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.
Damsel in Distress
#Gamergate’s concerns involve the concept of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity promotes the dominant position of men in society. This is linked to the patriarchal societal structure of many Western societies, where men occupy a majority of leadership roles. With the high occupancy of men in leadership positions, this leads to the socialization of genders and the further implantation of the gender binary. As this step occurs, masculine-associated traits, such as physical strength, financial wellness and bravery, are rewarded with higher social standing, while female-associated traits, such as kindness and beauty, are associated with weakness and social inferiority to their male counterparts. This social and power inequality affects the dynamic of gendered relationships, often resulting in stereotypes being perpetuated through various social mediums. This cycle eventually repeats itself, and video games are guilty of perpetuating hegemonic masculinity, especially when it comes to reinforcing that women are damsels in distress.
Putting this concept into action, the video game industry is heavily populated by men. As a result, video game developers make games that they and society are likely to play, while – intentionally or unintentionally – being naive to the struggles that marginalized communities, such as women, face. Genders are also socialized within the products that are created, the video games that consumers purchase. This is seen with characters such as Mario being depicted with a strong sense of bravado while he tries to rescue the sweet, kind Princess Peach from Bowser. She’s helpless and is consistently kidnapped throughout the series, reiterating her weakness as a woman in comparison to her male counterpart. Rescuing Peach from the villainous Bowser is oftentimes the goal of games in the Super Mario franchise, reducing her to a helpless prize contested over by male competition. The games usually conclude with Mario saving the day as the male hero, and the process, along with hegemonic masculinity, repeats itself.
As the face of the highest-selling video game franchise in the history of the medium, Mario’s actions and storyline have been cloned numerous video games within the industry. Games in the series have sold a combined 310 million copies since the first game was released in 1985. Peach has been kidnapped (and rescued) in at least 13 of the Super Mario Bros. titles over the years. Nintendo has repeated this formula to tons of success over the years, most notably with The Legend of Zelda series. The main character of the Zelda series, Link, is often on a quest to rescue Princess Zelda. Other critically acclaimed video games that were not produced by Nintendo have also taken advantage of this trope, including Resident Evil 4, which will be discussed later on. Females, when subject as damsels, are often reduced to objects whose possession is being fought over by men and for the development of the male protagonist’s story.
However, Princess Peach is lucky enough to be given an identity. Even though she is rarely a playable character in her appearances in the Super Mario games, she’s had the rarity of being a damsel who has also received her own video game: 2006’s Super Princess Peach. The game is revolutionary in a few ways. It takes the damsel in distress trope and reverses it; Princess Peach is now rescuing Mario, as well as his brother, Luigi and Peach’s attendant, Toad, from Bowser’s control. However – the gameplay revolves heavily around her emotions. Each emotion she has – joy, calm, gloom and rage – provide with special powers. While the roles are reversed, this doesn’t reinforce any negative gender stereotypes involving men. However, a female’s stereotypical mood swings are being reinforced in the gameplay. Peach’s mood swings are used to defeat her enemies and progress the game, in what is simply a joke derived from the stereotype that women are emotional due to their periods. While it’s progress that she has an identity and has had the opportunity to headline her own game, she is still trivialized and associated with a negative stereotype that implies a hindrance to her personality due to her gender identity.
Yet for many female damsels, they are almost completely stripped of their identity. In some cases, a woman being held as property isn’t depicted as enough to start the gameplay. The damsel in distress trope has been taken further in a variety of video games, to the point where women have to be physically harmed (and sometimes killed) in order to move the story forward. This further depicts women as not just helpless, but also as incapable of defending themselves. It further widens the societal gap in strength and weakness between men and women. While being depicted as helpless damsels, female characters can also be treated as sexual objects and subject to violence to further dehumanize them.
A notable example of this is present in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. The male protagonist is lured in to rescue a female prostitute, who is placed in a chokehold by a thief. Her hands are also tied behind her back, rendering her as a helpless female who is reliant on the protagonist rescuing her. There is a knife being held to her throat, while she is also being referred to as a “whore.” After she pleads the protagonist to help her, the protagonist attempts to bribe the thief in hopes of rescuing the female, handing him a bag of money. Her freedom is reduced to a monetary value, which reduces her as a consumable object. This further objectifies the female in addition to her sexualized appearance.
