Saturday, 23 November 2013

Ms. Male Character - Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games

The next Tropes Vs Women video is up, so let's take a look at it:

In this episode, Anita talks about three particular tropes that she feels are harmful towards women:
  • The Distaff Counterpart - A character that is basically the female equivalent of an existing male character.
  • The Smurfette Principle - When there is only a single female character in an otherwise all-male cast.
  • Tertiary Sexual Characteristics - Female characters have characteristics or items that indicate that they are female -- such as bows in their hair or makeup -- while male characters have none.
Funnily enough, I've actually been critical of the Distaff Counterpart on comic book forums before, just because I think it diminishes any real creativity. I think original female characters are more interesting and having unique powers (in the case of superheroes) is a greater incentive for a new audience to pick up the book than simply using a "name" character. In all honesty, that's probably not the case and is just a personal preference because otherwise, why would Distaff Counterparts/legacy characters exist if not to sell more products? That's the reason in comic books and it's more or less stated in Anita's own video that it was also the reason for Ms. Pac-Man.

However, in spite of the fact that I have a personal distaste for Distaff Counterparts, I find that Anita's representation of them in her video doesn't paint a fair picture. In fact, for once, I feel like I'm being critical of Anita because I want her to do better when critiquing a subject I dislike, rather than being critical of her because I disagree. I've noticed other supporters of better female portrayals in video games take this stance so it's interesting to find myself in the same boat.

I think several points Anita makes at the end of her video point out one of the pitfalls that she fell into during her damsel in distress videos; either failing or refusing to acknowledge the differences in gaming between retro games and the modern era. In the case of the damsel in distress, it was praising games like The Secret Of Monkey Island without pointing out that games with Monkey Island's clever writing and narrative were the exception, rather than the rule. Game developers at the time didn't have the luxury of being able to create complex stories in every single game. Using the damsel in distress plot device gave the player a simple and understandable idea of why the character they played as was on their quest.

In this case, Anita does not acknowledge the reasons behind the female characters she praises being free of "gender signifiers" -- her term for Tertiary Sexual Characteristics, as well as a term that I actually prefer -- and the (usually) retro ones she criticises for having them. Let's use Ms. Pac-Man as an example; unlike TowerFall, Ms. Pac-Man didn't have the freedom to create female characters in a brand new setting. She was created because Midway wanted a follow-up to Pac-Man, which Anita mentioned herself. Therefore, she was limited in the designs that could be used and still remain recognisably part of the Pac-Man universe. Plus, unlike Thomas Was Alone -- another game Anita praised for featuring a positive female character without any gender signifiers -- Ms. Pac-Man didn't have a narrative that would allow for the development of a deep female character, much like Elaine in The Secret Of Monkey Island compared to other, more "regressive", examples of the damsel in distress.

Basically, there were limitations to making a female character in 1982 who was intended to be a successor to the most popular game character in the world (at that time). There's only so much you can change when the character has to be as recognisable as Pac-Man himself and with both the storytelling and graphic limitations of the time period. I don't feel that's highlighted in the video above.

It's a similar story with other games Anita mentions, such as Ice Climber (1985), Bubble Bobble (1986) and Adventures Of Lolo (1989). Another aspect that stood out to me was the divide between examples used from Japanese games and Western games. When it comes to the heavy focus on Japanese games, I'm not saying that the cultural differences excuse poorer representations of women or any other group. However, to avoid mentioning those cultural differences is to refuse to paint the whole picture. In previous episodes, Anita has singled out Shigeru Miyamoto and, in Pac-Man's case, it's Toru Iwatani's turn to be painted with the sexist brush. Here's Iwatani's quote that Anita took issue with:
"When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortune-telling, or food or dating boyfriends. So I decided to theme the game around “eating” — after eating dinner, women like to have dessert."
It's understandable that Anita would dislike the blanket stereotyping but the cultural differences between the West and Japan aren't delved into. In fact, it's glossed over in a sentence by being described as, "Iwatani's regressive personal or cultural notions about women". I can't help but feel like this dumbs down what was, in fact, a major attempt to garner a female audience for video games. Iwatani reached out rather than pushed away. Isn't that something Anita wants?

And make no mistake, it worked. Pac-Man's success and popularity amongst female gamers was one of the reasons why a female character was the protagonist in Ms. Pac-Man, according to Midway employee Stan Jarocki.

