Violence and Gender

Published by Soha E. on Jan. 25, 2013

The topic of violence in video games is ongoing and never-ending. Politicians will grasp at straws to explain shootings, massacres, and violence in youth by blaming the games that encourage players to be trigger-happy to send their digital foes into a blaze of glory. Instead of discussing whether or not there is a correlation between games and real life violence, I think it’s important for gamers to learn how to start reading violence in the same context as they would in other forms of media and art. Instead of asking, “What do violent video games do to us in our everyday life?” We should move towards understanding how we interpret violence as spectators. Last week, publisher Deep Silver found themselves in a controversy after they announced one of the items in the collector’s edition of Dead Island: Riptide which was a headless, armless, bikini-clad statuette covered in blood to suggest she was grotesquely dismembered. One (or two) of her body parts remain perfectly intact – her large breasts.

While the controversy may remain unfazed to many, an important step in realizing why this is a big deal is to understand how violence in the media is gendered specifically towards female characters. Of course, that is not to say that violence doesn’t happen to male characters or that the violence they experience doesn’t comment on masculinity, but when female characters encounter violence in games too many times it is a direct attack on their sexuality to take them down a few notches and restore a patriarchal balance.

Remember the fetish nun trailer for Hitman: Absolution? The violence we witness is implicitly explained because it's made clear the women are the "bad guys" and we know this as soon as they strip off their habits to reveal provocative fetish attire. This action visually fulfills a virgin/whore dichotomy and confirms all of Agent 47's actions as necessary. They are not innocent and thus they are free game. We watch them get stabbed, shot, strangled, and subdued in slow-mo while catching more glimpses of their racy wear. Let's envision for a minute that these assassins were men in regular attire approaching Agent 47 in his safehouse motel room. All he would have to do is attack them and the audience will know to identify them as his enemies. But no, the women must be stripped to sexually suggestive goth wear so we can authenticate his actions and say to ourselves "well, I guess they did have it coming."

The trailer is now old but the stories have not changed. The Dead Island: Riptide bust is only a reminder of something that is commonplace in many forms of media: female sexuality is to be punished or it is to be humorous (see Lollipop Chainsaw, Bayonetta). Even in the earlier trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider shows a character that is known to exude sexual confidence to be physically oppressed and threatened by men in such a way that she becomes unrecognizable. This motif is used in slasher films when killers target women as they're having sex or after the audience receives confirmation that they are not virgins. Linda Williams wrote in her essay Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess that the "violent attack on the female victims vividly enacts a symbolic castration which often functions as a kind of punishment for an ill-time exhibition of sexual desire." The Dead Island statuette speaks a thousand words in how the publishers look at the female form. It could’ve been the decaying torso of a zombie, or a severed head, but instead it is a disturbing recreation of the Venus de Milo that can hardly be categorized as art.

Video games and violence go hand in hand. Rarely do we play a game that does not require us to maim, shoot, or destroy to clear missions and complete quests. What disturbs me the most is violence in games against women because society has yet to reconcile this type of violence as a form of female oppression. I repeat – I know there is violence toward male characters and that is gendered too, but in a very different way because it does not attack male sexuality or attempt to make male characters seem impotent. Instead of focusing on levels of violence, let’s shift to learning how to read violence and open a dialogue on how it interprets the gendered societal problems that are already under our noses.

Comments

  • Travis Collins Avatar
    Travis Collins
    9 years ago

    You make a good point. They push the violence towards women in video games a little too far. It's not necessary, but it can sometimes, in my opinion, make it highly suspenseful if done right. I didn't like the whole killer sexy nuns thing in HItman: Absolution. They could have been more creative with that. Great article!

  • Frank Hartnett Avatar
    Frank Hartnett
    9 years ago

    Deep Silver had to have known the kind of reaction they would get when they announced that statue. I can guarantee they only did it to get people to pay attention to their game. On to the rest of the article. I'm willing to let sexualization of female characters slide if it's a game like Bayonetta because, well, the game isn't meant to be taken seriously to begin with and there's still a good game beyond that. In general; however, I agree with you. Nothing was accomplished through the statue or the Tomb Raider and Hitman trailers except the devs screaming: "LOOK! OUR GAME HAS BOOBS IN IT! BUY IT!"

