Despite the huge amount of progress that has been made in terms of women’s rights over the last century, they still get a bum deal in contemporary media. A quick look at the 2011 list of the top 40 highest paid stars in Hollywood reveals that only six are women, illustrating an inequality that’s so ingrained we hardly notice it anymore.
Likewise, the depiction of women in TV, films and games still leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, the action genre has an embarrassing lack of female protagonists: just try to name ten action fims with a female in the lead role. I guarantee that the first female lead you’ll think of is Ripley in Alien, but that film is over thirty years old now, and it didn’t exactly lead to a tumultuous wave of female action heroes.
If anything, the situation in video games is worse. For most of the eighties and early nineties, female characters seemed to appear in games solely so they could be rescued by the male hero. One notable exception is Samus Aran, the tough bounty hunter from the Metroid series, who is revealed to be a woman during the end credits of the first game. “At last! A game with a strong female lead character!” I hear you cry. But alas, when she is revealed in all her womanness, she’s pictured in a bikini, which sort of tarnishes the message somewhat: it’s less “equality for women” and more “hey lads, get a load of this!” (If you’re into pixellated 8-bit women, that is.)
And so we uncover a worrying undercurrent that seems to be utterly persistent throughout video gaming: the unwritten game designers’ rule that says “It’s OK To Portray A Strong Woman In Your Game, Just As Long As She’s Semi-Nude”.
In the nineties, the one on one beat ’em up became the unlikely chief source of female portrayals in games, with Chun Li from Street Fighter II leading the pack. As ever though, the above rule was rigidly stuck to – Chun Li is as likely to be remembered for flashing her knickers as for pioneering the portrayal of strong women in video games. She opened the floodgates for a slew of impractically but alluringly attired female beat ’em up characters, from Cammy in her unitard to Anna Williams in her thigh-split evening dress to Ivy Valentine in her full-on S&M costume. Yep, you can have your female role models, as long as they flash a bit of leg.
The major breakthrough for the portrayal of women in games came with Tomb Raider in the mid-90s, when we were finally presented with a female lead who was ambitious and intelligent, as well as more than capable of showing the boys a thing or two when it came to gun fights and general ass-kickery. Sadly, Lara Croft is more often remembered for another one of her assets… well, two of them actually. Her ginormous bosom is reportedly the result of an ‘accident’ during her design, but it sent out the message that it was OK to have intelligent female characters in games, just as long as they looked like plastic porn stars. And of course, over the many years of the Tomb Raider franchise, the designers have been quick to find any excuse to pour Lara’s ample frame into a wetsuit or similarly clinging attire. Again, the ‘semi-nude’ rule refuses to be broken – and the less said about the frankly embarrassing ‘shower’ ending of Tomb Raider II, the better.
Having said that, Lara has never been portrayed as an airheaded bimbo, and her central role in Tomb Raider proved that gamers were ready to accept the idea of a lead female character. Even though the audience for video games is (still) predominantly male, Tomb Raider showed that men can happily accept the idea of ‘being’ a female character in a game, and this in turn led to the appearance of more and more female leads over the years to follow, even if not all of these games were successful (anyone remember Urban Chaos?).
Jill Valentine was another pioneer actionwoman who appeared in Resident Evil at about the same time as Tomb Raider burst onto the scene, although she was a bit more sensibly proportioned and modestly attired attired than Lara. Almost inevitably though, the designers succumbed to tempatation by stripping her down to a miniskirt and boobtube for her next appearance in Resident Evil 3: perhaps it’s just me, but the more clothes you remove from a character, the harder it is to take them seriously. And call me boring, but I doubt miniskirts are very practical for zombie warfare.
Hana from Fear Effect provided an engaging and intelligent female lead in 2000, and by the early 21st century it certainly seemed like female characters were becoming more common, if not exactly commonplace. But sometimes it feels like “two steps forward, one step back”: although I never played 2001’s Fear Effect 2, I cringed when I heard that Hana had been given a dodgy subplot that involving a lesbian relationship with one of the other main characters. I’d love to imagine that this amounted to a genuine step forward for the representation of gay relationships in video games, but the whole thing smacked of tawdry male wish-fulfillment. However, at least both of the above games attempted to deliver relatively complex and well-thought-out female characters, which is in marked contrast to the one-dimensional portrayal of women as scantily-clad lust objects in most other games (I’m looking at you, Dead Or Alive).
I’m not the kind of prude who thinks that all female characters should cover up, but at the same time game designers have an awful habit of shoving their well-rounded (no pun intended) female avatars in a bikini, seemingly just because they can.
Take Sheva in Resident Evil 5 for example. I was really impressed by this character while playing the game: not only did she have some excellent dialogue, she had an interesting backstory and was an excellent example of a strong female portrayal in a video game. But then you find out that one of her unlockable costumes is a leopard-skin bikini. Which kind of makes you wonder whether the designers actually meant any of the things they thought up for Sheva to say, or whether they just spent the entire development period drooling over her in some adolescent fantasy world.
Likewise, Trip in Enslaved was an absolutely fantastic female character with some genuinely moving dialogue (which I’ve written about before), so I was incredibly disappointed to discover she has a ‘sexy robot‘ costume available as DLC. ‘Disappointed’ is exactly the right word here – for once I thought the developers had created a truly three-dimensional, well-respected female character, but it turns out they’re quite happy to exploit her as an object just for the sake of titillating teenage boys. What is it with these unlockable costumes? Why do games designers think it’s OK to dress up their so-called ‘sophisticated’ female leads like glamour models as long as they include it as unlockable content?
Perhaps things are changing for the better, and we’re certainly past the crass exploitation used by games like Barbarian, but it feels like the industry is moving at a glacial pace compared to the rest of society when it comes to the representation of women. Sometimes it still feels like most games are designed by teenage boys, or at least by men who think like teenage boys – so just when is the games industry going to grow up?
I’m sure there must be many more sympathetic portrayals of women in video games than those I’ve listed here (I’ve heard Jade in Beyond Good & Evil is an excellent character for example, although I’ve yet to play the game), so please do let me know if there are any I’ve missed. Perhaps things aren’t as bad as I’ve made out… or are they worse? I’d love to hear your opinion.
[As dictated by Lucius P. Merriweather in The Library.]