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Gender identification in video games, part 2

So. My post on this topic yesterday was rushed, and that’s unfortunate because it’s not the best idea to rush through a discussion comparing video games to pornography…especially when the subject of depicting attempted rape comes up. Sorry about that. I’m going to work through things a bit more thoroughly here.

The idea that pornography is about the viewer inserting him or herself into the role of someone in the movie is not a new one, and works pretty well to explain some things that otherwise seem mysterious– such as why male porn actors tend to be so well-endowed. This doesn’t seem to have a purpose when you consider that the viewers of porn are most often straight males, who presumably don’t have an interest in the penis size of the guy on the screen. Unless, that is, they’re watching while imagining themselves to be him— the man on the screen, doing whatever he is doing to the woman on the screen. Then it becomes important because they’re not lusting after the man’s genitalia; they’re actually viewing it as their own equipment. The man’s appearance apart from this doesn’t matter, because again he is not an object of attraction for our straight male viewer– he’s a stand-in. Some straight men dislike even the presence of this stand-in and restrict themselves to “lesbian” (scare quotes because sex between two women filmed for straight men is not the same as sex between two women filmed for women) porn, but still the presumption is that the viewer is actually or potentially involved in some way. They’re either having sex for him or their sex is about to include him, or both. This also explains why porn for straight men often isn’t appealing to women– we don’t necessarily want to project ourselves into the role of that woman on the screen, who is doing things and having things done to her that don’t look very fun, and whose primary job is to look good (to straight men) while doing them, though her partner’s appearance may leave much to be desired.

Yellow Valkyrie
shot the food!

Now. I’m not going to say that playing video games is, for a woman, like watching straight porn made for men…but there are similarities. If you’re female and you refuse to play any video game that involves playing a male character, you probably aren’t playing a lot of games. RPGs often give you a choice of gender, but not always. Or they will choose a gender for you if you want to play a certain class– remember Gauntlet, when you had the choice of being a male elf archer, a male human warrior, a male human wizard, or a female human valkyrie? I was quite happy to play any of the above (especially the arcade version, with four kids lined up in front of their respective joysticks, playing on the same machine), but my brothers weren’t. Even a tiny collection of pixels vaguely resembling a top-down view of a female fighter wasn’t desirable to play. Of course, on the intro screen she looked like this:

Highest armor class…because of the shield, I guess.

In 1985 I wasn’t old enough to give a lot of thought to why a female fighter would be clad in a bikini, and have skinny arms and waist and ample cleavage– I just knew that boys didn’t want to play her. Later I would learn that sometimes boys do want to play female characters, but in that case it’s generally because of her physical attributes, and by that I don’t mean her rippling muscles indicating great strength. Most people play World of Warcraft in third person, which means that instead of seeing the world through the eyes of the character (first person), they see the back of their character running around. It’s not at all uncommon to hear a guy who plays a female character in WoW explain it by saying “Look, if I have to watch someone’s ass move back and forth, I want it to be a hot girl’s!” Even so, there are players who actually are suspicious of anyone who plays characters of another gender because they think it means that person secretly wants to be that gender– though for some reason, they don’t seem to be apply this thinking and conclude that people secretly really want to be druids, mages, rogues, and so on.

