The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Thoughts on “Striking a Prose”

| 48 Comments

So Steve posted this lovely thing about women in fantasy plots. It follows on the Jim C. Hines phenomenon of genderswapping fantasy cover art.

There are so many tropes and plotlines that treat their women characters creepily, demeaningly, dismissively, or brutally. Brilliant commenters added to the list (and I hope there will be many more*).

Then I made this comment:

You finish up a great novel on the subway on the way home, watch a trailer for a hotly anticipated new movie, and then thoroughly enjoy an hour or two of the latest video game. You try to talk to your boyfriend about how cool these wildly popular properties are, but he’s all just “blah blah blah there aren’t any MEN in those!” Even when you point out the men that are in them, he just comes up with masculinist crap about how they’re just background abs, don’t have any agency, and don’t get to talk to each other. GAWD, would he just shut up already and enjoy cool things like a NORMAL person?!

And I realized two things, which I want to unpack a bit.

One. Judging by how I banged that out without even thinking about it, hit send, and then teared up a little bit, this has some personal significance to me. I look at various media properties** and think, “nope, demeaning, creepy, don’t wanna.” I’ll watch a trailer for something with a guy and his reaction is about how cool it looked and mine is about how it had three characters plus a pair of tits.

Do you know what usually happens next? I apologize for having that reaction. “Sorry, I know you’re excited about that thing. I don’t mean to always bring up the issue of crappy representation of chicks.” Yep. I constantly apologize for talking about being disappointed by this stuff. (To be clear, I can’t recall anyone ever accepting these kneejerk apologies I offer.)

Fuck it. I am disappointed. This isn’t nitpicking or participating in outrage culture. This is just, you know, wanting to relate to characters in stories. If I can’t, then I don’t want the story.

Two. That comment I wrote doesn’t apply as much to books.  I read a lot of books, and there are zillions more books that I want to read, more than I’ll ever possibly have time for. Lots of sexist plot tropes make it out there and some of them get to be bestsellers (lookin’ at you, Dresden, wizardly king of chivalry), but I’m not bombarded with ads and reviews for them all the time. I don’t have to wade through piles of sexist novels just hoping against hope to find one I can enjoy without rolling my eyes and feeling a bit queasy.

I don’t know if novels have less of these problems than other media or if my systems for gathering recommendations and being exposed to books are sufficiently advanced that I don’t notice the problems. Probably some of both.

Anyway, round of applause please for novels in general, for giving me stories and imagination and delicious explorations of being human and being a girl, no matter what sort of person the protagonist happened to be, since I first learned to read chapter books.***

 

 

*Someone needs to do Harry Potter, for instance. (edit: nevermind, someone did by the time I posted this)

**There’s some upcoming game, and chaos showed me the trailer for it: a woman is being hung for witchcraft or something, and a dude swoops in and saves her and kills all the danger and she sort of buffs her nails adventurously. The same game has bus ads I keep seeing around the city: His head, facial expression action-worthy. Her head, behind his in sidekick position, simpering at the danger.

I roll my eyes every time I see it because somewhere a bunch of people think it is SO AWESOME that this game has a dude AND A LADY in all the teasers. Yes, I know how fucking videogames work and that someone has to be the sidekick, but COME ON. Gratuitous damseling foul. Also, yes, the airships in it look sweet. No, I don’t want to fucking play it.

***I know that children’s books are A Thing, but when I was tiny, I considered them just what I had to read until I could learn enough to read REAL books. I don’t have nostalgic happy-feelings for anything younger than Little House on the Prairie and the Bobbsey Twins. Sorry, Dr. Seuss and Goodnight Moon.

48 Comments

  1. skzb

    Thanks. I need to give this whole thing some serious thought. Not sure where I’ll end up. But I’m glad you posted this; my brain can use the nutrition.

  2. To follow up on one of your footnotes: reading those posts, I did notice that stripping plots down to the core and then swapping genders tends to highlight issues a lot more with movies than with books. Certainly with both, but…the former seem to hold onto the old stereotypes a lot harder.

