This essay will look at how women are represented in today’s media, in particular within the platform of gaming. We will explore broad gender and popular culture theories such as the male gaze, feminism and high culture versus low culture, as well as various other ideas. In a more focused approach, we will examine relevant game characters such as Lara Croft, in comparison to characters in other areas of the media such as film and comic books. Using these examples, we will discuss both positive and negative arguments as to whether the female protagonist conveys beneficial gender empowerment, or becomes a fetishized spectacle to play on the male’s need for control and dominance. We will also consider how the representation of women in the media has evolved over the years, and discuss whether it has the potential to change further in the future with a potentially growing female market.
Before refining this particular study, we must first understand how the media affects the consumer and dictates popular culture in a broader sense. Firstly, we must establish this distinction between high culture and modern popular culture as we are talking about gaming. Milestone and Meyer, (2012, page 4) explained:
‘High culture is deemed intrinsically worthy, serious, quality art, while popular culture is judged superficial, simplistic and driven by profits rather than skill or quality.’
Through this, we can begin to see possible intentions behind mainstream media, which is said to be purely interested in reaching out to an audience in a consumer sense. If we hope to extract any form of integrity or positive gender equality messages from the female action hero in gaming, this idea certainly challenges the notion that there is any level of sympathy or support towards the female gender behind the stereotype-challenging hero. In fact here Milestone and Meyer are describing popular culture and the media as a profit driven capitalist machine, with no intention of challenging convention, unless it is to benefit the consumption of a product.
Steering clear of feminist gender issues at this stage, Gaunttlet (2002, page 3) explains how the media affects the consumer:
‘Movie Heroes, Female or male, are almost uniformly assertive and single minded. The attractive toughness of these stars, whilst not necessarily a problem, is ‘advertised’ to us continuously, and therefore should have some impact on our own lifestyle and preferences.’
Elaborating on the notion of these idealisms being ‘advertised’ to us constantly, we can channel some level of concern. We now understand that new consumer media revolves its practices around profit making. If in fact we are affected by these ruthless action heroes that we find in gaming, could any positive outlook be drawn from this buyer manipulation? If these virtual heroes are given the appealing characteristics that unfortunately bear no reflection or benefit to how we should interact in the real world, should we be concerned that these unrealistic traits are being carelessly forced upon the consumer? Now reconsidering the action heroine, yes we could say that a female taking on the role of protagonist supports gender equality, challenging a position usually occupied by the male gender, still, must the female action hero be portrayed so violently in order to earn respect and recognition as an equal? Should we not hope to see younger female audiences being influenced by intelligent literary female characters as oppose to violent gun wielding ones? Through understanding the cynical workings of modern media, can we become pessimistic about any positive messages, whether they be concerning gender, race or class, to be drawn from what some consider ‘low culture’ media artefacts?
Moving towards a more focused study into gender theory, when considering the possible purpose for the strong female protagonist, perhaps we can contemplate the male gaze. This is the phenomenon where men scrutinise women presented in the media, thus leading women in reality to feel that they are under constant inspection by the male gender, and must conform to the conventions of what is considered ‘sexy’ or ‘beautiful’ in the mainstream media. From the male perspective, it is this ‘peeping tom’ sensation, where the male consumer feels that they have control when they are allowed to stare at and judge the female form. This theory could suggest that even these strong female protagonists that we find in video games, despite their convention challenging personas, could still ultimately have been put in place to be examined by Men. Herbst (2004, page 9) stated: ‘Croft is an oversexualized stereotyped character who appeals primarily to males.’ It is true that perhaps Lara Croft and other female action heroes like her, are not torch bearing symbols of woman power and gender equality, but simply fetishized sexual puppets deployed only to entice and engage the male consumer. Quite feasibly, we could link this idea to the concept of scopophilia, which Mulvey (1975, pages 202-21), describes as: 'pleasure in looking at another person as an object'. One could argue that Lara Croft is in no sense a strong independent woman. This idea is immediately tainted as soon as the character is placed in a predominantly male media platform, in the state of an avatar that can be manipulated and commanded by the user. Shliener (2001, pages 221-226) made an interesting point on this:
‘Lara Croft is seen as a monstrous offspring of science: an idealized, eternally young female automaton, a malleable, well-trained techno-puppet created by and for the male gaze.’
Shliener here of course speaks in a literal sense. In the game series, Lara Croft is depicted as an athletic archaeologist. In reality, she is the manifestation of male fantasy and alleged female perfection, generated by a team of game developers like a sort of consumer experiment. She is possibly not an icon for women to look up to, challenging gender conventions and bridging the gap between where men have felt strong and superior, and where women have been oppressed and doubted. In fact, she could solely be a play toy that conforms to the male gaze.
