GENDER ROLES IN GAMING

An essay/op/ed/rant on the evolution of gender roles in the media

It’s one of the most inescapable truths of our time; sex sells. It’s hard to go anywhere or look at anything without being accosted by images of airbrushed, scantily-clad models ergonomically designed to make you feel less attractive by the second. And perhaps nowhere is this trend become more prevalent to the point of practically being embarrassing than in the realm of gaming. I suspect one reason is games tend to have animated art. They can render a female with unrealistic proportions, wearing outfits no real woman with an ounce of self-respect would ever agree to wear. Another reason is likely to be that gamers are predominantly a demographic composed of young males who are likely to be receptive to these stimuli. Whatever the reason, sex has become a cornerstone of marketing games, often to the point where the advertisers aren’t even trying to hide it anymore.

Above: Subtlety



But as easy as it is to say that only women are the victims of this flagrant exhibitionism, this is simply not true at all, nor has it ever been. Men, too, are a victim of this type of sexual stereotyping, they too are subjected to unrealistic standards to live up to, and I’d argue it is just as degrading and damaging to them as it is to women. It’s just not as polite or acceptable to talk about it. It may be because men have historically held more power than women and it seems vulgar to some people to ever suggest that men have it bad in any way whatsoever. I suspect the more pressing reason, however, is that it is simply not socially acceptable for men to admit to feeling this way.

So let’s take a look at the history that brought us here. These issues existed long before games were popular, and to really understand the evolution of gender roles in gaming, you have to look much further back, into cinematic history. You have to look at the pioneer of the modern male gender role: John Wayne.

You could say a lot of things about John Wayne, surely. But there’s little doubt that few figures in popular culture have been so enduring or had so huge an impact. John Wayne became famous for his portrayals of manly, badass Western antiheroes. He was a chiseled jawed, glaring, tough-talking fighter who resolved all disputes with violence and told no one his feelings. He was tough, and everything he did was tough, and there was no room in his image for anything soft or compromising. Women swooned in his wake, and John Wayne would sometimes ravish them as only John Wayne could, but he rarely bothered to acknowledge their feelings and certainly never reciprocated, for love, affection, these things were alien to him. A man should have sex, but should not love. A man should not feel. A man should fight and kill.

It is this enduring image of a man who must be strong and violent and eschew anything unmanly that persists even to this day. You see it everywhere, in marketing, in movies, in everyday products. I remember one commercial in particular, I think it was a Nivea for Men Body Wash. It had moisturizers, but moisturizers are unmanly so instead they called them hydrators because it sounds cooler. The commercial began with a bombastic voice proclaiming “Prepare to defeat dry skin!” because men are fighters and must solve everything with violence. I don’t remember the rest of the commercial but I guarantee it ended with a woman draped over the man in question, because a man’s primary role is to be attractive and alluring to the opposite sex (that’s right ladies, it’s not just you who has to do that.)

And you LOVE this movie. Go ahead, admit it. You'll feel better.

This image influenced cinema for decades to come. It influences the quintessential action movies of the eighties and nineties, where oiled, badass men took on armies of foes, fighting his way through whatever obstacles stood in his way with stylized, exaggerated violence. Women in these films were typically little more than objects, bargaining chips held by the villains, trophies to be fought over and won.

This eventually came to its logical conclusion in the 21st century, giving birth to what a good friend of mine affectionately terms “boner movies,” exaggerated, stylized scenarios of male wish-fulfillment, movies like The 300 where the glory and exaggeration of everything men want to be are taken to new and impossible heights.

THIS…IS… MANLY!



But was it always this way? Did things have to turn out this way? Was there ever a point where masculinity could have been depicted differently? Was there ever anyone who dared to try to break out of this trend?

There was. And it came in a most unlikely place. It happened in 1978, perhaps the one time this trend of hyper-machismo might have been able to be averted. One man tried something different. And that man was Superman.

The nicest guy you'll ever meet who can punt you into the next timezone.



Christopher Reeve’s version of Superman was a very different notion of how a masculine hero could be portrayed. Certainly, Superman is the height of strength and power. He can lift buildings over his head, bench-press tanks, leap over cities and punch through steel plate walls. No one was ever going to question this guy’s manliness. He has nothing to prove to us. It would have been easy to make Superman a bland action hero who simply saves the day through acts of extreme badassery. Instead, Superman in this film was portrayed in a way few heroes had been before and few have been since.

