Both the narrative and aesthetic elements of film has significantly influenced video games, meaning certain film conventions and portrayals have been repeated in video games since their creation. The representation of women in video games as prizes and sexual decoration has been directly inspired by the same depiction in films. Films and video games do also present women as active characters, however, when this does take place, they are still overtly sexualized.
A classic movie trope adapted by video games is that of the helpless ‘damsel in distress’ who is rescued by the courageous male protagonist. However, the rendering of women as weak in contrast to the strong male hero was not established by the movie industry and has been common among writers through the ages (Haskell, 1987, p. xv). Propp theorized these character roles in 1928 suggesting that these archetypal characters lend to narrative development and most tales end with the hero being “awarded” a bride (Propp, Pirkova-Jakobsonova & Scott, 2015 p. 57). Notable cinematic examples of the ‘damsel in distress’ include Ann Darrow from King Kong (Cooper & Schoedsack, 1933), Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride (Reiner, 1987) and Lois Lane of the Superman franchise.
Lois Lane repeatedly gets into life threatening situations requiring Superman to save her, for example, in Superman (Donner, 1978), Lois is involved in an incident which leaves her dangling from a helicopter that is suspended at the top of a skyscraper. Her attempt to climb to safety is unpromising, but just as she falls Superman appears to heroically save her. After the ordeal, Lois faints. Perhaps, these movies serve as propaganda for the “American Dream Machine”, promoting the romantic fantasy (Haskell, 1987, p. 2) of a fragile woman being sustained by a male hero similar to how men have traditionally cared for, or possibly controlled, women. Unusually, the character of Lois Lane is an established journalist, but Haskell points out that a woman is free to act on the same career drives and power as a man as long as these take “second place to the sacred love of a man” (1987, p. 4). Humm suggests that films “reflect power structures at large” (1997, p. 13) and in this way, certain Hollywood movies can be seen to imitate the patriarchal society that we live in.
The story of a valiant rescue of an attractive love interest adapts perfectly to the medium of video games, for instance, a kidnapped Princess Peach of the Super Mario franchise serves as the perfect motivation for Mario’s missions. Many female video game characters are underpinned by sexism, even if this is benevolent sexism, “which stems from protective notions of women as delicate or fragile” (Lynch et al., 2016, p. 567). While Peach is one of the rulers of Mushroom Kingdom, many games end with her being saved by Mario and she often rewards him with a kiss, like in New Super Mario Bros. (Asuke, 2006). Though the pair’s relationship is unconfirmed in the games, Peach is presented as a trophy to be fought for and her role as Princess of Mushroom Kingdom is portrayed as less important than her relationship with Mario.
Correspondingly, women are also used in film for adornment to increase the aesthetics of a scene or interest a male character and the male viewer. In male dominated genres such as gangster movies and raunchy teenage comedies, female characters, who lack narrative substance, are “being turned all the time into objects of display” (Mulvey, 1989, p. 13). Comedy’s such as Goin’ All The Way (Freeman, 1982) not only hypersexualise women, but also subvert and disrespect them by perpetuating rape culture as well as being heterosexist and transphobic.
It seems that every time female characters are shown in this film, they are either provocatively exercising, partial dressed, or completely naked; coded “to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 1989, p. 19). Furthermore, their bodies are often fragmented through close-ups of their breasts and bums, placing all of their value in specific body parts rather than their personality or behaviour. Mulvey believes that this treatment of females incites scopophilic gratification in other male characters and the male spectator, as it arises from “pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (Mulvey, 1989, p. 18). The cinematic experience also “encourages an inevitably voyeuristic male gaze” (Humm, 1997, pp. 3-4) because it can give the spectator “an illusion of looking in on a private world” despite the fact that films are made to be shown (Mulvey, 1989, p. 17).
