The theme of episode two (season two) of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is “Body Language & the Male Gaze.” It’s probably worth taking the time to say that “Male Gaze” is not a thing Sarkeesian herself made up (anyone who has ever taken a women’s studies class, or possibly a film studies class, will know this).
The concept of the “male gaze” comes from Laura Mulvey’s Visual and Other Pleasures, specifically, in an essay written in 1973 entitled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In this article, Mulvey explains that the presumptive viewer of television and film is presumed to be male, and the act of creating a visual image for this presumed-male viewer takes into account the fact that the things on screen are being perceived by that viewer’s gaze—his “male gaze.” What this means for women on tv and in movies is that they are often treated, first and foremost, as objects of sexual desire, or, at least, relative to their potential as objects of sexual desire. For Mulvey, the male gaze thus transforms women into objects which codify and reify the male sexual fantasy of prowess—itself the product of a subconscious fear of emasculation/castration (Mulvey was very much into Freud and Lacan, like a lot of academics in the 1970s and 1980s). Thus, the images of women portrayed in film and tv were designed, she explains, to play into male fantasies so that men viewing them would feel empowered by them.
So that’s what the “male gaze” actually is. To a certain extent, Mulvey is probably right—the presumptive audience of most popular media is straight, white, and male. The “default.” If the default audience—especially true in gaming—is presumed to be straight, white, and male, then that is going to shape the way media is created in order to cater to that audience. This isn’t complex theory—it’s the product of basic market forces. However, the male gaze becomes problematic when those market forces become an excuse for oppressive or diminishing behaviors; when the sexual-objectification part of the male gaze takes precedence to such a degree that it functionally eliminates any sort of agency for anyone who is not straight, white, or male.
Importantly, Mulvey’s understanding of the male gaze also takes into consideration is the fact that those market forces are themselves the product of patriarchal oppression, and that it is possible to reshape those forces by changing the way media are made. One can take into consideration multiple possible audiences, or the fact that one’s audience might be comprised of a varying demographic. We have—especially in videogames—taken the “biggest” slice of the demographic pie as the “type” of pie for so long that we’ve forgotten that even though there may be more straight, white, male gamers than any single other combination of those categories, there are actually more gamers who do not fit at least one of those components than there are those who fit all three. Accepting that fact suggests, then, that the same market forces which are supposedly driving the production of games for straight, white males really ought to be thinking more broadly about their content—to be appealing to the rest of the pie.
And that’s where Sarkeesian’s series comes in. In this episode, she’s using the idea of the male gaze to highlight that the way in which many characters are animated presumes that same male gaze, not simply in the market forces sense, but also in the sexual-fantasy sense. She makes the very sensible point that women in games don’t have to move or behave in sexualized ways, and that the only reason they do so is because of the sexual-fantasy side of the male gaze.
In this episode, Sarkeesian begins with Destiny, a game in which players customize their characters’ appearance at the beginning. Destiny allows players—as she notes—to choose male or female, and to determine skin color and other racialized features so that their character absolutely does not have to be the stereotypical white male protagonist. Sarkeesian even commends the “stylish” but “sensible” armor worn by both genders. What she takes issue with is the fact that the female models have a different style of animation than the male ones. When the male model sits down, he sits on his butt and rests his elbows on raised knees. The female model side-sits, ostensibly “like a delicate flower.”
Yes, I do find it weird that the two models can’t sit the same way, but “delicate flower” is not what I would term the side-sit. Maybe “awkward,” but if she were to sit splay-kneed like the male character, then we’d be given a full view of her crotch… clothed. I’d actually be fine with that. I sit that way (also clothed). Of course, I also side-sit sometimes, too, usually when I’m wearing a skirt and have to sit on the floor so that I don’t flash my crotch at people.
I think that this instance is less a case of “make the girl into a delicate flower” and more a weird kind of White Knight accidental sexism as the result of a thought process that made someone think “We can’t have a woman spreading her legs, that would be rude!” So while I think it’s strange and probably accidentally sexist to have two different sitting animations, I’m not convinced that the motivation Sarkeesian ascribes to it is the right one.
