A comment on my Tomb Raider article from last week has got me thinking in broader terms about “rape culture” in video games. Geared for Gamers reader Poco Puffs asked me what I thought about the Hitman trailer, which had been getting a lot of negative attention for Hitman beating the ever-living crap out of some extremely sexualized bondage nuns. Having absolutely no familiarity with Hitman whatsoever, I went and read a couple of other people’s articles on the trailer, and I responded in my own comment. However, I think that my answer wasn’t long enough to articulate what I really wanted to say, not just about Hitman and Lara Croft, but about sex, violence and video games in general. So, here is my current opinion on rape culture in video games, to the best of my ability, with the resources available to me at this time.
I want to start out with two disclaimers. First, we’re going to be acknowledging that rape exists and I’m going to use the word rape… a lot. Second, I’m a feminist, but I’m not a very good one. I basically operate off the principle that men and women should be treated as equals and that’s kind of it. Then again, I think that this is the way most people operate when they identify with a doctrine that’s as massive and varied as feminism is. Not all democrats think Bill Clinton is amazing, not all Christians think homosexuality is a sin, and not all feminists cry ‘rape culture’ whenever a female character gets injured in a piece of media.
If you want to see what a professional feminist thinks about women in videogames, watch this space. Aside from being a little bit of a hard-on (by which I mean that she can sometimes come off as self-righteous and condescending to men without acknowledging women’s roles in our own oppression), Anita Sarkeesian is basically the best voice the Internet has right now on feminism and pop culture. I am massively interested in what her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series will bring us, but until then, here’s what I have to say on the subject.
First of all, I want to talk about rape culture. Rape culture is basically any cultural practice or feature that makes it easier for people to rape other people and get away with it. Different people have different views on what specific factors create rape culture. For example, most reasonable people would agree at this point that telling a person who has just been brutally attacked that they brought it on themselves, either through their dress of their actions creates a hostile environment for victims and probably contributes to victim silence, which in turn contributes to rapist freedom. And yet, that still happens with surprising frequency.
On the other hand, some feminist scholars have made arguments that pornography reinforces rape culture. Ostensibly, the idea, as far as I can tell is this: Men are the majority of porn viewers, as well as the majority of rapists, and both porn and rape involve sex. Therefore porno leads to rape. Again, a concept most reasonable people would find ridiculous. Saying pornography leads to rape is like saying that cooking shows lead to cannibalism.
Sexually objectified characters are rarely more than two-dimensional eye candy, it’s true. The argument against misogynistic portrayals of women and the argument against tacky, sensationalist media can frequently be one in the same. As much as I love video games, female characters are largely absent, and when they are present, they tend not to be heroes, only prizes or window dressing.
One of the things I said in my comment in regard to the Hitman trailer, is that they had a perfect opportunity to sexualize him at the beginning when he’s cleaning the blood off himself. Sadly, the game developers didn’t recognize that opportunity, which makes the objectification of the nuns at the end of the trailer seem more out of place than it really needs to be. The failure isn’t that they’re sexualizing these women as they get beat to bits, it’s that they’re not sexualizing Hitman as he beats them to bits. If Hitman is going to be a no-holds barred gore and whore-fest, make it an equitable one. Let’s not pretend that we’re so socially evolved that most of us no longer enjoy a little bit of baseless debauchery.
No one, and I mean no one, turns on the private browsing feature in order to abuse themselves to eloquent descriptions of someone’s glowing personality. We all participate in some level of objectification in our daily lives. Shaming people for our interest in sexy images is like shaming people for our love of processed sugars. The reason those products are successful is because they operate on supply lines we’re evolutionarily bound to respond to. Pretending that we as a society don’t appreciate sex and violence is disavowing about 80% of both our literature and our history. And pretending that only men enjoy sex and violence is almost as misogynistic as pretending that women can’t make good heroes.
Now that I’ve told all the boys and girls at home that it’s alright to get tight-pantsy about the Hitman bondage nuns, does that mean that rape culture isn’t relevant in gaming? Hardly. The games we play are inextricably linked to the culture we created them in. We still live in a culture where rapists are protected and victims are punished. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but it still kind of sucks.
“Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape” by Susan Brownmiller was published in 1975 and is considered by some to be the origin of the term rape culture, although Brownmiller’s phrase was actually “rape-supportive culture.” At the time, the majority of Americans didn’t believe that rape, sexual assault, and sexual molestation were common crimes. The extremely low level of awareness allowed sexual predators to operate largely undisturbed. It’s only because of the consciousness raising work that feminists have done in the ensuing decades that we have the kind of society where people wax academic over Lara Croft and Hitman ‘contributing to rape culture,’ or ‘objectifying women.’
But the journey from raising awareness about rape and rape culture, to debating what is and is not rape culture, or where and how rape culture develops has had some side effects that aren’t altogether helpful. For example, in emphasizing how frequently (1 in 5, according to some studies) women are the victims of rape or molestation, we now consciously live in a society where a woman is more likely to be a rape victim than almost any other thing. We’ve started to exist in a continuum of those who have already been raped and those that still might be. Which, while productive in raising awareness, also hangs a sword of Damocles over our collective heads.