Above fans have created a ‘nude’ patch, which can override Lara Crofts in game textures depicting her wearing minimal clothing. This demonstrates the male audience almost demeaning and manipulating the female hero to satisfy their sexual desires, furthering this idea of the gaze.
Mencimer (2004, page 8) did speak about how the representation of the woman action heroes has changed over the years, using examples like Sarah Connor from the Terminator film series, in contrast to the earlier Wonder Woman. Mencimer spoke of how Wonder Woman was very slender and attractive, conforming to the voyeuristic desires of men at the time, whereas Sarah Conner was presented as a strong ‘toned’ and muscular female, leading women to strive towards rock hard abdominals and toned arms, thus entering into the previously masculine domain of weight training and body building. Unfortunately Mencimer believed:
“No doubt our action heroines have come a long way since Wonder Woman, but the feminist critics are right: Women are still only allowed to be violent within certain parameters largely proscribed by what men are willing to tolerate.”
This idea enforces this constant need to appease the male consumer. Female action heroes are strong and violent, but only to a degree where they remain sexy and alluring to the male user. Although Lara Croft destroys enemies and explores dark and dangerous locations, her physique still meets with what modern media stereotypes deem attractive in regards to the female form. Mencimer also talked about the fact Lara Croft is presented in a third person view, meaning the player is able to orbit and examine the virtual character. It could be argued quite strongly that this form of display, where the user is constantly surveying the in-game character as oppose to seeing the virtual world in a first person perspective, plays strongly on the peeping tom sensation and the feeling of control. The male player almost becomes the cynical puppeteer, with complete dominance over the virtual female.
Despite the feminist critiques regarding the action heroine, we can find positive points, which support the idea of convention challenging protagonist. Knight (2010, pages 1-8) believed:
‘Lara Croft changed the face of video game playing. She became a role model for young girls and the star of one of the most popular video games for both males and females ‘
This immediately suggests that there could have been a female demographic in mind when the character was created, and supports this positive idea that Lara Croft’s masculine actions could have empowered the female user. Stuller (2010, page 3) supports this idea:
‘This lack of heroic female role models in popular culture can be distressing for a little girl, as well as a grown woman. We’re shown too many images of us as beauty queens, femme fatales, vixens, girlfriends, mothers and damsels in need of rescuing. We can be these things, but we can also be more.’
This view revolts against the traditional roles of women in the media as inferior and male dependant. Perhaps the inclusion of a female action hero within a game takes steps towards challenging the stereotype that the female gender is physically feebler, as Lara Croft is seen scaling walls and fighting dangerous animals such as bears and tigers. It seems that Stuller is in favour of the powerful female protagonist, as a source of empowerment for the female audience.
We can also possibly conisder the movement of ‘Post Feminism,’ in support of the strong yet glamorous protagonist. This is the idea that strong feminist ideologies can become oppressive to the female and in a sense counter productive. In Tasker and Nagra’s book ’Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture’ (2007, page 3), this idea was described:
‘…postfeminism also perpetuates women as pinup, the enduring linchpin of commercial beauty culture. In fact, it has offered new rationales for guilt-free consumerism, substantially reenergizing culture…’
This quote leans towards the idea that perhaps the strong opposition of feminine conformity devalues the woman, disallowing her to glamourize and examine her physique. It could perhaps be argued that the athletic form of Lara Croft could encourage women to stay fit and healthy. Perhaps to some extent, having these strong female action heroes as role models can be beneficial. Conflicting feminist theories often take a negative standpoint, seeing things from the perspective of the male gaze. Although there is likely truth in the arguments regarding women as sexualised objects, putting the male user aside, can these strong independent women offer self-esteem and empowerment to the feminine audience? Where as men feel comfortable flaunting masculine traits such as competiveness, who is to say that women do not find genuine pleasure in striving toward what society deems ‘beautiful’? Could femininity be celebrated, and is masculinity necessarily transcendent? Another interesting point has been raised by Shliener (2001, pages 221-226):
‘...the appearance of female heroines in computer games, albeit male constructions of femininity, can be seen as a first step, an invitation for women to play computer games. The second step would be for women and girls to being to influence the construction of their virtual counterparts in computer games through greater participation in gaming culture and a higher level of involvement in the individual.’
