Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Strategic Butt Coverings” video

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency fame is back for Season 2 of the polarizing “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series with the release of “Strategic Butt Coverings.” Sarkeesian is retooling the series, in part due to the mental abuse of her critics and the physical toll this project has taken on her body. Though I disagree with most everything Sarkeesian espouses, I certainly don’t wish ill on her as a person. She’s had a busy couple years with the Tropes series, so the newer, shorter videos are a welcome change of pace.

In this video, Sarkeesian compares how the butts of female and male characters are depicted differently in video games. In short, games tend to emphasize the assets of female characters, but not male characters. Instead, designers employ a variety of visual design tricks to deemphasize male butts as much as possible, even in games that provide a third-person view of the character.

She uses a couple dozen examples to show the double standard, though admits that not all video game characters are treated this way:

Of course, not all games with male protagonists keep the character’s butt obscured or out of frame like these games do. The real issue is one of emphasis and definition; a significant portion of third-person games with female protagonists call attention to those characters’ butts in a way that’s meant to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.

As far as her observations go, Sarkeesian showed me some things that I wasn’t aware of. Certainly female butts are emphasized in many video games: this wasn’t a surprise to me. I’m not interested in countering this argument with examples of non-sexualized female characters, like Princesses Peach, Daisy, or Zelda. Her examples from Arkham Knight and Gears of War of how designers will go to great lengths to hide male butts are illuminating.

What bothers me, however, are the implications of Sarkeesian’s brand of feminism as it relates to the bodies of real men and women. But before I get to that, watch her video: it’s a short one.

Getting to know a character

Sarkeesian opens the video with a very provocative assumption of game designers’ motives:

If you want to get to know a character, learn about their interests, goals, or desires, their butt is probably not going to give you that information. It won’t tell you much about who they are, or what they’re thinking or feeling at any given time. But video game designers often choose to put tremendous focus on the butts of certain characters, while going to almost absurd lengths to avoid calling attention to the butts of others.

Her opening is so full of hyperbole that I found myself laughing. In Sarkeesian’s view, female butts are the primary way designers want us to engage with a female character. Designers care more about the woman’s butt than anything else.

But if that were the case, why do games like Bayonetta and Tomb Raider have such lengthy plot lines and cutscenes? Do players really reduce female characters to their butts?

According to Sarkeesian, if a character has an attractive butt, then the player is somehow compelled to see the character solely through her asset, as if the butt is the lens by which players actually understand female characters.

Her hyperbolic outrage is a strawman, and made me think of this wonderful, off-color comic copyright Nathan Bulmer:

Man checks out a girl's butt

Modeling real-life fashion

Like I said in the intro, I can’t really argue with Sarkeesian’s observations. She says of Catwoman:

In Batman: Arkham City for instance, the player’s gaze is drawn to Catwoman’s behind, which is emphasized by her costume and exaggerated hip sway.

Then later says of male characters:

There are a few examples of male protagonists who are wearing clothing that calls attention to their butts but for the most part, men’s butts, even when visible in the frame, are deemphasized. Plenty of male heroes wear baggy pants or jeans…

And here is where Sarkeesian’s argument diverges from reality. Yes, digital artists design the butts of female and male characters differently. But if you think about the male and female sexes, aren’t there biological differences between the two? On a whole, on average? Women’s bodies tend to be shaped differently than men’s bodies.

Not exclusively, of course. But women’s bodies tend to have a higher percentage of fat than male bodies. And women, I think, have much more variability in their shapes, from hip size to bust size to hip-to-chest ratio to hip-to-waist ratio and waist-to-chest ratio. I think one reason women tend to spend more time looking for clothes than men is that they are almost forced to: their bodies have much more variability, and what fits one woman might not fit another woman. And because women have to hunt harder for properly fitting clothes, they naturally are going to know more about fashion than the average man.

After all, just think of one of the biggest changes a woman’s body can undergo: pregnancy. A woman’s body shape will change many times over the course of nine months, and after the baby is born, her new body will likely be different than her old body.

I don’t think it’s out-of-line, then, to point out that men and women, biologically, have different body shapes.

What also contributes, though, to the “double-standard” in how female and male butts are depicted are the real fashion choices of real women. Women often wear clothes, in real life, that emphasizes their rear end.

I’ve been on college campuses for 12 years now, in many different parts of the country, both as a student and a professor. I’ve seen thousands of young women. All generalizations fall apart on some level; all students, male and female, display great diversity in their fashion choices.

That said, there are several fashion trends of young women that emphasize their butts. Many students wear yoga pants or black leggings-as-pants. I’m not here to condemn them or support them for their fashion choices: I’m just making an observation. And while they might wear yoga pants or leggings because they are “comfy”, these garments are tight and they do emphasize the exact shape of a woman’s butt, jiggles and all.