    I wonder why that is. Because movies take a higher budget, and so are more conservative in terms of what New Things they’re willing to try, compared to what they’re sure will sell? Because they’re telling the story so much more quickly, and so they’re not willing to add as much complicity on top of the stock characters? Maybe it’s just that because there are so many books compared to the number of movies, coming out in genres I like every year, that I find books that don’t do that a hell of a lot more easily than I do movies.

    (Well, in some subgenres, anyway. In one of my supposedly favorite subgenres, I’m down to a total of two authors whose works I actually like there.)

  3. Fade: I think telling the story quickly is part of it. In visual media they have to encapsulate a lot into the things we see.

    Maybe also part of it is commercialization. I think movies that are less ‘blockbuster’ have a tendency to be a little more humane to their characters. Art can lead culture to new and better places; hyper-commercialized art less so.

    And I definitely think the volume of books contributes to it. So many things to read! With video games I have to grit my teeth and pretend to get to play, but that isn’t necessary with books. There are more of them.

  4. “**There’s some upcoming game…”

    I will you grant you that all the mainstream marketing materials 100% support obnoxiously regressive gender roles. The actual *game*, not so much. The woman from that ad does start out as a classic damsel in a tower, but she’s the one with the important character arc and — by the end of the game (spoiler alert) — all the actual power. I’m not claiming that the game is a feminist masterpiece or anything, but, just like books, what you see on the cover is often a poor indicator of what’s inside.

  5. Yo! Hollywood’s totally about capitalism. So long as there’s the least resistance to a particular kind of character, that character is not going to be the star. In action films, black guys and women can star now, but it’s gonna be a while before we see a gay action hero.

    When I first went into publishing, I thought commercial entertainment was a compromise between business and art. But there’s very little compromise in publishing, and damn near none in Hollywood. In both cases, you’ll sometimes get a vanity project that breaks rules. And too often, they just turn out boring. I understand Lucas’s movie about black pilots is one of the more recent examples of that.

    Hmm. It may help to think of business people and politicians the same way: they know they win by taking the most cautious course.

  6. Partly, it’s Sturgeon’s law. There are a lot more books. And then the feedback loop where subversive risky books don’t fail nearly as badly as expected, means that it’s easier to get the next one, where it van be marketed as playing against type.

  7. @ Anon – That’s a fascinating marketing choice someone made there. I’m honestly turned off enough by that campaign to deliberately snub a really beautiful-looking game. If the game makes it into the house and someone else plays it and convinces me I’d enjoy it, I’ll try it. I do judge books by their covers, too, though – not critiquing them, but choosing to pick them up and maybe buy them.

  8. Will – not an action hero, but we got Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang! So, uh, that’s something.

    I suppose between movies and books, I like publishing better for having a little more compromise in it, then.

  9. For anyone looking for video games with strong and memorable female protagonists, I would recommend “The Longest Journey”, “Dreamfall” and “Beyond Good & Evil”.

    PS: Not arguing against Jen’s point, just sharing some great games with y’all 🙂

  10. I hate it and I love it. I hate that despite my best efforts I’m still easily enthralled by some pretty demeaning tropes.

  11. Jenphalian

    But the admitted disconnect between books and movies in terms of content breaks down once again when we look at the book covers which were the starting point for this thought train.

    However, in between whimpering, I finally managed to cheer myself up, or at least got to the level where I was muttering Dorothy Parker’s ‘might as well live’, by iooking at some of my favourite pictures of my daughter.

    I hadn’t quite realised, before this exercise, that so many of my favourites involve her in the air, en route to someone who really needs to get out of her way very, very quickly.

    It is both intrinsically beautiful, and terrifying, at least to those trying to get out of her way, and more so to the people watching who are not familiar with martial arts.

    So there are a million and one poses from the plethora* of martial arts, many of which are both intrinsically beautiful and terrifying, available to people creating book covers, and yet they do not use them.

    I see no rational explanation for this..

    *My daughter practises a mixed martial art which steals stuff from every other martial art which looks useful.

  12. skzb

    The best art reveals. The best art uses pathos, irony, humor, pity to reveal the actual relations in life. History, in general, remembers best those artists who speak to the broadest layers of humanity, and reveal most deeply and profoundly the relations among people in all of their complexity and nuance.