Electronic Games Magazine (May 1982). Left-click for larger view.
"Pac-Man was the first commercial videogame to involve large numbers of women as players," says Jarocki. "It expanded our customer base and made Pac-Man a hit. Now we're producing this new game, Ms. Pac-Man, as our way of thanking all those lady arcaders who have played and enjoyed Pac-Man."
In spite of my own feelings about Distaff Counterparts, there is a reason they exist; they work. They can be hugely popular in their own right, earning the ability to stand on their own two feet. To use superheroes as an example, Marvel's Carol Danvers -- better known as Captain Marvel, formerly Ms. Marvel -- is a far more prominent hero than her male predecessor, also known as Captain Marvel. In the case of Ms. Pac-Man, she was as capable as Pac-Man when it came to eating dots and ghosts and in an enormously popular game herself, to the point that she either matches Pac-Man's cultural relevance or is ridiculously close. So to have Ms. Pac-Man so passively dismissed and her contributions diminished with the following quote is only disheartening to see, regardless of Anita's claim that, "it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable":
"Ms. Pac-Man’s visual properties are simply an extension of Pac-Man’s original design; she actually kind of is just Pac-Man with a bow. Her simple narrative reinforces the fact that she really only exists in relationship to Pac-Man. She is both his love interest and also the mother of his child."
Later on, Anita also provides this statement:
"Ms. Male Characters typically aren’t given their own distinctive identities and are prevented from being fully realized characters who exist on their own terms. This has the, perhaps unintended, effect of devaluing these characters and often relegating them to a subordinate or secondary status inside their respective media franchises, even when they are, on rare occasions, given a starring role in a spin-off or sequel."
I don't know about anyone else but I feel like the only person devaluing characters such as Ms. Pac-Man is Anita. Prior to that particular quote, Anita was talking about Dixie Kong, star of Donkey Kong Country 3 and a playable character in fifteen games, and it's clear that the quote is aimed at characters such as her and Ms. Pac-Man. Dixie Kong was the start of her own title, having to save two male characters who were damsels in distress and why exactly is she receiving criticism? Because she wears pink. Because she has a ponytail. Because she's a Distaff Counterpart to Diddy Kong, according to Anita (which isn't actually true; they have similar designs but only because the two are similar in age, size and, y'know, they're apes. The two do not share abilities or similarities in their design more than that, in the same way the Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man do). So who, exactly, is devaluing the female characters here?

Truthfully, I'm having a hard time figuring out why, exactly, Anita takes issue with gender signifiers in games. Unless they lead to what she describes as "personality female syndrome" -- a series of characteristics that Anita believes stereotype women, including being, "vain, spoiled, bratty and quick to anger" -- I don't exactly see the issue. I thought I did but then this segment of the video completely threw me off:
"Now just to be clear, there’s no inherent problem with the color pink, makeup, bows or high heels as design elements on their own. And of course people of all genders may choose to wear any of them from time to time in the real world and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that either.
However, when designers choose to use the Ms. Male Character trope and its associated visual stereotypes to specifically distinguish female characters from the rest of the cast in a fictional context, it has a few negative consequences.
One repercussion of constantly relying on feminizing signifiers for character design is that it tends to reinforce a strict binary form of gender expression. The gender binary is an entirely artificial and socially constructed division of male and female into two distinctly separate and opposing classes of human being. The gender binary also erases the continuum of gender presentations and identities that fall outside of the rigid masculine/feminine false dichotomy.
And within that strict binary women are “marked” while men get to remain largely “unmarked”."
In other words, Anita dislikes signifying a character's sex through certain clothing or accessories because (A) it singles out women as something different from men and (B) it automatically excludes people who don't identify as male or female, or who do but choose not to conform to gendered clothing.

The main reason this stood out to me is because, as understandable as it is to want more representations of genders outside the "gender binary" -- which simply means "male or female" -- I don't understand why it falls to gaming to show those representations. Gaming can but isn't Anita criticising the "entirely artificial and socially constructed division of male and female into two distinctly separate and opposing classes of human being" actually a criticism of society's attitudes instead?

Let's use Ms. Pac-Man as an example again. I'm not normally a person who says that Anita needs to provide good examples in addition to negative ones but in this case, I would love to hear an alternative solution to giving the character lipstick and a bow to show that she is a female character. Again, bear these factors in mind:
  • It's 1982 and there are "only a few pixels to work with" (Anita's own words).
  • The character has to look different from Pac-Man to avoid Ms. Pac-Man seeming like a knock-off.
  • The character has to look similar enough to show that the game is part of the same series.
I think it's reasonable, albeit not ideal, for a character designer to draw on real-life examples of women to create a female character in this case. Given that women are far more likely to wear bows and lipstick than men, it is completely fair for a character designer to use those elements for his/her female character. And that is so obvious that I can't believe I had to write it down.

On the Feminist Frequency Tumblr, the only solution, if you can call it that, was a gender-flipped version of Pac-Man and Mrs. Pac-Man that shows how the two characters would look if "Pac-Woman" became "Mr. Pac-Woman".