Women sometimes where designer jeans that have sparkly rhinestone hearts plastered on the back pockets. Women athletes wear sweatpants with their last names emblazoned across the butt. They wear short shorts that show off not only the curves of their backside, but even their pelvis.

I lived in Florida for three years, and one fad that surprised me was the “under butt” style of shorts. Florida is hot, so naturally men and women don’t wear much clothing. And this was only a small minority of women, but some wore shorts so short that you could see the bottom curve of their butt cheeks.

Now, perhaps women are forced to show off their backsides because that’s the only kind of bottoms they are able to purchase in stores. After all, even women’s dress pants and skirts tend to be tight. But whatever shadowy forces are at work in society to shape women’s rears, wearing shorts that are so short that they show off a woman’s “under butt” is a conscious choice. Societal expectations of gender roles are not that controlling.

Sarkeesian says that men in video games tend to wear baggy clothes. That’s true in games, but that’s also true in real life. Whether men wear jeans, shorts, or dress pants (about the only three options men have for bottoms, compared to the multitude of choices for women), these garments tend to be baggy. Let me offer one possible explanation why men’s bottom garments are baggier: men have external genitalia, genitalia that can often change shape and size throughout the day, so men want more freedom in their clothes, not less.

(Discounting, of course, the minority of men who favor skinny jeans—that fashion seems so uncomfortable to me.)

To bring this long tangent to a close, I think many digital artists are simply modeling reality. They design male and female butts differently because 1) male and female bodies are different, and 2) men and women’s fashion options are very different in real life.

Of course, games are fantasy spaces, and plenty of video games (and related anime and comic book series) have pushed the limits of fantasy fashion. In other words, games don’t have to model real-world fashion choices, as they often do not. But even fantasy games have a basis in reality. That’s why male and female characters in fantasy spaces tend to look like men and women in real life.

Who’s being disconnected from the character here?

Sarkeesian’s observations are accurate, but her point misses the mark. Why is it wrong if a female’s butt is depicted?

[T]he emphasis placed on the butts of female characters communicates to players that this is what’s important, this is what you should be paying attention to. It communicates that the character is a sexual object designed for players to look at and enjoy. And by explicitly encouraging you to ogle and objectify the character, the game is implicitly discouraging you from identifying directly with her. [emphasis added]

Sarkeesian gives too much credit to the power of butts. Perhaps well-crafted butts cause her to disengage from a female character, but they don’t do that for me. I recently conducted a research project in which I analyzed games with overly sexualized female characters. The games were the standard culprits—Tomb Raider, Bayonetta, Dead or Alive, and Lollipop Chainsaw.

I chose to analyze these games for a specific reason. These games are often criticized for how female characters are modeled—and usually that’s where the criticism starts and ends, with the character’s appearance. After all, it’s impossible to argue that a character like Bayonetta is not sexualized:

Bayonetta 2 Box

However, when I actually played Bayonetta, I realized that she, along with the game, actually had quite a bit of depth. Bayonetta’s certainly aware of her sexuality, but she’s not a whore. She has a “look, don’t touch” mentality. She flaunts her body, but doesn’t really tease the male characters with it. Her main pursuer, a male journalist, gets close to touching her from time to time, but doesn’t succeed. Nor does he see Bayonetta as a body to be conquered.

Bayonetta has a tricky past, and she wrestles with the darkness (she is a witch) but also the light: she helps people, and cares for those closest to her. She is strong, courageous, and capable. She’s not prone to negative emotions, and she’s rarely scared or sad. There’s even an undercurrent of motherhood throughout the game, as a little girl insists on calling Bayonetta “mommy” even though Bayonetta insists she is nothing of the sort.

I really enjoyed playing Bayonetta. And honestly? Once the action gets going, she moves so fast, and so much is happening on the screen, that there is often little time to “ogle” her body. Sarkeesian insists that the design of female butts reduces these characters to their butts, but I think she’s the one who is reducing female characters to their bodies.

Are costumes like Bayonetta’s over-the-top? Obviously, clearly, undoubtedly. On the other hand, look at how cool her costume design is. The diamonds going up her legs, the neon heel pistols, the silky hair tied up with charms, the frilly sleeves. And as I pointed out before, many women love cosplaying as these characters.

The emergent view of the body, according to Sarkeesian

I’ve studied Sarkeesian long enough that I’m starting to understand what her feminism is rooted in. Now, I’m making some assumptions here; even though her body of work is quite largely, I don’t know what she thinks about other feminist causes, such as abortion rights, equal pay, discrepancies in women’s health care, etc. It might be safe to assume she holds standard liberal, feminist views on women’s rights issues, but I don’t want to assume.

I also want to be careful about labeling her philosophy in language she has not used. After all, while I hold a high view of women and believe that women are just as capable and valuable as men, I would bristle at somebody labeling me a feminist. That’s because my support of women is fueled by a different philosophy (namely, Christianity) and is not fueled by the contemporary academic well of feminism.

