The ‘But’ in Butt: Women, sex and video games

What Iron Man does in a suit of mass destruction, Lara Croft pulls off in short-shorts. The Tomb Raider can put saving the world multiple times under her belt, which literally comprises a fourth of her total outfit. And she shows as much ass as she kicks. But what’s the problem with looking a little sexy?

From Damsel to Danger

The world of video games has come a long way since Princess Peach, whose only calling in life seems to be getting kidnapped. For our heroine-protagonist, Lara Croft, is no damsel-in-distress; she is a gun-slinging archaeologist who chases dangerous relics and beats up bad guys. Someone can play the game feeling powerful and empowered – within the body of a woman. It can be a refreshing experience, especially for women who see themselves as being represented on-screen.

“You could say it’s about identification,” shared Lisa Yamasaki, a doctoral student in Social Sciences and Comparative Education. “I gravitate toward characters I can relate with. They resonate with me.”

Lara Croft hit the scene fifteen years ago. Today, video games have seen the rise of countless other heroines. There is only one problem: they all look the same. Briefly pretend their heads did not exist, and neck-down they share the same hypersexualized template.

Kicking Ass and Showing It

“Women are like sex objects in video games,” commented Adeline Ducker, a Design Media Arts graduate and resident of UCLA’s Game Lab. “I was going through a ‘how to’ book for drawing comic book characters, and I noticed men’s bodies could be drawn in different ways. But for women, even aliens, it was always the same big breasts and curvy hips. Apparently that was all you needed to be a female superhero!”

Gamers are quick to voice both concern and incredulity with such portrayals. Not only are the women’s body proportions often unrealistic in video games, but they are also emphasized further through clothing as sexy as it is mind-boggling.

“The armor is useless!” exclaimed Ducker. “Men are completely covered in gear, but how is a metallic bra supposed to protect you in battle?”

There is no inherent issue with being “sexy,” but it does become jarring when the sex appeal is empty fan service. Game designers are suspect when they consistently give women the same impractical “metallic lingerie” for battle attire. Such sexualization becomes especially problematic when situated in its original context of violence.

“You see the new Lara Croft in the E3 – that’s the Electronic Entertainment Expo – preview, and she actually is more anatomically correct,” said Yamasaki, in reference to the latest Tomb Raider games in development. “But when you see her in the gameplay, when she’s in pain and agony and she’s moaning and groaning, it’s very sexualized. It does something funny – it exposes her, in a sense, and it makes it okay for her to be a victim of violence.”

A cursory glance on YouTube for demo videos of the 2011 ‘Tomb Raider’ gives this comment, rated highest by users: “close your eyes from 4:05 onwards and it sounds like you’re listening to Lara Croft’s porn clip with good background music.”

Is Nonviolence Non-gaming?

Is it possible for one to envision video games without violence and hypersexualized women? The three have a consistent track record, and have gone hand-in-hand like an unholy trinity.

“Sometimes a female character’s sexuality is a part of her personality,” explained Ducker. “It adds to her characterization when done well … And the violence? In an action game, it’s exciting. It’s a way of raising the stakes – as in, you don’t want this to happen to the character you care about.”

Though many successful games have sidelined sexualized violence, drawing a discreet line of what is acceptable is difficult.

“Well, unless you’re playing Tetris…” laughed Yamasaki. “Games will have violence, or elicit violent reactions when you play them. You need to keep that balance. There is a term in media for that – it is ‘contested terrain,’ which means you’ve got both good and bad. You finally have women as adventurers and main characters, which is more or less a positive representation given that x, y, and z are problematic. We have these same flaws within ourselves, so how we can expect something that’s a product of ourselves to be perfect?”

Indeed, a stance of prohibition still remains questionable, if not tantamount, to censorship.

“When we outlaw something, you just get underground movements recreating that violence,” said Yamasaki. “You have to be careful with how we say ‘you should not.’ As a person, you make a choice to play certain kinds of games and talk to the younger generations about it. You want to be critical.”

This article originally ran in the Winter 2012 issue of Fem.

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