July 3, 2022

Equality and The Need For Better.

Yes, I’m going into the Girls in Games debate again. The canary died the last time…


Like a nasty smell that just won’t go away, the issue of girls in games has reared its head once more. Actually, that stink might be that I tried to watch Movie 43…

So instead of arguing about the volume of women in games and their contribution, I thought I’d perhaps tackle it from a different angle this time. Alongside the rise of Gender Bustin’, an attempt to make male games characters female and vice versa, came the statistic that only 4% of video games have a leading lady. Now, ladies, I know that’s a horrible realisation but then again, have you seen the slew of generic male character leads in this day and age? Is THAT what you aspire to?

Don’t misunderstand however. I think the portrayal of women in video games is often quite ghastly. I’ve written at length at how it’s worth discussing the issue of gender politics, even if the argument is extremely loaded to only ever provide one valid answer. I’ve also argued about the state of women in society today; and how the media portrayal of women in general across the board is pretty horrific and ghastly and putrid beyond all belief. In the 80’s we had Ripley, in the 90’s we had Buffy, and today we have Sex and the City 2. Yeah, it’s a pretty big step down. I’d link to some critiques of the whole issue of how women have been condensed down into commercialised puppets but frankly in spite of them all being written by educated and very funny women, they’re all frankly past-Midnight rude and shouldn’t be read by anyone without a sense of humour. I agree that the state of femininity and womanhood in a modern world is less than it was even a decade ago.

That said, I am fascinated by this whole idea that we need “more” women in games, that somehow it’s a quantity issue.

Let’s quickly run through a few recent female leads, just to give you some idea of the problem. Let’s begin with Resident Evil;¬†Ada went from an exotic-looking woman in a flowing dress who was feminine, agile, sexy but ultimately very, very dangerous to a strangely whitened-up version in a very safe set of clothes who was a clone, but not a clone, and she lost that dangerous mystique. Ada works when she’s not being explained; she works because she’s already “The Bomb” in narrative terms, an explosive and volatile addition to a tale that you’re never quite sure if she’s trying to help you, or murder you. The whole point of Ada Wong was missed by a country mile in Resident Evil 6, and that was a crying shame. Resident Evil 6 isn’t exactly anyone’s finest hour, but they took down easily the most iconic and charismatic female character of the series. It’s telling that the “whitening” of a woman who is supposed to be an American-born Chinese individual isn’t the most disturbing or worrying part of her addition in the game!

Then you have Jill Valentine – okay, Resident Evil 3 may not have been the best example of attire in a video game, but ultimately Jill was an action hero there; the male support was secondary to the whole thing. Jill was the main focus, and she was a strong woman who was also compassionate and concerned, whilst also being fierce and powerful and smart. You’d think that was a brilliant thing; but come her return in Resident Evil 5, Jill’s mind-controlled default state was to slip into an impossibly-tight purple PVC catsuit that bordered dangerously on camel-toe, and when it splayed open – yup, that’s right, straight down the cleavage leaving just enough behind to protect her modesty and keep it “tasteful”. Then you have Jessica; whose attire is provided courtesy of the Haus of Gaga, so dangerously couture and bordering on fetishist that you can barely believe they even tried being tasteful. That said, when it came to Rachel, tasteful was clearly not on the agenda. And that’s before we get to Lady Hunk; I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a lack of pants does not make something a woman! It could make you a lot of things to various people and not all very legal, true, but it doesn’t make you a woman!

Resident Evil may have been reducing its strong female leads down into tits – frankly, there are enough male tits in that series already that the female tits are actually pretty dull in comparison – but Lara Croft is a completely different ball game. Lara’s problem like any good, strong lead was simply overexposure; after a frankly disappointing run of games, the fact she was a woman was no longer ‘special’. Indeed, the Tomb Raider series should provide the evidence needed that a female lead can only work when you’re using it correctly; once Lara drifted away from her home turf, and into the frankly strange world of Angel of Darkness, she didn’t work. Lara became a caricature; one that is easy to mock, but one that didn’t need to happen. That they’re now rebooting the reboot of the original that I admired so much is frankly cause for alarm, because Lara doesn’t need to change – or rather, she does, but she needs to go back to her old wily self, a woman who is charming and sexy and flirtatious, whose femininity is her most deadly asset. The recent cold, hard, emotionless male-themed Lara Croft frankly doesn’t inspire anything in me. If she can’t feel anything, then sorry, I’m not going to feel it for her.

Then we come to Juliet Starling. For all the joy in Lollipop Chainsaw, she is frankly the most boring character in years, in spite of the knicker flashes and skimpy clothing. She’s boring because she’s predictable; she has a few cute lines but the lions share of the jokes are based around the clich√© idea that a teenage cheerleader isn’t very smart at all! Oh how witty! What a valid social commentary on the state of young women in the modern world, I’m sure Suda51 sleeps soundly at night on that massive bed of money he gets paid for this kind of tired stuff. Juliet Starling is no Buffy Summers, that’s for sure. Buffy tackled issues. The whole premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a teen drama draped in the loose weave of a horror series and we were really talking about how hard it is to grow up and take responsibility from a young age. Lollipop Chainsaw makes no attempt to justify its lazy personality design, and Juliet just looks very, very silly as a result of it. I remember some reviews said Juliet would be “the new Buffy!”. Not unless Suda51 is prepared to pay Joss Whedon a crapton of money to change every aspect of her lazy design…

This is but a small selection. Of course, we had female leads in the 80’s and 90’s; Mary from Quartet. Okay, she was described then as “the token girl”, but the silly thing was at the time that wasn’t really so bad, and yes the constraints meant Mary was only ever Edgar in drag, but it didn’t matter. She was still interesting and, rather amusingly, more interesting than Edgar, the bald military guy hero. Then of course you have the likes of Blaze Fielding from Streets of Rage, Tyris Flare from Golden Axe and Julie from Zombies! Ate My Neighbours – perhaps not the lead roles in their games but they shone the brightest of any of the characters, strong and independent women who could very easily play the same game as the big boys and do it just as well. This is before we even get to the Metroid bridge, and the shock that people felt when they found out – oh my word! Samus is a GIRL! IT’S A GIRL! Quick, get the dictionary, I need to remind myself of the concept of ‘girl’! Women were in games; perhaps not always meant as the main roles, sure, but for some quite odd reason they were able to transcend that and become the stars. After all, talk to anyone about Street Fighter and the likelihood is one of the first characters they’ll think of is Chun Li… not the lead, no, but she’s a hell of a lot more iconic and identifiable than Ryu…

And that’s kind of the angle I want to come at really.

