Feminist belief about the role of women in society has often been outspoken and protested in almost all forums. No matter what thread of feminism we are referring to, their belief system follows the same path, saying that women should be treated equally to men in all respects. The videogame industry, one that could be said is dominated by men, has been releasing games for many years that have been controversial over their depiction of women due to their “sexism.” So how do feminist feel about this industry?
When one thinks of a feminist, many make the mistake of thinking that they are all the same. In fact, the feminist movement can be subdivided into five main threads.
At one extreme you have radical feminists who believe that “women’s oppression is the most fundamental form of oppression. It is the model for all other kinds of oppression.” Their belief system is the most radical of all the feminists threads, hence the name. They not only think that male dominance is clear and unfair but that female “oppression is so entrenched in people’s thinking, changes in the structuring of society alone are not sufficient to overcome it. The attitudes of men must be changed and a state of equality made manifest in the power dynamic between men and women.”2 Radical feminists belief system is based heavily not only on political discussion but also on emotional. This is why their theories are the most extreme out of all the subdivisions, and why they believe that the role of a feminist should “focus on widespread cultural awakening rather than on scholarly debate”2.
Liberal feminists have a less extreme way of expressing their views. They believe that the answer to solving the world’s sexism, is to employ political reasoning, debate the issue and “insist on freedom for women” rather than merely state that society is corrupt and needs to be changed. Liberal feminism can be split even further into two separate threads due to a disagreement about what constitutes freedom. Classical liberal or libertarian feminists believe that “in societies like the United States, the only morally significant source of oppression of women is the state. They hold that feminism’s political role is to bring an end to laws that limit women’s liberty in particular, but also to laws that grant special privileges to women.”3On the other hand Egalitarian liberal feminism promotes that the “exercise of personal autonomy depends on certain enabling conditions that are insufficiently present in women’s lives, or that social arrangements often fail to respect women’s personal autonomy and other elements of women’s flourishing.”3 The distinction between the two can be summarized as Classical liberal or libertarian feminists believing that the state is the key force preventing freedom, whereas Egalitarian liberal feminists believe that it is more personal and social constraints that limit their freedom.
Socialist Feminism follows similar trends of Marxism. The constraints of society are heavily biased due to the oppression of the class system. The difference is that instead on focusing on the “economic determinism as the primary source of oppression, the socialist feminist sees the oppression as having psychological and social roots.”The classic example of what socialist feminism stands for can be seen in the example of a prostitute. A prostitute is the product of social distinction and degradation. It is the product of a society that discriminates due to rank of class and social standing. “To the socialist feminist, the prostitute is a victim of the corruption of a society which accompanies class distinctions… objectifying them so that they are merely parts of a mechanism that can be replaced by other parts of the same description.”4 What separates a socialist feminist from a radical or liberal one, is that their beliefs revolve heavily on social class constraints rather than sexist ideals.
Postmodern feminism, as a derivative of the postmodern movement, discusses the theory that there is no true answer regarding the unification of women in regards to anti-discrimination. It teaches women to not fall under the guise of there being an absolute truth regarding feminism. However it does not offer an absolute truth, or how a feminist should live their life. Author Judith Butler in her book “Gender Trouble” argues that “women‘s subordination has no single cause or single solution; postmodern feminism is thus criticized for offering no clear path to action. Butler herself rejects the term “postmodernism” as too vague to be meaningful.”5
The final subdivision of feminism is the third wave or post-feminist. Post-feminists believe that the debate over gender class is over and that there in fact should be no such thing as a feminist. Feminism, it argues, has achieved its goals and we must now move on and “distance ourselves from the movement.”6 Because of its radical stance on the traditional feminist theory, it has been “positioned as everything from a reclaiming of traditional gender roles, an overt attempt to use the language of oppression to subvert feminism, to a way of depoliticizing feminism in order to bring it to the home”6 One thing that can be seen as a limitation of post-feminism, is that it takes advantage of the work that radical feminists have achieved, without acknowledgment that this tact may be beneficial for future development.
Now that we have a general understanding of the theory, let us look at the videogame industry and how it has portrayed women over the years.
Many believe that women have only been subject to sexism in the form of videogames only in recent years, however, tracing the industry back to games such as the original “Leisure Suit Larry” (1987) show that it has been happening for far longer. Like all media outlets, be it music, film, television or games, women have been depicted as sexual objects to sell units. So why only recently has there been such an outcry over the representation of women in video games? Its because in recent years the industry has seen a surge in female gamers, with women now slightly outnumbering men playing web-based games. The rise in numbers of female gamers, means there has been a rise in demand for games to cease being targeted at the traditional market, males aged 12-25.
