Venus in Mars: Gender Equality in Fighting Games

Let’s be honest: No person with eyes can deny that, in just about any game, the tendency is to design guys to appeal to the ego and girls to appeal to the dick. This trend is most pronounced in fighting games. There are scads and scads of lists of the “Hottest Girls in Gaming,” and these lists are filled with characters from fighting games. From the Dead or Alive franchise’s breast physics engine to Chun-Li’s superthighs to just about any girl in any game you care to name, female fighters are seldom designed to be appealing choices for female players.

The sexism inherent in geek-related media has been discussed at length already, so I shall only condense and summarize here: In most games women are depicted in subordinate or support roles. Their proportions are atrociously askew (thank you Lara Croft), and their outfits (at least their primary outfits) are often heinously impractical. These facts have led many astute observers to conclude that video games are sexist, as they objectify women. The stalwart defenders of the faith then typically respond with vitriol in defense of tradition, saying that men are similarly objectified (Spoilers: They are not). These noble paladins demand sympathy for the horde of powerful, brave, armor-clad and gun, blade (or gunblade)-wielding warriors who must save the day every day, insinuating that men, by constantly being cast in such empowered roles, are just as oppressed and objectified as women.

The key difference between the objectification of the genders is that, whereas women are presented with characters that reinforce the notion that “You are a piece of meat for consumption,” or “You are only second best and cannot be powerful or save the day on your own,” men are given characters such as Batman to reinforce the notion that “You are the God-damn Batman.” It is a law of the Internets that to be Batman is better than to be anything else. People of the Internet, I ask you, is not Marcus Fenix a kind of Batman? Is not Kratos? Is not Link? These men are brave warriors who save day after day after day while sweating excess testosterone and making the other poor bastard die for his country/planet/hive collective. And so it must be, or else such protagonists would not live long in our memories. To conclude, his titanic crassness aside (or even factored in, should you choose), would you rather be Duke Nukem or one of the strippers with whom he holds court?

These facts are unavoidable, and our Beloved and Most Esteemed Editor has just released an exceptional piece on the inherent sexism within games and gaming culture. As bad as it is out there, I feel that there remains one genre that, while by no means untainted by this trend, is at least far, far more progressive than it is given credit for. I present to you the fighting game. Though they get (and deserve) a bad rap for their revealing costumes (which contribute to the meaty mindset discussed above), there are other factors inherent in fighting games not necessarily present in other genres that should afford them a second glance before dismissing them as sexist trash. Fighting games feature truly “strong women”, not only mechanically (that is, in the context of the games themselves) but also from a narrative standpoint. This dual equality is seldom seen in other games, and fighting games are often even-handed in their treatment of men and women.

I propose, for the moment, that we table discussion of the pervasive and troubling sexualization of females in fighting games. I’m not doing it because it doesn’t matter. If it didn’t matter, I wouldn’t feel the need to defend the genre I love so much (I would simply buy the games and to hell with whoever would criticize what I choose to play). I’m doing this because I feel that there are other issues worthy of discussion. I realize that the issue of clothing will be difficult to get past for some readers, but I beg your kindly indulgence.

I, personally, have managed to forgive the issue of female fighters’ skimpy attire. I have always been more interested in how the characters played than what they wore. If I didn’t like how a character played, I wouldn’t play hir no matter how sexy ze was (there is a reason I generally avoid the Dead or Alive games, which I feel handle like an ass on stilts.  Also, tolerant as I am for skimpy costumes, there comes a point.) Admittedly, I’m still new to the feminist critical lens, but I never sensed anything too problematic in the character designs, at least to the point of it being a deal-breaker. Don’t get me wrong, it was always clear to me that the costumes of the male and female fighters were stressing different things, and meant to evoke different reactions in the players, but what’s also been clear as a connoisseur of fighting games is that, despite how much players may squeal about “balance issues,” these games are basically fair fights, with the results of individual bouts more in the hands of individual players than the characters themselves. For the most part, the characters are functionally equal. Granted, unlockable bosses such as Street Fighter IV’s Seth and Guilty Gear X’s Kliff and Justice are what those in the Fighting Game Community call “cheap as hell,” but for the most part, all fighting game characters were designed to surmount and be surmountable.