  • TurnedtoGold Avatar
    TurnedtoGold
    9 years ago

    I love this article. This is one of my favorite topics. We definitely need to reassess female representation in media. I know most of my male friends don't realize how frequently violence is directed toward women, especially in this medium. Games like Tomb Raider are so conflicting for me. As a little girl, Lara was my role model. I'm not denying she was sexualized as a character, she was. Her sexuality has always existed, and will continue to exist. What disturbs me is the evolution of how NPCs interact with her. Currently, the violence directed toward her is far more sexualized. The picture above says it all. As her captor strokes her cheek, her eyes and jaw are dropped down with a fearful expression. All of these are a sign of submission. If a male character was in the same situation, his captor would not be stroking his cheek and he would not be complacent. Imagine someone trying to pull that with Nathan Drake or Kratos. Someone would get the shit kicked out of them. The Lara above, that's not the Lara I looked up to as a child, and that's not how she was portrayed in her early years. The industry needs to change its attitude toward/portrayal of women, but that will only happen if we let them know we want change. A serious dialogue needs to begin about this topic.

  • Absolutely Daft Avatar
    Absolutely Daft
    9 years ago

    I think the dead island torso and the Hitman nuns just didn't make sense, and that why it makes the game industry's look on violence and women bad. I'd rather see women kick ass, than get their asses kicked in slutty outfits (says the guy who plays fighting games online). In all seriousness, I like how the Japanese handle female characters in shows like Skip Beat! & YuruYuri. I know Dead or Alive exists, but I love 3D fighting games' takes on martial arts and not the insane amount of boob jiggling. You're article makes me a little more comfortable with this subject; and I thank you for enlighting me some. I hope you get yourself on Cocktail Time one day!

  • Victus Unus Avatar
    Victus Unus
    9 years ago

    Great article, what I'm happy is the pretty vocal outcry by a lot of gamers both male and female in regards to the changes made to Luara and to the stupid as hell Hitman trailer. It at least shows that there is progress.

    Soha, as a male I feel woefully inept at recognizing when a sexualized character is sexist. Now I can tell the obvious ones like he girls from DOA, but characters like Bayonetta are far more difficult for me to determin

  • Avatar
    Rorix
    9 years ago

    Eh, I have to disagree. I think there's a very fine line between what amounts to actual sexism and exploitation and cherry-picking sources to fit a narrative and this seems to fall into the latter. Violence is a key part of many games and happens to both genders. Would you rather developers take a kid-gloves, hands-off approach to violence inflicted upon women? I would think you'd be crying sexism if game companies started to treat women as weaker characters than men, as characters that by the nature of their gender should not be harmed. *That* is sexist. That is was many people fought against for many years, for equality. And frankly, we're now seeing the fruits of that labor. No longer are women put on a pedestal. They're down in mud with the men, engaged in combat, and yes, that includes being dismembered. That's what true equality is and now that we've achieved it, it sounds like there are some who wish to go backwards. I think the Dead Island statue in particular is proof enough that gender is no longer a major factor to game devs when it comes to how they portray their characters. I think it was a completely innocuous decision to make that statue the way it was and if people weren't so primed and chomping at the bit to view everything in the light of gender inequality, this would be a complete non-issue, as it should be.

  • Avatar
    CommanderZx2
    9 years ago

    In games of the past women were either exempt from games completely or would never be harmed, ever as it would be too much for the average public and ratings agencies.

    Now that they are treated equally and can be brutally tortured and killed just as much as men can, women cry foul to it?

  • Donathan Avatar
    Donathan
    9 years ago

    I do hope for better days in the future where female warriors and assassins bring more appropriate clothes to battle on a gaming wide scale and sexuality is toned down, but I'm not afraid to admit that I will miss this days off kick-ass half naked chicks running around beating people up. Not because it's right, but it's what I grew up on. The change will be for the better, that holds the most importance.

  • dumon Avatar
    dumon
    9 years ago

    I don't mean to sidetrack, but there is some seriously great discussion going on in here. Thanks for the interesting topic!

  • Avatar
    Davethezombie
    9 years ago

    I'm still not seeing your point. Whatever happens in the hitman trailer can't even be closely considered to be sexualized violence. He's not grabbing them by the tit and kicking them in vag or whatever. Nope, he's strangling them and shooting them like he would for any other male target. The tomb raider trailer as well also doesn't display explicit sexualized violence. Maybe the bad guy is kind of a creepo for touching her in odd places but that's not exactly hurting her. I also don't see why in the world some of you guys are bringing real world applications into this discussion as if that has to do with anything.

  • Nadia Avatar
    Nadia
    9 years ago

    OKAY Ready for a Reborn Response?