If you assumed that every woman who plays a male character secretly wants to be male, you’d have a lot of aspiring transsexuals on your hands. Females play males for a lot of reasons: Sometimes they don’t have a choice. Sometimes they just enjoy role-playing (as a lot of guys do too). Sometimes they would prefer that no one know that they’re female because they’re afraid of being harassed, which is a reasonable fear to have. Just being on the internet is an incentive to hide your sex in order to avoid the hassle of being antagonized for it, and that goes doubly, triply so for how you present yourself in-game. You might not have the option if choosing a female character, but if you do, you will very likely only be allowed to choose one who is…well-endowed, and has selections of armor that accentuate or just outright reveal this. This will get you hit on in-game. If you are able, and decide to go against this and play a character who is less conventionally attractive, you will be harassed for playing someone who is not hot enough
If anyone tries to tip her, they’ll regret it.
Just as an aside here, a lot of people are very offended by the word “cunt,” and consider it about as sexist as an insult can get. I get where they’re coming from, but for me a far more pernicious word is “cow.” “Cow” is not even an obscenity, which makes it seem odd to be more offended by it. But precisely for that reason it’s also used a lot more often, and exclusively for women. That being the case I do sometimes wonder what Blizzard was thinking when they decided to create a race of playable characters based on minotaurs (man-bull hybrids) called Tauren, knowing that people would play both male and female. What did they think people would call the females? Don’t get me wrong– I love the Tauren. I think they’re beautiful and powerful, and I appreciate their Native American-esque culture which seems fondly reminiscent rather than like caricature. It’s just that being referred to over and over as a “cow” gets rather stale. To be fair to Blizzard and every other MMO developer, however, they have problems of this kind whenever they try to invent a new race. You’ll notice that the “cow” at right doesn’t appear to have udders (and if she does, they’re well-hidden indeed!); instead she has human-style breasts of a conventionally attractive size and shape. That’s most likely a concession to both male and female players, because I don’t think anyone wants to play a character with mammary glands that resemble those of any non-human mammal. That’s a bridge too far even for those of us who are comfortable playing a human-animal hybrid otherwise– when Blizzard introduced the next such race, the human/wolf combination called Worgen, there was a lot of disagreement about how to make them look, but I seriously doubt any of it concerned what kind of breasts the females should have.
One of my favorite games, which I won’t claim to be in the top 25 or so best video games of all time but which entertained me thoroughly, was Sid Meier’s Pirates for the PC. Pirates was originally published in 1987, but I didn’t discover it until the revamped 2004 edition came out. Pirates was great because it was an open world game in which you had a basic plot line and goals– you played a young man whose family had been kidnapped by pirates years ago for being unable to pay a debt. Your character had grown up, become a pirate himself, and was on a mission to locate and recover them, along with as much gold and notoriety as he could manage, and then give up sailing the open seas for a respectable job and home in the Caribbean, at which point the game ends. You could retire in this way at pretty much any point in the game, but the object was to do so after having accomplished as much as possible while you were still young and able (the passage of years does age you and decreases your abilities, so time is of the essence). Your performance would be tabulated at the end in terms of how many family members you’d managed to rescue, how many notorious pirates with bounties on their heads you’d managed to best in combat, how many historical relics you’d managed to dig up, how many accolades you’d received from the countries represented in settlements on the islands, and…whether you managed to bag a hot wife. Not just a wife; a hot one. 
Now, context– it’s a game about pirates. Egalitarianism is not a reasonable expectation, though this depiction of real historical events is about as close to reality as the recent Pirates: Band of Misfits movie. Pirates are not presented as good people exactly, but as sort of chaotic neutral people who could be personally quite nice and loyal to their crews but ultimately served their own interests. And one interest is persuading the daughter of a high-ranking and wealthy official of a Dutch, English, Spanish, or French settlement on the islands to marry you. This is accomplished by giving her gifts, dancing with her, and eventually besting the fiance (which she apparently acquired in your absence) in a sword fight. The daughters look different according to their nationality of origin, and also come in three varieties: rather plain, attractive, and beautiful. 
You get the feeling that if “rather plain” took off her shawl and unbuttoned a few buttons she might become worth a few more fame points, huh? Kind of like one of those “nerdy girl to knockout” movies where you can tell what’s going to happen right away because a pair of glasses, no makeup, and unkempt hair don’t do much to disguise things. Oh, and of course some clothing shortening/tightening/removal will happen along the way. 
“Beautiful” has it over the two in that she’s got a collarbone that could cut glass and generally more closely resembles a “real” housewife of Orange County, which is a bit odd considering the minimal availability of plastic surgery in the year 1660. I didn’t remember this, but according to a guide I looked up there actually is a benefit in romancing rather plain and/or attractive daughters in addition to beautiful ones, aside of course from their sparkling personalities– they will give you gifts like spyglasses or fencing gloves, whereas beautiful ones will not. Apparently they’re above it? Plain daughters are the first to actually notice you and be willing to dance when you’re just starting out as a pirate, whereas the other two won’t give you the time of day. That means that you get a chance to practice working on your steps with that homely mayor’s daughter from Caracas before attempting to land the hottie governor’s girl from St. Kitt’s. In a blog post called “Bigamy,” one player describes how he successfully wooed and married a fair-haired beautiful girl from an English town, earned his ten points, and returned later to find that the town had fallen to invading Spaniards. When he went to visit the new Spanish governor, he discovered that his wife now looked quite a bit different:

