Sexism in Games

Reading this article on Cracked had me thinking about why it’s so hard for some people to acknowledge when something may be fundamentally wrong or unequal about one of their favorite hobbies. I’m not really much of a comic book reader, but I am a pretty “well-played” gamer. Sexist portrayals of women in games always seemed like something so unflinchingly obvious to me, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could argue otherwise. Being a woman who that plays primarily adventure/action/shooter games means that most of what I play assumes that I’m male. Most of the avatars in the games that I play (and in games in general) are male. Games, even still, are made mostly by (straight) men for other straight men, although things are thankfully starting to change. But lots of people seem to have a favorite argument against others decrying female representations like this:

Ivy is kind of a cheap shot at this point, however. Most of the female characters in the games that I play don’t look like this. But, people’s favorite counterargument to this seems to be to cry “double standard! the men in games are idealized too!”

Those arms just look stupid.

Yes. Yes, they are. However, they’re male characters made by men for other men. It’s a false equivalency. I think I’ll use a game that I played the hell out of as a teen, and that was also wildly popular, Resident Evil 4, to illustrate my point.

This is the main protagonist of the game, Leon S. Kennedy. Notice how his body is very much an idealized male body:

He’s a good looking guy. I recognize this. However, the game isn’t made in such a way as to expect me, as a straight female player, to ogle him as a sexual object. No lingering camera pans to his crotch and/or ass, no gratuitous shirtlessness- I don’t even get to check out his butt when I control him:


So, there’s really no evidence that he, as a character, was designed to be sexy with a female player in mind. In fact, his idealized form more likely has to do with making him look like a competent police agent/zombie killer. If he looked like a normal, non buff, doughy dude, he wouldn’t be believable as the action hero he is in the games. He wouldn’t be a desirable character for the player to inhabit in the game. His idealized body has much more to do with establishing his competence as a fighter rather than with establishing him as a sexy chunk of man meat.

Now lets look at Ashley Graham, your companion for much of the game and the main female protagonist (Ada, being only in a few scenes, is more of a secondary character.)

She has a pretty idealized female form. Small waist, big boobs, short skirt. These, in and of themselves, aren’t offensive. Plenty of women have small waists, and/or big boobs and wear short skirts. I don’t even really have a problem with her complete lack of fighting ability- she is a civilian after all. What makes her presentation sexist is in how the game is constructed in such a way as to present her, voyeuristic-ally, to the player as a sexual object. For instance, she can’t climb down ladders for some reason (probably because it would take annoyingly long) so you, as the player, have to frequently catch her from some sort of precipice. This gives you a pretty clear view up her skirt, so much so that the designers of the game went through the trouble of incorporating dialogue of Ashley responding to this.

You have to watch her character go through that animation so. Many. Times. Even though I had no interest in seeing it- I had no control over the camera panning over to her every time she had to descend a cliff/ladder or whatever. It was dumb and unnecessary.

Speaking of dumb and unnecessary, there’s the small chapter of the game where you have to play as Ashley and solve some puzzles and kill run away from some zombies/enemies crawl under tables and dodge some enemies by falling down, which, again, shows more upskirts.

There are other instances in the game where the camera pans and lingers on her breasts, characters directly address her ample chest in dialogue, etc. This all establishes an assumed (straight) male gaze of the player. One is constantly reminded “hey, just in case you forgot, this character is sexy. Look. Look at how sexy she is.”

It just made me roll my eyes every time I played- I just thought it was stupid, but I’d come to expect this as a (straight) female gamer. I just saw it as the crap I had to wade through to get to what was an otherwise fun game. It was a constant reminder that this game wasn’t made with me in mind or really, with anyone of my gender in mind. And I had gotten used to that. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how problematic this apathetic attitude was, and how problematic it was that I had grown kinda sorta okay with it. I no longer think it’s unreasonable for game developers to acknowledge that I exist. And honestly, this kind of juvenile, stupid stuff in these games is why people continue to not take games seriously as a medium- it gives them ammunition. This wasn’t a b-movie of a game- this was a critically acclaimed title. But this kind of stuff would not fly in a critically acclaimed film. I love games. I love them so much that I think they can do better, and I want them to be better.

And I realize this is kind of an old game, being a last gen game and all. I just used RE4 as an example because I’m very familiar with the game (having played through it like a million times), and it showed very clearly the differences in the idealization of the male vs female characters. THIS is the difference. I don’t know of any game that features a male character that exists solely (other than being a loose plot device) as something for the player to ogle in the way Ashley and countless other female game characters. Imagine if an action game featured the typical ripped space marine protagonist- only he was wearing tight bicycle shorts instead of cool armor, that highlighted his bulging crotch. The camera frequently pans to his crotch bulge, and you, as the player, have no control over this- you’re subjected to many unnecessary glimpses of his ample crotch. The fact that this sounds so ridiculous and funny with a male character, but is standard and expected with a female one, is exactly what I’m talking about.

Hannah Hoch: Ahead of her Time

Hannah Hoch was making work about gender and femininity before it was cool. More specifically, during the era of Dada in Berlin.


-Hannah Hoch, Grotesque, 1963-

I’m not the biggest fan of photomontage, but I really admire Hannah Hoch’s work, especially since it was very much ahead of its time. She managed to be the only woman “accepted” into the Dada circle in the early 1900’s. Apparently, a bone of contention was that her work wasn’t “political” enough. Not surprising for a boy’s club to fail to recognize how overtly political exploring gender performance and sexual identity is. Her work predates the use of the phrase “the personal is political” by the feminist movement by about 40 years.


-Hannah Hoch, Dompteuse, 1930.-

Imagine that! A work that embraces an androgynous gaze. Sometimes when studying art, as a woman, it can get a bit annoying to look at work after work that I can consciously recognize wasn’t made with the expectation that I (or someone like me) would ever look at it. It’s assuming that I’m a (straight) male. I can only handle so many Olympia-style, reclined, Venus nudes. Hey Bro, I painted this hot naked chick for you to look at! That’s the dominance of the male gaze, folks. And it’s refreshing to learn about people like Hannah Hoch, who directly challenged this gender bias in art, before it was “cool” to do so.