Stick with me here, because I promise there's a real point to this. Don't just head to the comments and call me names. Hell, for all you know, there's not only a worthy discussion on video game culture but a damned treasure map in the middle of the article.
I got Tomb Raider back from my brother this weekend, and decided a speed run through the game would be the perfect thing for the lull I've got in review titles at the moment. The game still holds up incredibly well, not just as a storytelling experience but as a damn fine game. In fact, I loved it even more the second time around without quite so much insistence on 100 percent completion. The fights are really well done, and Lara Croft is a gift of a protagonist. I live for the moment after she nets the grenade launcher and screams, "That's right! Run, you bastards! I'm coming for you all!"
It occurred to me as I played through the game that it had been a very long time since I'd seen female soldiers come after me in a video game, which is something I'd like to see more of.
See also: Reviews for the Lazy Gamer: Tomb Raider
A long, long time ago, there was a game called Final Fight and a character named Poison, who recently showed up again thanks to Street Fighter X Tekken. When Capcom was developing the character for the original Final Fight in Japan, she was always intended to be female. However, they were worried about how American audiences would respond to hitting women and wondered if feminist groups would sue.
"Hitting women was considered rude," according to All About Capcom Head to Head Fighting Games. So the character was made a transvestite. Playtesters for the SNES did indeed express dislike of hitting girls, and the explanation that Poison was secretly a dude was not exactly met with the greatest of enthusiasm. She was replaced with a male character named Sid.
With the exception of fighting games, which have always been oddly very equal-opportunity, it's remained fairly rare to see female minions in the wave of enemies. If they are present, they're almost always some form of dominatrix. Regular shock troops in the rank and file? Not so much.
Now, admittedly, this makes some sense in the context of Tomb Raider. The cultists who inhabit Yamatai have been searching for decades for a suitable female candidate whose body their Sun Queen can inhabit, and ultimately allow them to escape. The test for worthiness, as shown in one scene, is to try and burn the girl alive. Presumably this means that any women stranded in wrecks on the island are tested, and the failures are allowed to burn or otherwise killed.
I don't buy it, though...I just do not buy that a group of men alone on an island were content to allow every single woman who came into their midst to be tried and killed with none allowed to live. I don't care how scared they were of the Sun Queen and her priests or how murderous or sadistic they were. You can't convince me that newer recruits not yet tamed never expressed a desire to save a young girl, or that a husband never secured the safety of his wife. All logic says to me that any group the size of the villains in Tomb Raider should at some point be made up partially of women and that those women, as susceptible to the whole Lord of the Flies thing as their male counterparts, wouldn't be just as likely to turn into zealous killers.
Why don't you see women in the ranks in a game like Tomb Raider?
Sometimes you do, true. The Last of Us featured some female ghouls, and common sense dictates that a killer zombie fungus would infect indiscriminately. They don't make up a very large part of the hordes, though, and you see them much more often as Clickers, their features obscured by the fungus that has burst through their skulls. You only know they're women by their usually low-cut blouses. As with the Bubble Head Nurses from Silent Hill, that does little more than accentuate sexuality while making it horrifying. It's certainly not an expression of conventional gender identity.
In moments when Joel and Ellie confront non-infected combatants, women are not found at all, as far as I can recall. Only women who are monsters are allowed to attack the player.
BioShock and BioShock 2 did better. The crazed survivors of Rapture's civil war feature both sexes as basic enemies. It's worth noting again, though, that rather than the expected 50/50 rate you would expect in the real world, male models still outnumber female ones by more than three to one. And once again, the Rapture citizens are still little better than zombies themselves. BioShock Infinite did still better, but did not quite make it in the end on the equality front.
There are three reasons that I can think of why modern video games are still so reticent to include a more equal number of women as basic antagonists.
1. Like Capcom and Final Fight, that the game makers fear repercussions from killing women so indiscriminately in regular combat, fear being accused of misogyny. I can understand this. Violence against women is not only still a big social problem, it's also one that a lot of people have tried to sweep under the rug as the normal state of things. Being seen promoting it is a stinky cheese to hold.
2. That game makers are still unable to contemplate women as a credible threat to the player on a consistent basis.
3. That game makers are still in this day and age not aware that women make up half the population.
Judging by Hollywood and the game industry in general, I really do think that it's number three. That three-to-one ratio in BioShock is pretty standard in entertainment. I believe that the reason you never see any female soldiers trying to take down Lara Croft in Tomb Raiders isn't really because all the girls found by the cultist were killed. I believe that we are still working very hard not just to have strong female characters in gaming, but simply to remember to include women period in numbers something close to those we see as we walk down the street.
I recently read Sophia McDougall's rant at News Statesmen against the concept of "strong female characters" in all its brilliance. She makes a very important point. Whenever we include women in games or really any other medium, it's this big "Oh look! A kick-ass grrl! A role model for young 'uns in powerful feminism!" thing. We need those characters, definitely, but we could also use a few more who are just, well, regular background. We need to stop asking if the game has any girls and start asking why there's only a couple.
Gaming is getting better in the realm of how it treats women. We get better protagonists and more female ones every year. We have more and more discussions on whether we are using non-playable female characters as expressions of sexist tropes rather than actual developed pieces of the story.
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But a game is to be played, not to be watched. By its very definition, a game is made up of a mob in your way. Until we see more women standing beside the same countless male faces attacking our heroes and heroines, gaming is still going to remain a boy's club. Men's rights assholes will tell you, "We should be allowed to mow down bitches with a machine gun, too! That would be fair!" before heading back into their troll caves.
That's not what I'm saying. I don't have any particular need to watch Lara Croft or Joel shoot flaming arrows or hurl nail bombs at girls because I'm not an asshole. I'm just saying that a general lack of female enemies is more indicative of a persistent, possibly unintentional, neglect to include women in games in real-world numbers.