Standards of Misogyny in Video Games

Now, it’s been years since I’ve been anywhere near the video games industry, but I still like to keep up with it in an armchair capacity. One of my favorite sites by which to do this is a blog called gamesetwatch, a collection of essays and links to articles by many industry leaders. One article they had recently was a retrospective on “Time Gal”, one of those old laser disc arcade games that had animated cutscenes that you control via pressing the correct button or moving the joystick in the right way. The author, Todd Ciolek, (who also writes X-button, a fine column at the Anime News Network) pointed out that Time Gal was the first game to have a non-licensed character that players could recognize as human. He goes on to praise the game for having a heroine that was so cute and chirpy, but then there was one line that just made my head spin.

“Misogyny creeps in, of course: Time Gal’s already skimpy clothes get ripped away by T-Rexes and Fist of the North Star mutants alike, and she’ll scream about being struck on the chest or getting bitten on her partially exposed rear. Pioneers are not always proud.”

It wasn’t just what he said, it’s how he said it. Misogyny. You know, creeping in like that. Here you are, pushing through the glass ceiling, but let one of those things on your chest slip out and BOOM! There’s misogyny. The word here is written with such complacency, such blasé, that it’s almost as if the author was describing the sky as blue. To use such a powerful word as misogyny in that way tells me that he doesn’t even believe in what he says. And why should he have to? He’s only preaching the gospel truth. You can see it repeated all over the ‘net. To show women as sexual in any capacity is misogynist. That’s it. Finito. End of discussion.

When there’s an idea that becomes sacrosanct and, dare I say, unexamined, it bothers me. Untested truth is what keeps us from moving forward, making connections and seeing the greater scheme of things. This is part of a pattern I keep seeing again and again in video game criticism. Why is a scantily clad girl in a video game defined as misogyny? “How is that not misogyny!?” is not a valid answer.

Despite being male, I think I can put my liberal arts hat back on and take a crack at this one. Misogyny is the hatred of women. If a woman getting her clothes torn suggestively in a fight is misogyny, then there are a couple of assumptions at work here. The first is that this is sexual objectification, where a woman is judged by her physical attributes independent of her personality and intelligence. This is demeaning to women, and that makes it misogyny.

I have a problem with this. This also assumes that the way a woman looks and how she presents herself has nothing to do with her personal taste, her habits or the culture she comes from. It would seem that this imagery is only defined by how I see it. Big, white male me. Now this tells me that if I look at something and get a rise out of it, it immediately becomes misogynist. I am indirectly dictating what can and cannot be depicted in regards to women. It doesn’t matter if anyone else finds the game cute or funny. Is that feminist? Hell, is that even humanist?

So now that we’ve found out what misogyny is, what’s feminism? What images do game companies produce if they want to be forward-thinking and catch that ever-elusive female audience? Many would point to a game called Portal. It’s about a battle between a sarcastic computer and Chell, a barely seen female protagonist in a formless jumpsuit with no dialog, no expression, and no personality. She is seen as the perfect feminist archetype, as opposed to blond-haired traitors like Super Mario’s Princess Peach. Of course, this can’t explain why Peach herself has female fans all over the world and why her own game, Super Princess Peach, has sold over a million copies.

That, my friends, is why we can’t have compelling video game characters. This is why we live in a video game world populated by bald space marines and sullen amazonian axe-murderers. When we intentionally wall off a part of human nature, we blind ourselves to potential avenues of creativity. A specific, easily recognizable character can make the difference between millions of dollars in revenue and billions.

5 thoughts on “Standards of Misogyny in Video Games

  1. Son Yong

    Good article, James. I do agree with you. That fight women have with men and each other. The eternal question: Does taking on feminine “stereotypes” somehow mean your as a women are a traitor to the “cause?” Why do I have to look and act like a “man” to be taken seriously?
    We are all affected by our culture, upbringing, etc. What is wrong with embracing “femininity” and “strength” together?

  2. James Post author

    You know, the real irony here is that pink used to be a boy’s color. It was thought of as a subdued red.

  3. Techni

    I found Jade, Aya Brea, the girl from Rhapsody (it’s like a decade ago) and Parin from Gurumin, to be the perfect female protagonists. Or rather, anytime a female is the protagonist, and they don’t exploit her sexually to sell the game (at least, till Parasite Eve 2, which sucked)

    Chell from portal was a horrible protagonist. It’s like “Yeah, we let you play as a girl but we’re not going to let you enjoy it. Hell 90% of people won’t even know it’s a girl”, it’s almost like they tried to hide it.

  4. THM

    I’m several years late to commenting here, but I think the issue here isn’t one of scantily clad = misogyny. Scantily clad CAN = misogyny – it is all in circumstances though. Intent is important and context is everything. The description of the game you referenced and what occurs actually does sound misogynist to me (for a variety of reasons.)

    This article does a great job illuminating misogyny in the new Batman game:

    It also explores the issue of sexism in video games with a great deal of nuance (despite the all caps “HULK SMASH” format) and I think a lot of what Hulk says in that article is applicable to this post.

  5. Ian

    I have to agree with THM here- there is no clear cut line and context is key. I certainly believe that misogyny can exist in video games and this is an issue that should be addressed. It can only be irresponsible when a significant portion of those playing the games are young and impressionable.

    However to take this view, the other side of the argument should also be examined. Are video games not also guilty of portraying men in stereotyped and inaccurate ways? Male characters are invariably violent and aggressive; arguably they are represented in the same stereotyped way as women are. Of course, this brings up the wider argument of whether such games encourage violent behaviour. It seems that video games are devoid of positive role models for both men and women. I suppose the issue is whether people believe that this is a problem.

    Thanks for the post- this is definitely an interesting debate!

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