One of the regular criticisms of Anita Sarkeesian’s feminist web series regarding portrayals of women in video games that does often ring true is that she’s not very fast at producing them. She herself has described each one as essentially writing a master’s thesis on the subject and that’s why they take so long. Certainly, the quality and depth of the material show she puts that time to good use, but a year is a long time between content, even if I did enjoy her smaller Positive Female Characters in Video Games series in between. On the other hand, that year in between was also the year GamerGate turned the harassment of Sarkeesian up so high it broke the knob off the amp, so delays are understandable.
Her newest, half-hour work is on the Women as Reward trope. It’s related to but slightly different from her look at Damsels in Distress in subtle ways, though there is some overlap. The greatest example of that is the original Double Dragon, where Marian is kidnapped by a gang and Jimmy and Billy Lee must beat up gang members to get her back. It’s a pretty clear case of damseling, but Sarkeesian points out something about the ending of the game I had never really considered before…probably because I’m not good enough at that game ever to get to the ending.
In Double Dragon, if two players manage to beat the final boss together, they must then fight each other until one of them wins. Marian will shower affection on whoever does. I vaguely remember this being explained to me as a kid as Jimmy secretly being behind the kidnapping all along, but even if that admittedly stupid plot twist is accurate, it doesn’t change the outcome. The player with the greatest skill gets the girl.
Sarkeesian offers a pretty extensive list of ways in which female characters, their affections and their bodies, can be offered to the player as a reward in addition to defining how rewards work in interactive media. Sometimes they are literal trophies, like the achievements in God of War, and sometimes they offer play benefits like stamina boost in Grand Theft Auto V. There are collectibles like actual Playboy centerfolds from Mafia II and the romance cards from The Witcher, and Easter eggs like the long-running aspect of Metroid that beating the game faster lets you see Samus Aran in more revealing outfits.
It’s good to see a sense of humor returning to Feminist Frequency because frankly, we’re talking about a subject that while meaningful is also inherently ridiculous. I’m a big fan of open mockery of that which should be openly mocked. Take the alternative outfits from the Resident Evil series that she addresses. These have a long, stupid history of turning otherwise badass women into walking fetish dollies, and it culminates with Resident Evil: Revelations 2 where Claire Redfield gets a sexy cowgirl outfit and Moira Burton gets, as Sarkeesian puts it, “whatever the Hell this is.” This is a trope that almost never occurs with male characters.
The aspect of the Women as Reward trope that most stuck with me, though, is how some games basically perpetuate and reward what is essentially digitized sexual harassment. I’m not an achievement hunter, so I never realized that if you continuously try to look up Julie’s skirt in Lollipop Chainsaw despite her pulling it down to cover herself, you get a trophy. Same if you keep staring at the chest of female characters in Asura’s Wrath even though they try to cover up so you can’t.
This, as Sarkeesian points out, is largely the perpetuation of male entitlement, the idea that men somehow have a right to women’s bodies. It’s also where, forgive the expletive, she stops fucking around and drops the microphone.
There’s this intentional misunderstanding of what media criticism is trying to say, especially criticism against racist content or sexist content or violent content. Many people buy into the idea that when critics say this content contributes to a societal problem in these areas, they're claiming games or movies or whatever are “causing” those problems, and then they can safely dismiss the criticism because that’s silly. No one ever raped someone over something the person saw in a video game, right?
I’d like to quote this bit verbatim…
The women as reward trope in video games becomes a mechanism through which male entitlement is taught and reinforced in our wider culture. Cognitively, it’s strikingly similar to the expectation that if a man buys a woman a few drinks, then he is owed sex. The money and time for the alcohol and conversation are the inputs, the sexual gratification is the output.
When men’s entitlement-based expectations are not fulfilled they sometimes lash out in resentment or aggression towards women. This is clearly illustrated in the catcalling scenarios I mentioned earlier: street harassers feel entitled to women’s time and women’s attention. If they don’t get the response they feel they are owed, they can become increasingly angry, following their targets, insulting them, groping them, or otherwise aggressively demanding to be acknowledged.
In other words, sexist content in games is not the cause of sexism in the real world; it is a symptom of it and a reinforcement of it. The exact same male entitlement that makes you, often without even really being aware that you’re doing it, expect a response on Tinder to “hey baby u fukn hot” or flirting for opening the door is what leads game designers to drop in ways for you get tits for skills. This is not an instinctual behavior but a learned one. We just don’t realize we’re learning it because instead of being told it, we’re literally swimming in it.
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Most men don’t consciously think they have a right to override a woman’s agency, but the fact that we’re so comfortable watching other men do it on television and in video games alone proves that subconsciously we have absorbed it as either good or at least normal.
It’s awesome to see TvWVG back releasing work, and I’m particularly looking forward to the hint of a video more focused on the portrayal of minority women Sarkeesian mentions in this one. Her intersectionality has definitely been showing lately, openly addressing the focus of much of the past year’s GamerGate debacle on herself and two other white women as a problem and adding commentary on sexual orientation and gender identity to her work. As always, her analysis showed me things I’d never really noticed about games I thought I knew well, and that in itself is one of the reasons the series remains relevant and necessary. Check out the latest episode below.