Saturday, 24 August 2013

Reversing The Sexes

I've been really bored lately, even with Dragon's Crown. I played Gone Home recently too but thought that was a letdown. While I suspect there'll be something to write about following Gamescom, it's all very slow-going right now. Not that there's a shortage of gender issues concerning men in video games to write about but, it has to be said, it's so much easier to write about current issues and have links at my fingertips than it is to hunt down pictures and videos myself. Still, with nothing else to do, let's talk about reversing the sexes.

A few days ago, I read a comment on Youtube that said something along the lines of "reversing the sexes is  a standard defensive, kneejerk response to accusations of sexism in video games". I can't recall the video I saw it under (and after spending most of the day searching, can't find it either) but that statement left me scratching my head. Hypothetically reversing the sexes of a situation has always, to me at least, seemed like an easy and effective way to examine whether it's sexist or not. In fact, people like me who get involved in the bubble of gender issues can forget how easy it is to become bogged-down with complicated terms (like "patriarchy", "hypoagency", "rape culture" and other phrases that I like to steer clear of while writing this blog) so reversing the sexes is actually an incredibly useful, accessable tool to people who aren't as interested in gender issues; it's easy to do and doesn't overcomplicate any issues. So let's try a few.

There's a moment in Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic that always confused me; the player character meets a hunter on Tatooine who is stranded and needs the player's help. The wife of this hunter has rigged his hunting droids to explode if he takes another step. He had no choice but to wait for help, possibly dying of thirst in the process. The hunter isn't smart enough to figure out how to disarm them, so he asks the player character for help. It isn't the situation itself that's questionable -- even if it is the Star Wars equivalent of a bumbling husband being at the mercy of his more intelligent wife -- but if the player chose Bastila Shan, a female Jedi and something of a mentor to your own character, to accompany them, she has some eyebrow-raising things to say about the hunter's situation:


Bastila says, "I say leave him". The hunter replies with, "you're pretty heartless for such a pretty lady, you know?" Bastila responds, "I take it back. Let's congratulate his wife".

To me, this always seemed like a huge overreaction, especially for the supposedly good-natured Bastila. So much for "the Jedi do not believe in killing their prisoners", as she states earlier. Leaving prisoners to die of thirst, however, is apparently completely acceptable.

The uploader of that Youtube video comments that, as out-of-character as it may seem, it hints at Bastila having anger issues that would later be used to turn her to the dark side. Personally, I find it a bit hard to connect "irritation over clumsy come-ons" with "dark lord of the Sith". Not that I think the uploader is incorrect but it seems like an odd thing to foreshadow side-switching with.

So do you think it's sexist? I'm torn. The hunter isn't portrayed as a sympathetic character; using droids to hunt is a no-no in KOTOR and he has a habit of flirting with women in spite of being married. Plus, in spite of Bastila's comments, the player earns Light Side points for helping the hunter, so it doesn't seem like the game is encouraging punishing the hunter for his comments. On the other hand, it takes a lot to advocate murder (and congratulate the murderer) just because you're irritated over someone's pick-up lines.

Reverse the sexes and I think there's only one big difference; it sounds a lot more harsh to me to think of a male Jedi offering to congratulate an unintelligent woman's husband for plotting to murder her. It would come across as unbelievably petty for a male character to be so irritated by some (admittedly obnoxious) come-ons to advocate such a serious act of domestic violence. As we know, however, domestic violence against men isn't awarded the same seriousness as it is against women. Having said that, I'm still coming down on the side of "not sexist", solely because the player is rewarded with Light Side points for helping the hunter.

Helpfully, there are a few games that provide surprisingly accurate gender-flipped counterparts to each other in spite of the fact they're more-or-less unrelated. Take Heavenly Sword and Resident Evil 4 as an example:


And back when I wrote "The Violence Double Standard", I brought up a moment in Final Fantasy XIII when Lightning punched Snow -- her sister's boyfriend -- twice in the face for failing to keep her sister safe.


I went on to say, "according to Square-Enix, she was conceived as "a female version of Cloud", from Final Fantasy VII. I must've missed the version of Final Fantasy VII where Cloud clocks Tifa in the jaw angrily. Twice." It was only this month that I received a long reply in the comments that ended with a link to this video from Final Fantasy VII, where Cloud attacks Aeris in a moment of stress. Skip to 14:40:


Comparing these four moments is a good way to highlight the differences when violence is portrayed against colleagues in games. They are, more or less, gender-flipped versions of each other.

The big difference, first of all, is that the men aren't in control of their actions when they attack the women. In Resident Evil 4, Leon is being controlled by the parasite inside his body and in Final Fantasy VII, Cloud's stress causes him to have an out-of-body experience; literally, a ghostly image of Cloud appears that the player controls while the corporeal Cloud attacks Aeris and the player is unable to stop him in any way. In contrast to the two of them, both Nariko in Heavenly Sword and Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII are well aware that they're harming their own colleagues. So it's acceptable for female characters to hit male ones (which is shocking, I know) but for male ones to hit female ones requires a trance of some kind.

It's also worth noting the reaction to each one. Nariko's choking of her fellow clanmember is broken up quickly but there isn't any concern shown for the man. Lightning punching Snow is practically ignored by their fellow teammates. Certainly, no concern is shown for Snow. On the other hand, Ada reacts to being choked by kneeing Leon in the ribs and stabbing him in the thigh to break him out of his trance. He ends up thanking her for this. So no matter who is being choked and who is doing the choking, violence against the male character ends up being acceptable in both situations. In Final Fantasy VII's case, the remaining party member (Barret, in the video above) quickly rushes in to knock Cloud out and prevent him from hurting Aeris any further.