This inherent equality is perhaps the fighting genre’s one saving grace in the face of the sexism and objectification of design. There is no way around the, shall we say, “appealing” character designs of the fighting genre’s female members, and I don’t see the trend going away anytime soon. But at least they’re on the front lines. At least they are main characters. If we really examine female fighters, we see a plethora of strong, compelling characters in interesting (and not usually sexualized) circumstances.

Character Selections

Let us for a moment focus on the narrative strengths of the fighting genre’s female characters. Frequently, fighting games revolve around some sort of central tournament (which somehow manages to span the entire globe, multiple planes of existence, and space), and contestants (the selectable characters) enter the tournament to attain some goal beyond mere victory at the tournament. These goals cover the entire dramatic playbook, from avenging the death of a loved one to stopping (or facilitating) the Evil Master Plan to assassination of one of the other contestants. All compelling, interesting motivations, and all expressed by female characters. Though story is not the focus of the fighting genre, to those of us who like to think about our games, what story there is must inform our views of the characters we play if we are to examine the game as a text and not merely a toy.

Many female fighters either are or were in some sort of military or law enforcement service (Chun-Li and Sonya Blade are both cops of one form or another). Generally, they are given highly sensitive missions that place them in frequent danger. This in itself is a refreshing change of pace from the literary (especially gaming) norm of placing women in a secondary role, either as set dressing, support, or celebratory booty. The inclusion of women in military and law enforcement roles, while not entirely revolutionary in games, is still a significant point in favor of fighting games.

Now let us look at specific examples from some of the genre’s biggest franchises. Where else to begin but with Chun-Li? Chun-Li has become known as the “First Lady of Fighting Games,” as she was the first selectable female character in fighting game history in Street Fighter II, a title which was revolutionary in several respects. Chun-Li is a law enforcement officer on a very dangerous mission: to stop M. Bison (or Vega, if you’re not from ‘round here), a dangerous and powerful criminal. Now, I myself am not an INTERPOL agent, but I wouldn’t think they would leave such tough assignments to a rank amateur. Clearly, Chun-Li is a top agent and a skilled martial artist, more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the likes of Ryu and Ken (not to mention PUNCHING A FRICKING CAR TO PIECES in the bonus stage).

Crimson Viper, a newcomer who joined the fray in Street Fighter IV, is another secret agent. Clad in a suit that grants power to the wearer (Okay, so a feminist reading here is a little twisted, granted), Crimson Viper is dedicated to her mission, and maintains an all-business attitude throughout. She also bucks the trend of oversexualizing female characters (although, again, we have yet to entirely escape it, midriffs ahoy) by having an at least relatively conservative character design and demeanor, and is one of the more memorable characters among the new batch of fighters. Makoto, a martial artist who debuted in Street Fighter III: Third Strike and is not a secret agent or gifted with any supernatural ability, is also noteworthy for bucking gender stereotypes and typical presentation. She enters the game’s tournament to drum up popularity for her dojo, which has fallen on hard times after the death of her father. Though her motivation is steeped in cultural tradition, it is refreshing to see a character competing for such a noble, if mundane, goal as preserving the family business. Add to that Makoto’s aggressive, “tomboyish” personality and her karate dougi uniform, and we have ourselves an inoffensive, non-sexualized, compelling character (who, from a gameplay perspective, is a powerful, ass-kicking fighter)!

