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

chana
(Socrates would certainly not contadict me!)
1584
As for Africa, that's right, and yes the statement about the Chinese vs the Occidental civilisation is, of course, exaggerated. Nevertheless, the Chinese and some other Asian civilizations are much more ancient than the occidental one.
You're right, I was just being nitpicky/enjoying some conversation on my favorite topic; history. Back to the subject at hand everyone, my apologies for the distraction!
chana
(Socrates would certainly not contadict me!)
1584
"Back to the subject" yes, I agree.
Ratty524
The 524 is for 524 Stone Crabs
12896
What a coincidence that this was put up at the time I am studying Gender Roles and communications over the summer.

A very good article, indeed. One of the biggest problems in Western society, in my opinion, is how people feel forced to live in an idealistic role rather than live in a way that is best suited for an individual. No, I don't care about having to succeed at all costs. No, I don't want to hide my feelings because not only are human emotions supposed to be natural, but they are effective for strong communication. The main thing that irks me about how men and women are portrayed in video games, or in any commercial media for that matter, is that they almost shove these roles are almost unvarying, and that people actually formulate their personalities based partly on these stereotypes.

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.)

This is basically an example of "masculine" versus "feminine" language. As in Western culture, men are expected to be "competitive, strong, and stoic" of course they would such language as "Prepare to defeat dry skin!" It supports the notion that men should be "warriors".

chana
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?

Did you mean Machoism? Being assertive isn't too bad of a trait, but it shouldn't be exclusive to just men in my view.

I honestly think to be truly successful in the world, you 'ought to have both feminine and masculine personality qualities. You should be able to feel and listen to people's thoughts and emotions, like the stereotypical "woman", yet you sometimes need to be aggressive to achieve in a competitive world, like a "man".

... Am I taking this whole thing too seriously? xD
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18257
I took four years of Gender Studies in college. =) This whole article basically arose out of what I learned there.

If you're studying gender roles for school (or if this article just generally resonated with you) you might want to look up a film called Tough Guise, which was a pretty huge influence on everything I wrote in the article. I imagine it is practically required watching in a gender course so you'll probably see it eventually.

Here's a link if you're interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79ijDA_1FVY&feature=related
chana
(Socrates would certainly not contadict me!)
1584
author=Ratty524
... Am I taking this whole thing too seriously? xD
Not one bit! ("machoism", sorry).And I totally agree, the so-called "masculine" and "feminine" qualities society artificially fabricates put together are in fact what one calls a person.
The truth is that men and females alike, in the whole world had to idealise, as almost everything, into perfect role models, wich in their own eyes look perfect. Every persons basic instinct is to be perfect, so the neverending quest for perfection, wich in my opinion is impossible for us humans, is key to this whole gender rolemodel problem. You can see that every culture shows perfect man with different traits, for one culture a man should be smart, for other he should be savage brute, for one culture woman should be housewife, in other she should be a sexy slut.

These standards are stated by the society, ussually these rolemodels are fixed from early childhood to late teen years and ussually these rolemodels are fathers and mothers. Now we can use the old motto or whatever it is: "Sins of our fathers".

These "perverted" ideals of man and woman are result of shattered egos, traumatized childhoods and other psychic problems, wich undermined their manhood or womanhood. For instance one boy was bullied at school, was laughed at, declined by other gender or had family problems, these traumatic incidents shatter his natural growth from boy to man, if they are not cured, then the effects will change his life, for instance when he was bullied, he will find comfort at supermacho superheroes who beat the crap out of anyone or he will vent his frustration on someone weaker etc. etc. later he may become overly aggressive, cowardly or a machoist. The day, when he starts his family, all these uncured and unresolved problems pass on his children, like genetic diseases. It works for the other gender too, vice versa.

Sure, natural exhibits of masculine and feminine are important for self growth,as you know that way we balance the testosterone and estrogen levels in body, but when these exhibits get way off, like we see in games, films and other stuff, then you know that the person who made them, idealise them could be a person who went trough traumatic incident, wich upset the balance in his life. Surely, the modern day commerce,politics etc. etc., I bet even in the old days, misuses these "hurt" people, to fufill their goals, from selling the newest deodorant trough making cheap whores to creating obidient cannonfodder, trough gender roles.

Lastly the cold hard truth in my opinion is that this whole "how to be a real man" or "how to be a lady" is total bullshit and waste of time, because the answer is mindblowingly simple, look between your legs.

Well this is how I see it.
chana
(Socrates would certainly not contadict me!)
1584
Yeah, I rather like the 2 before last lines, though I wouldn't maybe call that truth : "cold and hard"(!) and replace "how....lady", by "how to be a real woman" : right, there's no "how", you are or you aren't a woman or a man, period. At last, there are a few other ways of knowing : breast, for one, bearing children, for2,etc
I would like to point out Link from Zelda: Twilight princess. Link is one of my favorite hereos, but not my favorite. That spot is reserved for a female hero actually but I will stick to my point. Link is the silent hero but not without emotion.