    We cannot reveal what we cannot see; and we are not all able to see to same depth. Also, we are not all able to find, to the same degree, those magical chords that resonate across time, culture, class, and all of the more trivial boundaries that separate people in reality or in imagination.

    But I will respect anyone who tries. I will respect anyone who troubles himself to examine the world rather than to accept it. The culture from which the artist emerges has a huge effect on the degree to which he can accomplish this–or, more precisely, those areas he finds easy to examine, and those he finds difficult or impossible. This is why history holds so many well-beloved works of art that, from today’s vantage, seem weak regarding sexual roles, or other things. And in the future, what are the best of today’s work will still show weaknesses in areas that today we cannot know.

    To bring it back to the current discussion: Those who consistently take the easy way regarding sex-based plots are failing to even make an effort to examine a broad and significant part of life; of actual relations between people. I can forgive an artist for failing; I can forgive an artist for not escaping the bounds of his own culture (any more than I can escape the bounds of mine). I cannot forgive an artist who doesn’t bother trying.

    And that is what “hack” means to me. It is not a compliment.

  13. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/15/110815fa_fact_bissell: This article, which is subscription only, talks about Jennifer Hale in Mass Effect 3. I don’t own a gaming system, so I haven’t played it.

    What was interesting to me is the way that the makers of ME say that while you can play the main character as male or female, the game is so much richer when playing as a female. It caught my attention when reading the original piece and I thought I’d throw it out there now, vis-a-vis the bus company ad (and I read the comment saying the game doesn’t work that way; still, mass media advertising is relevant in this discussion).

  14. Consider science fiction of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. Almost always, the heroine was the reward the hero got for winning. That was her central place in the story.

    Early Van Vogt.
    Early Heinlein.
    Early Vance.

    There were strong women characters. In Heinlein’s _The Rolling Stones_ Edith stone was an MD who was also raising 4 children and keeping house. When she wasn’t there the family fell apart. In terms of the attention she got in the plot, she was a minor character. Meanwhile Hazel Stone was a Heinlein super-competent old man who happened to be a woman.

    In Harry Harrison’s Deathworld series, Meta was a super-efficient super-smart killing machine who happened to be a woman the hero won. In the Stainless Steel Rat series, Angela was a super-efficient super-smart psychopathic killing machine who happened to be a woman the hero won. Etc.

    Meanwhile women read lots of soap operas. Men and women felt love at first sight, but a series of events kept them apart until the end of the book. Women characters were *happy* to find a really stupid man they fell in love with, who let one stupid situation after another stop them. Stupid lawyers. Stupid misunderstandings. Stupid fights about ideology or religion or misunderstandings about how the other one thinks is the right way to treat a horse. Finally all of that goes away and they kiss and say they will marry.

    My understanding of those times is based on stereotypes, but still. Parties where after supper the men talked in one room and the women in another. Married men and women who appeared to have very little understanding of each other, who entered into a sort of social contract. If everybody carried out their part of the bargain then they had a success together. If somebody didn’t do their part then failures could be blamed on them. It didn’t need them to understand each other.

    And now there are a lot of old men who grew up that way. When they invest in media performances, and they take creative control instead of trusting somebody younger, what result would you expect?

    It’s hard to make the same product sell well to two entirely different cultures. The little boys don’t want too much kissing in their war movie, and the little girls don’t want too many people blown up in their romance movie. Easier to cater to one at a time.

    To the extent that we create a culture where men and women can be friends, ends and not means, understanding each others’ special wants and needs without getting upset about its personal implications, the oldstyle media can die out with its old producers.

  15. On the whole, I agree with the content of the post. I only feel obliged to stick up a little bit for the Dresden novels. Is Harry himself a bit of a sexist trope, with his outmoded notions of chivalry? Yeah, a bit – he even admits as much on a regular basis. But I think one of the really cool aspects of those books is how the reality of the people around Dresden makes it so obvious that those chivalrous notions are in Dresden’s HEAD, not his WORLD. The women in Dresden’s life don’t need to be rescued or protected any more or less than the men, and as likely as not, they’re the ones saving Harry’s ass. Nearly all the women in his life, from Murphy to Mab, are strong characters, who routinely take care of business for themselves, and not only don’t need Dresden’s protection, but as likely as not will tell him where to shove his misplaced chivalry when it isn’t wanted, while at the same time being able to work with him when his aid would be useful.