    From what I understand, this article is about the "sexualized" violence displayed when it comes to women in video games. A lot of the commentary disagreeing with Soha here involves the "sexualized" part. Rape being immediately paired with the "violence" aspect, but that's not the point she's trying to make. Rape is bad, kids, mmkay? But I have yet to see an on screen rape (well, then I think of FEAR 2 and...that...thing), the sentiment is always there whenever such an act is implied. E.G. Ben in Far Cry 3--you feel for the poor guy, and its fucked up. But notice that Ben was fully clothed when you found him, I didn't see him with a shirt off, or tied up in a particular way, he was a guy, shaking, on a bed, das it. If it was a woman, she would probably have something torn, be tied up, some flesh exposed. THAT'S what she means by sexualized. Want a different example? Madison from Heavy Rain during her nightmare. Sure she's fighting her pursuers off, but she's in her goddamn underwear! Why couldn't she be wearing pants? It's these subtle choices that establish this sexualized violence.
    Someone was also asking about real world implications. Soha isn't saying that video games= rape all day everyday. But video games where women in bikinis and school girl outfits getting zombified and beaten to a bloody pulp (I'm thinking the Dead Island bust and Dead or Alive, btw) psychologically desensitizes a person into having those violent tendencies without terribly understand the gravity of his/her actions. Note that a lot of assault against women is often unreported for a variety of reasons, but video games as a medium should make an effort that, if they want to show these things, not to hint at glory, it should be realistic, it should be traumatizing. Commander mentioned the shower thing from Mafia 2, I just watched it. 1. he's wearing shorts, 2. The protagonist, based on his movements, doesn't look fearful, and in fact shoves the guy away before engaging in the fight. I'd like to see a woman get attacked and be able to hold her ground, struggle to fight her attacker back, not scream and flail like a hot mess like Madison.
    That being said, degrading violence is a horrible thing for both genders because we are intelligent people and know better (or we watch Law & Order like me). Sexualizing it by showing attractive features of the victim doesn't get the message across, and that's the real issue here.

  • Victus Unus Avatar
    Victus Unus
    9 years ago

    Last year Jim Sterling posted an episode of the Jimquistion regarding the question about rape vs murder in games. Its a great video I suggest you take some time to check it out.
    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/jimquisition/5972-Rape-vs-Murder

  • The_Wandering_King Avatar
    The_Wandering_King
    9 years ago

    There is nothing I can add to this at all.

    Pretty much everything has been said.

    Just, congratulations to 4PN for being mature as fuck in all these comments. I don't know if they're being heavily policed or not, but man, way to go everyone.

    Stupidly off topic, really, I know. But still.

  • SelfTorment Avatar
    SelfTorment
    9 years ago

    I just finished reading all the comments and I agree this is why i love the people of 4PN and why I have stuck around since 09. There is a level of maturity that other sites just don't have.

    I was half expecting someone to just troll and say your wrong or you don't know what your talking about but no everyone comes and explains there point of view and I respect that very much.

    Thanks to the community of 4PN you give me a bit of hope in mankind.

  • Avatar
    Handagote
    9 years ago

    IMO its another one of those problems with gender in videogames and other media sources. Most of the staff making videogames are male notably writers and designers. It just seems that many of them don't know how to write for a female character outside cliche tropes. Its because they approach creating female characters differently than male is why we have such an emphasis on whether a character is female or male.
    So in terms of violence mostly we'll see violence done to males because they are though of as expendable and just 'default' as they are of no importance to the story , when the character is female its portrayed completely different: mostly sympathetic (since females are objects of emotional support to the main character) or in this case aggressive, and since the focus is the female character and the only thing we know is that shes female it sends a very clear misogynistic message from the writers.
    It would be the same if for the focus character (to whom violence is dealt) we knew some other type of information (like religious belief or if he was a nationalty different than what those in context of the story would be) .
    I'm all for violence in videogames but when its not intended to be attacking any type of person in the real world.
    It would be refreshing to see enemies in videogames be both male and female and not just male, imo this would lead to more equality in portrayal.
    Now that I think about it, Resident evil 4 had this in the village chapters, and it was done properly.

  • Avatar
    Aidyn
    8 years, 11 months ago

    The way I see it is that video games are cultural products. As such, they reflect certain aspects about the cultures that produce them. In America and in many other societies, sexual violence against women is occurring at epidemic levels. The combination of violence and sex is a cultural reality. This cultural reality is reflected in many games. The Dead Island bikini corpse and the Hitman nuns are examples of the combination of violence and sex; they are forms of sexual sadism. These examples of sexual sadism in video games reflect certain cultural modes of thought that the game makers, marketers, and players have about gender, violence, and sexuality. It's all pretty scary really.

  • Avatar
    Willarti
    8 years, 6 months ago

    I'm curious about your thoughts about Kerrigan in game Starcraft 2 story line.

    You write more about characters in FPS', and it being a strategy game so you probably haven't played it.

    In the first Starcraft, she was a sex object turned victim turned deceitful-villain, but the latest installment, you see her taking on a commanding role, overcoming difficulties to exact revenge on someone who deserted her. How she was written and played out, if she was replaced with a male, I don't think anyone would've noticed.

    That being said, there where a few ambiguous moments that might be (how she was attacked at certain points; how she puts her love's gun to her forehead and asks him how much he believes in her), so I'm curious to what your thoughts are to her as a female character in gaming.