It depicted Superman as nice. Sensitive. Gentle, even. He does not hide his feelings, but shares them. He shares moments of tenderness, even intimacy, with others. He was deep, thoughtful, profound, even philosophical. He was deeply troubled by the burden he carries, protecting an entire world. To depict such a powerful, masculine figure in such a way was bold and innovative.

Why did this never really catch on? Because guys hate things like this, that’s why.

You can rail against unfair notions of gender stereotypes all you want. The simple truth is, particularly among western audiences, that roles, both male and female, that break out of established gender roles aren’t popular among men. Since, as mentioned, the audiences of most video games are men, the portrayal of gender roles adheres. Depictions of male characters as thoughtful or sensitive are cast down as “emo.” Depictions of strong, confident women are lambasted by men as “ball-breakers.” Most men are content to play out their power fantasies as a burly beefcake to save the day, while scantily clad females are generally there to be rescued and make bad sexual innuendo with.

This is why people used to love Cloud. Yes, a long, long time ago, Cloud was basically the coolest guy ever. Everyone thought Cloud was the biggest badass of all time. (There are going to be spoilers here but FF7 is older than the average user of this site.) But then, people found out Cloud’s secret, and learned he wasn’t as big a badass as they thought. He was actually kind of an awkward dork. And from then on, people hated Cloud. Is it any wonder that in later works to come out of the FF7 universe, Cloud is back to being a surly badass who tells no one his feelings?

The same thing happened with Squall in FF8. He acted like a stoic loner badass, but in reality he actually had thoughts and feelings boo emo.

Men are not allowed to have feelings. Especially in games.

And it shows up even in places you don’t necessarily expect, either. Let’s look at a more recent example, The Grey Warden from Dragon Age: Origins.

Some of you are going to be surprised that I mentioned this character of all the characters from many recent RPGs to single out. Mostly, because the Grey Warden is a completely customizable figure who’s gender, appearance, backstory , and personality are completely defined by player input. You can play the Warden any way you like, as a hero or a villain or anything in between.

But there are two things universal about the Warden, no matter what you do.

1. The Warden is the biggest badass of all time. It doesn’t matter if you were a Human Noble bred to fight wars or a cloistered mage of the Circle who’s never been outside in his entire life, the Grey Warden is a badass. He will cut a swathe through approximately 2500 foes over the course of his adventure. He is a killing machine even if his background suggests he shouldn’t be.

2. The Warden is the sexiest thing since sex. Everyone wants the Warden. Everyone. Whether you’re male or female (though its especially more noticeable for females), everyone you meet will find your hero to be extremely attractive, and there are an absolutely absurd number of opportunities throughout the game to ravish both NPCs and party members alike with your insane sexual prowess. The characters of the game are more than willing to indulge in any fantasy you might want to imagine, from one night stands, long term relationships, using sex as a form of persuasion, to lesbian make-outs, magical sex rituals and a three or even four way sexual encounter.

And Leliana can tell you stories you wouldn’t believe about pudding.



It’s no secret this is all here to appeal to the baser desires of the mostly male gaming demographic. The question is, what can be done about it? Personally, it’s getting to the point where it’s frankly just getting embarrassing.

I’m not a prude. (Well I am but within reason.) I understand that a certain amount of sexual stimulation and “titillation” is harmless. It can give boys a safe outlet to indulge and explore their sexual desires without the dangers inherent in other forms of “exploration.” But there’s a time and a place for that. And that time isn’t “all the time,” and that place isn’t “everywhere you look, always.”

Moreover, putting such unrealistic expectations of "manliness" and "machismo" into the minds of young men is just as unhealthy and damaging to them as the unrealistic expectations of beauty and sexuality that plague young women. It's a downward spiral that ends up hurting a lot of people. And I see no reason why we are forced to endure it save for the sake of commercialism.

Posts

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InfectionFiles
the world ends in whatever my makerscore currently is
4353
This article is both extremely hilarious and extremely well thought out and well written.

I enjoyed this, greatly.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
17987
I always aim to please.
Personally, I think everyone has their own fantasies and wants to explore 'em in some way in fiction. I don't see it as inherently harmful in any way. I'm certainly not adverse or opposed to "fanservice," as it were, whether it be for males or females. That's where I stop, because if I go further, it'll just be a repeat of the other thread.

