Ocean: The Last Hope -- for a topic that I wanted to write about. I could write the blog without it but it wouldn't be as good.

I normally steer clear of using any feminist/men's rights activist terms on this blog because I want it to feel accessable to the average reader. "Hypoagency". "Privilege". "Rape culture". I've probably mentioned a couple of them before and I know I've brought up "agency" a few times but generally, I stay away from those terms if I can. Although I know that my main traffic comes from people interested in gender issues in the first place, I want the average gamer to be able to take something from it too.

"Patriarchy" is a term that comes up time and time again when discussing gender issues and, irritatingly, it's a term I've heard about half a dozen definitions of. It's a system designed to keep men in power and oppress women. It's a system designed to keep men in power and oppress women and some men. At its least offensive, I've heard it described as "a social system where men act as primary authority figures central to social organisation" (although this was immediately followed-up with the short-sighted "as a result men have privilege and control, and other men and women are subjugated"). I've also heard it described as intentionally malicious or just accidentally oppressive. Thankfully, I was linked to "A Basic Definition Of Patriarchy" yesterday, so maybe that can clear things up a bit.

When it comes up in conversations about gender issues, patriarchy is the umbrella that other gender issues fall under; rape culture is part of patriarchy. Objectification is part of patriarchy. Unequal pay is part of patriarchy, etc, etc. In gaming circles, you might hear phrases like "patriarchal gender roles" or the damsel in distress plot device being due to patriarchy.

Let's get this out of the way now; patriarchy theory is an attempt to put a face and a name to oppression. While both men and women have suffered in different ways throughout history, it's supposedly not enough to say that's simply due to the way society evolved to treat the sexes or because of our culture. There has to be an oppressor ... and the face and name that the oppressor has been given in this case are both male. Using patriarchy theory in an argument has a ton of benefits for the person making it; it frees the person from any acknowledgment of female privilege while simultaneously arguing that males have been swimming in privilege since the dawn of time ("men have the privilege of not knowing they're privileged" sometimes comes up). It also frees up responsibility from any other factors, such as the class system, nationality (Irish, for example) and religion (being Protestant under Mary I springs to mind). It's a huge, cookie-cutter oversimplification of a string of issues concerning social standing and privilege. It's anti-intellectual, shows an ignorance towards historical context and the different definitions of patriarchy only muddy the waters while debating gender issues, rather than clear them.

I think those are sensible enough reasons to rule out arguments about patriarchy but even without them, the real reason I couldn't take it seriously is because it has absolutely no bearing on real life.

A couple of months ago, I watched this video, featuring Erin Pizzey -- founder of one of the world's first women's shelters in 1971 -- discussing domestic violence. She talked about how, in her case, it was generational. She made an effort to get to the root of the problem in a way that simply saying "it's because of patriarchy" doesn't do. I took a few minutes to make a couple of images showing how I would examine men's issues to how someone who believes in patriarchy theory would examine women's issues. Here's mine, first of all:

It's not in-depth or comprehensive by any means -- it had to be small enough to fit in the blog column -- but there's a few men's issues and a few possible causes, or at least possible reasons why they're perpetuated. Lots of different possibilities. Some speculation and uncertainty. With a gender issues board for someone who believes in patriarchy theory, on the other hand:

... There is only certainty. If you think that picture is an exaggeration, take a look at this article from Jezebel. Or maybe you'd prefer hearing it read out at the University Of Toronto protest a few months ago, with added abuse! If you frequent Tumblr, you probably saw it reposted thousands of times too. There's a stereotype of men's rights activists that says they blame all their problems on feminism, which isn't the case, as you can see above. So it's surprising that there are feminists who legitimately do the same thing with patriarchy.

Of course, they have good reason to; passing everything off as the result of patriarchy, feminist groups -- or any other perpetrator of gender issues, for that matter -- don't have to take responsibility for their own role role in perpetuating or even helping to cause gender issues. It's much easier to say "it's patriarchy's fault" than acknowledge intolerance against men instigated by feminists, such as the Duluth model of domestic violence, which treats domestic violence as something solely done by men to women. Or the tender years doctrine, which set a precedent for mothers gaining sole custody of children. Or the National Organization for Women's opposition to a "shovel-ready" stimulus program after the recession hit simply because the workforce would be predominately male (since male-dominated industries were the most badly affected). "Patriarchy hurts men too" is, as well as being an oversimplification, an attempt to rewrite history.

