The first episode in Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’ second season (2016) is all about the derrieres of female characters in games. This is not a case where the episode intended to focus on something else—third person games, for instance, which end up following around the badonk of the player-character—which accidentally ended up being all about backside, but intentionally. As in, someone (presumably Sarkeesian) decided that an episode needed to be made about booty.
Admittedly, the series is now offering up much shorter episodes (this one is six minutes and thirty-seven seconds, unlike the first season’s episodes, which generally ran around twenty to thirty minutes), so it makes sense that they would choose smaller topics or ideas. It will also allow the series to touch on more things, while also cutting down on production time. I think that’s probably a great direction for the series to take. Logistically, that part makes perfect sense.
Thematically, I am not on board.
First of all, by focusing a whole episode on the junk in various characters’ digital trunks, Sarkeesian is all but catering to the trollish perspective that feminists are just angry about the fact that they themselves do not possess attractive buns. Second, it’s quite frankly beating a very dead horse. No one is arguing that depictions of female characters in games—especially older games, such as the 1996 Tomb Raider, which is the first game the episode brings up—aren’t often depicted in a sexualized way, sometimes even to the level of the ridiculous. Third, it diminishes the integrity of the series because it causes people who were trying to take it seriously to dismiss it or to make ridiculous jokes.
But putting that behind us…
Sarkeesian’s series continues to suffer from a problem of historical context, made particularly evident by her continual use of old school games as examples. While the original Tomb Raider is a logical choice for any discussion of the sexualized depiction of female characters in gaming, it’s starting to get a little old. Lara Croft’s physical proportions are ludicrous and inhuman, even if their pixelated dimensions were once titillating. Everyone with eyes can see that. Even more importantly, there’s a new Lara Croft whose distribution of assets is more in line with what human women actually possess, and she wears mostly weather- and activity-appropriate clothing, unlike her earlier incarnation.
The propensity which Sarkeesian has for going back to earlier titles has the same problem literary and film critics have when discussing earlier eras; we can’t apply today’s standards to earlier works without falling victim to the fallacy of anachronism. We can’t say that Shakespeare was (or was not) a feminist, because feminists didn’t exist in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. We can’t say that Twain was racist for using “n****r” in Huckleberry Finn because the whole society in which he was operating was racist, and Twain himself at least had the wherewithal to make Jim a fully-functioning human being. We can say that both writers had certain thoughts or impressions about women or people of color, but we have to put those in context if we are going to be responsible critics of their work. Is Twain’s depiction of Jim racist? Of course it is! But in context it is less racist than much of what his contemporaries were churning out, so he gets some bonus points for that.
Similarly, Toby Guard’s design for Lara Croft (although he wasn’t actually responsible for the proportions of either breasts or rump) was radical for the 1990s, as everyone thought that a female protagonist would functionally kill the series before it even got started. (Obviously, it didn’t, and Tomb Raider is one of the most globally successful franchises in gaming… especially since it crossed over into graphic novels, film, and toys far earlier and more successfully than any other game franchise.) She is also an example of the horrific sexism that was part and parcel of the games industry in the 1990s, as no self-respecting diver would ever wear a wetsuit that failed utterly to cover her caboose (to say nothing about the questionable decision to strap skinning knives to one’s bare legs). But in order to understand her, we have to put her in context, and that’s not something Sarkeesian really ever does.
Aside from that, Sarkeesian lambasts the entire third-person perspective as being about female characters’ keisters… despite the rather obvious fact that the third-person genre can’t help but feature fannies (and not in the UK usage), irrespective of their gender, species, or level of attractiveness. Certainly, some of the shots included in the film of hinies were rather excessive, primarily in cut scenes where said hindquarters did not need to be featured quite so prominently (taking up 50-75% of the visual area of the screen). The problem here is not that the cheeks themselves are always in view as it is that the costumes being worn most often are either extremely clingy or aren’t actually covering the rears in question (which is an issue with costuming that applies equally to a character’s cleavage).
Her joke about “the strategic butt covering” for Batman in Arkham City is something I had noticed myself while playing: Catwoman’s very shapely seat is prominently featured, while Batman’s is very difficult to catch a glimpse of, thanks to his cape. For that, Arkham City does deserve a bit of a call-out (and I haven’t even mentioned Catwoman’s zippered top), and I agree with Sarkeesian’s point that the clothing of protagonists could leave us with a bit less to be desired.
Sarkeesian does point out that many games with male player-characters feature different camera angles which don’t show them from the waist down or are closer in, hovering just above their shoulders. Gears of War is one of those which appears in the episode—and in Gears 3 is equally true of the female and the male characters (which she doesn’t mention). It is also true that there are many games which allow players to choose the gender (and often species) of their protagonist (Mass Effect, Skyrim, Dragon Age), as well as their clothing, which do allow them to scope out the tushies of both genders. Sarkeesian says that most male arse is “lacking in definition” due to clothing or armor, but, again, this is more about costume choices than it is exclusively about whether or not baby got back.
The marketing issue of the ludicrous displaying of female gluteus maximus on posters and box covers is another problem, and it is one over which designers have very little control. Often, these artistic renderings are not connected to the work of the actual developers, and it’s well worth stating that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in the marketing departments of most media vis a vis sexist depictions of women.
Ultimately, though, I came away from this episode being profoundly disappointed in the shallowness of its treatment of games, and in its functional dismissal of what it means to be a feminist critic. Sarkeesian’s decision to reduce the series to pointing fingers at digital posteriors is a complete turn-around from where I thought she was headed at the tail end of the last episode, instead offering up the most one-dimensional and content-less reading of gaming visuals in the series to date. It was a real bummer.