Throughout history, the image of women has had significant presence in the world at large; however, much to the chagrin of many women, those images have been dictated by men. With the advent of modern media – movies, TV, and now the internet – those images are more prevalent than ever before, and the dictates still remain. But, why is this image so important, and what does it have to do with videogames?
Camille Paglia, in her book Sexual Personae, maintains that at the core, women represent nature, and man strives to control nature, thus he strives to control woman. “The primary image [of women in media] is the femme fatal, the woman fatal to man,” she explains. “Woman’s beauty is a compromise with her dangerous archetypal nature. It gives the eye the comforting illusion of the intellectual control over nature” (13-17). With this assertion, it is apparent that men’s domination of female body image is intertwined with his need to control the feminine.
Naomi Wolf is much more blunt. In her book The Beauty Myth, she argues that this very standard of beauty set forth by the media is the primary mechanism of women’s oppression by men. She discusses the “suffering caused by trying to meet the demands of the thin ideal” (1). Concerns arising from this thesis include body image, discrimination based on beauty, over-consumption of beauty products, and eating disorders.
Many readers may think this is a stretch, but let’s look at visual media and see how far off we are. The advent of modern cinema dates back to the early 1900’s with the silent films. Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, and Joan Crawford fit the bill as almost carbon copies images of the day dictated by a Hollywood controlled exclusively by men. Delicately coiffed, high breasts, and a boyish shape, the lack of variation in appearance lends credence to the supposition of men’s influence in the realm of women’s aesthetics.
Prior to silent films, wider hips and larger breasts were the preferred norm, a measure of a woman’s ability to bear and nurse children. However, this all changed with the introduction of film. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, in her book Fasting Girls, asserts that it is this image that launched our current culture of women’s thinness and the subsequent issues with anorexia and bulimia. In Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo explains that this thin vision comes from man’s fear of being tied down as a result of pregnancy, that “the fear of pregnancy may have more to do with fear of domestic entrapment than with suppressed Electra fantasies . . .”(46). The heavier body represents a body ready for reproduction, while a slim figure denies this possibility.
This image changed a bit in the 40’s and 50’s, with actresses like Marilyn Monroe appearing on the scene. The “blonde bombshell” was the new look for Hollywood – big blonde hair, big breasts, and narrow waists – and Monroe fit those dictates. However, even with several films under her belt and the word “star” attached to her name, she still suffered the whims of men in Hollywood. Fox wouldn’t grant her script approval, and when she failed to show, Fox suspended her (www.ellensplace.net).
Like other bombshells of her time, Jean Harlow and Jayne Mansfield, Monroe was not taken seriously as an actress. “Marilyn’s media-drenched image as a tragic dumb blond has become an American archetype,” explains Paul Rudnick in Time (online). It was this image that allowed the more sexual, less boyish figure to reappear, but only under a guise. The figure couldn’t have a brain. Paglia’s femme fatal made a comeback, but only if she was a ditz. No wonder women of today are stuck with “dumb blonde” jokes and stereotypes; there is an “anger women feel about not having power in the world,” writes Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan in their book, Meeting at the Crossroads (11). Could anyone blame Monroe for being angry with Fox for denying her power? But the power of her T and A sure made millions for Fox.
Monroe was a prisoner of her own image, and women flocked to be prisoners just like her – complete with peroxide-blonde hair, flowing skirts, and accentuated breasts. But the image oppression didn’t stop there. In the ‘70’s, it was Farrah Fawcett hair and skimpy bikinis, and women tripped over themselves to copy that likeness. A result of this rail-thin, wind-swept look, anorexia, then only referred to as the “starving disease,” was slowly becoming a common problem among American women (Brumberg. Fasting Girls. 12). Once again, male vision of beauty takes its toll on women.
Even in the modern age, the 90’s and beyond are rife with visual images created and perpetuated by a masculine media, and mimicked by everyday women. The TV show “Friends” led to the popularity of the “Jennifer” haircut, styled after one of the primary characters. On newsstands daily, the size and shape of J.Lo’s derriere is discussed at length. One of the greatest controversies surrounding the SuperBowl “wardrobe malfunction” with Janet Jackson was whether or not her nipple was pierced.
Paglia asserts, “cult -objects are prisoners of their own symbolic inflation” (9). Like Monroe, who was not take seriously, and Aniston and Fawcett, who are little more than hair-styles now, and female media icons like them, their appearance limits them – dictating what they can do within the realm of visual media. These women are only hair, breasts, or butt. Further, women viewers strive to mimic what they see in the media, duplicating what they think men want to see. Thus, they are prisoners of the image-cult as well.
So how does this bring us to the gaming industry? Unlike television and film, the game industry is the new dog on the block and realizes its limitations with the female market. Women aren’t playing games as much as men? Why not? And since men are the larger market share of video games, let’s give them what they want — T and A, and lots of it.
Given the abilities of computer technology, women’s images and avatars can look like the most grotesque version of a wet dream ever conceived. What is the logic in this? There isn’t any, and more gamers, even the men, are realizing it. Men are not fooled by these visual abominations. M. Junaid Alam, in his article “What is a Galaxy Without Stars? Drop the Sexism, Bring the Women,” acknowledges that those images are eyesores at best. “It was impossible to take the game seriously; the woman’s every movement revealed a risible mockery of the female form and insulted our intelligence. Exit game, uninstall and abandon ship” (online).