Equality isn’t about volume. It’s about QUALITY. It’s part of the freaking word for crying out loud, it’s staring you in the face, and it shouldn’t be supplanted by the idea that quality can be made up for in quantity. Because at the end of the day, you can make a hundred games with generic female leads; but that’s still just a hundred generic female leads. They’re not special. They’re not unique. They’re not interesting. They’re just generic female leads who say nothing, and frankly we have enough generic male leads in video games these days to cover that for the girls. We don’t need to inflict the same insult on women.

Equality isn’t just gender-defined though; I would ask where the disabled heroes are, but of course one can assume that it’s much harder to get around the massive social stigma that surrounds the disabled even now. You’re reading this, after all, and I am disabled. In the real world, I tried for years to get a job as my body began to fail me, and no-one was interested. Sure, you can type and you’re a little bit interesting but ooh, we’d have to spend money to change things for you and we may have to ask people to treat you politely and they’ll think we’re giving you special treatment and so on. It’s sad but that’s the reality of it for you. I did once write to the Daily Mail asking them after a particularly strong attack on the disabled being “scroungers” as to how many disabled people their organisation actually employed on a full-time basis. Amusingly, I never got a reply so I can deduce from that the answer is likely none. Well, maybe one, but every day they employ Jan Moir as a columnist is a day that the whole organisation is taking the piss out of society at large…

But it would be nice to have a disabled lead, you know? I mean, the recent attempts to jump on the Paralympic bandwagon have been mixed at best; The Last Leg, awesome. Funny as you’d ever want a weekly topical summary of the news to be. I’m Spazticus? Frankly, the title tells you everything you need to know about this. Respect? Pull the other one, it might come off…

And there are far more corners of society that we can talk equality over. Ethnic minorities? Ada Wong we’ve addressed but most of the men are generic white American soldier tropes and as much as I am sure that American soldiers do a damned fine job, the prominence of them in our entertainment is frankly a little souring especially when it’s often the ‘minorities’ who end up being shot at. I mean, would it kill them to have a Japanese or Hispanic hero for once? I thought America was the “Land of the Free” after all. More and more it seems Americans are pushing out entertainment that shows the country as “Land of the White”, and that’s every bit as disturbing as it sounds. And of course, let’s not forget the LGBT community, who end up far more being displayed as Graham Norton-types than as people. Okay, we get it, most people think “Gay” equates to “Camp”. But surely that’s a misconception games would be able to shoot down? Mass Effect and Dragon Age sadly not doing much to move the same-sex relationship issue past “awkward” and “camp as a row of tents”…

But let’s get this back to women in games briefly, because people want us to currently keep singling this small part of the whole out.

One decent female lead would stand for a thousand generic female leads and arguably cost a lot less in the long run. And it’s funny details like that which have become lost in society today; choice is one thing, but if your choice is between boring, bland, uninspired, insipid and insulting, the choice isn’t very meaningful. You’re just picking from a list of duds. That’s not choice. That’s compromise – which way do you want us to offend every fibre of your being today? More isn’t the answer in this case; if there’s an issue with how women are portrayed, sticking to generic tropes and identifiers isn’t going to somehow magically sort the problem out because then women will think we’re just mocking them. They will take it as an affront. This is, as I’ve said before, an argument that is almost always loaded by a small segment of people and there can only be one answer. Even if they have no idea what that answer is.

Calling for “more” isn’t it. Quantity cannot replace quality. If you want a meaningful choice, then let’s stop asking for “more women in game leads!”. Asking for more is effectively just going to end up with male leads given boobs, short skirts and girly voices. You’re not fixing anything. Asking for companies to think about their female leads more would be a great start however; getting Capcom to do something more with frankly the only female lead in Resident Evil with a shred of dignity left, Sherry Birkin, and evolving that character properly. Or getting Crystal Dynamics to go back and play the first Tomb Raider and watch the first film which totally got Lara’s personality right. She’s a filthy rich playgirl who runs around the world looking for ancient artefacts because hey, what else is there for a sadistically wealthy girl to do with her time?

What we need is female roles that take inspiration from Buffy Summers and Ellen Ripley. Characters that thrive in their role, but work also because they bring that softer edge as well. They can be tough as nails and as cold and heartless as any male; but unlike men, can also have compassion and understanding (not literally, but narratively). Characters who are not two-dimensional, but well rounded and considered.

But gender is really not the issue. Ten thousand faces of the last generation and I’m finding it hard to place names to any of them, male or female. They all just blend together into one muddled mass of utter beige. There’s no effort. They’re drones. Cardboard cut-outs. Vacuum Cleaners with a paper-plate face taped onto them. Characters devoid of personality, or charm, or any serious differentiating function or feature. Sure, women make up a tiny fragment of that.

And though it’s no less important, let’s focus on that word – Equality. If we’re going to fix a problem, let’s fix the whole problem for everybody.

Not just one small bit of it. Because truth is, that’s rather selfish.


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