All that said, Sarkeesian’s view of the body, particularly the female body, does remind me of two philosophies.

First, for all of her liberal leanings, Sarkeesian’s view of the female body is strangely conservative, even Puritan. I really do wonder what she thinks of women who consciously choose to dress provocatively, who choose to flaunt their bodies, who choose to embrace their sexuality. As I’ve said before, there are strains of feminism that celebrate the female body, even going as far to support women who make a career out of pornography.

Occasionally Sarkeesian will praise a video game that depicts females “correctly.” And these women are usually covered up and have small chests and flat butts. Her conservative leanings on the female body get dangerously close to “body shaming,” the act of criticizing women not only for their fashion choices, but even the very shapes of their bodies, which are often out of their control.

When I think of the female college students I work with on a daily basis, most of them are thin. And body shapes vary dramatically in all the areas I’ve already enumerated. So when Sarkeesian criticizes somebody like Lara Croft for having the perfect, rounded butt, I wonder: what does she think about actual women with that same rear-end shape? What does she think of women who also wear tight shorts, just like Croft?

Every week I see women joggers run by my house in tight shorts and sports bras. Lara Croft is similarly athletic, climbing the ruins of ancient civilizations, often in places like jungles and tropical islands. In a way, her tight clothing is appropriate for the athletic feats she performs.

Second, a related philosophy, going all the way back to ancient societies, is mind-body dualism. This philosophy exists in many forms, and even early forms of Christianity (as well as other religions) have embraced this philosophy. It’s really hard to gloss over dualism, but essentially, dualists see the mind and body as completely separate entities.

And usually, dualists see the body as lesser than the mind. The body is a flawed, imperfect vessel for the mind. For example, in the Christian heresy of Gnosticism, the flesh is seen as wholly separate from the mind. Even farther, the flesh is seen as sinful and corrupted: the body is a prison that our souls need to escape from.

Certainly Sarkeesian is not Gnostic. But she seems to have some disdain for the female body. She says in this video:

Third-person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full-body view. A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games, which are presented from a third-person perspective wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen…

I’m not sure what’s so offensive about her observation. Most video games feature a third-person view, the entire body of the character visible. This camera orientation goes back 30+ years to the days of Donkey Kong. Now, those who have played 3D third-person games know that the camera can often be adjusted on the fly. The camera might default so that the center of the person is in the middle of the screen, but the camera can also take many other positions.

And is it really so offensive that the butt is in the middle of the screen? If not the butt, then what part of the body? If it was the character’s head, would Sarkeesian be arguing that the camera supports a fetishization of the female head? The butt is roughly in the middle of the body: legs are below, torso is above.

This very practical camera orientation has nothing to do with butts. By this logic, the 2D platforming games also fetishize Mario’s butt. When Mario eats a Super Mushroom, he’s two squares tall: the bottom square is his legs and butt; the top square is his torso and head.

Super Mario World screenshot

Learning from a character’s appearance

To go back to Sarkeesian’s opening statement: I agree, you can’t learn anything about a character’s interests, goals, or desires by looking at their butt. But does that mean you can’t learn anything at all about them based on their physical appearance? Does not the entirety of their physical appearance tell the player something about who they are? Body shapes and clothing choices can tell us what drives a character, how they take care of themselves, even how they see themselves.

This is why I bring up dualism. Sarkeesian seemingly wants a world in which characters have no sexuality, dress plainly, have square, flat bodies, and do not let their body dictate anything about who they are. She ends her video by saying:

So to be clear, the solution here is not to simply show more butts of male characters. Equal opportunity butt display is definitely not the answer. Rather, the solution is to deemphasize the rear ends of female characters … This is not an impossible task given that game designers do this all the time with their male characters. It’s time they started consistently doing it with their female characters, too.

The rear ends of female characters should be deemphasized, should be depicted in the same hidden, shadowy ways that male butts are depicted. No butts for anybody!

Just as a person who shows up to a job interview in a suit versus somebody who choose up in jeans tells us something about the person, a video game character who wears tight clothes tells us something about who they are, and a character who wears baggy clothes tells us something as well.

Before playing Dead or Alive, all I’d ever heard was that the game oversexualized female characters, especially in the chest area. Each character has a range of costumes, and when you mix in DLC, you can get teeny tiny lingerie and bathing suit costumes for all the female characters.

However, the default costumes do tell us something about the female characters. Body shape and fashion choices matter. They aren’t a distraction, or objectification, as Sarkeesian believes. Just look at the range of DoA female characters. If you’ve played the game, you’re already familiar with who these characters are.

