By Russell Barnes
The following article is part of a multi-part series of excerpts from the author’s senior thesis. Start at the beginning here.
Analysis of Tropes – Hegemonic Masculinity in Video Games
The thesis takes a look at three popular tropes that female video game characters are often subject to in the medium: the male gaze, the damsel in distress and the female “clone.” The male gaze is often depicted as a “perception” that things are created for the man. The damsel in distress trope often involves the depiction of a character, usually a female, being rescued by a male in the matter of competition or bribery, while potentially serving as the rescuer’s love interest. The female “clone” trope involves a female character being created from a male template, and/or borrowing traits from a pre-existing male character. A major component to how these tropes work, as well as hegemonic masculinity, is character interaction – particularly with male and female characters.
The Male Gaze
As previously described, the male gaze is a perspective in feminist theory that involves the creation of various media devices for male pleasure. In video games, this arises in a variety of forms. In particular, the male gaze in video games is catered towards males experiencing heterosexual attraction, who are also perceived as a dominant, more privileged group in society. The male is oftentimes the expected “gazer” of the created object, which oftentimes is female. Females, especially those depicted as non-Caucasian, are frequently subject to sexualization through their attire, camera angles and even their vocal tone. Females may be depicted with the ability to be physically strong, but when sexualized, the male gaze theory states they were likely created for the male eye. Women characters are frequently created to fulfill a gamer’s erotic fantasy.
When women are portrayed as protagonists, they are often times sexually caricatured. This sexual caricaturing of women in video games has been shown to have negative effects on the self-esteem of women. Undergraduate college students at a large southwestern U.S. university were assigned to play a video game that featured a sexualized or non-sexualized heroine, or to not play a video game at all. After playing the video game, the participants filled out a short questionnaire. The study showed that women who played video games with a sexualized female heroine had lower self-efficacy and were more likely to hold harsher judgments towards other women. The sexualization of women was found to be relatively frequent as well. Seventy percent of mature-rated video games and forty-six percent of teen-rated games contained female characters with “abundant” amounts of cleavage. In comparison, men in video games were found to be sleeveless twenty-two percent of the time, and to have low necklines fourteen percent of the time. Men are much less frequently sexualized compared to their female counterparts, and male gamers were less likely to have reduced self-esteem due to the comparable lack of sexualization of their gender.
The most prominent example of a sexualized female character is Lara Croft, archeologist and lead heroine of the Tomb Raider series. The first game, released in 1996 for the PlayStation, led to Lara becoming a pop culture icon. The game sold over seven million copies and she became a major attraction for PlayStation players. Lara has evolved drastically over time, while still retaining her sex symbol status in various aspects. The most recent release, Rise of the Tomb Raider, was released in November of 2015, two years after the series was rebooted and given a more realistic approach to Lara’s adventures.
In many of the earlier Tomb Raider video games, character art emphasized her breasts, making them unrealistically proportioned compared to the rest of her body. As previously mentioned, Lara’s final breast size in the first Tomb Raider game was 150 percent larger than the initial model designed by Toby Gard. Although the size hike was claimed to be an accident (her breasts were meant to be increased by 50 percent), developers at Core, the initial publisher of the Tomb Raider franchise, instantly approved of Gard’s design before he had the chance to correct it. She was also dressed in short brown shorts. Video game developers were taking advantage of 3D graphics, which were only being used in video games for a few years prior to Tomb Raider. This allowed for characters to be designed with more detail, more personality and more sexualization. With Lara Croft, a star was born.
It cannot be denied that Lara Croft’s character is iconic to video gaming. She was one of the first females to lead a video game franchise that took off with pop culture. She was heralded as a strong representation of a female character. Yet, her appearance proved to be a barrier towards many taking her seriously as a heroine rather than a sex object. Numerous magazines referred to her oversized breasts as being one of her most famous features. Fans created a patch for the original game, often referred to as Nude Raider, where one could play the game while Lara Croft was naked. This patch takes away any indication that Lara was a hero, and turns her into an object that a heterosexual male would admire. Croft’s sex appeal would allow for her to crossover into Lara’s mainstream media. Angelina Jolie portrayed her in two films released in 2001 and 2003. Yet her sexualization would not remain exclusive to the series, and would be duplicated in many other video games as video game developers transitioned from 2D to 3D graphics.
The Mortal Kombat series has become well known for the sexualization of its female characters, yet an analysis of when the game was presented with 2D graphics showcases the increased possibilities with 3D models. The first game in the series was released to arcades in 1992 and featured one female character, Sonya Blade. The game’s characters were created using digitized graphics. The characters were created by filming actors and scanning their images into the game. Sonya’s character model is barely sexualized, if at all. She’s wearing a green sports bra, with high-waisted green pants and white tennis shoes. She also sports a headband and a shorter hairstyle. In essence, her attire is much more appropriate for fighting. By the time Mortal Kombat 3 hit store shelves three years later, female characters (but not Sonya) began to show slights amount of cleavage and sexualization in their attires, yet it would be nothing for what would come in the future when the series was rebooted in 2011.
