Yeah, I’ll leave it at that.
Many moons ago, I posted about Cardcaptor Sakura & gender. Now, I’m back to explore video games & gender. Why not anime this time, you may ask? Because, uh…battleaxe.
I’ve been playing video games for most of my life. While they provided a beautiful escape, they also shaped much of my ideas about what was male & what was female through my adolescence. Part of the reason for that is I didn’t have many games that even had women in them, much less had a female protagonist. & not that many games that were made when I was a kid had female protagonists. I grew up with fictional, pixelated men.
To organize myself a little better, I compiled a list of games I played growing up & categorized them by platform. I calculated; I ran tests in my secret lab. The results?
Before the age of 22, I had played exactly one video game that featured a female protagonist. That game was The Little Mermaid on NES, in which Ariel returns to the sea to save it (somehow Ursula is still alive, & so are Flotsam & Jetsam…yeah, I don’t know how that worked, either). No, I knew nothing of Samus in those days.
More than ten video games featured the classic damsel-in-distress trope (in one case, a subversion of that trope, thank you, Monkey Island), something we’ll get back to shortly.
A fair number of the games I played before I was a teen had no concern for gender: Crossbow, Star Raiders, & Silpheed are a few of those.
In many of the rest, females are either nonexistent &/or ghosted, or fill supporting roles. We didn’t have any fighting games back then (by “we” I mean my family), so the concept that I could even choose a female character was not really on the table yet.
So where did this leave me in my teens, the age when most hetero male gamers are professing their adoration of Zelda & discovering fanfiction (taste the potential hyperbole), at a time when I was still struggling to accept that I was a born a female, no matter how much anyone else wished otherwise?
Well, it set me up for few phases of my life. The first had its roots in the damsel-in-distress games. I found it frustrating that in many of the games I had I was playing a male whose primary goal was to rescue (& ostensibly marry) the female. Why couldn’t it be the other way around?
I also learned early that if I had trouble, I dealt with it on my own. Why couldn’t these women? When Donkey Kong was clearly distracted with throwing barrels or stomping his feet, why didn’t Pauline just slip away instead of yelling, “Help!” over & over? She wasn’t even in a cage or cell. Why couldn’t they manage to save themselves?
I discovered that I didn’t care about them. Their rescues were never my primary goal in games; beating the crap out of monsters & adventuring was where it was at. If they got saved along the way, huzzah for them. But I had no interest in them. In Joe & Mac, who cares about cave babes?? There are DINOSAURS! In Super Mario World, I was far more concerned with saving Yoshi whenever I could than finding the princess, because he was my faithful steed who did actually did things!
But it became something else after awhile. I started to become really disdainful & scornful of nearly all female characters. & this really manifested when I played FFVIII for the first time, which was my first RPG & my first Final Fantasy game. For the first part of the game, Quistis was primed to be my favorite & most relatable character. We were about the same age at the time; she was the youngest teacher at an elite mercenary academy; she kicked ass with massive Gatling guns & whips made of tentacles. Until Squall’s graduation into the ranks of SeeD, she is smart, capable, & gets business done. After that, she makes incredibly stupid decisions that don’t fit with the character as it was made in the beginning, & the game just forgets about her after awhile. & I did, too. She might be able to learn Shockwave Pulsar & destroy half the known universe with its power, but she became the biggest disappointment of the game for me.
On the other hand, Rinoa & Selphie both grated on my nerves the entire game because they were so ridiculously excitable, perky, & full of ideas that made no sense that I just wanted to punch them (along with Zell). Oh, we’re in the middle of an epic battle? Hey, Squall, let’s talk about your ring. & Rinoa getting the sorceress’s powers? What a joke. Putting her in sorceress mode in battle was supposed to give her a big magic boost, but it was pointless because she’d cast junk like Float repeatedly even when she had far better magic. What happened to that Jedi choke hold or possessing people, like Edea could do?
But at that point, I kind of took a page from Squall’s Big Book of Emo. I kind of took a lot of pages, actually.
What? Don’t look at me like that. I was an angsty, emo teen just like almost everyone else in the world. Buzz off! No one gets me! Just leave me alone!
*cough* Anyway, by the midpoint of the game, I loathed all three of them so much that I sent all three of them to the Galbadian missile base in hopes that I wouldn’t have to deal with them. But we know how that turns out.