If not, tell me if you can’t figure out, at least a little, who these characters are, based on their dress:

Dead or Alive 5: Hitomi

Dead or Alive 5: Kokoro

Dead or Alive 5: Leifang

Dead or Alive 5: Lisa

Dead or Alive 5: Mila

Dead or Alive 5: Sarah

Dead or Alive 5: Tina

On some level, it’s the responsibility of every player to figure out what kind of characters they like, and which they don’t. Sarkeesian bemoans that she can’t identify with female characters, but insists that we should be able to identify with them as people. Yet she also argues that characters are designed by people, that they are not independent creations, that they are subjugated by game developers. She views female characters as being autonomous, though objectified, beings who are at the same time lacking in agency.

It’s becoming clear to me that Sarkeesian holds the female body in low regard, and believes that who a person is should be divorced from the form of their body. That’s not to say that a character’s personhood is wholly determined by the shape of their body. But there can be a middle ground: a character’s personhood and body are both important.

I’ll wrap up my thoughts on the matter for now: my analysis is 3+ times the word count of Sarkeesian’s video. At the very least, her views are generative of much discussion.

Game on,
Dennis

Storytelling thru Gameplay: World 2 of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze

In a previous post, we examined how World 1 of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze has a deep, rich, and layered story, accomplished largely through gameplay and not cutscenes. This game is a platformer, and platformers often don’t have much story going on during the levels.

But if you pay attention to the backgrounds, the enemy placements, the puzzles, and the objects you interact with, you’ll see that DKCTF has an intricate story about the clash of cultures and people groups trying to make a living on a tiny chain of tropical islands.

In this post we’ll look at the storytelling going on in World 2, Autumn Heights. This world is quite a departure from worlds we’ve seen in DKC past, even the past of most platforming games. Most platformer worlds have standard (even clichéd) themes like Fire, Water, Jungle, Rock, Ice, etc, and DKCTF has some of that as well.

World 2, as far as I can tell, is German-themed. Monkeys and European mountain architecture aren’t common combinations, so let’s get into this and see what this world has to offer!

The owl’s land

World 1, Lost Mangroves, had evidence of three competing cultures: an ancient monkey culture, a technological advanced culture that tried to invade the island but failed, and the nomadic culture of the Snowmads. From the opening in 2-1, Windmill Hills, we see that the culture of Autumn Heights is very different.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Rat chops wood

We see rats chopping wood, living in harmony with the birds. This island has established towns and finely crafted buildings. Whoever lives here has been here for a long time, and is thriving.

It’s apparent that this land is largely the domain of the owls. While the owls are technically Snowmads, I think Autumn Heights is their ancestral home. Perhaps they aligned with the penguins and walruses at a latter date. Maybe they even tipped Lord Fredrick off that the DK Island chain would be a good place to live.

It’s clear the owls have been here for generations. In the background you can see numerous owl statues carved from rock.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl statues

The mountains in the background are more than idyllic, green hills: we even see the hints of a giant owl bust carved into the mountainside.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl mountain

Maybe the owls led the Snowmads here. Or maybe the Snowmads enslaved the owls, and forced themselves upon this wonderful land?

When we get to 2-2, Mountain Mania, we see more evidence that the owls live here. Many of the houses have perches right outside: these homes are meant for birds.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl homes

In this level, though, we see a new side of Donkey Kong: his antagonism for other cultures. The player rides Rambi the rhino through Mountain Mania, smashing everything that gets in his way.

Rambi destroys artwork like owl totems, probably carved decades ago, with no regard for the culture that created these works.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Rambi destroys owl statue

The happy, peaceful music is such a striking contrast to Donkey Kong’s cultural violence. Is Donkey Kong partially to blame for his suffering? Sure, his homeland was violently taken away from him, and he has every right to want it back. But does he have to destroy the owls in the process of getting home? Even though the owls are technically bad guys, and hurt DK when he touches them, they are passive as far as enemies go: they don’t seek out DK. They just fly in place until he finds them.

Toward the end of the level, Rambi stomps on a golden platform, summoning a barrel. DK shoots through the air and splits an owl mountain in two, releasing flying lava balls unto the owl’s home.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl mountain

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Split owl mountain

Leaf us alone, DK

In 2-3, Horn Top Hop, we get a deeper appreciation for the owl’s elegant culture. This level is littered with well-crafted horns. The owls just want to blow their horns, making music, sometimes even balancing leaves on the sound of their voice.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owls blow horns

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Blowing leaves

It’s in this level that we start to get a sense that the owls don’t want the penguins and walruses in their land. The Snowmads are screwing around in their horns, as if they are toys! The owls just want to blow those penguins out of there!

