I always knew I’d be inspired to respond to Anita Sarkeesian’s new video series exploring tropes versus women in video games and so the latest video has prompted me into action. Honestly, I expect that many bloggers will write about it as each new episode is published and I think it’s a good conversation starter if there is such a thing for the sensitive subject matter. So far, two episodes have aired and I can tell she spent a lot of time writing and re-writing the content. It’s very thoughtful and careful, and she’s officially played more games with these kinds of tropes than I have now. I have to applaud her stamina for enduring some quite horrible games in order to understand just one more thing that makes them bad!

But anyway …onto my  response thus far to Tropes vs Women. This isn’t an opposing viewpoint to Anita’s series, but hopefully a complimentary one. Instead of just focusing on the misogyny of games (and their protagonists) I want to instead comment on why these tropes about women damage men as much as they damage women. I don’t want to start an oppression war here, but I think it’s important to emphasize that the reason feminists are of no particular gender is because the point I’m making here is not only widely recognized, but accepted as a key component in the struggle for equality. The point is this: the reason feminism is important is not just because it brings awareness and challenge to the oppression of women, but because it shows us the brutality of men and the entire system.

I’ve spent time thinking and writing about the power fantasies of men in video games a lot the past year. I’ve said what I can in my analysis about sexualization of women and empowerment of men. But what do the tropes about women say about men? After playing games for years, I have to admit they aren’t very flattering for us either. For every woman brutalized in a video game, the men watching are also brutalized; it’s like watching images of ourselves destroying our own world in a quest to prove we are real men. As society teaches us, real men don’t fail in their duties as guardians and owners and these duties are exercised in the form of violence. When we manage to fail, the appropriate next step is to purge the stain from our honor through blood and violence. My point is that it’s no coincidence our entertainment is chock full of it. In 2013, this is beyond outdated thinking and yet it still dominates our lives …all of our lives, male and female.

I will daresay most men reading this know full well that if you are physically challenged by someone, the proper response in American culture is to try to invoke a sense of fear in that person. It is like the promise of violence if said person does not back down from the challenge. I think this state of mind says more than words about what this primal (read: base), brutal mindset says about us. Again, it isn’t flattering at all.

Yes, these tropes do concrete damage to women; the violence of their everyday lives is undeniable. But what women endure as victims, men also endure psychologically. It all paints us as something slightly less than human, perhaps even as an object ourselves. When I see male heroes in games emotionally immune to the surrounding violence, I see in them the damage tropes do to me, because the abuse of women is supposed to be inspired and empower my heroic quest, but it only diminishes me. It’s not just empathy, but solidarity, a realization that the fate of women (all people, even) is my own. That is my reason for writing and speaking as I do on the topic because I see my fate as invested in its resolution.

The latest video discusses some really good points we can keep in mind as we discuss the tropes versus women. Of course, any of these points can be applied to any marginalized group and still be useful to the discussion. Anita addressed the following:

  1. “Mature” content in games is trickery designed to make players believe their games are more sophisticated.
  2. Misogyny. Women as the punchline (such as GTA3) during game play.
  3. Women as sacrificial (“kill me to save the world/ before I turn into a monster/ to end suffering” etc …)
  4. Violence used to bring women back to their senses because they have lost control of themselves, men kill them out of altruism, for their own good.
  5. Justifying the violence: “Incidental narrative circumstances” used to explain it away. “Just because a particular event might make sense within the internal logic of a fictional narrative, that doesn’t in and of itself justify its use. Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.”
  6. Most game developers aren’t giving much thought to what they’re making; the cultural messages are unintentional.
  7. The power of violent imagery reinforces culture through repetition of the images.
  8. Feelings of weakness and guilt invoked for failing in patriarchal duty; this is really about a perceived loss of masculinity, regained only by performing violence upon others.
  9. Exploring death and grief in more authentic ways is a good solution, instead of superficially through extreme violence. Stop building game narratives on the corpses of females.

So, then, why do the male protagonists actually need these tropes in order to provide an interesting narrative that justifies the game? Are game designers just being unbelievably lazy? Closet misogynist? How do these facilitate and interesting and entertaining game?

