So there’s an interesting, if flawed, article by Brianna Wu floating around on the stunning lack of women represented in 2013’s Game of the Year nominations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have a couple of things to say about this.
Firstly, holding up the rebooted Laura Croft as an example of
“one of the most empowered, well-written, kick-ass women in all of video-game history”? Excuse me? We’re talking about the game that turned rape into a quicktime event and that is entirely build around the fetishisation of victimisation. Which isn’t to say that NO WOMAN EVER may like this game… but c’mon. Let’s at least pretend we’re acknowledging that’s it’s maybe just a little bit problematic while we’re at it. Maybe.
Secondly, for context: some of you may remember Wu from the iOS game Revolution 60, which I’ve posted about before. In that post, while I mentioned being interested in the game, I was less enthused about the art style, in which every character looks like… well. Like this:
Wu herself appeared in the comments of that post, to defend the art with:
I, myself, am very tall and very skinny. My art style is very tall and skinny, and has been since I started drawing when I was 8. I actually learned to draw from Sailor Moon / American comic books and I think it shows. I’ve actually noticed most women tend to draw characters like their own body type.
I didn’t set out to strike a blow for body image feminism. I did create characters I thought were pretty and interesting by my own personal standards.
Okay, fine. Except… wait:
Lara Croft started her gaming career in 1996 as a ridiculously large-breasted sex symbol, a trend that largely continued for the next eight sequels as Croft’s main character traits were a butt, breasts, and figure meticulously sculpted to appeal to the male gaze.
So, like. Apparently it’s okay to have a game entirely populated by balloon-breasted, twig-waisted supermodels… but only if the artist is a woman drawing characters “pretty and interesting” by her “own personal standards”, which is to say “like [her] own body type”?
Right. Okay. Sure. Because “personal standards” develop completely independent of any poisonous external cultural factors. I mean, obviously. That’s why eating disorders have no link to beauty magazines, and women of colour don’t spend thousands of dollars trying to get “white” hair (amongst a plethora of other apparently non-existent issues).
To her credit, Wu does address this (briefly) in her follow-up post:
The issue is in the intent of the developer. Are the characters meant to tailor to the male gaze in a way that’s exploitive? Or are they characters that are merely pretty?
Except it’s already well-established the 2013 Croft is exactly tailored to the male gaze. The developer outright said she was; you can’t get much more “intenty” than that! In addition, while the original Croft was certainly a sex symbol, her narrative was notably–and refreshingly–free of the specifically gendered victimisation that was introduced in 2013’s reboot.
This is agency, in other words: old!Croft was an action hero the player wanted to be; sexy, yes, but also badass and competent. New!Croft is a victim the player is supposed to want to “save”; she’s a damsel in distress and the assumed-male player is her white knight.
Again, none of this precludes women from liking 2013’s Tomb Raider, nor should it be invitation for Wu to receive the sorts of gendered threats she’s undoubtedly being inundated with. However, it does highlight the fact that women are (still) not a monolith of feminist agreement. Wu’s problem isn’t that she likes a videogame. It’s that she presents her argument as if every women should like the same game, for the same reasons, and (worse) implies that it’s somehow “anti-women” not to. This is an easy trap to fall into, and I sympathise, having done the same thing with other games in the past (coughDragon Age IIcough).
The reality is that representation is complex, particularly in a market as starved for diversity as video games, and the lionisation of any one title only perpetuates the problem (“that’s it, this is The Representation, we’ve done that and now we can go back to churning out shooters about Whiteguy McSpacemarine”). The only answer, I think, is more women making more games both about and, yes, for women.
And they don’t all have to be GOTY material. Sometimes mediocrity is representational, too.