If you want my honest, undiluted, unadulterated opinion - I'm not against anyone using fiction or any form of media for their own fantasy fulfillment. They can do with it as they like. If it's not to my taste, I simply avoid it. I'm not at liberty to tell others what to do with the designs of their mind, because I have my own that I may want to explore and share. I'm not fixing to argue with anyone on this topic. Just felt like sharing my opinion.
Well written, I completely agree with you.
I think part of the reason why the male side of gender stereotyping is that well, a lot of males don't feel like they're any sort of victim; after all, King Leonidas for example, (the real one or the one in 300) wouldn't have won the Battle of Thermopylae (thus defending his home or his family, which the movie did portray that he indeed loved) by being anything less than ferocious, fierce, and 'masculine'.

I think a lot of people with well intent trip themselves up by trying to clear the air on the male side of sexual misrepesentation by sort of alluding that it's a bad thing to feel 'manly', to deny or suppress the several milligrams of testosterone we produce a day (interesting fact; a lot of modern men don't produce enough testosterone, leading to a lot of adverse health effects) and that its bad to want to do stereotypically manly things like cut logs with big muscles or whatever.

It turns bad when the elevation and celebration of 'manly' is at the cost of subjugating women. That's bad; one gender at the expense of another isn't good. However I don't think its bad to be masculine in itself, after all, I mean, I think your example of Superman is a good representation of a great manly man.
author=Feldschlacht IV
I think part of the reason why the male side of gender stereotyping is that well, a lot of males don't feel like they're any sort of victim; after all, King Leonidas for example, (the real one or the one in 300) wouldn't have won the Battle of Thermopylae (thus defending his home or his family, which the movie did portray that he indeed loved) by being anything less than ferocious, fierce, and 'masculine'.

I think a lot of people with well intent trip themselves up by trying to clear the air on the male side of sexual misrepesentation by sort of alluding that it's a bad thing to feel 'manly', to deny or suppress the several milligrams of testosterone we produce a day (interesting fact; a lot of modern men don't produce enough testosterone, leading to a lot of adverse health effects) and that its bad to want to do stereotypically manly things like cut logs with big muscles or whatever.

It turns bad when the elevation and celebration of 'manly' is at the cost of subjugating women. That's bad; one gender at the expense of another isn't good. However I don't think its bad to be masculine in itself, after all, I mean, I think your example of Superman is a good representation of a great manly man.


Agreed 100%.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
17987
Masculinity isn't bad, an unrealistic standard of what it means to be masculine that give impressionable young men the wrong idea of what it means to be a man is.
I have a lot of respect for characters who portray manliness as a means of being good and productive. These traits were considered desireable because they benefitted most everybody and furthered society.

It seems there is a new school of manliness that is about being a thug. There is the Fight Club theory that says in this age of political correctness men have been "stripped of their masculinity". Some people mistranslate messages like this as "Boy, it is cool to be a douche". So now we deal with a lot of (particularly young) men who are IRL trolls hell bent on dishing misery onto others. Most often to those who least deserve it because they are seen as non-threatening or weak. IRL trolls fear other IRL trolls because they fear what happens if someone is prepared to fight back. Today, people who shout obscenities from their car to a passerby on the sidewalk and throw their trash at them call themselves masculine. The misconception: masculine men spend their time pissing other people off for no good reason. This is failure.

As I connect this to gaming, I feel like so many of today's game heroes are just that kind of jerk. Even less do anything that society can respect. When it's just a video game, I can handle this somewhat. Dragon Age contains about the limit of debauchery I would withstand.
Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18047
Anyone who takes a jab at the mindless FF8 bashers gets points in my book.
I'll make a confession... having the main character of Splatterhouse as my wallpaper made me work harder on the gym.

Good article, though I wish the focus on gaming was bigger. Just another point in which games are becoming every time more predictable and repetitive.
chana
(Socrates would certainly not contadict me!)
1584
I agree with you, in the world of machism, it isn't that fun to be a man, but its not as bad as being a woman! I think this topic could be really interesting if it leads to men expressing how much and how it affects and burdens them to live in a society where that type of behaviour is expected from them.
Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
9219
Two totally unrelated points:

They can render a female with unrealistic proportions, wearing outfits no real woman with an ounce of self-respect would ever agree to wear.

LOL. You are still such a puritan prude "within reason". Do you have any idea how inherently sexist the assertion that "women who wear revealing clothes have no self respect" is?