Again, perhaps we can establish different views based on the context of who is participating in a piece of media. Yes, to the male user, there may be a slightly cynical element of dominance and control occurring with the male gaze. However, when the female audience is invited to participate, the feminine avatar becomes more a reflection of the player as appose to a sexualised virtual puppet. Now, perhaps the female protagonist’s feminine yet convention-breaking actions inform the player, offering liberation to the subjugated female user. Referring back to the quote, perhaps we are still in a transitional period, where the gaming industry at this stage remains male dominated, but the strong female characters are beginning to involve the female user. Perhaps if the female audience becomes more prominent in the games industry, game developers will begin to consider a more neutral representation of the female protagonist, as oppose to the fetishized ones that appeal primarily to the male audience. It seems that we ultimately find ourselves coming back to the same conclusion. Brown (2011, page 7), speaking about the action heroine, has the idea that:
‘She commands the narrative and controls her destiny, makes her own decisions, and fights her own battles. She is inquisitive and intelligent, physically and emotionally strong, and is clearly portrays as a heroic ideal which audience members identify. On the other hand, the action heroine perpetuates the ideal of female beauty and sexuality that has always been the primary cultural value of women in our society.’
Yes, the female protagonist does challenge convention; possibly offering motivation and a sense of self-belief to the female audiences, yet at the same time enforces this idea of what is considered beautiful in modern society. This raises the question, does the action ‘chick’ in gaming empower the female user, or alternatively encourage conformism in a different area. It is true that a strong independent female character could promote courage and empowerment to the female audiences, but at the same time the flawless physiques with which virtual heroines are sculpted, could also result in insecurity and self-doubt.
On reflection, we must ask ourselves the true intentions of the convention challenging action heroine. Through understanding the consumer nature of new media as a whole, the idea of the female protagonist alluring a male audience seems plausible. Again, we are arguable not looking at a fine art form (high culture), but at a media platform dominated mainly by men, in which profit is the key interest. In a sense, we could argue that we are not discussing an intellectual or compelling area of the media in which messages and philosophies are the main priority; instead we are looking at a product that is designed to be distributed. On the other hand, there is the belief that gaming is taking a more cinematic approach. On some level, this creates a market for concepts and ideas to be explored as we see in the platform of film. Take the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ game series for example. It could be said that the the games explore the tie between religion and politics. The Templars in the series act as an Illuminati-like force, shaping and manipulating existence as we know it, the player belonging to a counter force who hope to prevent the Templars from achieving complete control. If this conceptual approach is being employed in gaming, perhaps we can expect to see ideas raised on feminism, particularly with the female audience potentially increasing with the introduction of the female protagonist.
On some level we see this new market emerging already. In many roleplaying games, an example being the ‘Mass Effect’ game series, the player is given the option to generate either a male or female character. The player is also given the opportunity to alter their character’s appearance, which one could argue moves away from the idea of forcing an ideology of beauty and attractiveness on the user, giving the user themselves the tools to present what they believe to be attractive. Despite this, there are still characters within the game that conform to these modern media ideologies with flawless physiques and soft delicate features. Even the female alien races within the series fit this agenda, adding a dis concerning notion that what our media deems attractive is universal.
Another point on the view of games progressing into debatably a more conceptual and cinematic art form, is that ultimately, we cannot move away from the reality that games (most importantly the triple A titles that are prominent within the media as a whole) are produced by large teams. It seems that there is no auteuristic figure dictating the content that goes in to a title, and ultimately, it is the company name which brands the work, not an individual with personal goals and creative integrity. It would seem that because of this, again we come back to the idea of a profit driven industry, with a potentially voyeuristic formula that appeals to a large male consumer audience. The ideas behind a game will not come from one visionary, but most often from a collaborative team of writers who consider what the public will regard as consumable.
Desipite this, although unintentionally perhaps on some level the inclusion of the strong powerful female in gaming has empowered the female user. I do believe that characters such as Lara Croft were originally deployed to entice a masculine audience, but perhaps positive convention breaking attitudes emerged as a by-product of the industries original intent. Perhaps there is a sense of genuine empowerment offered to the female consumer that comes with the portrayal of a deadly female protagonist, whether it be the original intent of the game company or not.
In conclusion, we have established that females in the contemporary gaming cover two agendas. Firstly, they challenge gender stereotypes, arguably inviting a female audience to participate in the platform of gaming and to feel empowered. On the other hand, these action heroines simultaneously are in most cases over sexualised, satisfying the male user. Through understanding media as a platform for profit making, we cannot really try to extrapolate any heartfelt messages or statements on feminism from the mainstream media of gaming. Shallow and dissatisfying as it may seem, we must simply accept that these strong female protagonists as marketing tools to reach out to a vast audience of predominantly male gamers. It is difficult to foresee any change in this formulaic and in many senses voyeuristic approach. Yes, in this study we have realised a shift from the very conventional ‘Wonder Woman,’ to the more toned and muscular character of ‘Sarah Connor.’ We may in fact see further changes in how women are represented in popular culture, but ultimately, these changes will most likely be dictated by what men are willing to accept. With the Gaze being such an influential truth, it is difficult to imagine the gaming industry eluding such a predominant male audience. Unfortunately, as long as we consume the product, game developers will continue to represent women in a voyeuristic fashion.
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