On the Realism of Sexism 9


It is a truth wide­ly acknowl­edged that Arkham City’s script is, to use the prop­er buzz­word, “prob­lem­at­ic.”  Female char­ac­ters are uni­ver­sal­ly referred to as “bitch,” the ambi­ent ban­ter between mis­cel­la­neous hench­men in respect to the game’s female char­ac­ters is always sex­u­al­ly charged, and nasty under­cur­rents of sex­u­al vio­lence run through­out.

When sev­er­al writ­ers (most thor­ough­ly the Film Crit Hulk) point­ed this out, the Internet leapt into action in an attempt to defend the game’s script (why is anyone’s guess, as it would be a tan­gled, incom­pre­hen­si­ble mess even if it wasn’t creepy). The usual tired argu­ments made their appear­ance: “it’s not that big a deal, you’re just over­sen­si­tive,” “Catwoman uses sex appeal as a weapon, of course the badguys think she’s sexy,” etc.  But by far my favorite is the claim that such per­va­sive gross­ness is defen­si­ble because it is “real­is­tic.”

The argu­ment sug­gests that as Arkham City’s vil­lains are vio­lent crim­i­nals, locked away behind the bars of a hell­ish pris­on, and haven’t seen a woman in a long time, it’s entire­ly to rea­son they would be focused on sex and con­stant­ly threat­en sex­u­al vio­lence.  It’s bad, but it’s how it would real­ly be!

This is prob­a­bly true.  But this fact does not make the dia­logue any less rep­re­hen­si­ble from an artis­tic stand­point.

It’s prob­a­bly true that a real-life Catwoman or Harley Quinn would be sub­ject­ed to gen­dered insults and threats of sex­u­al assault to an extent that a real-life Batman wouldn’t.  So much as a cur­so­ry look around the Internet will show you count­less exam­ples of gen­dered insults and threats of sex­u­al vio­lence made from men to women, even in much less pro­nounced cir­cum­stances.

So why are we made uncom­fort­able by Arkham City if it is an accu­rate reflec­tion of an unpleas­ant truth?

Because Arkham City is not a game about sex­ism or sex­u­al vio­lence or any­thing along those lines.  Despite the ubiq­ui­ty of such themes, the game never address­es any of these issues.  The per­va­sive, prob­lem­at­ic aspects of the dia­logue remain an ele­phant in the room, albeit an ele­phant with the sort of mus­tache that qui­et­ly gets the FBI’s atten­tion.  So it would be quite a stretch to sug­gest that the mak­ers of Arkham City were try­ing to make some sort of delib­er­ate, socially-conscious point about rape cul­ture or sex­u­al­ized vio­lence again­st women or what-have-you.  It’s more like­ly that they sim­ply lath­ered it on like a layer of mor­bid frost­ing in an attempt to make the game seem grit­tier or, again, more “real­is­tic.”

But this leads us to the most obvi­ous weird­ness about the real­ism argu­ment: Arkham City is not a game that could rea­son­ably be accused of car­ing much about real­ism.  Everything about the game is heav­i­ly styl­ized and large­ly divorced from real­i­ty.  Villains con­coct elab­o­rate and befud­dling schemes, char­ac­ters behave in con­trived and arbi­trary ways, and the game’s insis­tence upon tak­ing itself seri­ous­ly despite its pre­pos­ter­ous premise (a major American city rounds up all of its insane and crim­i­nal ele­ments, walls them up in an old part of town and then, like, breaks out the pop­corn) ren­der it thor­ough­ly unreal­is­tic.  It is, after all, a Batman story.

So for “real­ism” to sud­den­ly be intro­duced into the equa­tion at the last min­ute seems more than a bit con­ve­nient, and when the only things in your game that are laud­ed as real­is­tic are those which con­tribute to wor­ry­ing social nar­ra­tives about sex­u­al vio­lence again­st women, peo­ple start to ask ques­tions.  Why is this the only thing you want to be real­is­tic about?

See, “real­ism” has long been cited as an excuse for mechan­i­cal or nar­ra­tive struc­tures which are skewed again­st women or other mar­gin­al­ized groups.  Perhaps the most egre­gious exam­ple of this line of rea­son­ing I have ever seen came in the form of a com­menter on the DayZ forums.  Not long after the game’s cre­ators imple­ment­ed the abil­i­ty to play with a female avatar, this com­menter let loose a series of sug­ges­tions for mechan­i­cal dif­fer­ences that he felt ought to be imple­ment­ed between male and female avatars.  Female avatars, he sug­gest­ed, should be less adept with firearms,1 able to hold fewer items, and, in return, would be bet­ter at cer­tain domes­tic camp activ­i­ties.2  It would, he argued, be more “real­is­tic“3 that way, since women tend to be phys­i­cal­ly weak­er than men, but bet­ter at small­er, dexterity-focused activ­i­ties.