Personally, I don't think it's as "downright absurd" as Anita believes, not least because Pac-Man is a tricky character to take seriously in the first place. He -- or she, if we're talking about Pac-Woman -- is a yellow circle with a mouth. Putting a top hat and bow tie on it doesn't propel this light-hearted, cartoonish character into the realms of absurdity. What little ridiculousness there is only comes from the fact that, if anything, "Mr. Pac-Woman's" clothing looks very outdated. However, this still isn't a solution. It's just a gender flip.

I'm anxious to move on from this topic but I want to mention the idea that women are "marked" and men are "unmarked". I don't think Anita ever actually asked why it is done but she certainly, and probably unintentionally, provided an answer to that question:
"There are a few optional design accessories for men like neckties or baseball caps but they don’t hold the same significance. They are not ubiquitous or strictly enforced, and are never really used to “mark” men as “not female” in larger fictional universes dominated by women."
First of all, I find it quite funny that Anita singled out Dixie Kong earlier in the video when both Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong wear a necktie and baseball cap respectively -- again, they're apes. It'd be tricky to tell the sex of those characters without gender signifiers -- but doesn't this quote sum up why gender signifiers aren't used as often for male characters? Certainly not because men are considered the default and women a deviation (which I'll come to later) but because there are so few gender signifiers available for male characters. Traditionally-male clothing is no longer restricted to men. Women are far less likely to receive odd looks if they went out in public in a man's suit than a man would if he did the same in a pink dress, with pigtails and makeup. The reason being that they still are items and fashions predominately associated with women. If Anita wants to take any steps changing society's perceptions on that score, I'll be right alongside her, but it's silly, pointless and actually rather petty to lay the blame of gender signifiers at the feet of video games. That goes for modern games as well as retro games.

In other words, women are more likely to have gender signifiers because they actually have them. Not because they need to be "marked" and singled-out as something different from "the norm".

Also, I actually find that turn of phrase bordering on offensive; I'm sure it was completely unintentional but think about other oppressed classes throughout history who have been marked -- literally -- as something different from what their oppressors considered "the norm" or ideal. I feel like it was a very poor choice of words to use when describing how hard female characters have it in video games, of all things.

One thing that I'm sure had everyone marvelling was Anita's analysis of Mass Effect 3's advertising. Let's deal with the mistake that even the non-Mass Effect fans probably picked up on:
"Still, the female version has a dedicated fanbase who frequently refers to her as “FemShep”. And although this is meant as an affectionate nickname, it does further highlight her designation as a Ms. Male Character. She is the one with the qualifier attached to her name. She is “Female Shepard” whereas the male version simply gets to be, “Shepard”."
This is completely untrue. Although I hate to fall back on phrases that make it sound like Anita makes these kind of research mistakes all the time, this is a typical example of the lack of research that people criticise her videos for. It certainly is astounding that Anita can trawl through obscure mobile games and retro games to find examples but can't spend two minutes on a forum to find out information on a nickname for the main character of a AAA game.

For those of you who don't know, the male version of Mass Effect's Commander Shepard does have a nickname. Several, in fact; "MaleShep", "ManShep" and "BroShep" are all commonly used while "ShepLoo" and "VanderShep" are both used to refer to Commander Shepard's default male design, named after the Dutch model he was modelled after, Mark Vanderloo.

 That's not all. Prior to this, Anita discussed the marketing of the Mass Effect series:
"In mainstream advertising of the franchise, the male commander is used almost exclusively. His image is front and center on the box covers for all releases including the special editions. He is the one featured in the TV commercials, teasers, trailers, web banners, street posters and print ads and his face appears on most of the magazine covers. All of this positions the male Commander Shepard as the default protagonist of the series.

That is how Bioware is selling the Mass Effect experience. Nearly everything about the advertising campaign explicitly tells players that Commander Shepard is a man and by extension associates the official storyline with the male version of the hero. This marketing strategy contributes to the fact that only 18-20% of players choose the female option (despite the fact that Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is widely praised as being far superior)."
First of all, although the 18-20% statistic is apparently true, there's nothing to say that the marketing strategy is the reason for the 80% of players or so choosing to play as the male version of Shepard. Much like in previous videos, like assuming damsels in distress are considered property rather than people, this is a case of Anita reaching a conclusion that isn't backed up by any factual evidence. One may not neccessarily lead to the other but Anita is arguing as if that is the case.

Secondly, I take issue with the fact that Jennifer Hale's voice acting was considered "far superior". There are certainly people who make that claim but she also has her detractors (typically on the exact same forums as her supporters. There's always a healthy mix of opinions). I'm as big a fan of Jennifer Hale as the next person, particularly for her performance as Bastila Shan in Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, but I wasn't a fan of her Mass Effect role. I agree with those who say her vocal performance as Commander Shepard was too butch. Trying too hard to be "badass", to fit a tough space marine persona rather than just a person. Meanwhile, Mark Meer -- the voice actor for the male version of Shepard -- had a voice that fit a wide range of races and facial features, as well as being suitably authoritative. Plus, he was widely praised for upping his performance in Mass Effect 3.