She’s changed from being English to being Spanish, but she’s still my wife. In other words, I’m married to “the daughter of the Governor of Tortuga” — whoever that may be! What an amazing concept: being married not to a person, but to whatever person is pointed at by a reference! You could do strange things if that worked in real life: “I am married to whomever is in this bed with me” or “I am married to whomever pays me the most this month”. Wow! Oh well, at least I have a goal now: attack enough Spanish shipping that they put a price on my head, then attack Tortuga, install an English governor and change my wife back to her original incarnation.

I’m just trying to imagine an action/adventure game in which your character is female, and one of the achievements in the game is to find, woo, and eventually marry a man who is “handsome,” as opposed to “attractive” or “rather plain” (but go ahead and get friendly with those other two as well, because they’ll give you things). You don’t have to pursue the romance option in Pirates; you can avoid it altogether if you want. But you’ll suffer both in the process and in the end, because the daughters (at least the plain and attractive ones) can give you very useful things, and if you decide to retire while still a bachelor your total legacy will be diminished. It’s a nice element that you have a learn an entirely separate skill, dancing, in order to have any luck at all with the ladies, but dancing with you– a fly-by-night pirate who is seeing god knows how many other governor’s daughters at the same time– must truly be the highlight of their otherwise dreary, island-bound lives. Imagine if things were reversed.

If things were reversed, how many guys would play the game? I’m guessing not many. But I’m also guessing they would bitch mightily if the game was otherwise incredibly well-made and enticing enough to make them want to play it, except for that aspect that female gamers face all of the time, which is being made to be the characters you’re playing and not just controlling them, even if they’re the opposite sex.

That’s why, in spite of all of the entirely legitimate concerns people are voicing about the attempted rape of Lara Croft being too close to home, too real, too unreal in terms of how she deals with it (rape, and attempted rape, not being things most women can just fight off or which should be presented as challenges that make them stronger)…in spite of all that, I don’t think it’s necessarily a horrible idea to have that element in the game. You would just need to make damn sure that the player actually identifies with Lara first, actually feels like they are her, in order for it to be of any benefit. Which…okay, is kind of a pipe dream to have about a video game, and one whose primary audience is probably majority male, and young at that. Hmm. Guess I just talked myself out of that one.

No True Feminist

Disbelieving Tankard Reist is disbelieving

…is not my favorite game. I really dislike playing it, and not just because it’s a variation on an informal fallacy. I’m fully aware that groups need labels, and for the purposes of distinction we need some labels to fit some groups, and other labels to fit other groups. I just don’t like arguing about who fits in the Feminist group, because it’s not like it’s going to stop anyone from calling themselves feminists if they want to.

What am I talking about? The question of whether someone who is pro-life can legitimately be called a feminist. That’s what Anne Summers asks in The Age— or rather what she answers, since she comes down firmly on the side of “No”:

Maybe this is a strange question to be asking when we are supposedly living in a post-feminist era, when feminism is still mocked and trivialised by the media and (no coincidence) when young women famously assert, ”I’m not a feminist, but …”, meaning: I want the equality but not the label. But the question has come up recently in two very different examples. Meryl Streep said on 7.30 recently that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who she plays so brilliantly in The Iron Lady, ”was a feminist whether she likes it or not”.

You could almost hear the shrieks of disavowal around the Western world: No! No! she’s not one of us. Then last week we had the brouhaha around Melinda Tankard Reist, the Canberra-based campaigner against porn and the sexualisation of girls, who has threatened to sue for defamation a blogger who commented on Tankard Reist’s failure to disclose her Christian beliefs in a recent magazine profile. The same article described Tankard Reist as one of several high-profile women who are ”redefining feminism – and making enemies in the process”. Sarah Palin was named as another. What these women have in common is their self-identification as ”pro-life feminists”. They are against abortion.