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Blowing penguins in horns

As DK progresses through Autumn Heights, he gets closer and closer to the giant owl mountain we saw in 2-1. At the end of 2-3, DK falls inside the greatest owl horn, an instrument likely capable of projecting music for miles around.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Giant horn

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Inside the giant horn

Even though the Snowmads have some presence on the island, just like the Lost Mangroves, they aren’t that successful in conquering it. In 2-4, Sawmill Thrill, we visit a lake, developed with numerous log structures. Do beavers live here? If so, where are they? Perhaps they are hiding in their lodges and dams, hoping the Snowmads will leave.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Rainy lake

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Giant beaver dam

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a beaver dam: we saw one back in 2-2 as well.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Beaver dam

Maybe in Autumn Heights, the owls own the air and the mountains, and the rodents own the timber and waterways.

So far, we haven’t seen effects of the Snowmads’invasion like in the Lost Mangroves. There are no Snowmad crates, no barrels of fish, like in World 1. Perhaps the Snowmad fighting force was too devastated by the harsh environment of the Lost Mangroves to mount a serious offensive on Autumn Heights.

The rodents have a home, too

While Autumn Heights is mostly populated by the owls, the mice also have a strong presence, mostly underground. After Sawmill Thrill, in 2-A, Crumble Cavern, we see where the mice live. They live in the mines, storing their hordes of cheese.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Cheese horde

As the level progresses, the cave gets sparser and sparser. There is a lot of open room here, but perhaps the caves are too cold, too murky, for the Snowmads.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Caves

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Caves

In the next level, 2-B, Rodent Ruckus, DK stumbles upon the rodents’ cheese factory.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Swinging cheese

The rodents are a little sloppy with the transport of their cheese, but they are at least capable builders. DK’s destruction of their society is kept to a minimum. It seems as if he’s stumbled into these caves by accident (and even landed on a crazy rocket barrel!). He just wants to get out in one piece.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Cheese factory

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Cheese factory

Though this is largely the home of the rodents, in several spots we seen owl totems and wooden carvings. Despite being such different animals (owls eat mice, after all) the two animals have learned to live in balance with one another. It’s a lesson DK could stand to learn himself.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl carvings in cave

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Cheese factory

Climbing up the mountain

By the time we get to 2-5, Alpine Incline, we’ve made significant progress up the side of the mountain. The penguins have a greater presence here than past Autumn Heights levels, though there still isn’t much evidence of a successful Snowmad occupation: no Snowmad crates or flags here.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Penguins on balloons

The flying penguins (?) seem to enjoy the thin air; maybe at least some of the Snowmads can find a way to coexist with the owls.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Flying penguins

The carved owl mountains are getting closer, and far more numerous. DK is inching closer to their capital.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl mountains

In 2-6, Wing Ding, DK reaches the owl’s biggest city. The elegance of their architecture is amazing: DK even enters many of their buildings.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Inside owl building

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl houses

DK continues his campaign of cultural violence, smashing apart leaded glass windows and breaking the owl’s totems.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Breaking owl glass

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Breaking owl window

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl totems

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Breaking owl totems

Once again, we simply see the owls flying in place; they aren’t pursuing Donkey Kong. It makes you wonder: is DK liberating the owls from the oppression of the penguins? Or maybe the owls simply tolerate the penguins because the penguins don’t break the owl’s things the way DK does. DK’s violence might, in a way, be working to unite the owls and penguins together. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Ringing the bell

As in World 1, Autumn Heights is also home to a temple of the ancient monkeys, Bopopolis. The temple is decorated in monkey statues, though the Snowmads have hung their flags wherever they can.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Bopopolis monkey statue

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Bopopolis entrance, with Snowmad flag

As in the Lost Mangroves, it’s clear that Autumn Heights is a land of competing cultures. Even before the Snowmads arrived, there was competition between the owls, the rodents, and the monkeys. However, it appears as if the monkeys have been gone from this island for sometime. Their temple, Bopopolis, has survived, but it has no floor. This level contains 37 owls. The temple is a place of the air, and it has been repurposed as a home for the owls.

Maybe DK has some right to wage a war of aggression against the owls after all.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owls in Bopopolis

The monkeys and owls face off

DK and company finally make it to the owl’s hideout. DK blasts inside an owl mountain to face the owl leader.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Entering owl mountain

Once inside, the owls smash a banana with a giant mallet, causing DK and friends to freak out. It’s clear the owls are trying to insult and intimidate Donkey Kong. Owls don’t eat bananas; and Tropical Freeze’s plot isn’t about DK retrieving his banana hoard, as in previous games. The owls are sick of DK’s destruction of their homeland, justified or not.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Getting ready to smash a banana

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Smashed banana

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Donkey Kong and Dixie freak out

The mother owl has ice powers and uses them to attack DK. Presumably she got them from the Snowmads. The owls were fed up with DK’s violence and enlisted the help of the penguins. It appears in this final battle that the owls and the penguins have come to a mutual respect for each other.

Tropical Freeze screenshot: Owl uses ice attack!

DK defeats the owls, and prepares to leave Autumn Heights.