Then there's the advertising campaign, which focused only on the male version of Commander Shepard. To be more specific, the default male version of Commander Shepard, created using Mark Vanderloo's likeness. I certainly find it unusual and rather silly that BioWare -- creators of Mass Effect -- actually paid for a real person's likeness in a game where a character's facial features can be customised and that was the appearance focused on in all the marketing ... but since that's the case, why does Anita focus on the fact that he's male? Why not mention that non-whites are similarly ruled out or, for that matter, that the character customisation feature isn't shown off as much as it could be and is therefore rather poor marketing for not showing off an aspect of the game? The thing is, when only one of these points are argued -- "women aren't focused on" -- it sounds less like "not everyone is being given an equal share" and more like "it shouldn't be a male character". Something that is equally as exclusionary.

Plus, it has to be said ... the male Commander Shepard is the default protagonist of the series. "VanderShep" is the version of the character that players see when starting a new game. So criticising the series with the statement, "all of this positions the male Commander Shepard as the default protagonist of the series" doesn't make much sense. That's the case. Plus, for all I know -- or for all Anita knows -- having a default protagonist could help sell the game. I wouldn't want to make assumptions about why mainstream audiences bought Mass Effect.

Anita continues:
"During the advertising of Mass Effect 3, Bioware made a little more effort to include female Shepard with items like an alternate reversible slip cover for the game box (which features the male version by default) as well as a special web only trailer but these gestures feel like an afterthought or niche specialty marketing and hardly what I would call a substantial or equitable inclusion."
This dismissive attitude when a developer makes a positive change in order to cater to women is reminiscent of Carolyn Petit's criticism of female characters being added to Aliens: Colonial Marines. All it does is send the message that the developer may as well not even try to cater to a feminist gaming audience because it's impossible to succeed. Much like Petit, Anita is creating a no-win situation by complaining about an effort BioWare made to appeal to feminist gamers in the first place. It also brings to mind the way Anita shrugged off Princess Peach's appearance as a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2 in her damsel in distress videos because she was only in the game "by accident", since it was a makeover of Doki Doki Panic.

Finally, when talking about The Smurfette Principle, Anita argues that men are treated as the "default" sex:
"In a male identified society like ours, men are associated and become synonymous with human beings in general. In other words, male tends to be seen as the default for the entire species."
In all seriousness, there is some truth to this claim. Although it's more of a double-edged sword than is made out.

Let's use a real life example; political parties are always trying to gain "the female vote" by showing their support for women's issues, such as taking a pro-choice stance on abortion, pledging to stamp out the wage gap and sexism in the workplace, etc. Meanwhile, there's no "male vote". I don't think the phrase "men's issues" will ever come up in a political debate and, if it did, nobody would have a clue what it means. That's part of men being considered the "default" for the entire species. There's no need to cater to men because men are just ... there. The standard. Anything that appeals to society as a whole will be appealing to men because they don't have anything that specifically caters to them ... right?

In games, we don't care about legions of male enemies being gunned down by the player. In fact, it's not only accepted, it's expected for men to be the expendable gender. Meanwhile, we have developers committing self-flagellation over their portrayals of characters, even positive ones, thanks to criticism from the Tropes Vs Women in Video Games series, while men criticising portrayals that they feel are sexist are told to "Grow The F**k Up". Because men can't possibly be offended by portrayals because we're the default. Isn't that so?

So there's something to the idea that men are considered the default but -- and this isn't a knock on Anita -- I wouldn't expect the effects on both sexes to be covered by a video on gender issues in games. It's not an issue at the forefront of the gender issues debate, so it's not something I believe anyone would cover, regardless of their sex or involvement.

I'm hoping to read more articles on this video from others online but for the moment, that's all I have to say on it. I don't know if I was expecting Anita to change her presenting style for this video but I do know that I was disappointed to see all the flaws present in her previous videos to be back with a vengeance here; the blaming of specific developers, basing arguments off conclusions that she came to without evidence, dismissal of positive and progressive changes for women for rather shallow reasons, etc. On the plus side, she did reference a few examples this time around (although none of the gameplay videos, so it's still up in the air as to whether they were her own content or if they were taken from other Youtubers without permission or credit).

Anyway, as for what happens next ... I'm buying the Tomb Raider reboot in the near future, so hopefully I'll be able to provide another "The Sexism Of ..." blog post. I know it's a year old now but I don't often get the chance to delve into individual games anymore, so I'm looking forward to it.

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