That’s not where this scenario ends. Even though the attempted purchase and bribery of the thief, the thief slits her throat open. She then falls and dies, and the player has to fight the thief and his gang. The deaths of these women are often used to paint a darker environment while using the women as background decorations, as these characters are often not relevant to the main storyline. Their lack of identity is often increased even further, as these characters often are not given a name – serving as background decor to further drive along the plot. Increased exposure to this violence has been found to desensitize people who are continuously exposed to it. Those who play video games with violence have also been shown to showcase increased aggression. In other words, the more violence against women is present in the media, the less that people care and the more normal it becomes.
The Female Clone
What do Pac-Man and Commander Shepard have in common? If you were to say they were all video game characters, you would be right. However, you would also be right if you said that they all have female characters that were based on their designs. These two characters, from the Pac-Man and Mass Effect video game series respectfully, were originally designed or most commonly depicted as male. Over time, a female equivalent of these characters was designed: Mrs. Pac-Man was based on Pac-Man and a female option of Commander Shepard is present in the Mass Effect series. While there is nothing inherently wrong with being female or having female-associated traits, the way female characters are created and promoted has the potential to be limiting and reinforces a strict gender binary that results in the denial and erasure of other gender identities. It is essential that, in order to provide the proper context for this discussion, that we discuss the origin of these characters. It’s also essential to discuss the connection between the construction of these characters and to deconstruct this by the analysis of how their creation caters to societal norms that reinforce gender binaries, and in some cases, patriarchal supremacy.
Ms. Pac-Man was released in arcades in 1982, less than two years after Pac-Man was first seen in arcades in 1980. Pac-Man’s design was a series of yellow pixels shaped into a circle-like shape, with a mouth for added measure. Ms. Pac-Man’s model is given a variety of design elements with stereotypically feminine gender identifiers to help players signify that she is female, including a bow, lipstick, eye makeup and a beauty mark. She also has an eye, which her male counterpart was not initially designed with. Various promotional materials for Ms. Pac-Man depict her with high heels, blush and/or a boa, further enhancing her female identity.
The gender of Commander Shepard, the main protagonist in the Mass Effect series, can be chosen between male or female at the beginning of each game. Their appearances are also customizable within arguably gender-appropriate ways, although the voiceover for the character depends on the initial gender chosen. However, it is the male variant that receives an overwhelming amount of exposure in promotional materials, rendering him as the primary protagonist.
A huge problem with Ms. Pac-Man is that her character is extremely unoriginal, based off of a male template. While many games have created characters based off of an existing palette, all Namco did with Ms. Pac Man was give the character some female-associated traits and add Ms. to the character’s name. These traits associate to potential gamers that Ms. Pac Man is female, but she’s not just a female; she is a female version of a male character. Her character is — intentionally or unintentionally — reinforcing a strict gender binary. The gender binary and the traits associated within the two genders present within said binary – male and female – are a social construct that divides human beings into two “distinctly separate and opposing classes of human being.” Reinforcing the existence of these two classes – male and female – also reinforces the ideology that certain things have to be associated with either masculinity or femininity.
Ms. Pac-Man’s appearance also highlights how female characters are designed with specific elements to make her “female” compared to her male counterpart. Pac-Man does not have the added design elements that help Ms. Pac-Man stand out as a woman. These specific elements traits, which are reflected in Ms. Pac Man’s appearance, serve as critical to Ms. Pac-Man’s identity, but also serve as her most defining characteristic. The most defining trait about Ms. Pac-Man isn’t that she is the star of an arcade game; it is the fact that she is a woman version of a male character. Despite attempts to provide her character with a unique identity, the way her character was developed gives her very little identity of her own. This limits the way a female character can be portrayed, essentially relying on them as a form of a commodity.
The lack of female representation that comes in hand with this reinforcement of the gender binary also creates the illusion that females are the weaker sex, and that their traits are not as valuable to society or to have in a person. This can arguably lead to the erasure of those who identify along the transgender spectrum as well to many forms of sexism. When male characters are equipped with feminine traits, it often denotes the character as weaker than their male counterparts and can be interpreted as a homophobic or transphobic joke. Design elements that some may associate with masculinity, however, are not as frequently enforced, and do not have the same side effects if they are equipped on women.
