Girl Power? [Girls & Game Ads, Part 3]

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Girl Power: Liberating or Objectifying?

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.

Blood Rayne CoverBut, 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).

Blood Rayne 2 CoverThe 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.

Blood Rayne 2 CoverAnother 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.

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16 thoughts on “Girl Power? [Girls & Game Ads, Part 3]

  1. Always interesting to discuss “girl power”. Because really, who’s idea of power is it? Images of “strong” women in realms such as video games are really playing into a specific gender role still. Who’s idea of strong is it? Women’s? Or men’s? When women begin to redefine themselves too often it seems to me that it’s a redefinition in the eyes of what is powerful, what is good, what is strong in the eyes of male gender roles.

    When they say “that woman’s got balls” it’s about placing the women’s strength or guts or confidence and comparing it to that of a man’s. What about the woman on her own, defined on her own terms?

    It’d be interesting too to see who these games are appealing to more – men or women. And why are these characters so appealing? What is it about them that’s appealing? Their strength? Their over-emphasized sexuality?

    Maybe women need to redefine themselves first in terms of male gender roles just to place themselves in better places on the totem pole in which to fight patriarchy.

    Or maybe we need to start taking our own power back, definining and celebrating what makes us strong on our own terms.

  2. When women begin to redefine themselves too often it seems to me that it’s a redefinition in the eyes of what is powerful, what is good, what is strong in the eyes of male gender roles.

    That’s an excellent point. While I do appreciate that there’s more than just one archetype of woman in games now, my ideal is to see both women and men portrayed with such a variety that they are no longer Men and Women, but people. Women, I think, have it worse in games because male is the default. But, instead of elevating womanhood the level of manhood, these “girl power” characters play more into the “whore” part, leaving the stereotypically female characters to fit the role of “virgin,” and end up dichotomizing and Othering women even more.

    Or maybe we need to start taking our own power back, definining and celebrating what makes us strong on our own terms.

    And that is why I want to be a video game designer ^_^

  3. The word “girl power”, and how it have been used is silly. Imagine a group of heavily made up, scantily clad, thin young males shouting “BOY POWER!!!”

    Anyway, another interesting post from you, (I’m such a lurker!)looking forward to the Fahrenheit one!

  4. This is a wierd issue, and I’m not sure how to articulate my feelings on it.

    As far back as Wonder Woman the sexuality angle has been used as a way to make strength and power more acceptable to men, even desirable (Loving submission…etc…). And, as much as we hate to admit it, Sexuality is power. It’s power based on male lust, but isn’t some male power based on women’s lust? “Every woman wants him” is a way of describing a powerful male.

    I think the problem is that while a woman can be attracted to a powerful man due to his accomplishments, a man isn’t usually attracted to a powerful woman due to her accomplishments. The looks are still more important than the skills. I hate that.

    But I don’t want to go back to demonizing sexuality. That is just another way of suppressing women’s power. This form of power was particularly frightening to men because, although it came from men, it was still power over them.

    I think we may have come full circle, reclaimed sexual power to the point that it’s threatening us again. But I don’t think the solution is repression. I think that women need to become as demanding as men. I think in pop culture the male portrayal should be as sexualized as the female protrayal. Somehow, male sexuality has become more threatening to other men than female sexuality, so there’s an uneveness in our society. I suspect that unevenness is connected to sexual women still being labeled as “whores” and continued objectification of the female. Humans are sexual creatures, nothing will change that. If the masculine were objectified as often and as evenly as the feminine (which happens in degrees based on the media), however, we’d be on equal footing as human beings. And to me, that seems the most desirable outcome.

    So, when you become a video game designer, remember to put a secondary, scantily clad, male option in the game. And that strip-tease option at the end doesn’t sound too bad either.

  5. (BTW, having read through the link to gendergeek now, I must add that sexuality has its time and place — and the technician’s professional world is no place for it. I mean, entertainment is entertainment, but work is work. Sheesh!)

  6. Ragnell: Don’t worry, I’m the last person to be advocating demonizing sexuality! I do, however, feel that the kind of hypersexualization I describe here (as seen in a few other of my rants, such as the one against WoW) is, instead of being a symbol of sexual liberation, rather just another way to demonize sexuality. If female sexuality weren’t considered taboo, then the insidious part of having powerful women being sexual probably wouldn’t seem so insidious.

