The Myth of Male Exploitation

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Characters such as Duke Nukem exert sexuality, but unlike female characters, this sexualization is secondary to his ability to assert himself through the use of force.

For the foreseeable future, the conversation over gender equality and representation in video games appears it will be an ongoing one. It’s a discussion we have contributed to on a number of occasions, from the lack of female protagonists (along with a follow-up), to why representation matters and what a character’s design can say about a title without ever saying a word. Although there are signs of progress (both Rise of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End treated female characters as equals to their male counterparts in many ways), there is still much work to be done.

But this is a conversation requiring both sides to communicate and listen to opposing viewpoints. It’s crucial for both sides to be exposed to ideas that run antithetical to one’s own personal beliefs – it can help everyone better understand where the other side is coming from, it can challenge already held views, and possibly change a person’s mind, or strengthen those already held views.

In that regard, many sites and critics have spoken at length about why the portrayal of women in video games is problematic, and it’’s time to address the counterpoints raised by both men and women who disagree. Namely, the argument that it’s not just women who are reduced to their body parts, or presented as sexual objects, but it happens to male characters as well. The website Nerdy Butterfly commented on this argument, sharing an image that the author had seen shared across various social media platforms:

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A deeper dig through Google also reveals arguments that not only posit that this happens to both men and women, but that it’s not a big deal. The website Reaxxion published the article “Why It’s Okay To Objectify Women In Video Games,” concluding that:

“The next time someone criticizes you for objectifying a female character, just say “So what?” if they try and come back with a snarky reply, just tell them, “They’re not real. I’m playing a game where a magical sword with a living soul inside it can possess people and you think a woman’s chest is too big? Get a grip!” It probably won’t work, but no answer you give will, so don’t worry about it. Besides, you can’t help but objectify these girls; it’s just science.”

Scanning the comments on this story provides countless examples of people agreeing with the author, that sexual objectification is healthy, and that it happens to both men and women by both men and women. The conclusion is that this isn’t a behavior that should be discouraged or discontinued, but one that should be embraced because all men and women’s bodies are held to an ideal standard that very few of us meet.

This argument is the most common counter, that male sexualization is just as common as female sexualization in video games. However, this argument misses some crucial aspects of the argument against female sexualization, and further scrutiny of the argument reveals that the treatment of men and women in video games is not equal, that the exploitation of male sexualization in video games is largely a myth.

Defining The Arguments

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Often cited as an example of female exploitation, Bayonetta is actually of a female character using sex appeal in a way that doesn’t degrade the character or strip them of their power.

When myself or anyone else makes the claim that female characters are often reduced to their body parts and their value as a sexual object, it’s important to understand what exactly that means. There are three pillars to this claim: the aforementioned reduction of women to their body parts, the conflicts that surround women are sexual in nature, and that female characters rarely exhibit independence or any form of agency.

A commonly used example of the first statement is the titular character in Bayonetta, a hyper-sexualized female who wears a suit made out of her own hair, and when she employs special attacks, she uses her hair as a weapon, meaning that she disrobes to defeat enemies. Despite the hyper-sexualized tone, I would argue that this is actually a poor example, since the entire point of the character of Bayonetta is to be sexualized. Complaining about the use of sex in Bayonetta would be akin to complaining about the use of nudity in an adult film – it’s fundamental to the tone and style of game developer PlatinumGames is aiming for. A far better example would be Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. For the uninitiated, Quiet is a mute assassin working alongside the player character in Afghanistan, who suffers from a rare disease that has altered her biology in such a way that the only way she can breath is through her skin. Therefore, she must wear as little clothing as possible at all times, or else she will suffocate.

The defining trait of Quiet is that she can only breath through her skin, which means her body is central to her entire character. In addition to always being nearly nude, Quiet is well endowed, and often the subject of long, awkward gazes from other male characters.

It’s not enough that she is a trained and lethal assassin more than capable of taking care of herself and of others – she is reduced to eye candy by her fellow soldiers and through the protagonist himself, making the player party to this sexual objectification whether they want to be a part of it or not.