An example of transphobia that has been seen in video games is featured in the mobile game Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff. Peter Griffin, the main character of the Family Guy series, has an alternate costume that is unlockable in the game that resembles a female prostitute. The character makes jokes that allude to prostitutes, referred to by the derogatory slur, “hookers,” being assaulted and resorting to being a hooker due to flunking out of school. It implies not just that a man’s masculinity is lost if he incorporates feminine signifiers into this appearance, but that he is inferior to other individuals who were assigned male at birth as a result. It’s joked around the stereotype that people who are transgender are more likely to not pursue a college education or being assaulted. Making a joke out of circumstances that are unfortunately present within the transgender community further perpetuates a stigma that they are less likely to achieve success. The transgender community does have higher rates of not graduating high school or college, being victims of domestic violence and committing suicide. However, the automatic conclusion that a transgender individual is set to go down those paths doesn’t address the core issues the transgender community faces, but also brushes off their gender identity as a joke, which further contributes to their societal oppression.
Certain video games allow you to choose the actual gender of the character you play, instead of just providing you with a different costume. This is the case in the Mass Effect series, where players are granted the option of choosing between a male and female protagonist. The options granted in the character customization process depend on the gender initially chosen. Hairstyles usually stick to socially acceptable cuts for each respectable gender, and cannot overlap. For example, you cannot equip a male character in the Mass Effect series with a bob-style haircut. Also, guys cannot wear makeup. This further perpetuates the gender binary by insisting that men and women dress in socially acceptable ways for their particular gender.
That’s not the only potential problem that arises with the Mass Effect series. The Mass Effect series, while providing players the option to create a Mr. or Ms. Commander Shepard, heavily focuses on the male version of the character in the game’s promotional material. On the box art of the three main games in the series, the male version of the character is the primary focus. The male version of the character is the primary version featured on game trailers and artwork as well. The female version of the character, often referred to online as FemShep, began to receive an increased amount of promotion for Mass Effect 3, even being featured in a reversible cover art for the last game. Players could take the cover out through the front sleeve and flip it around to have FemShep on the cover of their game box. However, she was not featured on the primary box, and is featured in a similar pose to her male counterpart. This often time brushes female characters as a marketing niche that appeals to certain, smaller audiences, yet ironically, the marketing team behind the game creates this niche. According to the game’s developer, BioWare, 18 percent of players who play Mass Effect play the game as a version of FemShep. Considering how little the character has been promoted, it’s understandable why this number is so low; with her lack of promotion, many players may not realize she exists.
Video games do have the potential to dig their way out of a “female clone” trap by providing the initially cloned characters with additional personality and physical elements to further distinguish them from the character they were derived from. I’ve previously mentioned the Mortal Kombat X series for its depiction of female characters, and many of the series’ female characters were palette-swapped. This idea of palette swapping, which is arguably most prevalent with Mario and Luigi from the Super Mario Bros. series, was present in the first game, when Scorpion, Sub Zero and Reptile were based on the same character model. The difference between the three was that their clothing was yellow, blue and green respectively, just like how Mario and Luigi are dressed in red and green. This was often done to save memory, especially when video games were produced on a cartridge. Cartridge sizes for consoles like the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo capped out at 5 to 6 megabytes, while Nintendo 64 cartridges maxed out at 64. In comparison, Blu-ray discs, which are what are used for modern day video game releases for the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, can store up to 50 gigabytes of data. Modern video games can store anywhere from 800 to 8,000 times as much data than previous games. Even if modern graphics and audio are more sophisticated and require more data, this increase in size nearly eliminating the need to incorporate palette swapping as a memory-saving technique.
Ed Boon, the co-creator of the Mortal Kombat series, said his team wanted to fit 12 characters into Mortal Kombat’s sequel, 1993’s Mortal Kombat II, in a video featured on the deluxe edition of Mortal Kombat: Deception. He said the developers were running short on memory, and came up with the idea of incorporating “the female version of Scorpion and Sub-Zero” in the form of Kitana and Mileena. Another female ninja, Jade, would also make her debut as a boss character in the same game, in a similar fashion to Reptile in the original Mortal Kombat. Like Reptile, Jade’s character model would also be based off of the same model as Kitana and Mileena. However, her model was more tan-skinned and she wore a green leotard, in contrast with Kitana’s and Mileena’s blue and purple. While the characters were given various special moves to set them apart, they were (and sometimes are) still regarded as “the female ninjas” amongst fans.