Suddenly, all of our actions become suspect/dangerous. A woman riding the bus, going to the store, or jogging in her neighborhood alone is a potential victim. As is any girl who drank too much at a party, any female under the age of 12 more than 10 feet from a guardian or any woman anywhere. After all, 1 in 5 of us will be or have been. It’s starting to get to the point where we get that women are rape victims. What we don’t get is that women, in addition to whatever their personal history, are also bus riders, and consumers, and exercise freaks. We’re drunks, and little girls and we have the potential to be any damn thing we want, despite the fact that we still live in a rape culture. Just because rape exists, and just because 91% of rape victims are female doesn’t mean that women have any less agency in our day to day existence. Sometimes we lose sight of that fact.
Which is how some of us can look at the Hitman trailer, see that the nuns outnumber Hitman 8 to 1, and are clearly carrying superior weaponry, and still consider them the victims. If gender roles had been reversed, and we caught sight of a scarred and bleeding female character being charged by 8 guys armed with submachine guns, who use an RPG to reduce her hotel to flaming ashes, the feminist bloggers would be going crazy about that too. But our preconceptions of women as victims or potential victims is coloring our experience of the trailer.
Earlier I said that my feminist convictions are basically that women and men are equal, and that they should be treated as such. In a perfect world, nobody would be bothered by Hitman because he’d be just as likely to be an ass-kicking woman as he would be an ass-kicking man, as would his or her opponents and allies. We wouldn’t have to tell little girls that they can be anything little boys can be, and Legos and Barbies would be just as appropriate a present for a girl or a boy dependent, not on gender, but on the personal preferences of each child.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where little girls get books on make-up tips and BFF bracelet makers while boys get building tools and books on snake-bite safety. Where you’re so unlikely to see a female in a video game or an action movie that people actually wrote blogs thanking Marvel Studios for having women in the background of their hot-dude sausage-fest, The Avengers (not that I’m complaining, it’s more than anybody else is doing.) If striving for a future where women really are equal to men, then we have to be able to inhabit every space our brothers inhabit, regardless of propriety or morality. Which means that, not only can we be bad guys, but we should be bad guys. Women can and should have every bit as much inclination to take a pop at Hitman as men do, and Hitman should have every right to dispatch them as summarily as he dispatches his male opponents. We can not be equal to men if we are continually casting ourselves as the victims.
The problem I had with the Tomb Raider trailer isn’t that Lara Croft is chased by men, or that she is harmed by men, or that she is harmed at all. It’s that the whole time this is happening, her fear-responses are almost pornographic. The shuddering whimpers, the wide-eyed gasping, the pitiful crying are all pathetic. The heavily armed, adult women in the Hitman trailer are active participants in their own gory destruction. Lara Croft, on the other hand, is a scared child fleeing and fighting for her life. Lara truly is a victim, a role I personally am tired of seeing women cast in. Compared to yet another rabbit-scared lady, hiding in the shadows, Hitman’s nuns were a breath of fresh air.
I imported my comments from GearedforGamers.com
I admit I’m not familiar with the Hitman games. I assume you’re referring to the nun trailer, and not the one where he kills all those dudes to get to the woman in the shower who should probably have significance, but who I don’t know at all.
I see there’s been some guff about the game ‘normalizing violence against women,’ and I don’t go in for that at all. I think it’s an unfair world we’re building where bad guys have to be guys. Hitman (as the name implies) kills people. So to have a trailer where he helps little old ladies across the street and kisses kittens on the top of their furry widdle heads would be ridiculous.
The women in the Hitman trailer are 1) bad guys 2) adults 3) seriously armed 4) not the player character. I don’t have a problem with Hitman pulling a Neo on a crowd of sexy, armed, evil, bitches. Bad guys get slaughtered. That’s point of most games.
In her article Michelle Starr (http://www.cnet.com.au/how-hitman-is-insulting-us-all-339338883.htm) talks about how “we’re supposed to be turned on by their brutal murder” and that the game is attracting “the kinds of people who get off on hurting women.” I think that statements like this are an oversimplification.
As if anytime a woman gets injured we should all weep tears of blood for her brutalization. It’s not the injury, or the duress, or the blood I have a problem with in the Tomb Raider trailer, it’s something more nuanced and difficult to articulate. It’s her helpless whimpering and her doe-eyed terror, her lack of power and her pathetic crying. None of which are present in the Hitman trailer.
And can we take a break from being morally superior here and just acknowledge that violence and sex are very close together in our brains and in our lives? You find me a human who’s never had one violent sexual thought and I’ll show you a human who’s never had sexual thoughts at all. I personally loved watching Hitman slaughter those ladies. I thought it was sexy. I have a feeling a lot of other people did too, that doesn’t mean we’re bad people.
Not to say that Hitman trailer is a shining beacon of equality. I think it is a failure that the Hitman character is not as equally portrayed in the shots of him cleaning the blood off himself before the nun fight. I say, if you’re going blue, go all the way. Have sexy nuns and a sexy Hitman sexily murdering each other, if that’s what you’re going for.
In response to someone who said that focusing on the rape and ignoring the murder was counter intuitive.
I play games to straight up murder dudes. In God of War 3 when Kratos totally beats Zeus to death and you can see it through his increasingly blood filled eyes, I was overjoyed. I have absolutely no moral ground to stand on in regard to violence in games. However, there’s about a million miles of bullshit between me wanting to snipe guys heads off and watch them explode like melons, and me wanting to watch my own character get raped. And I know that she doesn’t actually get raped, but it’s still bullshit. And shoveling rape and murder into the same category doesn’t work for me. Rape is such a different, more terrible crime than just shooting someone. People I know have served in wars, where they killed people, and everybody understands that they were doing their duty to serve their country. If we suddenly found out they were raping people in addition to killing them, I have a feeling the majority of us would no longer be their friends.