When it comes to the conflicts surrounding women, many are often sexual in nature. Combined with the lack of agency, this presents numerous issues, both of which can be seen in the portrayal of two story-critical female characters in Grand Theft Auto V. One of the protagonists, Michael, has a family – his wife Amanda, son Jimmy and daughter Tracey. None of them fit the description of being good people, but the conflicts surrounding them couldn’t be further apart. Michael, an alcoholic career criminal who has spent his life robbing, murdering and betraying people, who has also been unfaithful to his wife on more than one occasion, and has found himself in deep with seedy mob types and corrupt government officials, is angry at his wife Amanda because after years of his abuse, she is seeing another man. This is the primary conflict surround Amanda, her sex life, and it is treated as an equal situation to Michael’s, one that sees him robbing a jewelry store to pay back a low-end mob boss whose house Michael destroyed in a fit of rage. Developer Rockstar Games spends plenty of time diving into Michael’s life, providing context to his actions, but spends no time on Amanda’s actions, leaving Michael and the player to solve the conflict by removing Amanda’s lover from the equation, and reclaiming her as if she were a piece of his property, and that the decision to carry out a relationship is his decision alone.

It gets even worse with his daughter, Tracey, a young, conventionally attractive blonde woman who has aspirations of fame and seeks to achieve them by any means. During one point in the story, Michael tries to bond with his son Jimmy, and when things go south, Jimmy mentions that Tracey is on a boat, hanging out with known pornographers. This sends Michael into a rage, and sends the player on a mission to “rescue” Tracey from a situation that she knowingly and willingly put herself in, simply to prevent her from engaging in sexual acts on camera. Again, comparing this to the trouble Jimmy finds himself in, anything from being held hostage on his dad’s stolen boat that he tried to sell so he could buy more pot and video games, and it becomes clear that the women of Grand Theft Auto V are merely props to be used by the male characters as they see fit.

This is the problem that plagues the majority of female video game characters, and the solution is actually quite simple. It’s as easy as treating female characters as equals to their male counterparts. A great examples of this treatment come in the form of notable sitcom character Elaine Benes from Seinfeld. In this instance, Elaine is allowed to be feminine, and to embrace her femininity, while also being just as flawed, deranged and delusional as the male characters. She exhibits a level of agency on equal footing to the male characters, which affords her the opportunity to both embrace her gender and be an equal member of the group.

A satirical look at this dynamic can be found in the character Deandra Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Although Deandra exhibits a level of agency on par with her male costars, and deals with genuine character flaws rarely seen in female characters from contemporary shows, the writers clearly understand how absurd and damaging it can be to treat women as secondary characters who are little more than an object for male characters to manipulate. Deandra is often degraded, controlled and abused by the rest of the predominantly male cast, and in such an over-the-top manner that it calls attention to the absurdity of how female characters are often treated. Deandra may appear to be one of the least empowered female characters on television, but the message about her treatment is made loud and clear.

There are examples of this in video games, too, but the examples are fewer and further between. One that stands out is Ellie from Dead Space 2, an officer who is trapped with protagonist Isaac Clarke on a space station that is being overrun by Necromorphs, the Dead Space equivalent of zombies. Ellie is modeled in a way that would be considered conventionally attractive, yet she is never objectified by the male characters, nor does the conflict surrounding her ever rely on her sexuality. Compare this to Lara Croft in the reboot of the franchise, Tomb Raider. Lara is also conventionally attractive, but the hyper sexualization found in previous games has been removed, and in its place is a strong willed and independent character. Which makes it all the more confusing when, early on in the title, she is captured by the enemies who pursue her, and who threaten her with rape (a cliche and overused mechanic to create drama with female characters). The violence inflicted upon Ellie is in no way related to her gender or sexuality, and is just as brutal as anything Isaac Clarke encounters.

Before proceeding, I want to address one more issue that often surrounds the arguments of gender equality. As I did above with my examples of Ellie and Lara, many people who engage in this discussion will remark on the conventional attractiveness of the characters. This is done for a number of reasons, depending on the context in which the characters are being discussed, but I want to be clear that I am not saying that characters, both male and female, cannot be attractive or exude sex appeal. I take no issue with the design of Ellie, Lara or even Bayonetta – it’s perfectly fine for female characters to be conventionally attractive, just as it’s OK that Nathan Drake is considered to also be conventionally attractive. What isn’t acceptable is when female characters are reduced to being nothing more than sex objects, while male characters can be sexual, powerful and emotionally complex.

The Power Of Muscle

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Kratos, the protagonist of God of War, is defined by traits that are unrelated to his body.

