Way back when I did the first instalment of this series, I quoted a description of a GameStop commercial that an employee had seen while working in the shop. The long and the short was that it was an ad for trade-ins featuring guys getting hit by women (representing video games) while on their way to trade them in for women who packed a bigger punch. The employee describes the women as “scantily clad” and, thinking of most video game heroines, I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.
These women clearly fit into the idea of “girl power” that’s been floating around the entertainment industry for the past 10+ years. They are valued for their “strength,” as evidenced by how hard they can punch their player being proportional to how valued they are (he trades them in for women who can hit harder). They are women who can, and do kick ass. But, is this “power” that of a true kind or is the phenomenon of women kicking ass a way to co-opt female power and bring it back firmly under men’s control?
On the one hand you can make the argument that my mother did: the representation may not be stellar, but at least people are seeing that women can be strong. Gone are the days when the only video game women I could model myself after were healers, tag-along best friends cum lovers, and the magically strong but physically weak. No longer do I have to take a strength penalty if I decide I want a female avatar in a game. Samus Aran now has a plethora of sisters in arms who stand tall and aren’t afraid to kick some ass. I see that and I am glad.
But, just like Samus (who stripped down to her underwear at end of Metroid if you played well), most women who kick ass today can’t do so without being sexualized in some way. What do we remember of Lara Croft? Her DD boobs. Rayne, who I happen to like as a character, is sex with fangs and guns.
Take one of the most used covers for Blood Rayne. Rayne’s two objects of power, her fangs and her weapon, take up the top half of the cover while her breasts dominate the bottom half. If that doesn’t link women’s power with their sexual characteristics, then maybe this t-shirt will. The designer has decided that women’s ability for world dominance is best represented by pink underwear, since their sexuality is the power of their gender (which, he says, is greater than that of men’s power).
The cover for Blood Rayne 2 isn’t as obvious, as she is shown as a full body shot there, but you still have the outfit that emphasizes her womanliness (a dress) as well as her large breasts, along with a display of her “strength” with her weapons. If you play through the game, you find that the eroticism advertised by the cover is delivered and then some: Rayne’s dialogue is full of sexual comments, she (and some of the female enemies) moans in pleasure and pain, and the way to recharge her health/mana is to wrap her around her victims so she can suck their blood. To paraphrase Emma, who wrote on the sexualization of geek women [edit: link removed because the blog no longer exists], the true power here is that conferred and determined by men’s lust.
Another problematic part of the “girl power” in these ads is that it presents female strength as intrinsically tied to one of the most basic chains of the cult of femininity: outward beauty. And, not just a “normal” level of attractiveness that is arguably a cornerstone of entertainment characters — like the quiet beauty of Jade (who I think is truly a woman of power) — but the cookie-cutter slim, big boobed, Pamela Anderson shape that I discussed in the comments of my introduction. The same woman over and over again, just packaged slightly different.
How can it be a triumph of female agency when the woman who’s kicking some ass is doing it in the context of male desire? Over and over again, the ads and the games they sell build up women of strength — both physical and mental — only to ascribe that power to a facet of their sexuality. It turns their power into something pornographic. Into something that will titillate the assumedly male players in order to give them the thrill of controlling a powerful woman and the aspect of a woman that supposedly makes her powerful: her sexuality.
If “girl power” means submitting myself to male control, then I want none of it. I want to be powerful on my own. I want my sisters, both real and written, to be powerful on their own. For once, I’d like not to have to search through titles of “sexy women who kick ass” in order to find a good game with a female protagonist who isn’t a cliche. I’d like to see an advertisement for a game with a heroine that didn’t reduce her to a piece of T&A to be ogled. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but apparently video game marketers do.