In short, people need to stop using patriarchy as the go-to scapegoat to attack when wanting to fix gender issues. "Demolishing the patriarchy" is like "stamping out the plague of vampiric chickens". It's not something that can be done because it doesn't exist and, even if it could be done, "patriarchy" is such a vast, overarching term that it'd be better to focus on individual gender issues anyway. Instead of saying "patriarchal gender roles", just say "gender roles". It's not like people won't know what you're talking about, you just won't be conjuring up an image of a cackling bogeyman, tapping his fingers together while oppressing women.

Comments welcome. E-mail: You know what to do by now.

Actually, although I don't respond to all of them, I really do appreciate receiving comments. In fact, if I don't respond, it's usually because I agree and don't just want to add "yep, you're right". So a big "thank you" to everyone who has left a comment in the past.

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Sexism Of The Last Of Us

This post contains major spoilers about The Last Of Us. Only read on if you've already completed the game or don't care about knowing what happens.

I wasn't looking forward to The Last Of Us while it was in development. I've bought games based on the promise of a good story and beautiful environments in the past and been disappointed with them. Lately, I've stuck to Japanese RPGs, solely based on the fact that I know they'll last longer than ten-to-twenty hours. I feel like I've moved past the stage where I can be impressed by developers showing off their graphics, story or environments. Oh, and if it has a cover system, count me out.

So like I said, The Last Of Us wasn't thrilling me during development but a friend let me borrow his copy a few days ago, I played it and I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I was impressed with the way Naughty Dog combined the cover system with the stealth, much like they did in Uncharted with the climbing/platforming. They're one of the few developers I can trust to do cover systems well. I really enjoyed the item crafting, scavenging and weapon upgrading. They added some depth to what I figured would be a very linear game and I wish I'd heard more about it during development.

The story, on the other hand ... hit-and-miss.

To fans of The Last Of Us, I will say that it isn't really sexist against men. Comparing it to something like Heavenly Sword or Lollipop Chainsaw, it's not even in the same league. There were a few things that stood out though. I don't want this to seem like a review of The Last Of Us but I feel like I have to criticise a few things about the game in order to properly explain my points.

First of all though, the story; the game stars Joel, a father whose twelve-year-old daughter is killed on the first night of a zombie outbreak. Twenty years later, when the world is in a post-apocalyptic state, he meets Ellie, a teenage girl who is immune to the infection that has consumed the rest of humanity. Joel is tasked with taking Ellie to a group called the Fireflies, who have been searching for a cure to the infection.

One of the problems I had with The Last Of Us is that almost everyone in the game is a scumbag. Almost everyone. The only real exceptions are Joel's brother, Tommy, some friends and coworkers of his that he's trying to rebuild a small town with and a young boy called Sam. Everyone else, for one reason or another, has an unpleasant quality or two that makes them hard to like. It isn't all bad though and, in fact, in a world where everybody is a scumbag, Joel comes out of it rather well. That's a credit to Naughty Dog's writers; Joel may murder people in cold blood and torture others with knives before killing them too ... but in this world, where everyone is a scumbag, the fact that he eventually grows to show a fatherly instinct towards Ellie actually makes him surprisingly relateable. It's a remarkably positive portrayal of fatherhood.

The Last Of Us does a good job of switching gender roles for the most part. While Joel is a compassionate character (eventually; he's stony when we first see him twenty years after the outbreak but he softens over the course of the game), his female partner at the start of the game, Tess, has some of the qualities of typically (but not always) male anti-heroes, such as stoicism, resourcefulness and facing death with determination and anger rather than fear. She also doesn't bat an eye at killing helpless, unarmed enemies that she dislikes but that seems like a given in The Last Of Us. Later on, Joel and Ellie meet a pair of brothers called Henry and Sam. By this point, Ellie has already handled a gun and saved Joel's life but Henry -- the older brother -- refuses to let Sam do the same. In most aspects, Sam is a male version of Ellie, being born after the outbreak began, being unable to swim but he's also more shy and reserved. It's been noted that it's usually female characters occupying Sam's quieter, more passive role. Plus, the final character killed in the game -- and main "villain", if you can call her that -- is female. Her death is just as graphic as anyone else's too.

