Before I launch into my schpeel, let me back up and address a very important point from my Mortal Kombat article. In that article I mention, very specifically, that the exaggerated female form in that series does not bother me. This is very true, but there is a specific reason I am not bothered by, say, Sonya Blade’s vest, that is held together by sheer force of will: Mortal Kombat has not ever, in my memory, marketed to the female audience, nor has it ever tried to grow beyond its ’90s trappings. While this may sound like splitting hairs, this is actually quite important to my argument.
As of late, there has been an emergence of what I call “Brittany Spears Feminism.” This is the idea that states “I dress like a stripper because I’m empowered!” Because of this, there is now a turn to justify latex costumes and triple-D bust lines by claiming they are empowering. I draw your attention to Bayonetta. Large tits? Check. Skin tight outfit? Check. Sexy attitude on par with a soft core porn star? Double check. But wait! She has intellectual glasses! She’s empowering to female gamers! No, she is a vamped up tart who you are trying to market to me as a strong female figure, when in reality she is little more than eye candy for boys. I’m just not buying it — that is not how it works.
What I’m saying is that intent goes a long way. The type of characters who appeal to me are believably strong characters who just happen to be female. I cannot emphasize “believable” enough. One reason Nariko from Heavenly Sword (aka God of War for girls), does not appeal to me as a female gamer is that I do not buy her as a character. She is able to wield a sword twice her height and, apparently has the same strength as Kratos. No, no, no.
Rather than throwing my toys around the room stating who pisses me off, and what isn’t empowering, perhaps it is more effective to say who I do think is effective. My all-purpose go-to, pinnacle of strong female characters has always been Ayame. It’s okay if you don’t remember her. The tough female of the Azuma ninja clan, Ayame actually looked like a ninja, as opposed to a stripper dressed as a ninja on Halloween. Lithe and lean, Ayame was like a female Batman, or the perfect female counterpoint to Rikimaru, the male protagonist from the series. While not as powerful as Rikimaru, she compensated by being quicker and more agile. That is to say, developers took actual physiology into account and thus gave her female abilities — women tend to be faster than men. Playing as Rikimaru provided an entirely different style and feel, and both characters had their pros and cons.
How is this different from Nariko? Because Kratos-ette was, for all intents and purposes, a male character with tits. With her strength and weapon, you could have made her a man and the playability would have remained the same. This is similar to BioWare games that allow you to choose between male or female Commander Shepherd or Hawke — other than minor variations on dialog, both characters possessed the same strength, speed and agility. This, to me, is not equality but rather unbelievability. At least let me feel like I’m playing a woman and not merely a redesign with a different voice.
Other strong female characters include Kerrigan (StarCraft series), Jill Valentine (Resident Evil series) and Heather (Silent Hill 3). I know what you’re saying: “Whoa, wait, Jen. WTF? Have you seen Kerrigan’s and Jill’s costumes?” Yes, I have, and I totally admit to be wildly irritated by the tube top and go-go boots from Nemesis. However, despite dressing like she just left a meet market, Jill still maintains a sense of calm throughout her tenure in Raccoon City and beyond — no hysterics, no waiting for her knight in shining armor to rescue her, and no useless antics. She shows up like a professional, kills her way through and acts as a cool head under fire. Kerrigan, while naked for most of the games, has what is, without question, the most awesome “death” scene ever. When Kerrigan discovers she has been betrayed, and her death is imminent, does she start crying and and dissolve into an absolute mess? Hell no, she glares with acidic intent and accepts her fate with stoic resolve. Not only was it one of the most effective and moving cutscenes I’ve seen in a long while, it also gave resounding depth to her character. Heather, Jill and Kerrigan all encounter grave danger and yet while they have some difficulty with their surroundings, they always overcome and fight.
Now is the time to make a very important point: wielding a giant sword, and reminding all the chauvinistic males in the game that the character is a woman, and will totally kick some dude’s ass, does not a strong female make. It makes for an angry girl stereotype. Take, for instance, Jack from Mass Effect 2. Whiny, obnoxious, spouting off “tough-girl” dialog at every turn, threatening the male characters just in case they forgot how tough she was, but ultimately she was a weak character. All of her tough-girl act was used to show that she was really little more than a scared young woman coming to terms with her ill-treatment at the hands of her captors. This may have worked had they toned back the tough-girl mentality about 50 degrees — truly, there is a fine line between acidic and obnoxious –, and introduced her, say, eight years ago. There is a reason it is called “the angry girl stereotype” — it’s been done.
Other female stereotypes that appear in games? The damsel in distress (Zelda), the fickle love interest who will ultimately betray our hero at a crucial moment (Chloe), the eye candy (Lara Croft) and the outright manipulator (Rose). However, as an aside, I will credit Uncharted 2 for not giving Chloe a ridiculous physique. So … /golfclap.
Of course, the idea of females as weak, fickle, manipulative creatures who spell nothing but trouble is not a new one. Ever since Pandora opened her box, Eve effed humanity out of paradise, and every Grimm brothers’ story revolved around a girl needing to be rescued, we’ve had a bad wrap. So I can’t completely blame video games for merely playing into certain stereotypes ingrained within us as a culture.
But I can blame them for the large breasted caricatures that prance about the screen in what is one of the most self-destructive gestures the industry can make. Again, I give Mortal Kombat, Duke Nukem and similar “throw-back” titles a pass, simply because they are throwbacks to yesteryear — to the adolescent days of gaming when big tits drew in gamers. We’ve come beyond that, which is why games like Dragon Age II, where dear old Mom sports a DD chest, send me through the roof. All this does is affirm the image that we, as gamers, are juvenile boys (since, obviously girl gamers don’t exist, duh!) who just can’t get enough of those monstrous tits.
Here is my message to developers as a feminist who happens to game: just call a spade a spade. If you want to make tawdry eye candy for young men, then come out and call it tawdry eye candy for young men (well, okay, I’m sure people who make more than I, can come up with a better phrase). Do not try to tell me it’s empowering to female gamers, a “strong female lead,” and please, for the love of god, don’t try to market it to me — I’ll wait for the more intellectual offerings.
But better yet, how about you go ahead and abandon this shtick and start drawing on this wealth of untapped material? If we can make strong, well-rounded, dynamic male characters, then by golly, we can do the same for female characters. Silent Hill 3, for instance, featured Heather, a strong female character, and was regarded as a perfectly good follow-up to Silent Hill 2 which featured a very dynamic male protagonist. How about a return to the Ayames, Jill Valentines and Heathers (and others I’ve neglected to mention) of the game world? Strong female characters to whom both male and female gamers can relate and stand behind. Something to show all of those pundits and talk show hosts: You know what? You’re wrong. We’re not a bunch of sex-crazed juvenile delinquents looking for huge tits and trite dialog. Not only are we capable of doing something different, we’re going to blow your Throne-damned minds with it.