Spoiler Alert:
There is a scene where he embraced his little worn out buddy Colin after rescuing him from the ogre or troll.. Whatever he was. Link never gets side tracked from his mission to save the world and/or princess because of sex. Though he doesn't ever speak you know he cares about his frinds and the world he lives in. At the end the end when Midna turns out to be pretty attractive in her true form he stears ackwardly, practiclly drooling. This was funny, and imo was great. To me he proved to be just young man who acts ackward around beautiful women. He wasn't some James Bond who saves the day and wraps things up with some bedroom wrestling. Instead the hero parts with the princess with a sense of sadness from both characters of their parting.


I believe the cliche of "manly man" and "slutly woman" came from poor writing that eventually took over. While I am not agenst these stereo-types to the point sexuality should not be used (maybe I am just another guy who enjoys fanservice from time to time lol), but I don't think writers should rely on sex to sell their game. If Im watching a movie and all I see are boobies with no plot, I'm going to think the movie sucks. I'll keep watching though, but I wont watch it twice. The same for video games. If the game is bad sex isn't going to make me like the game. Sure I'll get a laugh, like when I played God Of War and after the 1st boss your treated to a scene of Kratos lying with two topless women whome you can have sex with for aditional stregth. That is really funny to me. Sexuality and womenizing works for this game because Kratos is a anti-hero. True heroes should not be seen in this light, atleast I don't think so. To me a hero is someone that inspires you to be better morally, stronger physical, and emotionaly (I mean by working through emotions not disregarding them) and to be more couragous.

Speaking for myself; as a child I had never thought that these characters were ment to say "This is what you're suppose to look like," or "This is how you should act, and treat women." I am a tad bit of a pervert and often enjoy some of the fantasies that these movies and games protray, but I would never treat my girlfriend poorly because some cowboy tossed a prostitute a coin after ravishing her. And I would never compare her beauty with digital women, nor that of women who are paid to be attractive. I believe I can speak for a lot of guys when I say I want a real women who speaks for herself, has her own goals. Like I said in the beginning of the post I prefer women heroes. If I were to fall from a building I want to be saved by a beautiful, not slutty woman while I scream like a little girl lol.
Good article. A lot of my characters I write I try to be the opposite of the general stereotype of a "masculine bad ass" that alot of games like to follow. I like the unlikely hero types, but i do like to indulge in pure bad-assary and scanlty clad female heroes every now and then lol.
Wow.... that was a great and interesting article.
I'll keep this in my mind. Thank you!
author=Max McGee
Surprised you did not mention the most preposterous and disgusting negative stereotype of masculinity in games I can think of:

Gears of War.

It's actually funny because now that I think about it, Marcus Fenix from Gears of War is actually incredibly intelligent within the mythos, partly because of his scientist father, he's spent his entire life sharpening reading, and pursuing scientific and intellectual pursuits, he's no dummy. And as far as the emotional spectrum of it is concerned, he's loyal to his friends and he's totally understanding when faced with casualties of his comrades, his best friend looking for his wife (and how that ends), and he carries on a respectful relationship with the series female progagonist.

He gets a lot of heat for being bulky as fuck (somehow being muscular is a bad stereotype. While it can be an ill used trope, a big bulky dude isn't bad at all in itself and certainly doesn't imply a lesser intelligence or emotional immaturity) and carrying a big gun and screaming obscenities during battle, but little thought is given to the fact that within the context of the plot and setting, most of these things are pretty understandable and almost required given the fact that he and pretty much every other able bodied person is defending humanity from complete and utter extinction.
As a male who is likely to die a virgin, machismo has almost certainly been a contributing factor in pushing me uncomfortably close to suicide at various points in my life. Needless to say, I resent it.
author=CommieDog
As a male who is likely to die a virgin, machismo has almost certainly been a contributing factor in pushing me uncomfortably close to suicide at various points in my life. Needless to say, I resent it.


You should say that to a professional.
What a ride, this comment section. From clicking on this decade-old article I knew some of the discussion would be timeless, some other would age like milk, and some comments would just make me gagiggle

(also, rio de janeiro looks more like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuyTC8FLICY )

I really like seeing how these conversations recontextualize through the times, an eternally relevant topic discussed in a constantly shifting community.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18257
I don't think I even have the courage to read my own opinions on this topic from over ten years ago. Would it be better if I deleted it, do you think?
author=Solitayre
I don't think I even have the courage to read my own opinions on this topic from over ten years ago. Would it be better if I deleted it, do you think?


Of course not. Maybe just edit the article and add a disclaimer "some of my opinions may have changed". But if it's thought provoking, it's still valuable.
Am I still one click away from a Roman Orgy?
author=Solitayre
I don't think I even have the courage to read my own opinions on this topic from over ten years ago. Would it be better if I deleted it, do you think?


I think it's a pretty nice article and thread overall. More than anything, it's especially because of how things have changed (and not!) since ten years ago, that articles like this are so special, and anyone reading it should have that in mind. 10 years fly by so fast, too... Anyway, adding a disclaimer that it's a 10 years old article might not be a bad idea, because while it's very visible for everybody some people might not have it in mind.