However, where the Mortal Kombat series excels is that, in terms of physical appearance, personality and storylines, it allows these characters to diversify themselves. In the Mario series, Mario and Luigi are forever known as brothers who dress in the exact same way, except with different colors. Mario and Luigi’s plotlines are almost nearly intertwined with one another. With the Mortal Kombat ninjas, they’ve been allowed to digress and establish themselves as different individuals. In Mortal Kombat X, Mileena and Kitana’s story arcs did not intersect once. Considering how they were brought into the series as palette-swapped rival sisters, it sends a strong message that women are capable of engaging in various endeavors outside of their family and can practice independence. While retaining some of their ninja traits, such as their veils, their character models were substantially different from each other, and their stories longer served as complementary contrasts towards the other’s interest. While some people may say the costume differences were helped by technology and an increase in memory, that doesn’t discredit the additional benefits that are served by this. Kitana was no longer a princess and Mileena was no longer Kitana’s evil sister. Kitana was killed by another character and resurrected as a revenant, while Mileena, still alive, fought to retain her status as queen. This allowed for both characters to create a new legacy and to not be brushed off as a female afterthought of the series’ arguably two most popular characters: Scorpion and Sub-Zero.
In certain circumstances, video games will receive sequels that will be led by a supporting character from the initial game. In the case of Final Fantasy X-2, the game’s primary protagonist was Yuna, the love interest of Final Fantasy X’s Tidus and secondary protagonist of Final Fantasy X. From Final Fantasy X to Final Fantasy X-2, Yuna’s character design changed drastically to resemble Tidus’ design from Final Fantasy X. Yuna adopted a haircut similar to his, and also sported the logo of his blitzball team on her top. In addition, the skirt she wore in Final Fantasy X was replaced with a pair of short shorts. Yuna was essentially a feminine version of Tidus from a physical standpoint. In Final Fantasy X, Yuna was a sorcerer, whose conflict and drive led to the story line’s progression. Her character was more central to the storyline’s progression than Tidus; despite having to be rescued multiple times and having multiple guardians, it’s Yuna’s inability to compromise sacrificing her friends’ lives that eventually leads to her (and her guardians) saving the world. All of the playable female characters in Final Fantasy X-2 are female, and one could argue the game is soaked in feminism as a result. An all playable female cast that isn’t afraid to get physical like the men shows that women can be tough as well. Yet, Yuna’s identity serves as a red flag, as her initial physical identity isn’t just stripped, but it is replaced with mementos of a male character.
The female clone does not have to be a literal clone of a character model with some added feminine traits, as it is with Ms. Pac Man. The female clone can serve as a character option that may or may not be customizable, or it can be taking a previous character and modifying them with more physically masculine traits in order to shape them into an ideal protagonist. This trope reflects a lack of originality for the “cloned” character, which also reflects a lack of effort to create a new female personality. It states that video game developers are not willing to put in an effort to create a unique, authentic female character, yet they are more than willing to invest more time into creating the initial character in the first place. In the case of Commander Shepard, the male version of the character sees a majority of the spotlight compared to FemShep, which results in the character’s erasure and lack of selection in the games. Without providing equal investment in both characters, players will easily gravitate towards one version of the character more. The lack of investment in both gendered Shepards reflects the notion that women are inferior. Taking male characteristics, as we’ve seen with Yuna in Final Fantasy X-2, also reflects a similar notion that her initial appearance and design wasn’t “heroic” enough, and had to be further masculinized in order to portray a strong female. This tactic essentially says that a woman’s traits are inferior to masculine ones – a blatant showing of sexism. While characters are naturally going to be created over time, refusing to create a new identity for a female character, not promoting it on equal ground, or just putting traits seen in a male character on top of a character model create further roadblocks in generating equality for women in video game media.
Continue reading part 4 here.
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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.