This is obvi­ous­ly an extreme exam­ple, but it high­lights the prob­lem: by hid­ing under the guise of “real­ism,” we can enforce wor­ry­ing social nar­ra­tives (in this case: women should stay in the home while men go do what they want).  By using a thin veneer of truth (women gen­er­al­ly have less body mass than men, women are at greater risk for sex­u­al assault), we can obscure delib­er­ate or uncon­scious sex­ism and then argue that all we’re doing is being hon­est about the way things are.

And this is the crux of the prob­lem, because it’s good to be hon­est about the way things are.  But in writ­ing a game (or a book or a movie or…) you need to under­stand what it is that you’re writ­ing about and choose your sub­ject mat­ter accord­ing­ly.

Contrast Arkham City to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which is also full of ref­er­ences to or sce­nes of sex­u­al vio­lence or gen­er­al degra­da­tion of women.  Martin’s female char­ac­ters are rarely far from the threat of rape, regard­less of sta­tion or class, and this per­va­sive worry is made far more explic­it than it ever is in Arkham City.  But, although I hard­ly mean to sug­gest that Martin’s work is immune to fem­i­nist cri­tique, the dif­fer­ence is that Martin actu­al­ly deals with these prob­lems, rather than sim­ply allow­ing them to serve as creepy win­dow dress­ing.

A Song of Ice and Fire is part­ly about life on the mar­gins of an oppres­sive soci­ety, about the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of bas­tards and women and dwarfs, and about what sorts of things the mar­gin­al­ized have to do in order to sur­vive.  Most of the great movers and shak­ers in Westeros are not point-of-view char­ac­ters, and a sur­pris­ing amount of that great mov­ing and shak­ing hap­pens off­stage.  So when some vil­lain threat­ens to rape Brienne, it is not mere­ly a throw­away line, but rather a real dan­ger.

A Song of Ice and Fire’s real­ism is not sim­ply an excuse to say naughty things.  Instead, it is real­is­tic so that it can ask ques­tions and inves­ti­gate ideas around very seri­ous vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and injus­tices in the real world.  Arkham City doesn’t want to deal with these ques­tions or ideas.  It wants to be a game about Batman, and that’s fine!  Great, even!  I love Batman!  But the sort of per­va­sive, wor­ry­ing sex­ism that is found in Arkham City has no place in a story which is just about Batman.4

The real world is fre­quent­ly an ugly place, and it is unde­ni­ably true that racism, sex­ism, homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia, and var­i­ous other –isms and –pho­bi­as are per­va­sive, inescapable facets of every­day life for many, many peo­ple.5  Thus, you would not be entire­ly inac­cu­rate to say that any story which fea­tures a woman who is never the vic­tim of sex­ism is unre­al­is­tic.

But all sto­ries are unre­al­is­tic.  All sto­ries are guid­ed by an author’s hand, with some kind of struc­tured begin­ning and end.  Things hap­pen in sto­ries because some author decid­ed they should; there is no ran­dom chance in sto­ries.  This is very much not how the real world works.  Similarly, all games are unre­al­is­tic, because any sys­tem of mechan­ics that attempts to model a sit­u­a­tion will nec­es­sar­i­ly include abstrac­tions in order to be playable.

This is fine, because what makes a great game or story is not real­ism so much as inte­ri­or logic and con­sis­ten­cy.  Bastion is some­what less “real­is­tic” than Call of Duty: Black Ops, yet it’s more inter­nal­ly coher­ent and has far more inter­est­ing things to say about the human con­di­tion; it’s a “truer” story, and a much bet­ter game.  Some sto­ries do need to be real­is­tic, or obvi­ous­ly rec­og­niz­able as sim­i­lar to the real world, but real­ism is not itself a mea­sure of qual­i­ty.

The only things stop­ping women from mov­ing through mod­ern soci­ety much the same as men are soci­etal atti­tudes and cul­tur­al road­blocks.  When we say that it’s hard for a woman to suc­ceed in a tech career, we are not refer­ring to any­thing inher­ent to the con­cept of Womanness which makes pro­gram­ming dif­fi­cult, we’re say­ing that the pre­vail­ing cul­tures in tech com­pa­nies are male-centric and misog­y­nist.

Art and enter­tain­ment help shape these same soci­etal atti­tudes.  If we con­sis­tent­ly treat women dif­fer­ent­ly in art, it sends a mes­sage that women are to be treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly in the real world.  Artists and enter­tain­ers thus have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to con­sid­er the ram­i­fi­ca­tions and impli­ca­tions of their cre­ations.