The Soulcalibur series is one of my favorites, and it bears special mention because a significant portion of its roster fights clad in ruefully impractical costumes. Ivy Valentine, the de facto poster child for rampant sexualization and fanservice, is a compelling character for reasons other than her design. She is self-motivated, on a sworn mission to eradicate the evil Soul Edge (one of two mythical blades at the center of the Soulcalibur story). She invents her signature weapon after years of research and diligently tracks Soul Edge all over Europe, conquering many powerful fighters in the course of her journey. Also, one of her central rivalries in the series is with Cervantes, who she discovers at the end of Soulcalibur is her father. From a literary perspective, the struggle to overcome the father is usually reserved for the son (the Skywalker family is an iconic recent example, although even Zeus and Oedipus laid the beatdown upon their fathers), with the father/daughter relationship typically being one of mutual adoration. Ivy, though probably not unique in this, does take up the traditional son’s rivalry, which places her in the paradoxical position of being a compelling, progressive female archetype in a sex-object wrapper.

Seong Mi-na, another fighter from the Soulcalibur series, has an equally interesting and compelling story. Denied entry into the coast guard to defend from an impending enemy invasion because of her gender, Mi-na runs away from home in search of a powerful weapon to prove her worth (Soul Edge). Throughout the course of the series, she runs away from home no less than three times, first to attain Soul Edge, then to escape her father’s rigorous training and an arranged marriage, and lastly to stop a headstrong student of her father’s from finding Soul Edge, which she learns is evil. Mi-na’s narrative has elements of a traditional coming-of-age story, and her journey is inspiring; one wants to cheer Mi-na on as she exhibits genuine heroism game after game. Her character design, though not exactly conservative, is less ridiculous than Ivy’s, and unlike Ivy, Mi-na’s costumes generally opt for the more traditional.

Different Styles

We have seen how women in fighting games seem to be made of strong stuff, story-wise. They have to be. Otherwise, why would they put their lives on the line in such a way? Compare this to how girls are portrayed in, say, Ninja Gaiden for the XBOX (Why hello again, Dead or Alive series!). Ninja Gaiden presents us with four female characters, but you only need to remember the names of two of them (the other two are a dead girlfriend and an occasional note telling you how to jump or where to find a weapon). If Ivy is sexualized, then Rachel, the non-enemy female character, is a caricature of sex itself. Her story (a fiend hunter from a family of fiend hunters is hunting fiends to bring an end to the curse that has transformed her sister into a Greater Fiend and will someday consume her) is as noble as any fighter’s, but in practice she is anything but empowered. Throughout the course of the game, Rachel is eaten (and then rescued), is unable to kill her (literally) demonized sister, Alma, and thus is chained up and taken captive to be offered as a sacrifice to strengthen said sister (and then rescued), and finally hangs helplessly over a river of lava (and is then rescued). She also jiggles and shines with demon-innards, and is clad in an outfit that is every bit as impractical as Ivy’s, but with twice the leather. Oh, and throughout the two thousand+ hours it will take you to beat Ninja Gaiden, she is barely more than set dressing both times she appears outside of cut-scenes. Her sister, Alma, appears twice as a boss. While there may be characters in fighting games similar in design to Rachel, the player spends a lot less time rescuing any of them.

This raises a legitimate point. How many girls in gaming does the player either protect, escort, or rescue? Protect/Escort/Rescue the Girl is a surefire recipe for instant plot, and has been since the dawn of video games with relatable protagonists (The opening cutscene of Ghosts ‘n Goblins illustrates my point well). In fighters, however, you are actually playing as the girls, helping (or experiencing, depending on your outlook) them in their victories against fearsome enemies and sumo wrestlers. Over all, it is the fighting genre that has given us the most empowered female characters, even though they seem so rarely to come in any size other than fetish.