1. The Warden is the biggest badass of all time. It doesn’t matter if you were a Human Noble bred to fight wars or a cloistered mage of the Circle who’s never been outside in his entire life, the Grey Warden is a badass. He will cut a swathe through approximately 2500 foes over the course of his adventure. He is a killing machine even if his background suggests he shouldn’t be.

Clearly I was doing it wrong since I spent most of what I played of that game getting my ass kicked and then quit in frustration.

2. The Warden is the sexiest thing since sex. Everyone wants the Warden. Everyone. Whether you’re male or female (though its especially more noticeable for females), everyone you meet will find your hero to be extremely attractive, and there are an absolutely absurd number of opportunities throughout the game to ravish both NPCs and party members alike with your insane sexual prowess. The characters of the game are more than willing to indulge in any fantasy you might want to imagine, from one night stands, long term relationships, using sex as a form of persuasion, to lesbian make-outs, magical sex rituals and a three or even four way sexual encounter.

Even if you play a dwarf? If so, my respect for Dragon Age is +++.

It’s no secret this is all here to appeal to the baser desires of the mostly male gaming demographic.

The only people I have ever known who liked or cared about the relationship aspect of Bioware games are all girls.
Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
9219
Surprised you did not mention the most preposterous and disgusting negative stereotype of masculinity in games I can think of:

Gears of War.
author=Max
LOL. You are still such a puritan. Do you have any idea how inherently sexist the assertion that "women who wear revealing clothes have no self respect" is?


Actually I didn't even see that and yeah I agree with this. You kinda shot yourself in the foot there Soli.
Starscream
Conquest is made from the ashes of one's enemies.
6110
I would agree with you on the Dragon Age: Origins part if not for the fact that every time I go to a wiki or website regarding the title all I see are legions of female DA fans who have declared their love/lust of Alistair or Zevran. This is made authentic (and creepier) by them posting fanart with hearts and making assertions about the proper way to dress your date when cosplaying.
It builds on the assumption of moral universalism, depending on how you see things of course. To me, it's a little absolutist (though it's not inherently wrong or right) to think that all women, regardless of how they feel about sexuality and their own bodies, should be subject to any sort of ridicule or shame just because they wear revealing clothes. Even men who wear revealing clothes are subject to ridicule, but shirtless men with great bodies are less so. Likewise, men who are sensitive and/or do not want to "f*** anything that moves" are likely to be chastized by their own "manly" peers for not exhibiting the masculine traits expected of them.

Society has given both genders a sexual role. If you're a man, you are supposed to be sexually promiscuous and assertive. If you're a woman, you're to be a chaste one - a virgin, essentially. It's why the words whore, slut, tramp (urban version of the word), etc are such demeaning and dirty words, meanwhile a "pimp" or casanova is someone to be heralded and celebrated because a man can be with many women, but a woman can't be with many men. That's a double standard against both sexes. Whether they are right or wrong is entirely up to the individual.

Oh, and Max - I love Gears of War. :p
chana
(Socrates would certainly not contadict me!)
1584
So every one gets brainwashed, but reading this article i really had the sense it wanted to deal with the fact that machism is also (if much less than for women) damaging to men, no?
As a man, I don't think it's damaging to my own person. I exhibit some traits of the stereotypical man and in some ways, I don't. If someone expects that of me, that's their problem. I exaggerated it a bit in the last thread to make a similar point, but in the end, it's not damaging to me personally. If society wants to impose that upon me, they can try. All I can try to do is fight back or become apathetic to it. If you bend to the pressures, I don't know what to tell you. That's up to the individual person.

As for media, I consider it a healthy outlet for a kind of catharsis or escapism, which kinda dips into that other thread about it being a myth that games are escapism. I enjoy The Expendables, Rambo, Conan The Barbarian, Gears of War, Machete, Rocky, and other stereotypical "manly men" properties. In moderation, of course. I consider 'em harmless fantasies and I've been watching these kind of films and playing these kind of games my entire life. It has not damaged me socially or sociologically to the point where I feel insecure about my own masculinity in juxtaposition to society's expectations.
chana
(Socrates would certainly not contadict me!)
1584
I'm not talking so much about feeling insecure or not about one's masculinity, as about feeling repressed (and ending inhibited) in the expression of your emotions, feelings (amongst other things).
harmonic
It's like toothpicks against a tank
4120
Well said, my friend.

On a related note, I have no problem with chainmail bikinis and gigantic boobs though. No problem whatsoever. Maybe those female warriors wearing chainmail bikinis are just so badass that they don't need protective armor. Ever think of that? :P
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