    Just my two cents on an admittedly minor side point.

  16. My favorite refusal of chivalry is in a Wodehouse’s “Something Fresh”:

    >Joan laughed. “It won’t do, Mr. Marson. You remind me of an old cat I once had. Whenever he killed a mouse he would bring it into the drawing-room and lay it affectionately at my feet. I would reject the corpse with horror and turn him out, but back he would come with his loathsome gift. I simply couldn’t make him understand that he was not doing me a kindness. He thought highly of his mouse and it was beyond him to realize that I did not want it.

    >”You are just the same with your chivalry. It’s very kind of you to keep offering me your dead mouse; but honestly I have no use for it.

  17. Stevie – There are some fingers to point at marketing, for sure. Though I don’t think the sexist cover art is as good an indication of the material as movie & game advertising generally are (generally! Apparently the game with airships is much better than its ads suggest).

    skzb – Beautifully said. Thank you.

    professorperry – I believe there’s a whole iceberg of material about Mass Effect, and I don’t really know anything about it.

    J Thomas – “romantic interest is the reward for doing good” is one of my least favorites. Ugh.

    That said, I think relations between men and women have often been much better than all that. And kids get all that gender training from the advertising in the first place. Special needs and wants based on gender aren’t a thing.

    taellosse – You make an EXCELLENT point about Dresden’s chivalry.

    starwed – LOL, nice.

  18. (I want to request something: no debate on whether chivalry is sexist. I just don’t want to repeat any of the Epic Fucking Thread About Opening Doors that happened on Whatever last year.

    If you are lining up arguments in your head right now about why it is or isn’t and/or why I am wrong/stupid/mean to make this request, and you really think these arguments must be heard, feel free to email those thoughts to me instead.)

  19. “J Thomas – “romantic interest is the reward for doing good” is one of my least favorites. Ugh.”

    Yes. And yet, almost every time a woman has gotten interested in starting a relationship with me, it was after she saw me being kind to somebody just because. When I think about it rationally, it seems like one of the better criteria for choosing a mate.

    “That said, I think relations between men and women have often been much better than all that.”

    Yes, people aren’t just the sum total of their cultural training. We can do better than that.

    “And kids get all that gender training from the advertising in the first place.”

    Yes, and whatever else in the culture promotes it.

    “Special needs and wants based on gender aren’t a thing.”

    To the extent that heterosexual relationships are different from male homosexual ones or lesbian ones, maybe they are sort of a thing.

  20. skzb

    “I admit that it is better fun to punt than be punted, and that a desire to have all the fun is nine-tenths of the law of chivalry.” — Dorothy L. Sayers (now being added to my quote file.)

  21. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with the Bechdel Test: a movie passes if it has a scene in which two *named* female characters have a conversation about anything other than a man. It’s another instance where I don’t think the masculine converse would be relevant.

  22. I suppose it would be wrong of me to start a debate about the difference between chivalry and respect.

    And, honestly, nobody really needs to find out what it means to me.

  23. J Thomas – Special needs and wants are individual things. Gender identity is part of an individual.

    Adriana – Love the Bechdel test. I am frequently sad that we aim so low and yet still so often disappointed.

    Jeff – That seems to fall under what I was hoping to avoid, please, and thank you for courteously checking.

  24. Have you run across Anita Sarkeesian and feministfrequency.com? She ran a successful Kickstarter to start her Tropes vs Women video series. I’m new to this blog, and so you may already know about her, but she seems to be addressing some of the same concerns you are.