Although many considered the 2011 reboot of the Mortal Kombat series to be a true comeback effort, it was heavily criticized for the abundance of cleavage present amongst its female cast. Even Sonya, whose buttocks were never previously exposed in a previous Mortal Kombat installment, was overwhelmingly sexualized, albeit less than her peers. While her buttocks were not exposed, her character design exposes a vast amount of oversized cleavage exposed. Her breasts, along with the breasts of all female fighters, also jiggle around during fights. She’s also fighting other characters while wearing heels, which is vastly different from her original model This not only isn’t practical to the nature of the game – fighting – but also to the nature of her military background, which is a critical part of how she’s brought into the series. A character, Johnny Cage, asks Sonya in a cut scene, “So that’s not a costume? You’re actual military?” The developers turned their original female character into an overtly sexual character whose purpose isn’t to develop her own storyline, but to contribute to the male gaze by defining her contribution to the game as a sexualized object.
The above image shows Sonya Blade’s costumes in Mortal Kombat (2011, left) and Mortal Kombat X (2015, right). In-game dialogue from Mortal Kombat (2011) pokes fun at her costume’s sexual nature, while the right image reflects an attire that is more associated with that of a military officer, which is a core element of Sonya’s character.
It isn’t just Sonya who is sexualized in the reboot. As a matter of fact, every playable female character present in the game is showing cleavage in some way, shape, or form, along with enlarged breasts. In addition to this, as characters would fight each other, parts of their clothing would virtually tear, exposing hips and almost complete breasts, leaving very little to the imagination. In one scenario, female character Mileena has an alternate costume that is essentially a body wrap that covers her nipples and vagina. It is given as a reward to gamers who complete a 300-mission tower full of challenges. This increasingly sexualized alternate costume essentially turns Millena into a reward for players. Other characters, such as Jade, mimic pole dancing in their victory pose after winning a fight. Sheeva, a four-armed woman, gyrates her hips in a monokini similar to the one worn by Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat.”
For the development of Mortal Kombat X, the next game in the franchise, developers said they wanted to model female models to appear more like real women, as a maxim of the franchise has been realism. While some would say this has been seen with the amount of detail that was designed into the game’s violent match-ending Fatalities, this maxim was not as fulfilled in the reboot with the sexualization of its female characters. Female characters were less sexualized, with their breasts and buttocks being reduced to more realistic proportions. As for the three female characters that return as playable characters from the reboot to Mortal Kombat X, their appearances are less sexualized than in years past. The amount of cleavage present amongst its female cast is drastically reduced, although still present (in reduced form) in some characters, such as Mileena. Most of the female cast are wearing pants/clothing that covers their buttocks in their initial costumes, which was not the case in the series’ reboot. Their clothing is much more practical for the roles that they are portraying. Sonya is dressed in actual military attire, and Kitana and Mileena are designed as a princess with some battle armor.
Mortal Kombat X takes place 25 years after the reboot, and as a result, some characters age. Many of the male characters are shown with wrinkles and gray hair. Wrinkles are also present on Sonya Blade’s character model — a rarity amongst female gaming characters. She’s playable in the game after having a daughter, Cassie, who is also a playable fighter. Signs of aging aren’t present with neither Kitana nor Mileena; it was initially written into Kitana’s storyline that she is over 10,000 years old, so an extra 25 years likely wouldn’t give a character physical wrinkles. The same could be said for Mileena, who is a clone of Kitana. Youth is a trait that is desirable amongst women; this could be why those factors were written into Kitana (and subsequently Mileena’s) storylines in the first place. We live in a world where Photoshop and makeup are essential in marketing and advertising campaigns to make those facing a campaign appear to be as young as possible. This pressure spreads through almost all forms of mass media, including video games. However, Sonya Blade’s physical appearance, as well as having a playable role in MKX, is groundbreaking, especially when compared to other games within the same genre that have also seen time lapses in between games. Sonya Blade’s portrayal is a crushing defeat for ageism in video games.
