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Evolution of the scantily clad warrior woman

benjamin's picture

 

The femme fatale 1996-2013: Breasts, slightly browner breasts, little-left-to-imagination dress, breasts + flashlight, If Blade were a hot woman, breasts + glasses... I think you get the idea (Image credit: elrincondefichi.es)

As much as I enjoyed analysing the 'changes' in Lara Croft's characterization, I couldn't help but feel a little let down. After all these years, after all the feminist-orientated criticism and questionable armour decisions, the gaming industry remains, for the most part, obstinate in its ideological representations of gender and, especially, femininity.

Hey, why pick on Lara Croft?
Apart from the fact that gamers can't get enough of her (how many titles is it now? 9?), she is often held up, as I have just done, as a prime example of sexism and ideologically-grounded irrationality in the gaming industry.

I can hear it now, "Please tell me, Mr. character designer, how the latest set of sexy sports attire shields Lara from the biting cold of a snowstorm or the inevitable fusillade of bullets and arrows?" Yeah... that imaginary voice has a point.

Look, as much as I love Lara and the series, I have to admit that an admirably shaped but openly exposed navel, legs and arms are of no use when it comes to sliding through flint and gravel, swimming in icy revenes and flighting off ravenous cave dwelling animals.

It's gotten to the point where not only are my sexist sensers constantly tingling, but the whole 'I don't need no man... nor clothing' thing is actually ruining the immersiveness of the game itself.

In this regard, I would compeltely agree with the critics: change needs to be made. Come on people... your target audience is changing! Get with it!

But that's just one game... surely...
Just off the top of my head, the last three games I've played have all fallen prey to similar discursive normalities: Tomb Raider, Defense of the Ancients 2 and World of Warcraft - all of them have scantily clad warrior women, inefficiently dressed for battle with breasts the size of radioactive watermellons. Yeah, it's a thing. We need to discuss it.

Now you're just cherry picking, what about...
Games where the women remain rationally dressed and realistically represented? Games like Half-Life 2 and Dishonered for instance? Yeah I've thought about it... there are, as I've already noted, outliers in the industry. But one must remember, there are more subtle ways of reinforcing gender stereotypes and inqualities than simply rendering woman as bloated barbies.

While Alyx Vance's breasts remain conspicuously out of sight (well at least I noticed the difference), the gendered nature of her character was emphasised in various other apparently 'common sensical' ways. What about Alyx's near inability to hold, let alone use, the gravity gun? Handing it to Gordon and indirectly praising his strength (... must be all the time he spent doing math in the lab) he/you grab it effortlessy, wielding it as if it were a magic wand and not a ton of radioactive steel. As you soon discover, your strength will be Alyx's saviour. 

In Dishonoured, empress Jessamine Kaldwin stands tall and elegant in her Britanic display of queenliness. She is the leader, and you, her bodyguard, are but a humble servant. This is all well and good, but from the very first moment of instability and conflict she drops the pretence, calling out and clinging to your strength. Once this conflict is over, her daughter (the princess... sigh), is captured by the enemy and it becomes your job as the male protector to rescue her (Mario Brothers anyone?).

These representations, which only really scrape the surface, can easily become the tools of the feminist-oriented critic - and, I would argue, for good reason. However, such critics often tend to over-simplify the situation. There is more going on here than they tend to give voice to.

The other side of the coin:
First and foremost, one musn't forget that Lara Croft, along with any number of similarly styed 'amazonesque' heroines (especially those that you play), get the better of their male enemies countless times throughout their respective narratives. Let's think realistically here... how many burly men does Lara walk over to get to her target? Yeah.

Second, while I understand why and sympathise with the fact that the overtly-sexualised female sterotype can be and often is demeaning, I would argue that it simultaneously offers those woman a certain power in exchange. It's not uncommon to see a female character gain the upper-hand over their male counterparts through the act of sexual enticement or the denial thereof. This isn't an excuse for the stereotypes but an attempt at better understanding them. Remember, they're not called femme fatales for nothing.

Finally, you cannot have black without white. When I'm playing a character who, by their muscled physique and manly allure, single-handedly take out a vile dicatorship and win the woman I don't feel very good about my single, skinny and suburban self. Not enough is said about the ideological effects of male representations in gaming.

However, despite all these gender disputes, it is important to remember, as feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian wisely notes, "that it is both possible, and even neccescary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of their more problematic or pernicious aspects."

While it is important to discuss these things, there's no reason to let them ruin your gaming experience - enjoy it if you can!