What does the next island, Bright Savannah, have in store for Donkey Kong?

Game on,
~Dennis

Feminists are giving Rey from the Force Awakens far too much credit

Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is universally loved by critics and moviegoers. Finally, a female lead in Star Wars!—so the praise can be boiled down to.

I’ve seen Episode VII twice now and I agree, Rey is a great character. I have no complaints about her, unlike some, who think she’s “too good” at the stuff she does.

However, women critics are absolutely gushing over her portrayal, as if Rey was the female sci-fi heroine we’ve been waiting all of human history for. And now she’s arrived, ushering in a new area of equality on the big screen.

But are these praises justified?

Let’s look at what women are saying about Rey.

Rey cleans parts on Jakku

Patricia Karvelas’ column in The Guardian, headlined “Star Wars is a game-changer, awakening the feminist force in little girls everywhere,” speaks of Rey in prophetic tones. Karvelas writes (emphasis added):

[Rey] never doubts herself, the scenes of her flying the Millennium Falcon are the most empowering scenes the Star Wars machine have ever produced. The dialogue between her and Han Solo finally provides the feminist punch-the-air moment we’ve all been desperately waiting for.

She goes on to say:

The character of Rey is a game changer for the little girls around the world who have been disgracefully ignored by the Star Wars empire for decades.

While it’s true that the Star Wars movies don’t have a lot of female characters (ignoring the wide Expanded Universe), is Rey really the character we’ve been desperately waiting for?

Rebecca Carroll describes Rey as “a next generation badass boss bitch that we and Princess Leia can be proud of.” I’m not even sure what that means. Rey isn’t really a leader in Episode VII.

Meg Heckman wrote for the USA Today:

The Force Awakens is, in many ways, a feminist reinterpretation of the original Star Wars movie that wowed audiences nearly 40 years ago.

Tasha Robinson wrote for The Verge:

We may have reached peak Strong Female Character with Rey. Yes, she should be an extreme outlier, not a model for every female character to aspire to, just as not every male character in the movies should be Captain America or Ethan Hunt. But she should also be allowed to be as unquestionably superlative a protagonist as they are.

So I guess Rey is as good as female characters will ever get. There’s no possible way they can be improved. Should storytellers pack their bags and go home now?

Casey Cipriani wrote for Bustle, in a piece entitled “Why Rey in ‘The Force Awakens’ is the feminist hero we’ve all been waiting for”:

Thanks to its passing of the Bechdel test, its group of significant female roles, and, most majorly, its lead character of Rey, this newest Star Wars installment is doing wonders for women in film.

While the most vocal supporters of Rey, for good reason, are women, men are also falling over themselves to praise Rey. Shawn Binder wrote for Distractify:

Rey, played with aplomb by Daisey Ridley, is a tour-de-force of feminism and general badassery. Sure, there were other women in the Star Wars universe before her who were tough and powerful in their own right, but Rey is the first complex hero of the franchise that just happens to be a woman.

When Rey lit up the screen for the first time, girls everywhere finally had a major player in a blockbuster they could relate to.

Notice how the great female characters of the Star Wars universe are so quickly pushed aside. Princess Leia is great, but she wasn’t the main character. Complex heroines like Mara Jade or Ahsoka are glossed over because they didn’t appear in the main Star Wars movies.

Rey and Finn in the Millennium Falcon

Again, this post isn’t designed to take anything away from Rey as a character. She’s a great character in her own right. But a revolutionary, transformative character? Only if you define the parameters for “revolutionary” so narrowly that she’s the only character who can meet the criteria, namely, that to be revolutionary, a female character has to be the main hero of a Star Wars movie specifically.

But what of all the other female characters in fantasy and science fiction? Feminists aren’t looking hard enough if they believe that Rey is the character we’ve all been waiting for. As David French wrote in the National Review:

But for the feminist Left, the past is a yawning abyss of sexism. It’s almost like they haven’t actually watched the last 40 years of science fiction.

Over the last month, I’ve witnessed the praise for Rey with disbelief and confusion. Maybe I’m getting something wrong. Was there really no good female character before Rey? Is Rey really a game-changer for little girls? Have we really “arrived” at a utopia of equality?

I can think of scores of strong female characters, from a variety of media, who were trailblazers long before Rey was conceived. Ripley from Alien. Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop. Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls. April O’Neil from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cheetara from the ThunderCats. All the Sailor Scouts from the Sailor Moon series. Melfina, Aisha Clanclan, and Suzuka from Outlaw Star. Kagome from Inuyasha. Terra and Celes from Final Fantasy VI. Tifa from Final Fantasy VII. Yuna from Final Fantasy X. Lightning, Fang, Serah, and Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII. Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, and Bayonetta from Bayonetta.