This leads us right into the discussion at hand – the argument that men are just as equally sexualized in games as women. Often times, those who support this argument point to characters such as Kratos from God of War and Marcus Fenix from Gears of War; male characters who have muscles upon muscles.They claim this is similar to scantily clad women with large breasts and small waists. As in, it’s just as unrealistic and perpetuates an ideal figure that is impossible for most to achieve. Then there are characters like Nathan Drake (the protagonist in Uncharted), Booker DeWitt (the protagonist of BioShock Infinite) and Jason Brody (the protagonist of Far Cry 3), who represent a conventionally attractive look, one that is unnecessary for those characters to have given the story of each title, and therefore was given to these characters simply to include more sex appeal.

No one is denying that there are male characters who have been designed to highlight physical features that contemporary society has deemed valuable, and there are certainly examples of male characters who are so muscular and wear so little clothing that one can’t help but wonder how they’re able to protect themselves properly. But to cite these examples and draw the conclusion that men and women are treated equally fails to understand the messages that developers communicate to players by featuring muscular warriors who wield powerful weapons to slay their foes.

To start, it’s debatable that these sexualized male characters are being sexualized for a straight female, homosexual or bisexual audience – many argue that these male characters are another representation of the male power fantasy, that they are what men consider ideal male bodies, and not to the benefit of anyone else. This is supported by research Malin Lövenberg conducted for his essay titled “The Elven Slave and Conan The Barbarian: Male Sexualization in Video Games.” The entire document is a fascinating read and highly recommended, but one particular passage seems to indicate that sexualized male characters are presented in such a way that suggests these characters have ulterior motives, meaning they are more than just sexualized objects:

“But it’s not completely only about body parts. While looking into Bordo’s book about the Male Body in advertisement, the male described is always active in the way he poses, often taking one of two roles: the one that takes (“aggressive”) or the one that invites (“passive”) (Bordo, 1999).

Survey members declared all that was needed for a sexualized male was to be proud over his body and show it off, which is strengthened by the research of hyper muscularity, made by Martins et al. The research showed that male’s bodies in video games weren’t that much different from males in reality. Their theory was that the male characters are “just slightly better” than the average male to give game players a realistic model to which they could aspire (Martins, Nicole; C. Williams, Dmitri; A. Rabindra, Ratan; Harrison, Kristen, 2009: p. 43-51), but perhaps it is that for a male to be sexualized and attractive, he needs to have a realistic body.”

As with most other design choices, it appears that the male physique is targeted toward the same demographic, that is, straight males between the ages of 15 and 35. Since this design also seemingly plays into the male power fantasy, it also means that these sexualized bodies represent more than something to be ogled and objectified. As Lövenberg noted, these male characters are often presented in such a way as to indicate power, aggression, and even in their passive form they are actively inviting attention, for a number of potential motives. This means that characters such as Kratos are defined beyond their physique – he represents strength, power, a grieving father who is actively taking revenge on those who wronged him. Marcus Fenix represents a soldier fighting for a cause greater than himself, one seeking to clear his name and seek redemption for previously assumed wrongs. These characters exhibit power and control over their situations, and that is prioritized over their sexual appeal.

Additionally, the conflicts surrounding them are rarely sexual in nature. Finding examples of conflict or danger to male characters that focuses on their sexuality is difficult, not just in video games but in other mediums as well. A recent example is a scene that occurs toward the end of the film Django Unchained, in which the hero Django has been captured, tied up and hung from his feet, and is threatened with castration.

The violence is never inflicted onto Django, but the threat is sexual in nature. What is more common is the threat of sexually-related violence against men being played for laughs – in the film The Big Lebowski, the main character is threatened by a group of self-proclaimed nihilists, who threaten to “cut off his johnson.” This scene is staged to increase comedic effect, and when the threatened character, The Dude, tells his friends of the threat of castration, they laugh it off and acknowledge it as absurd.

An even less subtle form of this comes again from the world of comedy, in which a male character’s genitals will be either kicked, punched, or hit with an object, much to the chagrin of the audience or fellow characters.

