by Kristin Bezio
Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new readers. If you want to comment or share this, do so knowing Kristin is a feminist AND a game critic AND a game player AND an academic, so this is a critical analysis, because The Learned Fangirl’s tagline is “a critical look at pop culture and technology”!
This is part two of Sarkeesian’s “Women as Background Decoration” trope video. One of the primary complaints people had about the last one (Part I) was that “Women as Background Decoration” isn’t a trope. Let me just clear that up – yes, it is. A trope is any sustained metaphor or theme that appears repeatedly in cultural works. “Women as Background Decoration” may not have appeared in your high school English textbook, but it is a sustained theme in film, television, literature, and videogames, so yes, kids, it is a trope. Moving on.
As a reminder, in this particular series, Sarkeesian uses the term NPSO – Non-Playable Sex Object – to refer to characters whose primary or sole purpose in the game is to be a sexualized object for the pleasure or horror of the player or other characters in the game. The tavern wench or stripper in the background of a scene is the “standard” NPSO, although there are many other versions of NPSOs in games (and other visual media).
One of Sarkeesian’s primary issues with NPSOs is that they are often the victims of sexual and/or domestic violence and exist solely for the purpose of being victimized within the narrative and/or gameplay. NPSOs differ from Damsels (the subject of her first series) in that NPSOs are not victims to be rescued, but to be discarded or simply treated as “set dressing.”
She focuses first on a sub-trope, the “Drop Dead Gorgeous” trope, in which dead women (or women portrayed as dead) are displayed as beautiful or sexualized (as in L.A. Noire and Hitman promotional materials). As I mentioned in response to the last series, I think promotional materials should probably be kept out of this series (although they could have their own analysis), since the developers often have little to no say about them. But this trope appears in the games, too, where the mise en scene (the way the scene is established or “set” through the use of art and digital artifacts) in many games also contains the “bodies” of dead women, some of them (Hitman: Absolution and Mafia II) scantily clothed and provocatively posed.
What I liked about this particular discussion is that Sarkeesian makes a point of including male as well as female bodies. She points out that the dead men in most of these games are typically fully clothed and not posed provocatively. Similarly, male victims of violence are rarely sexualized, while many female victims in these games are explicitly sexual – often prostitutes (there are a lot of prostitutes in videogames).
The counterargument might be that the narrative or context of the games – for instance, in BioShock II, the scenes she chooses are in a bordello – dictates the type of clothing and poses for the characters. However, the choice of scene and setting, as well as the fact that women even outside the bordello tend to be more scantily clad than the men in full suits, is not foisted on the developers; they have the power to not include a brothel, and by choosing it, they create the opportunity for sexualization. Furthermore, even if a strip club is an appropriate location, there is no law that states that a stripper cannot be killed in her street clothes or in a robe – the choice to sexualize her corpse is a deliberate play on titillation… and is often a cheap excuse for bad narrative or gameplay.
Sarkeesian also addresses cut-scenes, over which the developer has exclusive control (and the player does not). It’s important to remember that these are not women important to the narrative – the “Dead Wife/Girlfriend as Motive” trope is different – even if the player has the chance to interact with them (as in Red Dead Redemption, in which the player can buy a prostitute for $200 to keep her from being beaten, although she will be killed by her pimp later in the narrative). These are women whose purpose is to be victims or sex objects or both – they serve little or no purpose to the narrative.
(Side note – God of War III is now my least favorite game ever, despite never having played it. “I didn’t do it… but I wish I did”?! What the ever-loving hell were the developers thinking? I played God of War and God of War II and I really liked them – but I’m sorry, having a half-naked chained princess act as a literal doorstop until the gate crushes and mangles her body and then GIVING YOU AN ACHIEVEMENT FOR LOOKING AT IT?! Not okay. So not okay.)
Sarkeesian says that “violence against women is essentially used as a set piece to establish or punctuate the seedy atmosphere of crime and chaos” in the game’s fictional universe. In many of the instances she describes, this is true, but I think that the intention of many of these scenes goes beyond that. These victimized women are designed to encourage the player to save them – to feel empathy for them or to condemn the group or individuals involved, what Sarkeesian calls “a lazy shorthand for evil,” and an attempt to “justify the excessive violence required by the player in these games.” As such, it is more than simply “set dressing”; rather, the idea that the player might be fighting against those who perpetrate such crimes (although that is not really the case in GTAV, admittedly) seeks to make active use of images of violence in order to appeal to the player’s sense of humanity or decency.
She points out that “There is a difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply represent misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not in and of itself a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, or changing oppressive social systems.” This is true, but I think that Sarkeesian doesn’t give all of the games depicted in this episode their due. Dishonored, for instance, is the last game the audience sees before Sarkeesian addresses this point. I would argue that Dishonored is making commentary – not explicitly (or only) about women being victimized by their social situation, but about the apathy that permeates the society of Dunwall. The tragedy of Dishonored is the apathy against which the player (as Corvo) is fighting throughout the game, either surreptitiously or violently. The game doesn’t show the end result, but the atmospheric change from Emily’s ascension to the throne (provided the player installs her as Empress) and the fact that Emily herself is in the position of authority suggests a renewal of hope in the otherwise thoroughly despondent city.