It's certainly not perfect though and I had as easy a time spotting the differences as I did the similarities. For one thing, the game falls into the old trap of featuring both men and women as heroes but the only female enemies we see being fought (not including zombies) are Marlene, the aforementioned "villain", and a surgeon that the player can choose to kill at the very end of the game. For the entire rest of the game, men make up the murderers, enemy scavengers and cannibals that the player is tasked with killing. People have put forward the idea that the enemies likely rape and/or kill any women they find, so they're kept out of sight and off the front lines but isn't it just a lazy cliché to assume that all the bad guys are murdering rapists and use that as a justification? There was a lot of hype over at least one positive female character during development -- and the game certainly provides several female characters on the good side who are handy with guns, such as Ellie, Tess and Maria (Tommy's wife) -- so why fall back on a typical stereotype when it comes to deciding the sexes of the good and bad guys?

Then there's Ellie.

One of the big appeals of The Last Of Us during development was the promise that Ellie would be a strong and relateable female character. Since the game's release, reviews have been praising her as "likeable" and a positive portrayal. Personally, I couldn't disagree more.

I came to a few realisations about Ellie; one of them was that female characters can get away with a lot more than male ones and still be considered likeable. There are lots of little qualities that Ellie has that I suspect would have a gender-flipped version of the character branded as a burden or an annoyance. Being unable to swim. Being foul-mouthed. Making snarky comments about a man's weight (and imagine if he was gender-flipped too and it was an attractive male teenager mocking a woman's weight instead).

Speaking of which, that was the moment Ellie stopped being likeable to me. Joel and Ellie are travelling to meet up with a man called Bill, a paranoid survivalist who they think will be able to help them acquire a car. They meet up in the middle of a chaotic scene with a dozen zombies or so and, since this is before Ellie learns how to use a gun, Bill helps the duo fight their way to his safehouse. Once inside, he handcuffs Ellie and begins searching Joel for zombie bites (which Ellie has on her arm, but she's immune to the infection). Ellie escapes her handcuffs quickly and starts beating Bill with a pipe, simply because he handcuffed her. Obviously she was petrified about her bite mark being discovered and if it was just that single attack, I'd be fine with it ... but she maintains her snarky attitude until Bill disappears from the story. This, in spite of the fact that he saved her and Joel from zombies, gave them shelter and helped them find a car. This wasn't pointed out during the game. Later on, I also felt like she ignored Joel's wishes and overstepped her bounds when talking about his deceased daughter, Sarah, so my opinion of her dropped several notches when that cropped up too.

The thing is, while female teenage characters may have a reserved personality like Sam's more than male ones do, it doesn't necessarily mean male teenage characters more frequently have Ellie's brash and snarky personality either. Or if they do, it can instantly make them unlikeable (specifically, I'm thinking of John Connor in the first half of Terminator 2. Not that Ellie was as unsociable but she certainly had a few choice curse words here and there, as well as a rather unpleasant description of something she found in a pornographic magazine).

Then there's the whole chapter with David. While Joel is injured, Ellie searches for food and antibiotics to help him recover. She meets up with a man called David, who, long story short, turns out to be both a cannibal and a pedophile, with an attraction towards Ellie. Ellie ends up killing him after a stealthy boss fight by violently -- although the camera focuses on Ellie, to spare us from the gore -- slicing away at his head with a knife shortly after David tries to rape her. Joel, now on the mend, arrives in time to pull Ellie off him and comfort her.

Now, I'm not one of those people who says that rape doesn't have any place in video games. While I don't think it's as good a threat as death during gameplay -- it'd be a very dark game that had the player escaping rape instead of escaping death -- I think it has its place in a story. Looking at it in the larger context of The Last Of Us though, I think it comes off worse than if it was on its own. For one thing, although The Last Of Us isn't crawling with villains, the male ones, especially David, come off worse than the lone female one; believing that she can find a cure for the infection by operating on Ellie's brain, Marlene authorises some of the Fireflies' surgeons to do so, knowing that it'll kill her. However, not only does she think that curing humanity is worth Ellie's death (which is possibly justifiable in itself), she agonises over it. She's sincere when she talks about how much it hurts her, because she's known Ellie since she was born and was a close friend of her mother's.