Video game series like Grand Theft Auto V (Edge, 2013) from the Grand Theft Auto series have followed this trend and could be seen to provoke scopophilia in players as “women in the game are either bit-part players or set dressing: strippers to throw money at, prostitutes to pick up” (Hoggins, 2013). Unlike films playing a video game cannot give the player a voyeuristic view as they are playing a character in the game, but they can make their character “have sex with a prostitute, afterwards kill her, and from this act get a health bonus” (Kondrat, 2015, p. 172), which many would consider worse than voyeurism. It has been suggested that Grand Theft Auto V’s treatment of women is a crude, mocking reflection of our society designed to point out the misogyny in our culture, unfortunately, as it is abundantly clear that this game world was not designed with female players in mind (Annandale, 2006, pp. 94-95), this irony probably gets lost on many of the male players who view these objectified characters.
Even though Mulvey theorized that films portray the male character as the one who advances the narrative as male spectators can identify with him (1989, p. 20), some movies feature an active female lead that control their destiny (Brown, 2011, p. 7). In contrast to the ‘damsel in distress’ and female characters portrayed simply as sex objects, certain movie heroines, such as Catwoman of the Batman franchise or Black Widow of the Marvel Universe, challenge the “basic cultural assumptions about gender roles in real life and in fantasy” (Brown, 2011, p. 6). These leading ladies have inspired certain video game heroines, like Lara Croft of Tomb Raider (Gard, 1996), who is an archaeologist that hunts for ancient artifacts.
“Aside from their sexualized appearance” (Lynch et al., 2016, p. 567), these strong women blur the lines of what we consider masculine and feminine (Brown, 2011, p. 10). Kaplan suggests that this is because a woman must be in a masculine position and lose her traditionally feminine characteristics – “not those of attractiveness, but rather of kindness, humaneness, motherliness” – in order to be the initiator of the action (2000, pp. 129-130).
And yet, these compelling female protagonists, like Lara Croft, are “unmistakably female and highly eroticized” (Herbst, 2004, p. 22) because the male gaze continues to shape the editing and narrative of the media we consume (Humm, 1997, p. 17). For instance, while playing Lara’s character in Tomb Raider, the camera is positioned behind her, so you can see what the character would see. However, this framing also gives players an unobstructed view of Lara’s bum, which is exaggerated by her “Barbie-like proportions” (Schleiner, 2001, p. 222) along with her extremely short shorts and gun holsters, which are wrapped around her thighs.
Video games like Tomb Raider often accentuate female sexuality with highly revealing clothing (Glaubke et al. 2001, p. 14). Lara’s role “as an action hero is tied to her sexuality and body” meaning her status is relegated to that of “an object to be gazed upon” (Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2009, p. 809). It is thought that producers do this to expand narratives, while still appealing to the prurient interests of men (Brown, 2011, p. 7), and this combination has proved a lucrative and enduring formula (Schleiner, 2001, p. 222), leaving key consumers “lusting after a digital diva that didn’t exist” (Brown, 2008, p. 77). Perhaps, because of the patriarchal society we live in, “screen images of women are sexualized no matter what the women are doing literally, or what kind of plot may be involved” (Kaplan, 2000, p. 120). Some have suggested that the purpose of sexualization of women is to keep them vulnerable within our society.
However, the nature of characters like Lara Croft is complex meaning they cannot be categorized as simply empowering or disempowering for women. Because, historically, “women have been taught to be physically and mentally nonaggressive” (Inness, 2004, p. 15), Schleiner proposes that “capable and sexy women like Lara Croft might be better role models for girls” than other characters that lack intelligence and toughness (2001, p. 224). However, as Doane mentions, because of the way history has positioned women as subordinate, simply making representations more aware and self-conscious cannot liberate all females (2000, p. 86). Though these heroines are a big step forward in the expansion of multifaceted female characters, they are “still a long way from overcoming some of the most basic patriarchal and heterosexist conventions that persist in popular culture” (Brown, 2011, p. 8). It is hard to ignore that the image of Lara was created by men and for men (Herbst, 2004, p. 28) and at her core, perhaps she is simply “an idealized, eternally young […] malleable, well-trained techno-puppet created by and for the male gaze” (Schleiner, 2001, p. 222).
Overall, the way women are represented in video games has been greatly inspired by women’s representation in film. It is evident that the patriarchal standards placed on women in film have permeated through various facets of our media, particularly video games. Though some female characters in both film and video games exceed limitations placed on women, the male gaze continues “to undermine the validity of heroic femininity” (Brown, 2011, p. 8).
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