He also highlights several games that, instead of focusing on the female form in its big-breasted glory, showcase women who are intelligent, strong, and powerful. He insists, “The protagonists highlighted above illustrate that plenty of excitement can be provided by female leads who will, in turn, bring in female gamers – not to speak of richer gameplay options. Additionally, as McIntosh says, most women gamers are “confident enough not to feel threatened” by sexist imagery, merely finding it annoying and disappointing” (online).
This, I think, is at the core of the female form, gamers, and the games themselves. Paglia refocused the feminist issue by stating a blatant truth: Women are different than men, and a primary difference is in appearance – sexuality. She claims, “Sex is power. Identity is power” (2), and from this we can draw the conclusion that the distortion of the female body in game is a means of man’s control over that power.
We can also look more closely at the quote by McIntosh above and realize a greater truth. Women find these bodily distortions “annoying and disappointing” at best. Male gamers too are finding this over-sexualization tiresome as well. With this, however, we need to look at the games themselves and appreciate them for what they are –entertainment – and measure the presence of the female form from that juncture.
Much like in the films mentioned above, the female body is over-proportioned and underdressed – a fact we can not get away from. But aside from the tiresome aspect, why would gamers continue to support a medium that continues to glorify this grotesque imagery? Because it is entertainment. Like film, in game there is a “suspension of disbelief,” one that is more biddable than even in film.
In the movies, unless animated, the women on the screen are real; any comparisons made to oneself or one’s significant other cannot mitigate that fact. The pressure to have a bust like Pam Anderson, a butt like J. Lo, or legs like Charlize Theron is great, but accentuated because these are live women with real (or surgically enhanced) figures. As women, we cannot help but look and think, “I can’t live up to that!”
With games, we don’t have to. That suspension of disbelief is heightened; it would have to be. A gamer knows that those dragons and orcs aren’t real; those breasts sure aren’t either! We know when we look at the avatars that better armor would not be skimpier – it would provide better coverage. To have this woman on the monitor with the equivalence of a 42 inch bust and a 21 inch waist is pure fabrication, and we know it. There is no pressure, only sighs of annoyance at the developers who try to cater to over-sexualized, under-stimulated “geeks.”
Since we know that those images are fabrications, we can enjoy them in game – we can suspend our disbelief with the safety net of cognizance that no one, especially our significant others, will ask us why we can’t have a bust like Lara Croft’s. This won’t happen because we know that bust is a digital one; it truly exists only in the game coder’s mind, not reality.
As such, while female body image may be a gross distortion to what exists in reality, in game it is an untruth, much like the dragon or the orc. Additionally, when we do see a variation of this image in film, via a video game made into a movie (such as Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat, or the recent Doom) we can still accept that image, since we know that while the actress is real, the image she represents is not. Plus, to be fair, men in this instance also suffer from a similar distortion of the body. If a man expects his woman to look like Lara Croft, then he better hope Santa will leave him a 52 inch chest, muscular arms, and a codpiece the size of a melon for Christmas.
With all the great advances we’ve seen in the past few years, we would expect new and greater game elements from designers. What, then, do the developers focus on first? Jiggle technology. In the never ending quest for T and A, the technology exists to make breasts look even more real and, in a word, jiggle. This ridiculous jump in technology helps us dispel our disbelief more easily –they certainly look more real, don’t they? However, as more women become involved in both sides of gaming – playing and developing – we will hopefully see the use of technology in this function decrease and the T and A show taper off.
However, some women cannot accept this analysis and prognosis. Why should they have to suffer through the indignities of big-breasted Valkries in chain-mail bikinis? If the game companies want our business – they should have to change those images to better suit us, right?
Well, that is not too far off. While many games have only granted the player one or two options in appearance, newer games are reaching greater heights in the images available to the player. Players in games like “Asheron’s Call,” “The Sims,” and “WoW” offer a selection of body types and colors, and clothing options to boot. It is this idea of truly creating one’s own image in a game that Wolf advocates in The Beauty Myth: “a woman’s right to choose what she wants to look like and what she wants to be, rather than obeying what man forces and a multibillion dollar advertising industry dictate” (2).
Pushing this idea even further are games like the online virtual world “Second Life,” where avatars wander the city and interact. In “How Much for a Jetpack,” Brad Stone observes, “All the occupants look like characters from ‘Shrek’” (Newsweek 12). The ability to modify the character hits record highs with in-game avatar choices that include humans and animals. Additionally, several members of the game develop “decorative cyberclothes and skins,” allowing players to select the exact image they want for the game (Newsweek 12). A player can have blue skin, the head of a cat, or the body of a rodent. A squirrel body with a woman’s head? That definitely calls for a suspension of disbelief.
What does this mean for body image in gaming? No longer are players, men and women alike, forced into grossly misrepresented visual images of the female (and let’s face it, male) form. Gamers are not forced to passively accept a standard of beauty dictated by society, Hollywood, or men. If a gamer does not like the image on the screen, she can change it. Moreover, with advancements in technology and game communities, if the gamer does not like the options provided, she can create her own in some cases. Female gamers can now select what they want to accept as their “ideal” body image.
Since man cannot dictate how women in the game can appear, a woman can be as sexual or not as she wants to be. This, I think, is a great show of woman’s sexual prowess and her ability to dictate as she sees fit. Women can dictate their own sexuality, and in games that can mean a lot less T and A.
Admittedly, T and A is still the standard for female images and skins in game. However, the image-selection process, and the greater assimilation of women into the gaming industry, enables women to take a more aggressive role in the images they see in the media. It is hopeful that, in the near future, we will not be forced to accept only man’s ideal of beauty.