The list goes on. Whether the medium is film, television, animation, comics, or video games, there are plenty of likable female protagonists for girls and boys to look up to. Are there as many strong female characters as there are male characters? Probably not: the Lord of the Rings is very male-heavy. Our fictive landscape still needs new female characters that speak to a modern audience, just as we still need new male characters that speak to a modern audience.

Humanity is incredibly diverse, and storytellers haven’t yet exhausted the well of character possibilities.

Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What bothers me most about the excessive praise of Rey is that feminists are erasing the accomplishments of previous female protagonists. I’m not sure why. To perpetuate this narrative that women are criminally disadvantaged compared to men in all measures of success, including representation in sci-fi and fantasy media? I don’t know why they are doing this.

Remember back to May 2015. Mad Max: Fury Road was released to near universal acclaim. And for good reason: I think the movie is every bit as awesome as people say. One of the most surprising aspects of the film was the depth of the female co-lead Furiosa, who was proclaimed as a feminist hero. Women media critics everywhere praised Furiosa. They spoke of her in the same prophetic tones now reserved for Rey: we finally have the female action hero we’ve been waiting for!

So what happened between the release of Fury Road and the Force Awakens? Did equality take a step back in six months? Of course not. They’ve simply forgotten their own history of progress.

The evidence for game-changing female characters goes back decades. For a useful point of comparison (not that this character was the game changer, but simply a game-changer long before Rey), look at Sarah Connor from the Terminator series. Released in 1984, the Terminator gave audiences a very strong character in Sarah Connor. She’s an everyday woman, down on her luck, but through her strength and courage, she faces and triumphs over a robotic threat.

In 1991, we return to Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. She’s gotten even stronger, and she has a conviction that the world is ending, even though nobody believes her. Integral to Sarah’s identity is her status as a mother, something that should not be overlooked.

Some feminists believe that having a female action hero who simply beats up a lot of people isn’t enough, and is actually sexist. That’s the argument Celina Durgin makes in the National Review about the new Supergirl TV show. A female character who is simply strong is just a male character in female clothing. That essence that makes women different than men is lost.

For Sarah Connor, her femininity is tied to motherhood; she’s the protector of John Connor, the leader of the resistance against the machines. But she’s also a herald and prophet of the end-times, doing anything she can to prevent the machines becoming self-aware.

She’s was game-changing feminist hero—30 years before Rey graced the silver screen.

To conclude, Rey is an excellent character and a worthy addition to not only the Star Wars pantheon of heroes, but the pantheon of sci-fi and fantasy heroines. Critics could do well to remember the long, transformative history of female characters in sci-fi and fantasy media because Rey is hardly breaking new ground.

~Dennis

Theatre Review: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom

In 2014 I saw a play about video games entitled Leveling Up. In 2015 I saw my second play about video games: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. The play is by Jennifer Haley and was performed by the Bloomsburg University Players. As in Leveling Up, this play examines the dichotomy between fantasy and reality, and ultimately concludes that video games can dangerously warp one’s sense of reality.

This post is not a review of this specific run of the play—the performances of the actors, the set design, the costumes—but rather, an analysis of the themes conveyed by this work. I’ll also be making comparisons to my review of Leveling Up, since both plays cover much the same territory.

Spoilers abound in this post!

A suburban neighborhood dripping with blood

Cover of the Neighborhood 3 playbill

Synopsis

The story follows the lives of several teenagers and their parents. The teens are into the latest video game, Neighborhood 3, a zombie killing game. The hook in Neighborhood 3 is that the game uses GPS to recreate a person’s neighborhood in-game. When the kids go house to house in the game, they are exploring their own neighborhood, protecting their own houses.

The families live in an affluent suburban neighborhood. The parents are largely clueless about what their kids are doing after school, but are concerned nonetheless. Whenever the parents attempt to talk to the kids about their excessive gameplay, the kids blow them off, whine, or run away.

As the kids get more into the game, buzz starts to grow about the so-called “final house.” Some kids are too scared to enter, and quit playing the game. Others, though, press on. The kids collect a variety of weapons, either in-game or in real-life. By the third act of the play, it starts to become unclear when the actors are “in-game” or “in real life,” reflecting how the teens’ dual realities are merging.

It’s never clearly stated, but it seems like the “final house” is each kid’s own  house. In-game, the kids must enter their own house and kill the zombies. But because the kids are getting their realities mixed up, they end up killing their parents.

The play ends after one kid in particular kills his mother after she harasses him all night to get off the game.

Fantasy vs. Reality, redux

After rereading my analysis of Leveling Up, I think I could largely repost what I wrote for that play here. N3 is strongest in the beginning, when it shows how faulty the artificial division of “fantasy” and “reality” is. As for the kids, they spend hours playing this game, which to an outsider, might look like a waste of time. But they are socializing and bonding with each other and forming friendships (and in one case, possibly a romantic relationship).