What makes Summers’ argument not actually fallacious in the discussion which follows is that she articulates exactly what constitutes feminism, in her mind: supporting women’s ability to be independent. There are two fundamental preconditions of this, she continues, and those are financial security and control over one’s fertility. Therefore, women should have the ability to regulate both for themselves:

Some women might choose periods of dependence on a husband or someone else while they raise children or write a book or whatever, but the key is that this is a voluntary state. Some women may abhor abortion and never choose that option themselves but they cannot deny the choice to other women. On these criteria, Thatcher is a feminist while Tankard Reist is not. Thatcher supported abortion rights (including, according to Streep, attacking president Ronald Reagan for using abortion as a political tool) and while she never identified with the women’s movement, nor it with her, she championed women’s economic independence, scorning the idea of women as mere washers of teacups. Tankard Reist, on the other hand, rails against the abuse of women and girls’ bodies through pornography but then sanctions the ultimate assault on a woman’s body: requiring her to carry a child she has decided she cannot have.

This is an individualist position based entirely on autonomy, and therefore one I support wholeheartedly. You will not get an argument from me that anything can be more feminist than supporting women’s individual freedoms.

The thing is, feminism is also about how women are viewed in society, including how women view themselves.  Someone who is passionate about eliminating racism is not just concerned about things like overtly racist laws and disproportionate numbers of minority races being imprisoned, but also whether minorities appear in media and how they are presented when they do. How advertising catering to them depicts and treats them. What people are saying about them, and their role in society. The same is true of people who are passionate about eliminating sexism– they want to convince the world, either by argument or by ordinance or both, not to be sexist. Tankard Reist no doubt believes that pornography makes the world more sexist, and therefore she is opposed to it. I don’t, and even if I did I wouldn’t want to fight such a thing using law because that would limit the autonomy of women as well as men. Like Summers, I believe that individual freedom is foundational to feminism. I think that the freedom to both be in and consume porn are part of a woman’s autonomy, her ability to be financially secure and retain control over her fertility. Summers may not agree, so I don’t want to put words in her mouth. But the point is that individual freedom trumps social perception, a position that Tankard Reist, anti-porn advocate, does not share.

Tankard Reist also does not share the position that abortion is an individual freedom. Or does she? According to another recent article in The Age,

Tankard believes that abortion is a form of “violence against women”, one that many find traumatic and laden with regret. “Abortion is often an excuse not to deal with the structural conditions that compel women to have abortions,” she told One Plus One. She draws the line at government regulation, she says, preferring to focus “on those women who would rather not choose abortion. What can we do to make it easier for women who would prefer to make another choice?” (In the ’90s, she co-founded Karinya House, an organisation providing support for pregnant women “in crisis”.)
But Melbourne-based ethicist and regular sparring partner Leslie Cannold is sceptical. “To get the wide reach she does, she is absolutely dependent on us not knowing the full extent of what she’s done in the past,” says Cannold. Tankard Reist worked as a media and bioethics adviser for former Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine for 12 years, during which time he successfully blocked and continued to campaign against the abortion drug RU486. She also personally opposed changes to legislation that would have required pro-life pregnancy-counselling services to disclose their affiliations in their advertising. For others, the discomfort is more philosophical. As high-profile second-waver Eva Cox puts it, it’s about the difference between “a view of feminism in which choices and opportunities are not determined by gender” (a group in which Cox includes herself) and “one that wants to protect women, whether it be from men, from sexuality or something else” – the world view Cox suspects Tankard Reist subscribes to.

Tankard Reist’s political activity is the practical manifestation of this difference in philosophy. It takes a paternal, protective disposition to work to ban a product or practice because you don’t trust people to choose it for themselves and use it responsibly.  I would say the notion that abortion is always foisted on women against their will rather than having been chosen of their own volition is delusional, but then people say the same thing about being in porn. No doubt Tankard Reist is one of them.

But it doesn’t seem that she opposes abortion on the grounds that a fetus is a person, which is what pro-life women generally bring up first when they want to claim both the label “pro-life” and “feminist,” or what anyone who is pro-life tends to bring up first when charged with sexism. This might be a cultural difference– Americans are powerfully swayed by the idea of people having rights, dammit, and if a fetus is a person then it stands to reason that it has rights. On the other hand, the idea that abortion (or pornography) is somehow an offense against women which subordinates them seems more likely to carry in Australia, forcing women who want abortions (or porn) to assert that they are capable of handling it.