Fighting games are fantastic! Where else can we see a tiny girl like Talim make a complete fool of a golem like Astaroth? What other genre would give us schoolgirls who can punch cars to pieces?1 Other game genres cannot boast the kind of gender equality, from a mechanical perspective, that fighters can. In games where gender is more than a simple cosmetic decision (specifically the older Elder Scrolls games and Everquest, although there are undoubtedly more), we typically see a trend:  men are given boosts to Strength, Endurance, Badassery and Inventory (you know, because they can carry more stuff) while women are encouraged, by a stat bias bonus, to opt for the physically weaker, magic-based classes, the assumption being that a girl is less inclined to be able to handle herself in a fight. I can think of a multitude of characters in fighting games that defy this stat bias on all regions of the gender spectrum. Ivy’s attacks are among the most damaging in Soulcalibur 2, her combos are some of the most difficult to execute, and Dan Hibiki of the Street Fighter series is, for the most part, a worthless laughingstock (to say nothing of Rufus).

On A Gender Bender

Fighting games seem to take the same paradoxical approach of fetishize/empower with women of all kinds, which is more than can be said for the rest of the industry at this point in time. Much has been made about the addition of Poison to the Street Fighter X Tekken roster. Though not the first transgender character, she has become one of the most high-profile in video game history. Though there is uncertainty about Poison’s status from those who refuse to accept such progressive thinking from a fighter,2 Poison is unmistakably female. Her story has been chronicled thoroughly elsewhere, so let us focus on the now. Currently, Poison is presented as overly-proportioned (the plastic surgery to get that form must have broken at least 1.5 banks) and aggressively sexual (she’s not wearing the hat and handcuffs because she’s in law enforcement, which is a change in itself). In short, Poison is one of the girls! Sure, it’s a problematic depiction, but at least the designers aren’t painting her as an other and a freak (which is far better than many of us can claim).

I personally find Poison’s portrayal to be positive; in a world that tries to erase transgender people, or shame them for their transgressions, to see a character treated like all the rest of the girls (problematic though that treatment may be) makes me cautiously optimistic for things to come. Plus, and this is from a singularly personal standpoint, I like seeing transgender people depicted as sexy and not creepy.3

It is noteworthy that, of all the games that have been released so far, the most prominent trans woman has come from a fighter series. It seems as though game designers will let just about anyone dress up in a crazy costume and beat other people up these days (I’m looking at you, Tekken series’ Kuma!). Regardless of the gender status of Poison, or perhaps because of it, it is clear that fighting games are ahead of the curve when it comes to gender equality in gaming.4

Continue?

In any industry, one of the most sensible (and by far the safest) strategies is to appeal to the target demographic in as many ways as possible. Since video games are now, by and large, a visual medium, it is thus sensible to design characters to appeal to said demographic, which in this case comprises young males. There is no escaping the fact that women are depicted in an overly-sexualized way, and any fair-minded person will cede that this is a problem. This trend, I hope, will be reversed with time. But for the time being, it is important for us to realize that not every depiction of women in games is negative. It is not the hallmark weakness of every girl that she loses her powers when her hands are tied by a man, and some girls, even if their costumes are only clothes in the loosest sense, still kick ass, both narratively and mechanically. Critics complain that there are no empowered women in games. Clearly, they’re just not looking in the right places.

  1. Sorry, but I really think that punching a car to pieces is awesome. []
  2. For there is no possible way they could have an issue with her gender identity. Nope. None at all. []
  3. For further reflections on Poison from a trans* perspective, see this article over at Kill Screen, featuring a personal hero of mine, Morgan McCormick []
  4. Unfortunately, the culture around fighting games doesn’t seem to have caught up with the progressive thinking present in the games they play. Some of you may remember the controversy around the launch of Street Fighter X Tekken, namely Team Tekken leader Aris Bakhtanians’ pro-misogynist trash talk rant on the reality show Cross Assault. A recap of the distasteful rant, and Bakhtanians’ statement attempting to backpedal in response to the backlash (the rhetoric of which echoes the defenders of the anti-integration mindset of the 1950s and ’60s, which for the sake of “taking it in context” is almost exactly what Bakhtanians was advocating) can be found at the links provided. A response to and critique of a culture which not only permits but fosters such rhetoric is certainly warranted, but is beyond the scope of this humble article. []

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