Do they spend a lot of time on the game? Sure. But this seems like a game that has a definite end, and some of the kids realize they are playing it too much. The kids are caught up in a fad. It’s unclear whether it lasts a week, two weeks, or more, but the fad grows and then fades rather quickly. The kids are ultimately engaging in harmless, if fantastical, fun.

While the parents do not understand the fantasy of the game, they are caught up in their own fantasy. They live in perfect suburbia, where every house looks the same and homeowners’ associations fault anybody who steps outside the lawn care guidelines. One of the parents, a judge, is an alcoholic, but some of the characters, particularly the judge’s wife, are too dumb to confront him about it, maintaining the facade of his fantasy life.

The parents are also under the delusion that they have control over their kids. They send their kids to fancy schools that require uniforms, and they try to set boundaries on when they must be home. And yet whatever control they think they have over their kids evaporates as soon as the kids step into the virtual world, where they can do anything.

Leveling Up, in the first half, covered these same themes. That play was also strongest when it pointed out that real life can be fantasy, and video games can be reality.

Like in Leveling Up, Haley comes to largely the same conclusion by the end of N3: the fantasy of video games is worse than the fantasy of real life, and the fantasy is so compelling that it can drive people to murder.

A fundamental question about video games?

I’m not sure if Haley, or Deborah Zoe Laufer (the playwright behind Leveling Up), are gamers. Based on the way the characters in both plays talk about games, and the way the games are conveyed, it seems like the playwrights aren’t exactly enthusiasts of the medium: the characterizations feel close to reality, but off. It seems, though, that for some people (mostly outsiders to the medium) the fundamental question to explore about video games is: what’s the line between fantasy and reality?

For the past three decades, movies and television shows have asked about this line in some form or another. Tron (1982) and WarGames (1983) ask these questions. In QuestWorld, seen in The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest (1996), sometimes the characters get trapped in the virtual world. The Matrix trilogy showed us that virtual worlds can be more real than the real world. In Sword Art Online (2009) the same ideas from QuestWorld are revisited on a grander scale. All of these stories examine these issues much more effectively than Leveling Up or N3.

As a lifelong gamer, I’m not sure if these are the most interesting questions for pop culture to ask about video games. To me, the line between fantasy and reality seems clear. I recognize the many realities of video games and the many fantasies of reality. In fact, the more I play video games, the line between the two becomes clearer, not blurrier.

And for the many gamer friends I have, it seems they know where that line is as well.

But to outsiders, perhaps this is not only the most interesting line of questions to ask, but also the most vital. After all, how can somebody who spends hours killing something in a virtual world not be affected by it? How can video games not teach people how to kill and destroy? This line of questioning isn’t a casual one either. As a mass communication researcher, I am well-versed in the line of research investigating the effects of video games, particularly in the area of violence. For some, it’s clear that video games do influence people to be violent.

But as somebody with a PhD in mass communication, who’s looked at these research reports, I find the evidence the people get the lines between video games and reality confused shoddy, weak, and overextended.

A better question

This isn’t to say that pop culture shouldn’t explore these issues of fantasy and reality in video games. For some people, these are important questions to ask. But as a gamer, plays like Leveling Up and Neighborhood 3 are asking level 1 questions about fantasy and reality. And the conclusion to that level is this: yes, virtual worlds can be both real and fake, just as the physical world is both real and fake.

Next question, next level, please.

So what are the level 2, the level 3, and the level 4 questions about video games? I don’t have a solid answer yet, but I’ll share with you some thoughts. I think these storytellers, regardless of the medium, are onto something exploring fantasy and reality. It’s just like how all robot stories are essentially about the same thing: what if robots become sentient? What if robots come alive? Can robots become human?

As a lover of fantasy media, and a writer of fantasy stories myself, I have a huge personal stake in the theory of fantasy. For me, fantasy media (and I’m using fantasy very broadly here to mean created works, regardless of whether they feature swords and dragons and magic) are about showing us new worlds. Fantasy stories take readers, viewers, and players to new worlds, and allow them to explore.

One should not engage a fantasy world out of dissatisfaction with “the real world.” Fantasy helps people like me understand the real world better.

Neighborhood 3 sounds like a compelling game, if it were real. Is it really so creepy to have a game where you run around a virtual simulacrum of your own neighborhood, shooting zombies out of your house and the houses of your neighbors? My brother and I did the same thing when we were kids, only in “the real world.” Our backyard and side lot became dozens of different worlds. The playground at school was a multitude of worlds. Fantasy allowed me to see these spaces in many different ways, to see the possibilities of what they could be.

So let’s move past stories that ask level 1 questions about the line between fantasy and reality in video games. Let’s create stories (fantasies) about video games that show the depths of virtual worlds, how virtual worlds can be mapped many times over onto “the real world,” not in an effort to hide the real world, but to expand it.

~Dennis