  25. Rose – I’ve hard of Anita Sarkeesian, but heading over to that site this morning was a great idea. Thank you! 🙂

  26. Many reasonable and well-made points about the cultual conservatve nature of the big money types that give us Hollywood. skzb’s typically well-written reponse makes, I a larger point that he states, which applies in spades (can we still use that phrase?) to the concept of a film and is well-nigh an absolute rule in marketing:

    “Those who consistently take the easy way regarding sex-based plots are failing to even make an effort to examine a broad and significant part of life; of actual relations between people. I can forgive an artist for failing; I can forgive an artist for not escaping the bounds of his own culture (any more than I can escape the bounds of mine). I cannot forgive an artist who doesn’t bother trying.

    And that is what ‘hack’ means to me. It is not a compliment.”

    (Didn’t need this last line for what I was saying, but made it part of the quite because it is among the finer insults I’ve ever read. Touche, sir.)

    Imagine coming up with a script that you intend to pitch to a money-type. You not only know this individual tends to be conservative on the gender access, you also know with even greater certainty that you will have a short amount of time in this person’s presence to pitch your idea. Or imagine that you are tasked with a marketing campaign designed to generate a buzz around a product that will result in greater sales of that product. The common theme here, which applies to the 190 minute absolute max run time of a film all the way down to the ad on the side of a bus you may see repeatedly but only for a few seconds at a time.

    In such a brief space to communcate anything, we all use the best short hand equivalent available. In speaking with mutual friends, we can recall one common memory to provide what would otherwise take minutes to relate. In professional circles, entire esrzatz languages exist for the sole purpose of breaking down the time it takes to communicate that “background information” in order to focus max time on the primary idea.

    Taking the time “to examine a broad and signficant part of life” is something that films seldom have; and when they do the focus is on more marketable ideas. Marketable in this sense is not limited more by what can be conveyed in a brief time than even what would sell — after all, marketing people have been tasked with selling some real stinkers and have succeeded remarkably. I offer no excuses here, though perhaps this explains another element of things.

    Novels, on the other hand, have exactly the time and space to examine things. Reading is an intimate act, and whether turning the pages of a legacy book or those of an e-book it is also a minor sensual act, occurring in the physical and not only the mental world. Contrast with a film, where one is passive and essenntially motionless, a nine-dollar rented viewpoint. It’s a VERY old trope, but to those who have greater gifts have a correspondingly higher obligation. So novels have through their nature a quality that demands more of them than a film.

    Not sure about video games, though from what little I know from interaction at great remove, the action is so immediate that even though there is much thought required from the player, few higher brain functions get involved. Most of us think more deeply at the movies. That does not stop the designers from doing pretty much anything they want with the storyline of the game so long as the graphics are cool and the challenge level/playability are where they should be. Not my field, but relevant to my point, that seems right.

    Could not pass, though at this length of post if I were prudent I would do so, without mentioning something that has comsumed me personally for years. When any of us see a loved one in trouble or in danger — and whether this loved one is a child, spouse or any other relation — we want to act to remove the peril which act would “save” our loved one. Not a very gendered thing, though a case could be made (I say this to acknowledge a reality, not ot argue for its control) that our broader culture creates expectations and limits based on gender roles about capacity for certain types of action that fall easily into the old trope of boy-saves-girl-boy-wins-girl.

    I am married to a person who suffered abuse as a child, and pretty awful stuff even on the scale that we know there is such stuff. For the past year, my spouse has been in and out of institutions, incapable of interacting with the world in a self-sustaining manner. The helplessness I and all in my circumstance feel is a miserable thing. To see someone you love so dearly, suffering so deeply and not being able to do a damn thing about it. If there was a trope out there that allowed for making this all better, ya gotta believe I’d be all over it. Alas, truly, the world does not work that way.

    In this context, there are certain musings in Teckla and later in that cycle (chronologically in the world, not chronologically published in this one) that really hit their mark. Knowing what is publicly available, there is a most poignant element when one takes account of the exmaining that lead to the possibility of such writing.

    So, on this score, skzb is no hack.

  27. skzb

    JP: There were too many compliments to me in your remarks to permit me to tell you how moving and beautiful it was.

  28. JP, I know a lot about videogames, and can address your points there. Videogames are in some ways like books, and in some ways like film.

    Like books, videogames typically have a great deal of ‘time and space’ in which they can examine themes of significant complexity, and in which the player can become engaged in those themes.

