Wednesday, 2 July 2014

"Fewer Tifas or More Sephiroths" - The Video (and some stuff about Tropes Vs Women)

Even though my pageviews always spike whenever I write about Anita Sarkeesian's videos, I've decided to follow in the footsteps of other Feminist Frequency critics and not watch the video. The fact is that at this stage, even if I did watch it, I would just be making the same arguments that I have for her previous four videos. Lack of context when providing examples. Cherry-picking examples. Not acknowledging male examples of the same issue, only focusing on women. Claiming something without evidence -- damsels in distress being considered property, for example -- and making further arguments based on that assumption.

However, I would like to thank beste36 and gwadahunter2222 for their comments about Anita's latest video on my last blog. It's interesting to hear that Anita managed to offend sex workers and supporters of sex workers by referring to them as "prostituted women" (while giving male sex workers the courtesy of being referred to as "gigolos"). This criticism isn't specific to Feminist Frequency but anti-feminists often criticise feminism for portraying women as being unequal to men; saying "women need help, such as specific programs to get into STEM fields" while someone who considered men and women equal would say "women make their own choices to stay out of STEM fields and are more than capable of making their own decisions to enter or not".

This is what Anita did by using the term "prostituted women" instead of "sex workers". She deprived women of their agency and portrayed them as helpless objects rather than capable adults. The thing is, Anita does this a lot -- before her Damsels in Distress videos, I had always heard "objectification" used in conjunction with sexualisation; Anita was the first person I'd heard posit the theory that female characters are basically objects to be taken and "won" back, rather than fully-rounded characters that the protagonist cares about because he/she does not want to see them harmed -- but she picked the wrong industry to do it with this time.

The reasons why are clear; Anita is a sex-negative feminist, having criticised the "SlutWalk" marches in Toronto and describing herself as feeling alienated from feminism for embracing the word "slut". She's also been criticised by sex-positive feminists on Youtube. The problem, which Anita seems to have missed, is that sex workers have received an extremely bad rap over the years, with the struggle to have sex work recognised as a legitimate occupation, as a legal occupation, the problems with higher rates of violence in such a career, the problems with non-consensual sex (rape) being recognised by law when you're in a career that provides consensual sex to clients and just the general stigma of earning money through sex work in the first place. For that matter, an issue discussed in feminist circles is how female sexuality is often not recognised, supported or taken seriously (which I would argue is not the case), with straight male sexuality being "the norm".

With all this in mind, it's no wonder there was a backlash against a prominent feminist like Anita Sarkeesian portraying sex workers as the very objects and victims they fight against being stereotyped and stigmatised as. Although I'm afraid I have some bad news for everyone who is annoyed with Anita for referring to sex workers as "prostituted women"; your criticism will never be acknowledged by Anita, in the same way that she has not responded to any criticism directed at her since she's leapt into the spotlight. You're now part of the group that goes completely ignored by Anita unless she needs a reason to talk about how abusive people are being.

The other thing I learned about Anita's latest video from my last blog's comments section was that she made the following statement:
"[NPC women's] status as disposable objects is reinforced by the fact that in most games discarded bodies will simply vanish into thin air a short time after being killed."

There are some occasions when watching the Tropes Vs Women series when I haven't played a certain game (this happened a lot with Mario and Legend of Zelda games) and need to read some other people's explanations to know how and why Anita is incorrect. However, this is one of those things that everyone has seen in games and everyone knows is not specific to women. It is the one thing in all of Anita's videos that every single person watching can point at and say, "I know that's complete nonsense". To say that disappearing bodies reinforces women's status as disposable objects is verifiably, demonstrably false by doing nothing more than observing the same thing happening to men. Unless Anita has magically come across a game where it only happens to women.

Weirdly, this is probably one of the few occasions where even non-gamers can understand the problem; understanding why bodies disappear in games is very, very simple. I've actually just finished writing a couple of essays detailing, amongst other things, why this happens but here's the TL;DR version, only three sentences long (and I'll explain it in greater detail if anyone cares that much): you know how, at E3, many developers were pushing the fact that their games will run in "1080p, 60 frames per second (fps)"? Well, if there are a lot of things on-screen at once, that can slow the game down. Making bodies disappear helps the game to run smoother and reach that 60fps framerate because there's less stuff on the screen.

