By Claire Hosking.
Claire wrote some amazing words over on Tumblr and we thought they were absolutely worth sharing with our community. She’s graciously given us permission to republish the article here! Thank you, Claire!
The other day I saw the new character model for Cortana and I was thinking it seemed pretty alright – she looked older, stronger, far less caricatured. If Cortana was always going to be titillating, at least she seemed a more appropriate object of desire: more 25 than 15, more flesh than real doll.
So I got a bit nervous when I saw a lot of negative reactions to Cortana’s new larger boobs. Not because that reaction wasn’t coming from a good place – these were people I respected, reacting against objectification of women and the presentation of unrealistic ideals to young women. But just a couple of weeks earlier I heard they’ve got plans to make the new Lara Croft incarnation deeper, and part of that will be making her boobs smaller. The implication that larger boobs are a liability to well-presented, deep characters makes me nervous because, well, how many stacked women get to have complex stories in popular media? I can think of Joan Holloway and…?
Boob sizes have been neatly separating the mistresses from wives, the sexy/trashy good-times-girls from the arty/pretentious hipsters, the ciphers from the plotlines. Video games have certainly fed the first part of the stereotype, that ‘e-cup women are playthings’, but wouldn’t only giving empathetic roles to C-cup-or-less women just reinforce that? (It’s also implying small-boobed women can’t be objectified because they’re insufficiently sexy. The beauty of this system is no-one wins!) Where are the ‘twist’ video games for this gaming trope, promoted as indulging the players’ desire to objectify women, but surprise! actually gives you that character’s perspective about what it’s like to live with all that objectification? Lara Croft isn’t running towards her goal, she’s running away from you, thousands upon thousands of leering players.
But there’s another point I want to make, because the logic that suggests “Sex is fun, fun is trivial, certain bodies are more sex than others, therefore certain bodies are more trivial than others.”, comes from the same place as that attitude towards media: “Play is fun, fun is trivial, certain media forms are more about play than others, therefore certain media forms are more trivial than others.”
Both rely on the assumption that fun/bodies are trashy & the opposite of deep/mental/virtuous. It conflates anything sensory or tangible, then contrasts that to idiotropic pursuits.
It’s a weird dichotomy of pleasure vs worth, play vs meaning. That the presence of fun degrades the artness, & vice-versa.
It’s super pervasive in the wider culture, (Probably the clearest example I can think of this is the idea that the artistic value of a nude picture somehow nullifies the sexuality, de-pornifying it. Or vice-versa, the presumption in classification that titillation, particularly real sex, is less suitable or unsuitable in a publically available artform.), but oddly gamers buy into it all the time.
It’s a dichotomy I hear every time a geek gamer looks down on the blind enjoyment of frat bro gamers, it’s there when the bros complain that analysis and reflection somehow kills their fun, it’s there in the success and dominance of games that feel they have to layer the strange delights of play with impossibly epic themes, it’s there when heavy games are still forced to include “achievements”.
Even (or especially) passionate gamers get caught up in this, distancing themselves from the goofy and absurd, although it’s something that the medium excels in. It especially annoys me every time someone points to the most serious examples of the genre as evidence that games are art, and the habit of calling serious or pensive games ‘art games’.
Fencing off a little area for sober games to get called art is counterproductive. It’s kinda implying that fun undermines something’s claim to artistic worth, and ultimately, that just undermines a medium that revolves around play.
Oddly, it’s also undermining women’s push to be able to be sexual beings (subjects, not objects) and still be recognised as worthy humans. It hurts people’s, particularly ‘others’, ability to lay claim to leisure without it being held against them.
If fun dilutes virtue, it’s considered especially corrupting for those who society expects to be working. Society shames gamers in part b/c it’s an entertainment form of choice for the young adults and the poor, and at least in Australia, strongly associated with immigrant esp. Asian people: all groups who struggle to lay claim to leisure. (From Gina Reinhart’s assertion that poor people need to drink less and work more; to the persistent high-fidelity style myth constantly repeated to young adults that you’ll magically be granted proper adulthood by giving up your hobbies; or the way Asian humour/entertainment doesn’t just get to be humour but always considered ‘weird’: Some groups just get their leisure/fun demonised as a matter of cultural habit. That these groups often comprise the useful service class for the powerful seems awfully convenient.)
And vice-versa: Every time you imply a woman diminishes herself, or her worth, or her right to safety by having too much fun/a certain body type, (or let someone else do it) it undermines videogames. (Hello fake-geek-girl crusaders!) And obviously, don’t bash people for having quaint hobbies into their twenties, or suggest poor people have too much fun, or call Asian humour weird, either.
So don’t buy into it. Dismantle the fun/worthiness dichotomy so it can’t be used against any of us. Don’t wed certain bodies to either fun/sex or art/depth.
It’s easy not to talk about games like that, ‘cause Art doesn’t care how serious you are, only whether you represent an idea, any idea (be it ‘killing is bad!’ to ‘RED!’ to ‘thick paint is THICK yo’) through any means. Good art represents a good idea* and expresses that idea really well.** And good ideas are just the ones that humanise us to each other, that let us better understand others or ourselves or both.