    Sadly, videogames rarely *do* engage complex themes, because, like movies, videogames (at least at the level where I work) are multi-million dollar projects involving corporate financing and the participation of hundreds of artists and craftsmen in their creation.

  29. As far as the boy-saves-girl-boy-gets-girl stuff: I suspect that in many real-world instances of ‘saving’ the motivation is more to save the other person than to create obligation and thus ‘get’ the other person. We’re so used to fiction tropes, though, that our automatic response to being saved is to believe we should fall in love. Men save women from bad situations because Strength and women save men from bad behavior and thoughts because Nurturing. Then they deserve each other! So magically romantic. We build relationships like that, and whether the relationships work or not, we then want stories that reflect what we “know” is true about building relationships.

    I think books have the best chance at examining that trope/real world/trope cycle: they have more time and space, more complex possibilities for point of view, and you get a character’s thoughts, words, and deeds.

    On video games, there is a lot of storytelling and artistry that goes into them. I’d put them closer to books than to movies, because they get more time and there’s interaction between the consumer and the creation. What they do share with movies is that a lot of background information is encoded in the visuals.

    I lean more towards role-playing and puzzle-solving than monster-shooting, so maybe those types of games have more story. (Maybe first-person shooters are typically marketed with messages that actively repel me to the point where I think I don’t enjoy that style of game.)

    JP — That was a beautiful post, thank you.

    Anonymous — I think video games do make use of complex themes, whether they mean to or not. Any story has to. I have to think about that more.

  30. Of all the computer games I have ever played (and I have been playing computer games since my first TRS-80), the only one I can think of that actually made a sincere effort to combine storytelling with real world relationship options has been the Dragon Age series.

    The designers made a determined effort to offer a full range of choices. You could be male or female, hetero, homo or polyamorous, and as far as I could tell, you would have just as rich an experience. Your romantic partners were all your equals, not prizes to be won. They all made emotional and ethical demands on you that had to be met or the relationship would sour. As transgressive as all that sounds in the greater universe of American media, it certainly didn’t seem to hurt their sales a bit.

    In the spirit of the original post, though, all that openmindedness clashed weirdly with the choice to put enormous, weatherballoon breasts on every single female character in the two games, regardless of race, age, profession or personality. I guess some things are always left up to marketers to decide.

  31. Well, there is another world in which women not only don’t need to be Saved but also get the best one liners; on Friday evening we were in New York, London and Venice, though also in our theatre seats in London, watching ‘Top Hat’.

    And there was zero Strength and zero Nurturing, because there’s no need for that when you sing and dance that well, zero weather balloon breasts because you can’t dance with them, and the plot is a simple mistaken identity in which the only Saving is done by a guy who doesn’t get the girl.

    Live theatre based on 1930’s movies is fun…

  32. @jenphalian It’s outside of the mainstream, but you might find some of anna anthropy’s stuff interesting, if you haven’t come across it before.

    Her game dys4ia is only about 10 minutes long, and definitely worth experiencing: http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/591565

    And she writes a lot about games at http://auntiepixelante.com/

  33. Jenphalian, your observation about motivation to be helpful versus the (more often perceived) motivation to create obligation is just an amazing little insight. English is so bad in this context that it actually reenforces the implied obligation. Consider three languages (the only three I know to speak, literal translations):

    English: Thank you. You’re welcome.

    Spanish: Thank you. It is/was nothing.

    Arabic: Thank you. Pardon me. (Alternate among the poius: Thank you. No, give thanks to God.)

    Yep, English comes back with uh-huh, obligation created; Spanish attempts to minimize any sense of obligation, Arabic regognizes it in full and asks forgiveness (or says thank God for giving me the capacity, not me for doing anything). Of course, there is a sense meaning to words, and so we just utter and understand them without thinking. My parents used to have this enormous dog, and when we would say “Excuse me” to it the dog just got up and moved — it knew what we were saying, not the literal content of the words.

    I really miss words having meaning, generally.

