Since this week we were looking at media representations of women, I want to look at a couple examples of how the medium influences how representations of women are constructed and interpreted. In particularly, let’s focus on the body and physical appearance.
A series by Feminist Frequency hosted by Anita Sarkeesian called Tropes vs Women in Video Games breaks down some of the most common tropes about women seen in popular games and also provides some positive counter-examples.
Season 1 of Tropes vs Women in Video Games. Season 2 is available here.
Gameplay adds a new dimension to representations of women in video games. Representations of women often tie their worth to their appearance and how sexually attractive they are, from beauty pageants to magazines offering tips on how to “look good.” In video games, the trope of “women as reward” builds this into the mechanics of the game.
It occurs when women (or more often women’s bodies) are employed as rewards for player actions in video games. The trope frames female bodies as collectible, as tractable or as consumable, and positions women as status symbols designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players.
This “reward” can take many forms: a kiss from the princess for successfully rescuing her, unlocking hypersexualized outfits for female characters, or unlocking an achievement for using the in-game camera to look up a female character’s skirt. If we consider Laura Mulvey’s term, the “male gaze,” the film viewer is a mere spectator watching the women displayed as sexual objects while a video game actually gives the player agency in participating in voyeurism.
How powerful is this framing? If we imagine a female character, her appearance is only one part of how she is depicted; we may also get to know her through her behaviour, dialogue, backstory, etc. But the emphasis on the body and physical appearance can potentially eclipse a character’s other qualities. Lindsay Ellis looks the women in the Transformers films, including Megan Fox’s character, Mikaela Banes, and how what is written in the screenplay “is undermined by the way the women are framed by the camera.”
Mikaela Banes, as written, has a skill for hot-wiring and repairing cars, acts bravely saves the protagonist’s life on a couple occasions, has a backstory that reveals the sacrifices she has made in her life, and states in her dialogue how frustrated she is that the men in her life don’t take her seriously because of her gender and appearance. But alas, the camera repeatedly frames Mikaela as a sexual object, panning over and lingering on parts of her body, and in fast-paced films like Transformers, “aesthetic impressions get weighted much more heavily than thematic or narrative ones” (Ellis).
The thing that strikes me about this example is that it demonstrates clearly why it is so important to have people of different genders involved at all levels of production. The meaning in a screenplay can be changed by how a director shoots the film and the work of video game writers can be undermined by the game’s designers/programmers. Better representation in media requires the participation of people in all areas of production.
*See “Chapter 6 Consuming Popular Culture: The Role of Gender” in Gender and Popular Culture by Katie Milestone & Anneke Meyer (2012). While the chapter touches on some of the tropes I discuss above, it does so in the context of consumption and why video games are more commonly associated with and played by males.