In the past, other video games show signs of ageism when older female characters are removed from sequels. One notable instance where this occurred is in 1997’s Tekken 3. The game’s prequel, Tekken 2, featured six female characters, and only two of these characters, Anna Williams and Nina Williams, returned in the game’s sequel. There’s a 19-year gap between these games, and instead of the Williams sisters physically aging during these years, the developers created a storyline saying that the sisters were placed into cryosleep during this timeframe. As a result, while chronologically over 40 years old, the sisters still appeared to be in their 20s. It’s also worth noting that these two characters were the only two females in the game who were Caucasian. The series retaining these characters and using the cryosleep storyline to justify their younger physical appearance, in combination with axing a majority of the “aged” female characters – who were predominantly non-Caucasian – reflects not only ageism, but also white privilege. It also reiterated the notion that younger females were more desirable to have within the game. To date, none of the removed female characters have returned in a game where the storyline was deemed “canon,’ or where the events are deemed by developers to have actually happened within the series.
The other female characters were absent for a variety of reasons per storyline in Tekken 3. Michelle Chang, a character of Native American origin, was replaced by her daughter, Julia. Julia’s storyline revolved around her searching for her missing mother. Her gameplay and fighting style are very similar to Michelle’s from Tekken 2, which doesn’t allow Julia much opportunity to have her own identity as a character. The Japanese Jun Kazama is also said to be “missing,” and the fate of fellow Japanese character Kunimitsu is not disclosed. As previously mentioned, these three ladies have not returned in the series’ canonical storyline, although they have been present in both non-canon Tekken Tag Tournament games. Most of the male characters that have aged from Tekken 2 to Tekken 3 have made appearances in subsequent sequels, clearly older than their character’s past renditions. One male character, Marshall Law, was replaced with his son, Forrest, only to replace his son in Tekken 3’s sequel, Tekken 4. This double standard further reiterates the increased ageism that women face within society; youth is often viewed as more desirable amongst women for the male consumption, per the male gaze.
While Mortal Kombat X has provided some progress amongst the male gaze, it cannot be denied that Tomb Raider’s 2013 reboot has also made some progress.
The below image is the Xbox One’s box art for the Definitive Edition of Tomb Raider’s 2013 reboot. Although one cannot fully see her pants, she is depicted as much more of a fighter than a sex appeal, with drastically reduced breasts compared to her previous iterations.
With the reboot, Lara was given more realistically sized breasts, pants instead of shorts and a new persona that depicted her as more warrior-esque than a character made for the male satisfaction. Her attire was made to be more practical for surviving in the wilderness, a change that would further be seen in footage of the reboot’s sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, released last November. In the footage, she is adventuring through Siberia, and is actually bundled up wearing a jacket, with her rebooted-body figure remaining intact. Yet, as the game moved away from the sex appeal in the form of Lara’s appearance, some critics accused developers of hiding it in other aspects of the game – in particular, in death scenes.
Tomb Raider has been accused of incorporating a phenomenon similar to “torture porn,” in particular with the 2013 reboot. Lara Croft’s character has the “opportunity” to die various times throughout games in the series. In the reboot, this is often through quick time events, which allow gamers to press buttons in order to move the cutscene move forward. If the player fails to press the right button(s) or the allocated button(s) fast enough, Lara dies in a brief cut scene. These cut scenes, while brief, show Lara struggling to survive, screaming in pain, while the viewer just watches. We are left watching Lara fight for her life, knowing that she will lose. She doesn’t always let out a soft grunt; more often than not, these grunts resemble painful sexual intercourse. The game series, according to some critics, takes a turn from sexualizing Lara Croft’s body to the violence that she faces.
Also present in the game is a cut scene that some critics say is similar to an attempted rape. Lara has to try and save her friends, and is cornered by a villain character, who pins her up against a building behind her. Her hands are tied behind her back, and the character reaches for her thigh. Players are given the option to press a button to kick the villain in the groin. After she does that, Lara is grabbed by her arms by the villain while she tries to run away. The player then gets the opportunity to press another button to bite him. After doing this, Lara breaks free and reaches out for a gun, and then, if the player follows the succeeding prompts, shoots the villain in the head. While the player has to complete these cut scenes (and therefore, make sure Lara doesn’t die) in order to progress the game’s story forward, the elaborate detail present within the cut scenes makes some people believe that the game serves to fulfill the male fantasy by appealing to the male gaze.
Male players, especially those who are heterosexual, may approve or even adore what they see in video games that are – consciously or subconsciously – developed for the male gaze. As a matter of fact, forty-nine percent of respondents said it would be a “very good” thing to have more non-sexualized female protagonists in video games. And while female characters in video games in video games may still be sexualized based on their appearance, it can be argued that game developers are finding more obscure ways to cater to their male audience on home consoles. From a purely capitalist perspective, it makes sense. There’s more consumer power and a higher potential for increased profits by producing games on these consoles, and male gamers are more likely to play console games, although the number of female console gamers is on the rise.
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Russell Barnes is a recovering news reporter, chronic video game lover and donut addict. You’ll likely find him walking around one of Minneapolis’ lakes playing Pokemon Go.