  34. JP, apologies for quibbling, but does “welcome” have that connotation where you are? It doesn’t where I’ve known it. The traditional meaning is that there’s no obligation–it’s the oldest English way of saying “It’s nothing”. “You’re welcome to try” for example means “you’re free to try”. There’s a second connotation when “you’re welcome” is said with a smile–it means being able to give pleased the giver.

  35. Welcome = Well come = It is well that you have come to my home … and therefore there is no guest obligation.

    I gather that in the distant European past — perhaps in the Saxon or Nordic tradition, but that’s just a guess since I’m too lazy to research it offhand — it was the host’s duty to provide food and shelter to strangers in need, but the stranger’s duty to pay in some form for this, whether in coin or in service. “Welcome” suggests there is no such obligation.

    But while this kind of investigation is fun, analysis of ancient etiquette forms is unlikely to produce any real insight into a modern culture which has inherited the words without most speakers of the phrases ever bothering to think either about current or past meanings.

  36. Oh, Lars, a word about Dragon Age. Of course the developers chose deliberately to allow any sort of sexual/romantic relationships between the protagonist and the various other “eligible” characters regardless of gender. This is certainly a positive step for an industry whose hallmark is puerile and indeed infantile notions of romance and relationship.

    However the neutrality of the terms of the relationships is more based on designer laziness than on some positive ideal of equality, I think. The NPCs have little idea what the protagonist’s character, race, or gender is like in these interactions because very little scripted branching was written, so they can’t tell if they should be passive or active, conventional or transgressive, or even if the protagonist has been doing good or evil in the NPC’s company. Hence the lack of affect, and the blandness of the interaction.

    As you know, in these games, the character can choose the most demented forms of bloodthirsty slaughter in response to various situations or they can attempt to resolve factional differences; but in the end the story has to wind up in much the same place, so the same ludicrous and self-destructively ill-conceived betrayals have to occur no matter how psychotic or gentle the protagonist’s choices have been in the body of the game.

    I also have to say that outside of the very-well-written casual byplay and banter amongst the fixed-character party NPCs, that the Dragon Age story, dialog, quest design, and every other phase of the narrative is as imbecilic as I’ve ever seen in any game; and I’ve been playing and designing computer games since even before the TRS-80… I should also say that the presentation of sex in these recent EA/Bioware games is profoundly embarrassing. It would have been far better had they simply faded to black rather than showing these creepy softcore puppet-plays.

    But we agree that romance and sex in these games is generally very weak where the protagonist character is given any sort of choice in the matter. I should say that the recent Persona 3 and 4 JRPGs aren’t bad as regards the presentation of relationships, but the style of the male high school protagonist’s relationship with whichever female character is chosen as a principal interest is fixed by the story, and so there isn’t much choice or flexibility in roleplaying that relationship.

  37. Since I happen to have just unrelatedly read something that goes into a lot of depth on romance in games in general and Dragon Age in particular, here, check this out: http://deusexmachinatio.com/blog/2013/4/3/games-and-romance-made-for-each-other.html

  38. I think the game you’re talking about is Bioshock: Infinite. It’s interesting you bring it up because there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding this game’s marketing campaign. This particular title created controversy because it’s a sequel to a successful game (Bioshock) that did a great job overcoming a lot of video game cliches and expected a lot more from a player than most games do. When the game’s cover (which depicts the same image you describe on buses) was revealed, a lot of gamers were angry that a sequel to a game with such depth and intelligence would sink this low.

    The game’s director did several interviews to address the matter. He explained that in order to justify the type of budget this game needed in order to execute the type of game Irrational wanted to create (in which the female lead starts as a cliche that is carefully dismantled and deconstructed until all that remains is an amazing and full female character), they needed to allow the publisher to market it in a way that would sell the game to largest audience possible.

    It’s unfortunate that in order to that, marketing departments are afraid to think outside the sexist box, but I also feel its the lesser of two evils. If the only way for Irrational to have made this game (which, in my opinion, has an excellent example of a well-written female lead) is to allow sexist marketing materials, then so be it. The greater good of a quality, anti-cliche game that male and female gamers can be proud of (I think) outweighs the smaller evil of temporary marketing materials. The game’s already out, so the media campaign is dying out and in a few short months no one will remember the bus ads, but the game will be around for a long time to come as an example to other developers. And what’s more, that such an experimental (yes, strong female characters are considered experimental in video games, unfortunately) game is successful, due to its marketing campaign, will likely lead to more games with female leads and perhaps the marketing departments will wise up for some of those.