Games that have tarnished the industries reputation in terms of a feminist approach are ones such as “Grand Theft Auto 3” (2001)
GTA3 came into heavy debate when it was found that you could hire prostitutes to increase your life at the deduction of money. It was then further scrutinized when it was known that after completing the transaction, by killing the prostitute, you could actually receive your money back. An article titled “Sexism in Video Games”, published by an anonymous female author in May of 2004, outlines a feminist school of thinking to GTA3’s prostitute gameplay. She begins the article by describing her self as “a female gamer. Aside from the fact that I find sexism in video games insulting, demeaning and unethical, I also find it stupid and immature.”1 She discusses the game as promoting rape, which she acknowledges many would disagree with, for how can it be rape if you pay for it and has the prostitutes consent. She claims that it is rape because you take the money back by force much in the same way that “if you eat a meal at a restaurant, pay your dinner bill, but then walk up to the cashier, point a gun at him, and get him to hand you back your money, it is still robbery. The fact that you initially paid for the dinner and that the whole thing was consensual does not change the fact that you later stole from the place. You are a robber. A thief.”1
The article uses language that can easily be noticed as radical feminism. Lines such as “If you don’t understand that, you have to be a 20 year old college frat guy who thinks it is morally acceptable to have sex with (that is, to rape) a woman who passes out at your frat house party,”1 and “perverted, twisted thinking and whiny rationalizations one usually finds from such scum-sucking maggots”1 show that she chooses to use emotionally charged language as her main form of persuasion. This article shows a radical feminists stance on sexism in video games. It is an angry opposition to the depiction of women in video games as merely sex objects. Another reinforcement that this is a radical way of thinking, is the fact that the author offers no solution to the problem, merely outlining all things that are wrong. This is the main limitation with both radical feminism and post-modern feminism, it is very easy, no matter what area you are discussing, to state what is wrong or unethical about an oppressive force, but to offer no solution does not help the cause whatsoever.
Liberal feminism view of videogames can be seen in Sarah Wichlacz’s article “Grrrl Gamez”. In the article she discusses how it was to grow up, as a woman, loving videogames, and her problem with gender stereotyping for both men and women. She compares video games with gender-based toys in a store. “The best stuff was always in those ungenderfied aisles. When you design along gender lines the worst stuff comes out. Barbie’s give girls the wrong idea about physical ideals for women, and GI Joe teaches boys that war is not only good but also fun. Games should be designed along topic lines: war games, fighting games, first person shooters, and should be sensitive to all of their potential audience.”7 This quote directly reflects the limitations of radical feminism when compared to liberal feminism. As a liberal feminist, Wichlacz offers a solution to what she sees to be a problem with the video games industry. She continues to demonstrate the liberal feministic point of view and in the later stages begins to employ post-feministic theory into her article. She muses “There are plenty of female gamers out there, and there is a favorite game for all of them. It doesn’t have to be designed with pink or be sensitive and light on the violence…there still is the perception that video games are for teenage boys.”7 This reflects a post-feministic point of view in the fact that she is saying it is now common knowledge that females play games, they just need the industry to adapt to these changes and recognize their market through its products, instead of still trying to claim they are integral.
A socialist feminist in regards to video games, would argue that they mainly only show a male point of view in games. That there are no real heroines in games that are not designed as sex symbols. Take the character of Lara Croft (Tomb Raider, 1996) for example, she is probably the most notable female lead in a video game, yet it would be hard to argue that she would be as popular as she is were it not for her physical appearance. A socialist feminist would argue, in this case, that society has deemed it unacceptable to have a heroine, who doesn’t possess some kind of sexual appeal in one way or another. In the article “Video Game Feminist of the Decade: or, when “You” is a girl”, author Jenn Frank discusses how difficult it can be for female players when the lead character is always male, or designed for males. She uses the example of video game “Fallout 3” (2008), saying that even though it is possible to make your character female “it’s as if his every pronoun has been shifted from “he” to “she,” carefully rerecorded for my personal edification, and yet it is glaringly obvious that the game’s “You!” was never intended for me.”8 This “You” that she describes, is a term that developers use when creating a game where the protagonist is meant to be the player, and not a character per say. She goes onto point out that “Fallout 3” is an anti-sexist game but continues, “because my chosen sex did not align with my apparent in-game gender, I felt extremely uncomfortable. No, it’s worse than that: I felt alienated… My experience was paradoxically different from this guy’s experience, exactly because our experiences were crafted to be identical.”8 The limitation of this way of thinking when applying it to video games, is that it is very hard to tailor a character for every player. No matter who is playing the game, the developer cannot help but exclude some players from the target audience due to financial and time constraints. If it is not a gender that is “alienated”, than it will be another class who feels that the developer is excluding them.
The role of women in video games, whether it is as developers, critics, heroines or simply players, is getting to the stage where all areas will soon share equal rights with males. The conjunction of all feminist movements have a communal effect on the industry and the games it produces, making all threads integral for the future development of the industry. It is becoming clearly evident that the video game industry needs the voice of feminists, even radical ones, in order to create good balance in its games. As this is now beginning to be the case, developers are starting to realize that by incorporating some of these aspects, they can expand the female market, leading to greater sales.
2 “Radical Feminism”, Unknown Author, No date of publish, http://www.feministissues.com/radical_feminism.html
3 “Liberal Feminism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 18/10/2007, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-liberal/
4 “Socialist Feminism”, Feminist Issues, No date of publish, http://www.feministissues.com/socialist-feminism.html
5 “Gender Troubles: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity ”, Judith Butler, 1990
6 “What is Post-Feminism?”, tekanji, 25/08/2007, http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/08/25/faq-what-is-post-feminism
7 “Grrrl Gamez”, Sarah Wichlacz, No date of publish, http://www.gamesfirst.com/articles/grrrl_gamez/grrl_gamez.htm
8 “Video Game Feminist of the Decade: or, when “You” is a girl”, Jenn Frank, 16/01/2010, http://www.infinitelives.net/2010/01/16/video-game-feminist-of-the-decade-or-when-you-is-a-girl/