Oh yeah, and it happens to both men and women. Okay, that was a fourth sentence.


Without a new Tropes Vs Women video to watch, I decided to watch another video that I've been putting off for about a month, ever since I discovered it existed. At the end of March, I wrote about a talk at the Game Developers Conference called "Fewer Tifas or More Sephiroths: Male Sexualisation in Games" by Michelle Clough. At the time, I don't believe the video of Clough's presentation was online but it is now and I believe it has been for a while. If you're not interested in watching it, you can read Michelle Clough's notes for the speech here -- sorry, no transcript as far as I know -- and the slideshow is posted on its own here. If you're just interested in skimming through it, that could be the best option.

Back in March, I assumed the best of Clough's talk and gave her the benefit of the doubt. After watching it? Well, if I had to sum it up in a word, that word would be "entitled".

Looking back at the first blog post I wrote about this, prior to having seen the presentation, a lot of my initial assumptions about the talk haven't changed (the "male power fantasy" argument -- although more frequently referred to as "male gaze" here, "power fantasy" does get name-checked at the end -- the idea that Clough's talk didn't rise much higher than "I want more of these character types in games just because I like 'em" and I still object to the idea that androgynous male characters are rare). However, my position on quite a few things have changed after seeing the talk and, I'm disappointed to say that most of them have changed for the worse.

There were some things I liked about the talk, albeit only a couple. I liked the way Clough compared various types of male heroes from different cultures to their modern counterparts. I felt as if that dug a little deeper than most. I also think Clough gave a good explanation of "male gaze", being more comprehensive and logical than other people I've heard discuss the issue. Having said that, I ended up disliking Clough's take on both for the simple reason that I wasn't convinced by either one.

When discussing European examples of gallant male heroes, for example, Clough compared the dapper Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice to the suave and sophisticated James Bond as an example of a male character of a similar archetype in the present day. The thing is though, this one example isn't especially representative of European male heroes as a whole and even Bond himself has undergone many reinventions over the years. Plus, I found it interesting that Pierce Brosnan was the Bond chosen for Clough's example. Speaking as a British citizen, the biggest "fangirling" (for lack of a better term) over Bond in recent memory was Daniel Craig's scene in Casino Royale where he emerges from the sea in a pair of tight swimming trunks. Yet Craig's Bond is definitely in the running for the most rugged, placing him further from Mr. Darcy and closer to action heroes from American culture. However, Clough doesn't expand beyond male characters from Westerns, even though there are plenty of male characters from modern films -- or at least the eighties -- who fit the mould. This could be due to a lack of time, as Clough went on to rush her talk towards the end, but it still wasn't as comprehensive as it could be.

I'd also like to say that when it comes to film, the UK's male protagonists again stray from the romanticised and elegant image of Mr. Darcy that Clough displayed during the presentation; if there's one genre that UK film has excelled in over the last few decades, it's the crime genre. It's also the genre that Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Jason Statham got their starts in, thanks largely to the presence of "celebrity criminals" in the UK such as the Kray Twins. Could they be dapper at times? Sure. Were they even close to Mr. Darcy? Far from it. I understand that Clough was discussing European courtly narratives as a whole but I'm failing to see the parallel between those and male characters in the present day. Bond (and Mr. Darcy) could be the exceptions rather than the rules. It's only a minor thing and isn't actually about any sexualised male characters in games but it bothered me slightly.

As for not being convinced by Clough's explanation of male gaze, it's the same criticism that I had with some of Anita Sarkeesian's arguments; I have to take Clough's word for it being the case but I don't see a guarantee that it (A) exists, (B) is the reason why certain "rugged" male characters are designed the way they are and (C) is the reason why certain situations, either involving sexualised women, or "awkward or comedic" non-sexualised naked men exist. And once again, I have to take someone else's word for it that I want to be these rugged male characters and any attraction straight women or gay men may have to them is accidental (Clough's words).