    Maybe I’m wrong, and I’m male, so I understand if I might not see matters from the right perspective, but I strongly urge you to play the game and find our for yourself if it was worth it.

  39. “they needed to allow the publisher to market it in a way that would sell the game to largest audience possible”

    And they did that knowing that to capture audience X, audience Y would be repelled. I’m in audience Y. That ad campaign, which will live long after the bus ads are gone on the back covers of a couple hundred comic books sitting on my living room floor currently waiting to be bagged and boarded, was their main shot at reaching me. And it just reinforced that AAA games don’t want me around. So I didn’t even bother committing the name to memory.

    It wouldn’t be rewarding for them to have done otherwise. Like people have said, with that kind of budget and all, they need to market to Male 13-17 & 18-29. That’s the gamer market, and marketing to me would repel a lot of them.

    I hope Bioshock Infinite does great! If I do play it, I’ll report back. But no matter how good the game is, my point is still that we have a long way to go and the reason people like me aren’t hardcore gamers is that gaming keeps telling us to go away. Change is coming, but slow, and I don’t wanna have to fight the power during my leisure time. I have books to read.

  40. I’m not sure about the whole “you’re welcome” thing. Language is tricky.

    And Dragon Age, I think I know someone who’s playing Dragon Age right now. I’ve seen some of the sex scenes on youtube and thought they were decent, but I watch godawful porn so who knows what that’s done to my taste in such matters.

  41. I guess I’m just saddened that a game that should otherwise be a victory for AAA gamers of both genders repels some of their audience because of what publishers see as a marketing necessity. Your comment in the initial post reminded me that even when game developers create the type of products that female (and many male) gamers have been striving to see, there are factors external to the creative process itself that don’t allow the product to reach the audiences that would most enjoy it. Which is what you’re saying in your comment, I guess. I agree.

  42. All I’ll say about the sex scenes in Dargon Age II is you should watch the scene between the protagonist character and Isabela… easy enough to find on youtube. I found it quite sexy enough for a game and, as she extracts from their hidden places one knife after another and tosses them aside in annoyance, hilarious as well.

  43. Eugene: My feelings are complicated. Thank you for summarizing. 🙂

    Lars: That was entertaining!

  44. My only personal addition to the above is my personal distaste for “entertainment” that only includes the opposite gender for the purpose of giving the protagonist the option for a “relationship”. Seeing this in action/mystery/thriller/whatever other than straight romantic comedy/drama vehicles is just somewhere between annoying and maddening. Afterthought “romantic” sub-plots are always ridiculous and seriously, if you only encounter people of one gender in the course of any given day or set of days; you’re doing something drastically wrong with your life.

  45. Will, no quibble experienced.

    My history with the phrase “you’re welcome” is driven more by context of the two or more persons than the actual language. Among my closest friends of many years, it means exactly what you suggest. In most workplaces that I have experienced it means “no problem, but you kinda owe me a small one.” In my two marriages to two very wonderful women who were abused as children, there is no escaping the sense of obligation created,

    Just goes to show that Habermas’ ideal speech thought experiment is about a useful as Schrodinger’s cat. Speaking of which, best joke I’ve read in years: Schrodinger’s cat walks into a bar.

    And it doesn’t.

  46. taellosse – I think it’s worth pointing out that Dresden is also designed to be fallible. That’s part of his design. He’s a seriously flawed and out-of touch human being. That’s part of what makes the books interesting. There’s so much going on that Dresden isn’t really aware of that its scary. Rereads of the series will show all kinds of obvious crap that he missed and failed to address.

  47. Pingback: Gaming, Sexism » blog.jenphalian.com

  48. “There are so many tropes and plotlines that treat their women characters creepily, demeaningly, dismissively, or brutally”

    It’s OK to treat them like that because they’re not real people.

Leave a Reply