As men we should view this as content which is damaging to us if we want to really engage the issue of misogyny in games. It’s not enough to just dislike this stuff while we purchase and play the game.  It’s certainly not enough to simply side with women on the issue. This content places us within a very rigid and often unrealistic box in which we accept the narrative (even celebrate it) at the expense of women. It is a box in which men are defined by the mythological weaknesses of women. The abuse, exploitation, and violence towards women in-game is there to serve the narrative of the male. Don’t you find this insulting to men? That we can’t be bothered to care about anything unless a woman is involved/abused/killed/etc? Our investment in this issue can’t solely be that we object to it because it damages women; it has to also be because we recognize its damage to ourselves.

Portraying the male sex as dangerous and violent has serious implications in our culture. Shouldn’t our games take the issue a bit more seriously?

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6 Responses to Man in the Box: A Response to Tropes vs. Women

  1. Syl says:

    A similar topic that has always cracked me up in this context is the virginity trope which is so big in older literature and ofc also religion and certain cultures (even today). while there’s always the misogynist focus, I can’t help but wonder why it doesn’t bother men as much as it does women on a personal level, since essentially the (very sex-negative) message hits both. the virgin is this stylized model of purity and she can only ever be a woman. nobody cares about male virgins after all. au contraire, men might as well have many sexual experiences before marriage. men are ‘lost’ or ‘dirty’ by nature, they’re already born in sin. they can never assume to be as pure as the virgin woman. and once a woman has been with a man, she is then no longer pure either. she’s been sullied by a man.

    There’s no virgin trope without making men lowlier creatures. which is really ironic considering that it’s traditionally been men too (not coincidentally many celibate ones…) who have pushed the virgin mary as symbol of purity. ofc it’s not all just Christianity but also happened in other religions (and cultures).

    • Pietoro says:

      I wonder if it’s partially because a virgin can’t judge your sexual ability since she doesn’t know any better if you’re the only man she’s ever been with. Women are the ones supposed to be constantly worried about ‘pleasing their man’ (just check most of the lady-focused magazines out there) while the guy isn’t expected to worry too much about her side (and who is expected to be unfaithful and get his fun elsewhere if she fails to entertain him enough in that area) seems to be a common thing just in general, with men not being the ‘sex class’ after all, but the ones who get to exploit that class. Same goes for why penalties for promiscuous/unfaithful women have historically been so brutal in many cultures while men get handwaved out of the picture entirely. Patriarchal cultures have historically hated and feared female sexuality (or even denied it exists outright) and I can’t see any logical reason for that sort of mindset other than it being just another way to dehumanize women by claiming they lack qualities that men (i.e. ‘actual people’) have.

    • I think thats the point though, isn’t it? Women are supposedly lowlier creatures, don’t know the world, need a guide. Men are supposedly worldly creatures, have all the experience, women need their guidance. No one talks about virgin men. It’s almost a taboo phrase. Even virgin boys don’t talk about virgin boys, they just talk about getting sex.

      • Syl says:

        Thats not how I see it. the message of ‘sex = dirty’ is rather clear. the church has seen to that in the middle ages. it’s also not something enjoyable, only meant for procreation. yet, the male virgin means nothing compared to the female one. there’s a clear contradiction there imo. obviously, the chastity-mania was introduced to control women’s sexuality, of that I’m aware. but if you’re consequent about the whole reasoning it puts a bad light on men too in the sense that they’re less spiritual, less loved by god and something every chaste woman should fear.

        • Oh I wasn’t disagreeing, just the opposite. Its like what you said about purity: that’s a woman’s thing in our culture. The whole idea of a virgin male just isn’t part of the social consciousness and I think you’re right that many men find this troubling because it dictates what we should do and feel. Boys learn that their bodies are tools/weapons (objects) to be used for various tasks, among them penetrating women. In other words, weapons are not pure things and it is expected that they will get soiled and bloody. No one talks of clean, pure guns/swords/etc and therefore no man would talk of his body this way, culturally speaking.

          I think the whole mythology around female and male sexuality really does serve the structure. That is, to dis-empower women and empower men, but also to create opposition, difference. Its all quite utilitarian when you think about it on some levels, but the imagery of the pure, delicate woman is always in opposition to the rough, tainted man.

          As for sex = dirty, I see Christianity (hell, most religions) as just another institution created to reinforce patriarchy. It’s like an additional buttress to the idea that women are to remain exclusive objects (like a new shirt, only to be worn by the owner) to be possessed by men so that violence against them is justified–after all, there’s little justification for abusing something that’s weak, delicate and pure, right? The taboo serves the structure in defense of men. Am I understanding you proper?

          • Syl says:

            pretty much. it’s just altogether mindboggling contradiction, depending on what cause it’s serving.