The male villains, on the other hand, don't get any sympathetic or morally justifiable reasons for doing what they do. We have Robert, a gun-runner who was supposed to sell guns to Joel and Tess but sold them to the Fireflies instead. He opens fire on them when they came to talk to him, runs away like a coward and makes excuses for why he sold their guns. He ends up having Tess hit him in the leg with a pipe, Joel break his arm and finally gets shot in the head while he's unarmed, injured, helpless and pleading to make a deal for his life. See what I mean when I say that almost everyone in the game is a scumbag? They're supposed to be the good guys. The only other notable villains who receive any focus are an all-male group who fake injuries in order to mug and kill unsuspecting travellers who take sympathy on them. They can hardly justify their actions morally and David, cannabilistic pedophile that he is, speaks for himself. The only hint we get that David is perhaps an extreme example is an enemy conversation that can be overheard that describes how tired his "townspeople" are of indulging him.

David's death irritated me too. People have been saying that it was good that Ellie could handle herself and that, I agree with. She was never a damsel in distress. However, hacking away at David's head with a knife just before he intended to rape her was far too reminiscent of a Lifetime Movie of the Week, in my opinion. Again, on its own, it would be fine but combined with the fact that David was a pedophilic cannibal who attempted to rape Ellie right before being killed makes it seem a bit ... cheap. A bit too blatant an attempt to make the player feel something, if that makes sense.

It's interesting because I had an idea about what I thought would happen that the game's writers decided not to go with; this is off-topic but at one point, David goes to strap Ellie to a table in order to kill her and use her to feed his community and Ellie bites him. She shows David the bite mark on her arm in order to try and trick him into believing that she's infected (and therefore David would be too) but David is too smart to fall for it; not only has he known her for too long that she would've shown signs of becoming a zombie but, as he says, "nobody infected fights that hard to stay alive". Ellie manages to escape in the kerfuffle. Now, I figured that Ellie biting David would lead to his townspeople turning against him and killing him to make sure he didn't become a zombie, while Ellie stealthily made her escape. David's friend, James, had already shown himself to be more gullible than David regarding the bite on Ellie's arm (and given that he'd never met anyone immune to the infection, understandably so) so it wouldn't be a big stretch to assume the townspeople could feel the same way. Even Joel and Tess doubted Ellie's claim that her bite mark was three weeks old when they met her. All that didn't happen though.

I don't want it to seem like I'm too down about The Last Of Us because, like I said, it actually exceeded my expectations. It even has a positive portrayal of a father in Joel and, if feminist gamers and critics are happy with Ellie, fine with me. There are a few pitfalls that the game stumbles into though and at least one of them -- all-male enemies but male and female heroes -- seems very basic to me. Still, it flips a few character archetypes on their heads ... and who could be annoyed about that?

Why, Carolyn Petit, of course! Dismissing the deaths of male characters because they damage her argument that women die to fuel a man's story. Sam. Henry. Robert. David. James. The two guys Joel tortured and murdered (and how likely do you think it is that we'll ever see women receive that treatment in video games?). The many, many male enemies. I'm not going to go into it any more than that but I highly recommend reading the comments (and sorting them by popularity). Aside from the occasional transphobic comment (which I do not approve of at all), members of Gamespot aren't short on common sense. This is another no-win situation Carolyn Petit has created and the long-time members who've seen this from her before are happy to call her out on it. She's basically sending the message that no matter how hard a developer tries -- and believe me, Naughty Dog tried their hearts out -- it'll never be good enough for her.

For a better feminist opinion on The Last Of Us (albeit one that I still don't entirely agree with), Memoirs of a Soulless Ginger has a more balanced, less entitled viewpoint.

Oh, and before I forget, a new anti-feminism-and-gaming blog has made an appearance that is a fantastic read. It's called Virtually Anti-Feminism and it's written by a female programmer in the games industry. Check it out. Her first blog post was about an Anita Sarkeesian happening that I didn't write about because it seemed to slip under everyone's radar and I thought that was a good place to leave it. As it happens though, the post she wrote was longer, more in-depth and better-written than mine would've been, so I highly recommend it and I've already added a link to her blog in the sidebar.

By the way, has anyone else noticed that The Last Of Us is basically a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested version of The Happening? Think about it!

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