This is just my interpretation but what bothered me about this -- and the talk in general -- is the undertone that Clough's opinions and love of bishonen characters is "right" and to choose to create characters that don't appeal to her is "wrong". When you have sections called "who's doing it right?", it gives the impression that there's only one "correct" way of making sexually-appealing male characters. The same goes for when dimissing Max Payne as a brooding character done poorly while praising Final Fantasy VII's Vincent Valentine as a brooding character done well, while I would say the two characters are the other way around (although to Clough's credit she did use an image of Max Payne 3, which I've never played ... although after watching the first ten minutes on Youtube, that particular incarnation was one I could've done without seeing. What happened to all of Max's metaphors and similes? What happened to him making his peace with his family's deaths at the end of Max Payne 2?).

The problem with this assertion is that, obviously, there are women who find rugged male characters attractive and plenty of male gamers who don't relate to them at all. The opposite can obviously apply to bishonen characters, with not all female gamers being as enamored of them as Clough and it goes without saying that men can play as them without thinking twice about it. A female commenter on my last blog about Clough's talk actually said, "I never found the Sephiroth or Marluxia type of bishounen appealing. Like maybe when I was 14." She also mentioned stumbling across some Call Of Duty yaoi once. If you have time, go to Google or DeviantArt and search for "call of duty yaoi". It exists!

It should be clear by now that there's no one big problem I had with Michelle Clough's presentation but a lot of small ones. For example, in my previous blog, I objected to Clough thinking that androgynous male characters were rare. Now that I've seen it, I've learned that the issue wasn't with sexualised being rare but them not being in any "core" games. To me, this led to a very muddled argument; firstly, Clough praised characters such as Thane (and others) in Mass Effect, which I would describe as a "core game". Secondly, she would go on to say "make sure sexualised characters are right for your game", before showing a mock-up of a Call Of Duty cover with a bunch of shirtless, muscular guys on the box, indicating an example of a game where it wouldn't be appropriate. I understand that Call Of Duty isn't the only "core" game out there but I would've been interested in hearing some suggestions from Clough. Thirdly, Final Fantasy VII was referred back to many times throughout the talk but the thing is ... the Final Fantasy series is still out there and still features androgynous characters. It's not exactly the fault of the developer that it's no longer the "core" series that it once was, so even though Clough is correct in that respect, it's also not through lack of trying that Final Fantasy isn't as popular as it used to be (or any game series for that matter; I'm sure most developers would give an arm and a leg for their games to be considered a "core" series like CoD or Assassin's Creed). So what point is being made by mentioning the lack of "core" games featuring sexualised male characters? Is someone to blame? Is it an example of how unfairly female characters have it in games, just because Square-Enix haven't been able to achieve the same success that they used to?

I don't want to ramble too much about this, particularly since it turns out I have as many criticisms as I do with the average Anita Sarkeesian video, but one final thing I noticed that disappointed me was how the slides on sexualised male characters were talked about with a light-hearted attitude while the rare occasions when sexualised female characters were the topic of conversation, Clough adopted a more serious tone; slides about Male Gaze, why sexualisation can be good while objectification is bad (focusing entirely on female characters, of course), comparing a male Starcraft character to a female one and comparing a shot of Jacob's buttocks in Mass Effect 2 to one of Miranda's were all treated as serious issues. Talking about male video game characters was the opportunity for Clough to crack some jokes and get a few chuckles from the audience.

My issue with that wasn't that jokes were being made at the expense of male characters. Having a funny presentation isn't the problem. It doesn't even bother me that the first talk about sexualised male characters ever wasn't taken seriously. Hell, you try condensing a subject down into twenty-five minutes when it's never been spoken about in such a prominent venue. It's not enough time to cover everything.

What bothers me is that it was purely from a feminist point-of-view. By that, I mean that Clough's stance wasn't one we haven't seen before. The idea of sexualised men was still a joke, in spite of Clough finding them appealing. In fact, it was considered a good thing, with Clough believing sexualised male characters could attract more women and gay men to gaming. Meanwhile, Clough reserved a modicum of seriousness when talking about female characters and I'd say the only time she mentioned them positively was in passing, when discussing how sexualised characters had to have traits other than their attractive appearance. Even then, it was glossed over, focusing on both Sephiroth and Tifa from Final Fantasy VII, rather than just Tifa.