Next, Sarkeesian moves on to more comparisons—Nathan Drake to Bayonetta (cross-game, which isn’t totally fair), or Batman and Catwoman in Arkham City (which is more than fair, and that drove me crazy when I played it, and not just because of her animations… her outfit was idiotic, too). She then begins to talk about the female characters who walk “with an exaggerated hip sway.”
Okay. Yes. They do that. But this is where basic biology and the idea of exaggerated movement in animation for the sake of “reading” come in. When you animate something—like when you do something on a stage—you have to exaggerate it a bit in order to make it “read” correctly to the viewer. Some of the examples Sarkeesian points to—like Catwoman—are exaggerated to a ridiculous level and deserve ridicule. Some of them—Jill Valentine—are just sloppily animated, from the clip she included. Some of them—Assassin’s Creed Syndicate—are actually just fine because if you have ever walked behind two people and one is male and one is female, you will have noticed that the female’s hips sway more. Because they’re built differently. That’s a thing.
This is one of the only instances in which I will call on gender essentialism, ever. Make a note. Women’s hips are built differently and we therefore walk differently than men. As a woman who doesn’t do the hip sway thing very much at all, I can promise you that I still do it more than the vast majority of men simply because it’s not something one can help if one has female hips. If a game’s animators want to recognize that basic difference, then, yes, a female character is going to have some hip-sway. I saw the same clip Sarkeesian did, and I wasn’t buying it, at least not in Assassin’s Creed. (Sarkeesian does note this, but she assumes that the hip sway comes from wearing heels—which, although heels exaggerate it, isn’t totally accurate.)
And then she moves on to Saint’s Row, which allows you to switch genders whenever you want, and the female animation is a more exaggerated sway than necessary, but it’s Saint’s Row. There is nothing serious about Saint’s Row. It’s the videogame version of Mel Brooks’s History of the World. Or Spaceballs. You can’t really criticize it for being exaggerated, because that’s rather the whole point.
The sequence of highly sexualized walks—most of which actually were ridiculous, particularly for a sniper in heels, which is so many things wrong with it—does show an overall problem with female character creation, as applicable to animation as to costume and model design (to say nothing of personality or lack thereof). Many female characters in games are over-sexualized and, yes, created as objects for the Mulvian male gaze, and that is a problem. And so is—as Sarkeesian notes—the fact that so many of these ostensible warriors are engaging in combat in heels. Heels are an idiot idea for combat and are, as Sarkeesian notes, included in character creation in media (film, tv, videogames, even Barbie) as part of the male gaze fantasy.
While this episode was definitely better than the last (see here for my review on that one), it still suffers from the problem of alienation, although I’m not sure it’s a concern Sarkeesian will ever be able to escape. The tone and list-style of these episodes is off-putting to the very people who most need to understand the content they contain. Sadly, I don’t really have an answer to that. I do think that they could still do more—these shorter episodes may be more likely to garner viewers because of the reduced time-commitment, but they remain just as, if not even more-so, shallow as the longer laundry-list episodes of season one. I want more meat to these criticisms, more teeth. I want to see Sarkeesian place these characters in a context where they have meaning, instead of being a parade of swaying buttocks that can only be scanned as “swaying butts are bad.” That said, the point she’s trying to make is a valid one.
We need to pay as much attention to animation as we do to any other part of character creation in games. Sarkeesian’s example of Ellie from Last of Us is a positive one, since Ellie (thankfully, since she’s a child) isn’t sexualized in terms of costume, personality, role, or movement. Her point is that animation, like any other choice being made in the process of character creation, should serve the purpose of the character and not the sexual fantasies of the audience. If the character is a model, then she should walk like one. If she’s a space marine, then she should move like a space marine. The problem arises when the space marine walks like a model because it makes her butt look hot—objectifying her derriere for the sake of the male gaze to the detriment not just of her character, but of the story as a whole, and, more broadly, for women in the real world.
In other words, this tendency to over-sexualize our female characters—no matter the medium—creates the assumption (conscious or unconscious) that sexual attractiveness is more important than competence, a message which devalues women’s abilities in favor of their willingness to cater to male sexual fantasies.