There is a certain amount of “poor women aren’t able to make the decision to have an abortion; they’re pressured into it” mentality in American pro-lifers, but their paternalism is firmly right-wing. I doubt Sarah Palin cares a great deal about being considered a feminist, because here it seems like right-wingers of any kind are extremely reluctant to claim that label– that it belongs to the left. I don’t know for certain, but am guessing that in Australia the term “feminist” is rarely used as an epithet. In America, feminists of Tankard Reist’s brand and conservatives have banded together in fighting pornography, as noted in Pornography Makes For Strange Bedfellows:

But in the late 70’s, some radical feminists, lead by writer Andrea Dworkin and law professor Catherine MacKinnon, began to see pornography not as obscene or immoral but as a means of subordinating women and keeping gender inequality intact. This shall be referred to as the second wave of feminist critiques or the “radical feminist” critique. Moreover, they view pornography as a form of sexual violence, not just the cause of it. They do not make a distinction between erotica and pornography or even art for that matter. They accordingly support the suppression of these works as a way of dissolving gender inequality in society. The third wave of feminist critiques are a defense of pornography on free speech grounds in response to the preceding two waves of criticism. This diverse group of women contains every one from pioneering feminist Betty Friedan to ACLU president Nadine Strossen to syndicated columnist Molly Ivins to former porn star Annie Sprinkle. What they have in common is their support of pornography as protected speech. These “free expression” feminists don’t all agree on the value or harm of pornography to society but they do agree on the harm to free expression that the suppression of pornography would cause. . .Do the feminist anti-pornography critiques offer something new to the discussion of pornography as protected speech? Or are their arguments a reworking of previous arguments but with feminist terminology? The answer to both of these questions is “yes.” First, let us examine the first question: do the feminist anti-pornography critiques offer something new to the discussion of pornography as protected speech? The advent of the feminist voice to all discussion has been very healthy to the exchange of ideas in this country. The first and second wave anti-pornography feminists have brought a fresh critical eye to the examination of pornography as a social phenomenon. They ask who does the First Amendment protect? Pornographers? But what about the climate pornography fosters for women in our country? Isn’t pornography a form of group defamation towards women? Does it not teach men that women are sexual objects who enjoy being the object through which men get their sexual satisfaction. Second, let us examine the other question: are their arguments a reworking of previous arguments but with feminist terminology? Their criticism of pornography is interesting and healthy for the exchange of ideas but their remedies for it in the case of the second wave, suppression of it, presents more harms than the ones they are seeking to just. It seems contradictory that the same structures the radical feminists are trying to tear down are the same ones they are seeking to use to attack pornography. The Indianapolis Ordinance for example, a collaboration between conservatives and anti- pornography feminists, would have allowed people who are harmed by pornography to seek civil damages from the distributors and makers of it. But the American Booksellers Association filed a suit against it because its members feared that since they could not review every book they ordered they would have to not sell any books that relate to sexual matters for fee of violating the ordinance. The ordinance was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a summary statement that agreed with lower court decisions.

I’m conflicted in applying this same sort of thinking to Tankard Reist’s stance on abortion. On the one hand, it seems that in saying she doesn’t deserve to call herself a feminist, Summers is saying that only (what in America would be called) leftists can be feminists, and Tankard Reist’s reasoning for being pro-life conforms very much to Dworkin/MacKinnon-style feminism which was leftist. On the other hand, Tankard Reist’s reasoning in opposing both pornography and abortion is clearly protection-focused over autonomy-focused, and that undermines what Summers and many other third-wave “sex positive” feminists see as foundational to feminism itself.

So I guess my conclusion is…Tankard Reist is a feminist, as much as Dworkin and MacKinnon were. Protective, paternal (maternal, I suppose), and ultimately so concerned with the representation of women in society that protecting women from themselves seems/seemed like the responsible, pro-woman thing to do.  That doesn’t mean that autonomy-focused third-wave feminists like Summers (and myself) need to approve of her thinking or what she stands for. We’re free to continue pointing out that treating women like children doesn’t amount to supporting them, and that the most important thing is to allow them to make their own choices even if they are wrong-headed, self-damaging, or even influenced by nefarious outside sources. In other words, that feminism might just be more about intentions than outcomes.  And that’s okay.

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