It seems like trances are an easy way to have violence stay reasonably inoffensive; reverse the sexes of either the Leon or Cloud attacks and they're practically the same. The hero doesn't come across as any worse because of the attack, regardless of his/her sex or the sex of the victim. Part of the reason for that is because the attack isn't the important part, whereas the trance is; both Leon and Cloud attack women because it's such an extreme action, it shows how far their sanity is slipping. Women attacking male characters on their own side is just ... a quality. Game audiences aren't supposed to think anything of it, except perhaps "I'm glad that guy got taught a lesson". As a result, reversing the sexes of the Heavenly Sword and Final Fantasy XIII attacks does make things seem worse; a male character in complete control of his faculties choking or punching a woman who refuses to fight back is just asking to be called out for its misogyny.

I suspect its moments like these -- strikes against male characters by female ones -- that make up the majority of examples that don't really stand out until we reverse the sexes. They're so quickly dismissed when they're against a male character that either we ignore them or we're supposed to ignore them. Take Bioshock Infinite. It's a very basic example but Elizabeth strikes Booker DeWitt in the face with a wrench that isn't brought up again after it happens. It knocks him out-cold, giving Elizabeth enough time to flee but Booker still doesn't have a word to say about it.


I don't know if the gaming public is prepared to see a male character doing this to a woman, although I think it's possible to give gamers a bit more credit. Take the Mass Effect series as an example. It's possible for the main character, Commander Shepard, to punch a female reporter attempting to smear his/her (although for this example, let's go with "him") reputation in all three games. Sure, it's not the same thing, in quite a few significant ways; the reporter isn't on Shepard's side, punching her is a "Renegade" option and, as previously mentioned, Shepard can be either male or female. Each of those points lessens the impact and controversy of a male character punching a woman. Even so, there doesn't seem to have been any backlash at all against the Mass Effect series for this. In fact, it's been praised because the reporter is intentionally unlikeable. Who knows if a male character intentionally punching, choking or bludgeoning a stubborn (like Snow) or sexist (like the clanmember) woman on their side could be as accepted as women doing it to men is now (irritatingly)?

As always, feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at themalesofgames@gmail.com.

3 comments:

  1. Bioshock Infinite is a good example because of the ending as well. The solution to all of the problems of the game world ends up to be the killing of a man. By a woman (or several women, however you want to see it). I'm still not quite sure what to make of the game in regards to gender.

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  2. It's a question of punching up versus punching down. The beating or assaulting of men by women in games is often treated as acceptable, humorous or heroic whilst the assaulting of women by men is seen as ugly, brutal and morally wrong. The reason for this is that in games, and in real society too, women are often seen as dis-empowered, or at a physical disadvantage. So when a woman strikes back at a guy, it is seen as the weaker person striking back at a bully, a sign that a woman is strong enough to go toe to toe with a man, or a comical situation in which an ineffectual man is dealt a stinging but ultimately harmless subversion of his masculinity. The inverse is that of a physically stronger man, bullying a weaker person, often used for shock, or to show that this man is bad. Obviously, these are generalisations: it would be a very one sided fight if I were to take on a female kickboxing champion, but bare with me whilst I make the point.

    In general, I dislike scenes in which a woman is shown beating a guy as a display of strength, or for comic relief. In the former, it is a perfunctory requirement to show that a woman can "surprise-surprise" be as tough as a guy (which apparently is neither self-evident or normal enough to go unsaid). Women characters often have to constantly demonstrate that they can be up their with the big boys, so they put in these on-the-nose displays of prowess in which her from Final Fantasy XIII repeatedly beats on the guys. Meanwhile, wehn it is presented as a joke, the humour depends on the audience assumption that women are weak and a man would have to be especially pathetic to be beaten by a girl. Or it is "funny" because the man is casually sexist, made the above assumption, and gets his just deserts for believing what many people already think.

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  3. The reverse is also a lazy plot device too; it works by putting the woman into a typical victim role, and the man into this dominant, powerful position, and is done so often, it basically confirms the above assumption (that women are weak and men are strong). We are to feel sympathy for these victims because we quietly accept that women are powerless, weak, and pathetic. Meanwhile, the man has used his superior power in the wrong way - being mean to the weak woman, instead of protecting them.

    Bioshock Infinite, is an interesting example of gender double-standards. When Booker first encounters Elizabeth, she pathetically tries to fend him off with a few books, which only serves to annoy him. Booker, up to this point, has already murdered dozens of people. That Elizabeth, the ex-damsel sidekick ingénue, later beats Booker with a wrench to stop him kidnapping her, shows her first steps towards gaining authority and strength. By the end of the game, she is in complete control. Bioshock seems to go out of its way to set up a stereotypical situation (manly-man fights his way through minions, rescues a dainty woman from a villainous, powerful man), only to gradually subvert it over time: Booker/Cornstock is ultimately powerles and Elizabeth takes over as the driving force for the story. In the final moments, she goes from being a sexy girl, strapped to a bench and crying for help, to dragging Booker by the hand in the final moments.

    To take it further though, this game is still depending on some unfortunate preconceptions. It could be a called a satire of macho shooters and the rescue the princess narrative, but macho-shooting and woman protecting is essentially the entire gameplay. Elizabeth's control over the story only creeps in within cut-scenes, and for the whole time, it is Booker who is smashing the obstacles, not Elizabeth. Meanwhile, both the historical setting and the audience expectation dictates that we have to have a male protagonist, shooting the guns and rescuing the girl, rather than a woman doing the same. It is as inconceivable now, as it was back then, to have a female Pinkerton gunslinger and, inversely, a naive, bookish man kept in a prison, dreaming of Paris. The writers could have very easily constructed a story in which a Calamity Jane type rescues a pretty, pacifistic guy, but that would be exceptional, if not utterly preposterous to attempt.

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