Within the realm of video games, the most recent example is a scene in the DLC for Outlast, titled Whistleblower, in which the character is also threatened with castration. Similar to Django Unchained, the castration never occurs (although the scene is still very graphic). With so few examples coming from video games, this point is better illustrated by examining what types of conflicts in which male characters can find themselves. The male power fantasy means that more often than not, the central conflict the main character must solve is to save the world from annihilation. But even when the conflict is one that casts the character in a negative light, it still shies away from any connection to that character’s sexuality, and still imposes a sense of agency onto that character. Going back to Grand Theft Auto V, there is a scene in which Michael demands his son Jimmy accompanies him on a drive, just to get out of the house and so the two can bond. Jimmy reluctantly agrees, and the two head to a local burger joint, where Jimmy purchases some drugs from an employee. On the drive back home, Jimmy encourages his dad to take a drink of what appears to be an alcoholic beverage, but is instead spiked with a drug that causes Michael to hallucinate and pass out. When he comes to, he goes home to find the house empty and a note from his wife, informing him that they have moved out and want no contact with him.

The note outlines some recent wrongs Michael has committed that have led the family to making this choice. Jimmy’s reason is that he claims Michael forced him into a car that Michael drove while intoxicated, nearly causing an accident. This, of course, isn’t true – Jimmy drugged his father, kicked him out of his own car, stole it and left him in the street. This adds more tension to the relationship between Jimmy and Michael, and it also shows how Jimmy is following in his father’s footsteps by using people for personal gain. His wife Amanda’s reasoning is that Michael attacked her yoga instructor, the same man she is having an affair on Michael with. His daughter Tracey isn’t even mentioned in the letter. Again, the relationship between Jimmy and Michael is three dimensional and doesn’t revolve around sex in any way, whereas the conflict with Amanda is entirely sexual in nature. Both seem preferable to the treatment Tracey receives, which implies she’s not even worth mentioning.

This ties into the final point about male characters: they are allowed to be flawed, and are worthy of redemption. I want to take a moment to point out the description of the video posted above, in which Michael unknowingly goes on an acid trip. Posted by Generic Gaming, the description of the video reads:

“Michael acid trip. Michael’s family is the worst. Amanda is a slut and Jimmy is like every god damn person in high school that you hate all rolled into one. But that acid trip was fucking awesome.”

There is a lot that is implied in this description, and most of it points to the notion that male characters are expected to be flawed and allowed the opportunity to redeem themselves, but the same cannot be said for female characters. Despite being a truly horrible person, the description separates Michael from his family – they are the terrible people, and all Michael does is take acid. Again, Amanda’s sexuality is used to characterize her, briefly, and then Jimmy is given a full-length explanation that implies complexity and character, even if that character is one the player is sure to hate.

This theme of redemption is certainly not new to video games, but it’s one of the strongest themes, and it overwhelmingly favors male characters. Grand Theft Auto V is all about the three male protagonists finding themselves, running from their pasts, struggling to achieve wealth and independence by inflicting damage and chaos onto others. Uncharted 4 is all about the redemption of Nathan Drake. And then there’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, a title that for the most part does a great job of letting Lara Croft be a complex character, one who is not defined by her sexuality. Yet the story of the title revolved around Lara seeking to prove correct the theories of her late father, whose actions left the Croft name tainted and ridiculed. Lara seeks out to clear her family name, but I couldn’t help but notice that Lara is not a flawed character, and the actions that cast her family into a negative light were not committed by her, but by her father. She had no say in her father’s actions, yet she must clean up after him. She isn’t the flawed hero seeking redemption – her father is, and she is doing all of the heavy lifting. As a result, this new Lara is far less relatable in her second adventure than Nathan Drake was in his first adventure, and even characters such as Kratos exhibit more depth and personality.

Dispelling Myths

If video games are ever going to be a more inclusive medium, something bigger than a hobby for boys or emotionally stunted men (as they are often seen as, regardless of the accuracy of that statement), then we need to take these discussions seriously. While I appreciate that there is a discussion, it’s one of false equivalency – male exploitation is simply a myth, and in no way comparable to female exploitation, which is very real and creates an exclusive atmosphere that many find off-putting.

Male characters are already allowed to inhabit many traits that make stories and drama compelling – they are flawed, they are powerful and they can exert that power over others. What those who argue for equal gender representation are asking for is that female characters be treated the same way, and a quick glance at the industry shows that, despite some progress, there is still a long way to go. Treat female characters equally, and then we’ll see real progress, more inclusion, and a broader acceptance among critics, artists and the general public that video games are expressions or art worthy of critique and study.