I don't want it to seem like I'm against Clough having a feminist point-of-view just because it's a feminist point-of-view and give the impression that I'm foaming at the mouth with rage over it. I dislike it because it's a standpoint that seems dead-set against the idea that men can be portrayed negatively. One perfect example of it is when Michelle Clough mentions that when it comes to male nudity in games, it is always portrayed as "awkward or comedic". Hey, you'll get no argument on that from me. Where Clough and I differ, however, is where Clough sees the prominence of comedic nude male characters in games as being unequal treatment for women, as there were plenty of sexualised female characters but a lack of male ones, I see it as being unfair treatment of men.

This doesn't apply as much in games as it does in films, television shows and even real life but it's very rare for male sexuality to be treated as anything close to desirable, including in shows aimed at women; men are constantly portrayed as bumbling comedy figures when it comes to romance, someone for the down-to-earth female characters to roll their eyes at. Women are always portrayed as the desirable, effortlessly sexy party who useless male characters want to (and fail to) be with. Take a look at this advert from Wowcher in the UK for an example (which also portrays violence against men as comedy):

Or how about this advert for "Mullerlight Greek Style Luscious Lemon" yoghurt, which does show a male character as being desirable ... before he stumbles and the female main character (and narrator) laughs at his stupidity? I apologise but for some reason, the video isn't showing up when I try to embed it. Here's the link:

Müllerlight Greek Style Luscious Lemon Lifeguard

Then there's Harpic White & Shine, a lavatory cleaner. In this advert, a suave man in a white suit walks through some mist while words like "Dazzling", "Brilliant" and "Wow!" appear on the screen ... then he looks dejected as it turns out the words were referring to the lavatory cleaner and not him:

The reason I'm showing all of these television commercials is because Clough used a quote to make it seem as if the only reason why male sexuality is used as comedy is because "man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like". It's because of Male Gaze, in other words. However, these television commercials are all aimed at women; its "heroes" are female, the voiceover artists are female and hapless male figures are the butt of the joke. None of these adverts have anything to do with Male Gaze, so why does Clough believe that must be the case in games?

The funny thing is that treating male sexuality as comedy is actually the least offensive way of expressing a lack of desirability for men. When male sexuality is portrayed as being disgusting or even dangerous, it stops being comedy and actually creeps into prejudice; we end up with campaigns like "teach men not to rape", which is about as sexist as it gets and I'm not willing to go into it any further than that. This blog's long enough.

Finally, and this is a bit of a nitpick, but using Jin Kazama from Tekken as an example of a "power fantasy" when it comes to shirtless scenes? Literally any other shirtless Tekken character would've been a better option for Clough to pick if she wanted to make the "power fantasy" argument. Aside from Hwoarang, I'd say Jin fits Clough's criteria for a sexualised male character better than anyone else on the roster. He even has the same broodiness that Clough likes, which Namco Bandai plays up when Jin is the object of Ling Xiaoyu's affections:

Even though that ending turns out to be a dream, it's not that far from Jin's regular attitude.

I also have to point out something that I mentioned all the way back in September 2012; that Jin is one of several characters created to be a younger, better-looking successor to an existing character.

So like I said, it's nitpicking but I don't agree that Jin is close to a male power fantasy at all, particularly due to the standards that are usually used by feminists (Kratos and Marcus Fenix, for example).

Overall, and to summarise my problem with Michelle Clough's talk, in my previous blog on the presentation I gave her the benefit of the doubt because the topic of men being sexualised was never acknowledged. Now that I've watched the talk, I don't feel like it offered anything new at all. It didn't offer another side to the issue of sexualised characters, it just bolstered the position of the side that already controls the conversation on sexualisation (and other gender issues). And in spite of the fact that Clough was strapped for time, I have an unpleasant feeling that even if the presentation was twice as long, we wouldn't see sexualised male characters taken seriously (except to point out how good it is for straight women and gay men).

... The presentation was still more watchable than Tropes Vs Women though ...


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