    I’m also not sure if “equal” objectification is really the answer. On the surface, it makes the most sense: objectifying men equally must be an expression of equality, right? But when you throw privilege into the mix, it tips the balance. Because they come from a position of power, men don’t experience the systems of oppression quite like women do.

    That’s why I, as a female who has to put up with street harassment on a daily basis, gets so angry over the way my female avatars on MMOs are treated while a man using a female avatar would likely see that same attention as indicative of him having power over the other males. Does that makes sense?

  7. K: Glad to know you’re out there! I think your suggestion of “boy power” needs to become a new fad in yaoi. It would blend in so well. ^_-

    I’m working on the Fahrenheit one now, but it’s a long one. There’s a lot to say, and I want to try to make sure I say it right x.x Hope I don’t dissappoint when it’s finally done, heh.

  8. That’s why I, as a female who has to put up with street harassment on a daily basis, gets so angry over the way my female avatars on MMOs are treated while a man using a female avatar would likely see that same attention as indicative of him having power over the other males. Does that makes sense?

    You point of view makes perfect sense to me, I’d probably be infuriated too. But it’s wierd to find that male gamers feel that way. But I’m used to a different mindset. To me, most male comic book readers seem threatened by an excess of male sexuality, and seem to feel like a character is emasculated when used in situations that you traditionally see a female character in. There’s got to be some sort of middle ground, where characters can be sexual without the insidiousness. Slavery to the Madonna/Whore extremes needs to stop.

  9. Well, to be fair, not all male gamers feel that way. Just a lot of them who I’ve talked to about these issues. In this case, I think privilege and the cult of masculinity (read: mandatory machismo) make a 1:1 correlation between women’s experience and men’s experience impossible. When the shoe is put on the other foot, the reactions can range from denial of a problem (it gives you so much power, sweetie!) to feelings of emasculation, but not for the same reason (yes, their power is being taken away just like what happens with women, but they feel emasculated because they are made to be like a woman).

    There’s got to be some sort of middle ground, where characters can be sexual without the insidiousness. Slavery to the Madonna/Whore extremes needs to stop.


    Unfortunately, we’ll continue to be enslaved to that dichotomy until we all sit back and truly recognize femaleness (and traditional femininity) as of equal value to that of maleness and masculinity. And that, I fear, is a battle far from being won.

  10. thanks for the great series tekanji

    This and the post on chivalry has definitely made this site a must read for me!

    Re: equal objectification:

    While I’d be the last to complain about more beefcake, I think tekanji is right about it not being possible for objectification to be really equal at this point – even if the numbers are the same. Not just because game harrassment has secondary meanings for women due to experiences with real harrassment – as tekanji says, but also because of how people in general – I think men in particular – view sexuality.

    On more than one occasion I’ve been told, essentially, that women’s sexual desire is defined by what men want – and men’s sexual desire is also defined by what men want. So long as this underlies all conversations about sexuality, men being shown as sex objects will be doubly threatening to (straight) men. Not only do sexy men suggest that female sexuality is defined by what women want as well – thus upsetting the balance of power – but I think most guys will completely skip that part of the threat to the patriarchy and see sexually desirable men as being threats to their heterosexuality simply because they can’t conceive of male sexuality being defined by what women want as well. So, I’m skeptical of more beefcake in games necessarily coming across as simply the tables being turned.

    So, while a greater number of sexy men in games will help, I think that it needs to be done in a particular way and it won’t do much without a greater variety of female characters as well.

  11. I think, as a graphic designer and having an understanding on how to send visual messages to both female and male publics, that the visual objectification of the male figure wont help at all to put male and female characters on the same table, because it presents itself as more of an homoerotic threat to the male receptor than as an example of visually appealing sexual features to the female audience.
    In short, a visually objectified male sells as gay-bait to the broader of the male audience, and that is not what we’re looking for here is it?

    What I believe is that the balance between man and woman in media depends more on the writting and development of the character rather than on the visual aspect of it, because while both female and male audiences can respect a character they can relate to themselves, to people they would like to be, or to people they admire, the helplesly visually-oriented male audience wont be sold a concept they dont have an appealing visual to attach it to.
    What could be done about this, is what will happen with time as it has, the media abuses sexuality untill it offends the greater audience and then returns to conservative beauty untill it opresses the greater audience and then, in cycle, sexualises beauty once again to appeal.

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