If only serious art was legit, it would be all broccoli and no lasagna. You’d die on a diet like that, overloaded with one type of thing, however ‘good’ that thing is supposed to be for you, and so does culture (So too, does any attempt at representing ‘women’, if your definition of women is limited to one acceptable type). Fortunately, joy & humour & fun and accomplishment (ideas video games are really good at) and thousands of other ‘trivial’ emotions are just as important to any well-rounded exploration of the human condition. (YMMV, but Groundhog Day is my personal favourite example of this. GREAT ART.***)
Videogames meet the ‘idea + expression’**** criteria all the time, which is unsurprising, because huge amounts of human production is art, usually while being something else a well: The sculptures lining the edge of cathedral roofs provide downward force that helps redirect the outward push of the roof on the walls; a mausoleum is both a shelter and an artwork about solemnity, and so on through design, chairs, cups, photocopiers, street signs et cetera. (The birth of Venus is actually a large billboard advertising the beautiful fabrics produced in Florence at the time, the ones Venus is being draped in. Celebrity endorsement, the old way).
It’s just that most of it is *bad* art. That a lot of video games represent heinous ideas and poorly just makes them bad art, not un-art.
It’s also easy not to talk about women/ women’s bodies like that. There are better ways to talk about the sexualisation of female characters beyond whether they have certain proportions or not. We could talk how Cortana’s supposedly less-sexualised body in Halo 2 threw more weird body-thrusty poses than in 4, where she has a more natural stance. Let’s talk more about the portrayal of bodies instead of attacking the bodies. Master-chief is a tall, muscular super-soldier, yeah? In the videogame world of incessantly beautiful people, one can only assume he’s practically Daniel Craig in there. But there’s little reason to criticise an impossible and beautiful body when it’s never objectified. So with regards to existing characters, if you want to deepen them, it’s about rehabilitating your attitude and portrayal of their bodies, not changing their bodies.
I don’t want to justify a whole bunch of character designers’ cheap fan service, either. This isn’t a pardon for the lazy and exploitative ways women have been portrayed in games up to this point. Arguing that even thus-far objectified characters should get a chance to be portrayed as subjects/agents is the opposite of being happy with them as objects.
This is a call for better character design, better character criticism: Just as we should avoid establishing a new category of ‘serious and therefore worthy’ games, we should avoid establishing a new consensus on the body type of a deep woman.
Every body type deserves to have a deep and nuanced parallel in gaming. And it’s not enough that characters are seen as noble in spite of their bodies. Games if anything, so mechanically based on constructing the abilities of characters and allowing that to dictate their approach to the world, should understand that bodies aren’t separate from characters. Growing up with a particular body interacts with a character’s own personality to inform their destiny. That’s something that’s understood for male characters (it’s a large part of Chief’s story), but still patchy for female characters.
For all I know, Lara was a talented gymnast whose dream of olympic gold vanished when she grew into the wrong body type, and, sick of the side-eye she got to being too bouncy whenever she ran or danced or jumped, said ‘Fuck you all’ and decided to use her talents to kick ass. And given how hard it is to navigate women’s clothing choices to pick something that’s attractive but not too sexy but still friendly but professional enough but not too expensive or I’ll get bashed for vanity, and the sheer waste of time this takes up for me, if I had a choice I’d make like Cortana too.
So yeah, just try to uncouple of the idea of sexy/fun/earthly as trashy in your heads please. The fun, the silly, the sexual, all need to be judged according to the skill and complexity with which their expression reflects our experiences, not regarded as cheapening forces on their own.
I have this song stuck in my head now which isn’t a bad thing.
*I think ‘Jumping is bouncy!’, which is an idea videogames express with such delight, is a great idea to be honest. The experience of our bodies in physics is a great thing to share. On the other hand, outside of a consensual BDSM setting, ‘Rape is exciting!’, the jist of any ‘Rape of the Sabines’ painting, is a shitty idea no matter how you look at it.
**Which is how ‘Rape of the Sabines’ paintings scrape into any reasonable definition of good art – they’re so well painted/composed etc, they had people convinced for centuries that actually this was a pretty good idea to represent and a reasonable way to depict it.
***I think Art’s really easy to define, but figuring out which examples get to be Great Art varies a bit depending on what particularly resonates with your experience of the world. For some reason this is pretty well practiced in music taste but far less practiced in visual art. I suspect because the more exposed to a medium you are the better placed any person is to figure out what’s important to them.
****This is all putting it very simply – of course the ‘idea’ isn’t inside the art, there to be distilled – it’s one & the same as the work itself. But in Architecture, we still simultaneously talk as though our idea for a building (ie the mood/atmosphere we’re trying to summon) is separate from our strategies for realising it (materiality, tectonics etc), yet fully understand that the building itself is the idea, there is no intention besides the final building. The building will be perceived as itself, not a symbol for something else (“ducks” exempted) ie. medium is the message. I don’t see the clash between talking about it in both ways.
If it helps, It might be simpler to talk less about idea & execution than the intentions of the artist vs the impressions of the viewer – ie whether they have a good idea to begin with, and how fruitfully that’s perceived.
You don’t have to agree with my definition of art, but please don’t give me that ‘art is impossible to define’ excuse. Read up a couple of definitions, pick one you agree with and then use it. It’s how every other word/concept works.
Claire Hosking is a grad architect interested in virtual space, procedural art, robots and feminism. She’s working on a virtual tropical island, and plays the ukulele.