Anita Sarkeesian has released the next video in her "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games" series! This one, "Women as Background Decoration, Part 2", is a continuation of the last one, but further explores how women are used as objects and perpetual victims of violence, most often perpetrated by males.
MAJOR content warning for depictions of violence, particularly against women, and language.
In the video games Sarkeesian critiques here, women are rarely shown to be autonomous individuals, and are often depicted as vulnerable victims of violence, but not in a sensitive way meant to raise awareness of a serious issue.
On a shallow surface level, these vignettes seem to contextualize violence against women in a negative light; however, these narratives are never really about the abused women in question. Instead depictions of female pain and victimhood are flippantly summoned to serve as sideshow attractions in storylines about other things altogether.She describes a scene that plays repeatedly in one particular video game, where a man approaches a woman on the street and they have an argument about her leaving him. If the player intervenes too early, he scares the would-be attacker off, failing the mission and receiving no points. If the player intervenes during a specific 10-second timeframe, the player can rescue the woman by killing her attacker. If the player is too late, the woman is killed and the player can hunt down her fleeing murderer. The game does not provide any other options. Players can't call for medical help, administer first aid, or even check on the woman.
...these female characters exist to be assaulted in order to give the player something to do, a reason to chase down the bad guy, exact vigilante justice on him and gain the allotted experience points. After which the women are casually discarded, forgotten by the game and its characters.
These scenes serve no real purpose in the plot other than to let the audience know that the perpetrators are truly deplorable monsters...It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.And here's the kicker:
These women and their bodies are sacrificed in the name of infusing “mature themes” into gaming stories. But there is nothing “mature” about flippantly evoking shades of female trauma. It ends up sensationalizing an issue which is painfully familiar to a large percentage of women on this planet while also normalizing and trivializing their experiences.
While some games are more "gleeful" about their depictions of violence against women then others, simply avoiding the direct glorification of violence is not sufficient.
There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.
But the game stories we've been discussing in this episode do not center or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.
The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitize violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.
Pop culture, including video games, has a powerful influence. It's never "just for fun"; there's always a message.
We must remember that games don’t just entertain. Intentional or not, they always express a set of values, and present us with concepts of normalcy. So what do games that casually rely on depictions of female victimhood tell us about women vis-a-vis their place in society?
Well, the pattern of utilizing women as background decoration works to reinforce the myth that women are naturally fated to be objectified, vulnerable, and perpetually victimized by male violence. These games also tend to frame misogyny and sexual exploitation as an everlasting fact of life, as something inescapable and unchangeable.Sarkeesian points out that one of the responses she hears most often when she critiques violence against women in video games is that the games wouldn't be "realistic" without it. That's rather an ironic statement to make in games that include so many "realistic" features like "multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration, and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack", not to mention occasionally fantastical creatures like dragons and ogres. So we can imagine worlds where all of those things are possible, but a world without violence against women is too far out of the realm of "realism" to suspend our disbelief? That's the saddest commentary I've heard about our society in a long time.
But Sarkeesian ends on a hopeful note:
The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable.
When we see fictional universes challenging or even transcending systemic gender oppression, it subverts the dominant paradigm within our collective consciousness, and helps make a more just society feel possible, tangible and within reach.