What concerns me now in my older age is that those three characters are of next to no importance to the story. They seem to be filler, or window curtains, or things that only speak to get the male characters to push the plot forward or to advance a clumsily handled, nonexistent romance. & while I don’t hate them or scorn them as much as I did then, I am disturbed by them. I resist that treatment of characters. I resist it because I see what they could have been. I resist it because it hurts to see characters I should be able to empathize with portrayed like this, & it felt like, at the time, they were all I could have & all that there was.
Two things saved me from continuing on the angst/emo train of scorn. The first was Donkey Kong 64. I had loved (& still love) the SNES Donkey Kong Country to an absurd degree, & DK 64 was the primary reason I wanted a Nintendo 64. While Dixie had already made an entrance into the Kong family, I hadn’t played any of the games involving her. & DK 64 was so colorful & clever & off-the-cuff. Ultimately, it’s just five Kongs working together (albeit one at a time) with all of their various & strange talents, & each of them have equally important business to get done to reach the end goal, & each of them are memorable.
& so, Tiny Kong bounced into my gaming life. Where Rinoa & especially Selphie had been painfully perky & frustrating, Tiny was happy, playful, & made me laugh. Her size is small; she’s related to Dixie & a kid, like Diddy. With pigtails, overalls, & a crossbow, she really appealed to my perpetual tomboy side (it helped even more that the instrument she gets is the saxophone).
Now. It has come to my attention that Tiny Kong was changed, or “aged,” if you will, for the more recent games she appears in, after Microsoft gained control of the games & characters. This was, from what I understand, so they could have a sexy character (according to them, Candy was oversexed, & Dixie was too simian). Aside from the strange need to have a sexy monkey, what’s even stupider about this is that Tiny, Dixie, & Diddy were all supposed to be chimps. Somehow, Tiny is an ape now, & looks older than Dixie, so I’m not sure how she’s still her little sister. Plus, Diddy is still depicted in these games the same he always has been. Thanks, Microsoft & Nintendo.
So. We have one last stop: Tekken Tag. Yes, Tekken Tag. This started my long & continuing love of fighting games, including other Tekkens, Soul Caliburs, Dynasty Warriors, Street Fighters, & so on & so forth. Yes, you could play as a giant panda or kangaroo, but Tekken Tag was one of the first games that I played where I could choose the gender of my character, & the female characters could get business done. In fact, I thought the genders were all pretty balanced in terms of strengths, weaknesses, & potential ridiculousness. Plus, it was just a blast to play with my friends.
This is why I love fighting games so much: I get to choose what represents me. It makes me feel enfranchised, that I’m getting to participate more. & I feel that need to represent females in games whenever I can—in fighting games, RPGs, whatever—because I didn’t get that choice when I was younger.
However, that also leaves me rather sensitive to how females are portrayed when they are present in my media, regardless of whether it’s a video game, a movie, or what have you. To be honest, if Anna was the only female character in Tekken Tag, I would have hated it; or, at least, I would have hated her. I can usually laugh at the poses that break her body* & absurd taunts when she’s next to other characters like Jun. But I would rather females be nonexistent or ghosted from a game or text than for them to be present & oversexed, oversimplified, &/or objectified.
Unfortunately, when I (or anyone else) react against this kind of portrayal of females, some in the video game industry must think that means females don’t like adventures, RPGs, or beat-em-ups. So we wind up with games “marketed to girls,” games that don’t involve any action, games like the horrific-looking Lady Popular. I won’t go into detail about it here for the sake of space, but you can read through John Walker’s review of Lady Popular at your leisure.
So where does this leave me now? I’ll likely continue to enjoy games like World of Goo or The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai more than a Zelda game. I’m not saying I won’t enjoy a Zelda game at all—I’m finding Ocarina of Time to be entertaining (masks!)—but it isn’t something I will pick up to play of my own accord or will thrill me years from now. & I’m ok with that.
*Let’s face it: hips & spines just don’t work that way. I’m a curvy & limber woman, but trying to put myself into any of the typical broken-body poses is, well, painful. Breaking women’s bodies to emphasize or create the illusion of curviness or to give the viewer sight of the entirety of a woman’s body is almost disturbingly common in fighting games, some animation, & many bad comics (as well as some otherwise good ones), & it might be a continuation of the 1950s Western idea that women are just bodies, i.e., objectified things that men control for sexual reasons to the point of the bodies’ destruction. Not a happy thought. A more amusing body comparison across gender & superheroes can be found here & here.