I’d like to expand on some of what I’ve said in my article for The Border House on sexism in a scene of Breath of Fire 4 (“Sexism and Power Dynamics in Breath of Fire IV.” The Border House. Mar 13 2013). In the scene, a main character, Nina, must work for a minor character, Marlok. Some of the “work” that Marlok asks Nina do is massage him and then allow him to grope her. The problem I had with the scene was that Nina never vocalizes her thoughts on the situation. The game never gives us any indication about whether or not she’s willing to be there, nor does it tell us how she feels about a man asking her to touch his body or how she feels about that man turning around and touching hers. But another problem I had was that the scene had no purpose beyond disempowing Nina for being a woman. Most scenes that objectify women serve no purpose to the actual story: they’re only there to diminish women.
A “good” scene should do at least one of the following: move the plot by giving characters a destination/goal and a reason/means to head toward it; build the world; reveal/reinforce something about the characters or–and this one is unique to games–teach the player something they’ll need to know to play the game. I’ll be referring to the word “scene” as anything that takes control away from the player but really, at least one of these things ought to be in play even while the player has control of the game.
For example, when Mario meets Yoshi in Level 1-2 of Super Mario World, Yoshi tells us that he’s heading toward Bowser’s castle to rescue his friends (destination and motivation); we see that some of the dinosaurs of dinosaur land are sentient and that the koopa troopa are kidnapping them (world building); we learn that Yoshi is brave and we’re reminded that Mario is virtuous (character revelation and reinforcement); and we learn that riding Yoshi expands Mario’s repertoire of abilities and how to take advantage of that (gameplay tutorial).
A scene without at least one of those things going on doesn’t really serve a purpose. The Marlok scene in Breath of Fire 4, doesn’t really serve a purpose. The scene doesn’t tell the characters where to go (in fact it stalls them, which, to be fair, in a game where people repeatedly put their own trivial wants above others’ needs it’s at least thematically appropriate); it doesn’t tell us anything new about the world; it doesn’t present us with anything about Nina or the rest of the party that we don’t already know and it doesn’t even change how we think about Marlok; finally, it doesn’t teach the player anything about how to play the game. The only thing that the scene does is give a man the power to feel up a women while preventing her from saying anything about it. It takes power away from a woman because she’s a woman.
In scenes like this, games structurally disempower women. The game establishes one-note scenes like the Marlok scene for no reason other than to dehumanize a female or feminine character. In Anita Sarkeesian’s first episode of “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” (Mar 7 2013) on the Damsel in Distress trope (I’ve referred to it as the “Princess in Another Castle” trope because I think there are some important differences in how it operates in games vs how it operates in film or television (“Searching for the Other Castle: Women as Objectives.” PopMatters. Feb 19 2013.)) she called it a “lazy” kind of plot device. I think that’s giving the trope too much credit because it isn’t even necessary to move most plots. If you take a look at the “Tropes vs. Women” tumbler, Bits of Tropes vs Women (a great resource by the way), you’ll see that a good deal of the distress many damsels face isn’t even needed for the plot to move forward.
Why must Dracula kidnap Simon Belmont’s wife in Haunted Castle? Belmont is a vampire-hunter and Dracula is a vampire, isn’t that enough? How come Billy and Jimmy Lee wait until Marian is hauled away before they clean up the streets in Double Dragon? Shouldn’t the fact that their neighbourhood is overrun by gangs motivate them? Did Aeris really need to be abducted to lead Avalanche to the Shinra building? The Vizier had no reason to string up Farah in The Two Thrones. It’s inconceivable that Talia Al-Ghul was captured by a handful of Joker’s incompetent henchmen. The ninja turtles don’t need April O’Neil to disappear to stop Shredder. Solid Snake has no need to babysit a helpless wailing Meryl while trying to stop a nuclear powered robot dinosaur from destroying the world. These instances don’t drive the plot forward, the plot is already set up and moving without these women being put in danger. These games just make women into inert, helpless objects.
Even in the instances where a game’s plot depends on a woman being captured, the purpose seems less to move a story along than it is to reinforce masculinity’s bond with action/strength and the femininity’s bond with submissiveness/vulnerability. In spite of Zelda’s importance to the balance of her world, she’s never competent in defending herself except in her more masculine iterations (Sheik/Tetra). Sarah Kerrigan is the single most powerful entity in the StarCraft universe but it’s all robbed from her by Jimmy Raynor because he wuvs her diiiiiiis much. Schala is an accomplished mage—though Chrono Trigger has her battle effectively against Lavos and Queen Zeal, even dying in a blaze of glory—in Chrono Cross she returns as an inert prisoner in a crystal.
Often, writing a woman into a position of submissiveness doesn’t actually do anything. Scenes where women are stripped of their agency are totally unnecessary and are only there to reiterate gender stereotypes. It’s not that it’s a lazy plot device, it’s just lazy and sexist without actually even doing anything for the story. In many cases locking a princess in a castle does not move the plot in any direction that it wasn’t already going, the woman’s capture presents nothing new about the world, the “other castle” offers no revelation for any of the characters and it doesn’t offer any new rules for playing the game. Usually, a woman is captured because she’s a woman and she needs to be captured.
Returning to Breath of Fire 4, the game offers many interesting ideas, including some related to gender. While the initial thrust of the narrative is the search for a princess in a castle, it’s eventually becomes more complicated than that. The character of Princess Elina is still quite problematic, but she does more than provide motivation for a man and her captors do have a reason for targeting her specifically not relevant to her relationship with the heroes. Moreover, Ursula, who joins the party late in the game, is an excellently written character.
But it’s hard to give Capcom credit for Ursula or Elina when earlier in the text they rob Nina of her agency. The game takes away Nina’s voice and power to remind us that women are weak. Ursula may be a strong soldier with immutable integrity and dignity, but because the game went out of its way to diminish Nina early on, Ursula’s strength is now present in spite of her womanhood: she no longer carries traits as an individual. Similarly, Elina may be important to the world and her abduction may be significant, but because of the game’s established views on femininity, Elina’s role becomes tangled in her gender.
Most of the time, designers that portray women as objectives or diminish a female character do so without realizing the insult. Most developers aren’t doing this to be mean but there is little excuse for these kinds of portrayals: it’s frustrating to see a smart game make stupid mistakes. Most of all, there’s no reason to have to take the bad with the good when this bad doesn’t even serve any purpose.
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Further reading: Cox, Katie. “The Gamer’s Gaze” part 1. part 2. part 3. Your Critic is in Another Castle. Jun 20 – July 1 2011.
Brice, Mattie. “What about the men !? re: Tropes vs. Women.” Alternate Ending. June 16 2012.
Raymond, Alex. “Mixed Reactions: Even Progress Comes With Sexist Dynamics.” While !Finished. Nov 3 2009