52% of the gaming audience is made up of women. But the video game industry continues to operate under the assumption that they will only sell video games if the female characters are objectified, sexualized, and little more than props.
And God forbid anyone calls them on it.
In March of 2013, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian (of Feminist Frequency) released the first episode of her YouTube web series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The video, titled "Damsel in Distress: Part 1", examines the trope of—you guessed it—the damsel in distress, a trope that relegates the women to the role of dependent "objects" while the men maintain the privilege of possessing agency. "Distilled down to its essence," Sarkeesian explains, "the plot device works by trading the disempowerment of female characters FOR the empowerment of male characters."
(full transcript of the episode available here)
Twelve of the fourteen videos in the series focus on a harmful trope present in video games and beyond, including "Lingerie is not Armor" (Episode 9) and "Sinister Seductress" (Episode 12), while the remaining two episodes covered positive portrayals of women in video games. The web series aimed to not only spotlight the sexism found in video games, but also to explain in accessible terms why and how this sexism amplifies "pre-existing regressive notions or attitudes about women and women’s roles" (source).
Notably, and unfortunately, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games accomplished far more than that. The public backlash against the web series demonstrated the overwhelming sexism faced by women involved with the video game industry.
(Trigger Warning: The following paragraph references violent and misogynistic actions)
From its onset, the web series sparked a campaign of harassment against Sarkeesian. Correction: the kickstarter alone triggered a wave of sexist harrassment. Her "critics" (a term I use very lightly) posted disparaging comments on her YouTube videos, vandalized her Wikipedia page with pornographic images and racial slurs, sent her violent threats, and created an internet game where users could "punch" her photograph. By the time Sarkeesian released the sixth episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, the harassment had reached such levels that she was afraid to remain in her own home. And those that came to Sarkeesian's defense received similar treatment.
And the icing on the cake: those who rallied against Sarkeesian were essentially rooting for a system that promotes rape culture. The wide-ranging exposure to the sexualization of, violence against, and subordination of women in video games not only lower a woman’s perceptions of her self-worth but also contributes to and begets a greater tolerance of the rape culture in the United States.
Half, and arguably more, of the Tropes episodes are centered around the sexualization of female video game characters: low-cut leather bodysuits, hourglass figures, and "armour" that is all but useless. The continued sexualization and victimization of women in this medium are reflective of and reinforce the “rape culture,” which normalizes all acts violence against women and dictates that women are naturally subordinate to men.
How? Well, the process is quite horrifyingly simple.
The social learning theory of rape contends that rape is a behavior that is endorsed through four integral processes: 1) the perpetuation of rape myths, 2) the imitation of rape and violence toward women, 3) the association of sexuality and violence, and 4) desensitization.
1) Sexualized and objectified female characters cause players' opinions of real-life women to depreciate and have been linked to a wider acceptance of "rape myths".
And no, these players are not limited to only male-identified people.
Rape myth acceptance, otherwise known as "the endorsement of false and stereotypical beliefs about rape that often place blame on the victim" often dictate that victims are at fault for the rape. Rape myths are prone to include such phrases as "asking for it" and imply that majority of rape victims are promiscuous or have a bad reputation.
Faculty members at the University of Stanford conducted a study to examine the results of entering a "fully immersive virtual reality" as a sexualized character. The results found that participants who played as sexualized character not only experienced self-objectification due to the avatar’s appearance, but were more likely to believe rape myths, a "dangerous attitude for a woman to have as a potential juror, confidante, voter, family member, or even a victim herself."
Furthermore, women who belive rape myths are less likely to take precautionary measures against rape while men who endorse rape myths also demonstrate a greater likelihood to rape (Source 1) (Source 2).
2, 3 & 4) Video games have a tendency to imitate rape and violence against women, which desensitizes the player to misogynistic violence.
Back to Anita Sarkeesian: As detailed thoroughly in Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, female characters often have no narrative or mechanical agency—that is, they have no effect on the story nor do they contribute to the action—and are killed off for shock value or to boost another (male) character’s story arc.
It is here that we get the infamous "woman in the refrigerator" trope, a term coined to reflect an incident in Green Lantern #54 in which the titular hero comes home to find his girlfriend dead and stuffed into the refrigerator. The trope refers to any instance in which a female character close to the male hero (usually a wife, girlfriend, or mother) is murdered for the sole purpose of moving the hero's story arch forward. Examples of the "woman in the refrigerator" trope are rampant in even the most popular of video games, even providing the hero's initial motivation in games such as Max Payne and God of War. Other examples include Dishonored, Prototype 2, Outlaws, and Inversion. Overall, it is a cheap way to "trivialize and exploit female suffering as a way to ratchet up the emotional or sexual stakes for the player" (Source).
To quote Sarkeesian further,
"When developers exploit sensationalized images of brutalized, mutilated and victimized women over and over and over again it tends to reinforce the dominant gender paradigm which casts men as aggressive and commanding and frames women as subordinate and dependent."
And even when female characters are not stuffed into the fridge, they are still subject to both sexual and physical violence. In Grand Theft Auto V (2013), the player can choose whether or not to murder a prostitute in order for a “refund.” Hitman: Blood Money (2006) features mutilated female corpses in fetishized and sexually objectified positions. Bioshock 2 (2010) does the same. And these are only a few examples of the inherent sexualization of misogynistic violence in video games. To see even more, the Tropes episode "Women as Background Decoration (Part 2)" examines "how sexualized female bodies often occupy a dual role as both sexual playthings and the perpetual victims of male violence."
Why does this matter? Let's take another look at the latter points of the social learning theory of rape:
2) The imitation of rape and violence towards women.
3) The association of sexuality with violence.
Of course, I am not intimating that video games are the sole contributor to rape culture. I am merely pointing out that there is a problem with the video game industry that can barely be addressed without the messenger being vilified and bullied. It is absolutely abhorrent that the overwhelming objectification of and violence against women in video games exists so comfortably in a culture where one third of all women will be beaten, sexually coerced, or abused sometime in their lifetime.
Demanding that video games end their portrayal of sexualized and objectified female characters is our moral responsibility. Get to it.