If you’re will­ing to thor­ough­ly and respect­ful­ly engage with issues of oppres­sion or sex­u­al vio­lence (or homo­pho­bia or racism or…), go for it.  There’s no rea­son videogames can’t or shouldn’t engage with these issues.  In fact, I’d real­ly like to see more games try.  But if you’re not going to do that, there’s very lit­tle rea­son to fur­ther under­score or strength­en exist­ing, unjust nar­ra­tives and modes of think­ing in the name of shab­by “real­ism.”6

Far bet­ter to cre­ate some­thing which might, in some small way, help to make real­i­ty less “real­is­tic.”

Notes:
  1. You hear this kind of hog­wash all the time, cit­ing “recoil” and “lower body mass” and that sort of thing.  I’d wager that half the guys that say this sort of thing have never shot a firearm in their lives, and if even a tenth of them can out­shoot my wife, I’ll eat my hat. []
  2. DayZ, if you don’t know, is a game almost entire­ly about shoot­ing zom­bies and car­ry­ing around inven­to­ry.  It’s not real­ly about build­ing fires at your base camp. []
  3. His word. []
  4. This is not to say that a Batman story couldn’t deal with these issues (though that would not be my first choice), just that such a story would not be just “a Batman story.” []
  5. One would prob­a­bly be right to say that such things are always present for all peo­ple, but some are lucky enough to be able to ignore them. []
  6. This does not mean that a story which is not large­ly about these issues shouldn’t make ref­er­ence to them at all, but they shouldn’t be fun­da­men­tal parts of the expe­ri­ence if they’re not going to be dealt with. []

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.

  • This.

    This is why we are friends.

  • Andrew G

    Well writ­ten. Personally I don’t know what’s worse, that this is an issue, or that I played all of Arkham City with out notic­ing it.

    When I first start­ed I wasn’t quite on board with your argu­ment, I can see the need for real­ism; then you deft­ly cut it off by point­ing out that the game has BATMAN in it. Well done indeed.

    • T. Dawson

      Yeah, I don’t recall there being any heav­i­ly sex­ist con­ver­sa­tions in Arkham City, though plot-wise is was so dis­joint­ed and ridicu­lous that they may just have slipped under the radar. The only female-centred con­ver­sa­tion I can recall from the game is between two thugs dis­cussing how one of their moth­ers needs to be locked up on prom night, and after the pre­req­ui­site yo-momma-is-a-slut jokes, it turns out that the dude’s mum went on a ram­page at the prom and killed a bunch of peo­ple, and that if she’s not locked down it could hap­pen again. Cheerful!

      What real­ly both­ered me was Catwoman. I’d never have both­ered down­load­ing her DLC if I knew what she was going to be like; almost all of her appear­ances screamed “DO YOU WANT TO FUCK ME YET? NO? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?! DO IT! I AM FEMININE SEXUALITY EMBODIED!” and that shit got tir­ing. Also, she was a god­damned idiot — why would you destroy Ivy’s plant? Just to fuck her over? Do you not remem­ber how that got you in trou­ble before? Aggravating.

      • Go read that Film Crit Hulk post I linked– it should point out the var­i­ous prob­lems in more detail for you!

        Thanks for com­ment­ing!

  • One of the bet­ter arti­cles on sex­ism I’ve seen in the last few months.

  • M. Grey

    I just want­ed to say thank you for writ­ing this. It’s nice to read an intel­li­gent argu­ment about the con­tent in this game. I played the demo of it after hear­ing so many of my friends tell me how great it was and after the cutscene with cat­wom­an was con­vinced that I must be play­ing the wrong game. It’s nice to see that some­one else finds this a prob­lem as well.

    • It’s a real shame, because there’s a great deal to like about the game. I love the com­bat and stealth mechan­ics, but this other stuff is a very real prob­lem.

  • I googled des­per­ate­ly to find an arti­cle about this. My room­mate has been obsessed with AC, and despite it being a real­ly well-engineered mystery/action game, I can’t bring myself to play it. Every time the cam­era skirts up Catwoman’s ass or the hench­man gush about how much they’d like to screw that “crazy bitch Harley”, I feel a knot in my throat.

    I am alright with these kinds of com­ments in the right sce­nar­ios. A lot of times authors will provide a prime exam­ple of bad­ness and use them as a device for com­men­tary. That’s kind of, like, every Batman vil­lain ever. But the weird thing about this game in par­tic­u­lar is that the hench­men are por­trayed in such a pathet­ic, sad light, that I couldn’t help but actu­al­ly feel sorry for them. They com­plain about being hun­gry and cold, and being scared of their boss­es.

    It just doesn’t make sense. Every time I hear the word “bitch” from the game it just both­ers me. Why is that an okay word to toss around?