In this case, I think the problem the series has is that of the warped critical lens; when you’re only looking through the glasses of sexism and misogyny, all you see is sexism and misogyny. This is reinforced when the vast majority of what you’re seeing is in fact sexism and misogyny, but in the case of Dishonored (and possibly some other games here, as I’m not familiar with all of them), I think some of the subtlety was lost in the viewing. (This is not to say there isn’t sexism in Dishonored – there is, but it’s of a lesser degree than Sarkeesian gives it credit for in my estimation, and is certainly less than GTAV or L.A. Noire).
I’m also not sure that “sanitize” is the right word for what these games are doing to violence against women – perhaps “normalize,” but not “sanitize.” The violence in these games isn’t clean, it isn’t easy to watch, and deliberately so. She is correct, however, when she says that these games don’t typically grant sexual violence the “gravity and respect” that the topic deserves. She offers PaPo & Yo as an example of domestic violence dealt with appropriately, one that presents it from the viewpoint of the victim which also gives that victim agency and legitimizes, rather than dismissing, their experience.
She also very rightly points out that “realism” and “historical accuracy” are completely ludicrous excuses for the depiction of sexual and domestic violence or NPSOs, particularly in science fiction and fantasy games, and makes the very valid argument that even if such fictional worlds contain violence, they can do so in a critical and condemnatory light.
One thing Sarkeesian doesn’t say is that the problem is that such repeated and often graphic violence has become a trope – it is so commonplace that it is the sign not of sophisticated emotional depth, but of lazy storytelling. Having an “innocent” (and women are often telegraphed as innocents, even when they are simultaneously sexualized… although the virgin/whore trope is a completely different animal that needs dealing with at some point) be victimized by the “bad guys” is a sure-fire way to cause the player to react against them – to “save” or get revenge for the victim. It’s effective, yes, which is why it appears so often in media (including videogames), but it’s lazy.
And not only is it a sign of weak storytelling, it perpetuates the idea that women are “natural victims,” whether this provokes the audience to sympathy or callousness. The repetition of sexual violence against women creates an ingrained sense in the audience that sexualized violence – even if they have no interest in participating – is normal and commonplace. The ultimate result of such repetition is not that it turns players into abusers, but that it causes them to be less likely to respond to more “minor” cases of sexism and harassment – a consequence that Sarkeesian herself has felt all too clearly.
Furthermore, the player’s role as potential savoir of these women establishes a different set of problems, known to the internet at large as “white knighting,” or the idea that men can save women in return for some sort of positive (often presumably sexual) reward. This idea that women can “owe” men for having “saved” them from an assailant (whether physical or virtual) is as problematic as the presumption of victimhood in the first place (although different). It creates the opportunity for extended victimization if the “white knight” retaliates for not being “appropriately rewarded,” and it also creates and perpetuates the negative “white knight” stereotype that keeps other men from intervening in problematic situations.
These sorts of presumptions also leads directly to the rape culture – as Sarkeesian explains late in the episode – that permeates our society. It creates, she says, the impression that rape is committed by evil strangers in dark alleys, rather than the reality – that most women are raped by people they know, in places they visit on a regular basis. It also creates the problem epitomized by such real world men as Elliot Roger, who expected women to have sex with him simply because he was not a rapist or abuser.
My final issue with this particular episode is that it seems to suffer from the very symptoms that it derides in the games: excessive depiction of violence against women, deployed here for shock value, which is much the same as its use in (many of) the games to begin with. Certainly, one has to present the evidence to make an argument, and Sarkeesian wouldn’t be able to make her point without the use of some scenes of graphic and gratuitous violence against female NPSOs, but “Part II” suffers even more so than the earlier episodes from the catalogue effect; there are so many clips of prostitutes being beaten and stabbed by the 15-minute-mark that the viewer all but tunes out what Sarkeesian is saying. The shock value dissipates and becomes a low-level disgust that fails to carry the point and instead only becomes a litany of excess.
The other day, I saw a tweet which suggested that Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series was on par with peer-reviewed academic work, and I cringed. I then resisted the urge to reply and say “No, no it isn’t.” Here’s why. I don’t think that this series is on par with academically rigorous criticism – not by a long shot – and I would quite frankly be embarrassed to see an article written at this level of depth and discourse. However, Sarkeesian isn’t creating academic criticism – she’s creating a series of web videos designed to address the average game-playing human without, presumably, an academic degree, and as such, her series has come a very long way since the first episode of “Damsels in Distress.” It’s shaping into a good series for a wide audience that presents a solid base argument that should be the launching point for other, more comprehensive discussions.
Yes, I pick these videos apart, focus on single instances like her dismissal of Dishonored’s criticism of despair or the princess in God of War III, but overall, I think that the work Sarkeesian is doing is valuable on multiple levels. First, she’s introducing difficult and complex theoretical concepts from feminist criticism to people with little or no exposure to them. Second, she’s raising awareness about the negative impact of sexism in popular culture media, including videogames. Third, she’s trying to elevate the discourse we use to talk about gender in gaming, and she’s succeeding; this video is far and away more thoughtful than her early videos, and it’s doing a much better job of pointing out why things are bad and what they can do right.
In short, Sarkeesian has done what many academics and critics hope to do: she’s managed to start a conversation – in which I am now participating – where she isn’t all right, but she definitely isn’t all wrong.