21 June, 2009

Gamin' Ladies: Are there any true Femiheroes in the world of videogaming?

As an avid gamer myself, I have sometimes found myself searching the male-dominated world of videogames for a positive representation of a strong, capable woman. And often, when I feel like I might have found one, something will come along to scupper the revelation. Now, I know the Daily Mail teaches us that computer games are Bad - playing Grand Theft Auto will inevitably lead to a life of drug abuse and crime, and playing Mario Kart will cause children to throw banana skins out of moving vehicles, causing a surge of road accidents. But putting those cautionary tales aside for a moment, let's look at some of the leading ladies of videogames, and their relative femihero merits.

1) Lara Croft. The First Lady of gaming, Ms Croft has amassed a loyal following among gamers - Tomb Raider was one of the first major titles on the original Playstation. And there's not much Croft can't do - she runs! She jumps! She shoots things! She grabs ledges and shimmies over abysses. She's a strong, independant woman, self-motivating and determined. And she certaintly doesn't need a man to help her. Gamers may notice that, in the later games, a male team were assembled at Croft Manor - they talk Lara through some of the trickier missions, although she's always quick to put them in their place if they give her a hard time.
So far, so good. But there's one little problem with Lara, and that's the small matter of her blow up doll appearance. Lara habitually dresses in tiny hotpants and a tight tank top. While Sam Fisher, Solid Snake and Master Chief are dressed appropriately for their physical, violent outings, Lara is very exposed. And with boobs like those, it figures she'd need a little more support. Alternative costumes include a skin tight catsuit and a slashed-to-the-thigh ballgown. So ultimately, to make Lara acceptable to (mostly male) gamers, the strong female angle has been watered down by her sex object appearance - it's almost as if gamers would be unable to accept such a strong woman if she were wearing, say, combat trousers and a sweatshirt.

2) Tifa Lockhart - Final Fantasy 7's leading lady, Tifa is an ass-kickin', bar-ownin' martial arts expert. Part of an underground rebellion against The Man, Tifa is strong, smart and capable of leading, as she proves when main man Cloud is rendered useless through illness. The problem with Tifa, however, is Lara Croft syndrome once again - her strength is diluted by her overtly sexual appearance. Tifa fights in a miniskirt and tank top, with proportions not dissimilar to UK 'glamour model'/freakshow Jordan. Once again, she is made hyper feminine in order to make her strength acceptable - she becomes a caricature of sexuality. The other issue with Tifa is her seeming weakness without Cloud - it's almost as if she's powerless without his support.

3) Jill Valentine, one of the main characters in the Resident Evil series. And in her first outing, she appears to have avoided Lara Croft syndrome: she isn't characterised by her 'hotness', kicks an appropriate amount of ass and gets out alive. By the time Resident Evil 3 came out, however, the designers must have decided there wasn't enough non-zombie flesh on display and promptly redesigned Jill's costume. This coincided with her reappearance as a main character.

I'm just scratching the surface of gaming heroines here, and I may well examine some more key characters in future posts, but today's conclusion is this - all three women abovementioned are strong, capable and (mostly) independent. They can fight as well as any man, and are capable of besting men in combat. They do what they have to do without complaint. For all these reasons, they are excellent role models, true femiheroes. But I can't shake off the nagging anger at the need to portray them so sexually. Can a woman not be strong and attractive without dressing impractically and skimpily? And can we not portray 'attractive' without resorting to the tired old formula of 'big tits, skinny waist, flesh on display'? And, perhaps the biggest question of all - why does a female character have to be conventionally attractive at all? Of course there is nothing wrong with being good looking, but where's our female Gordon Freeman?

I can't help but wonder who game manufacturers are trying to please by dressing their female characters in tiny hotpants and tank tops, and by inflating their proportions - is this really the only way we can make our videogaming heroines acceptable to the mainstream gamer?


  1. there is also the issue of how a woman who "has it all" like that in real life comes up against a lot of other problems definitely not shown in the games. men like that can only cope with that concept in a video game they control - in their office, they'd probably label any lara crofts "ball-breaking", "a tease", "a bitch", etc.

  2. They would also accuse her of trying to be like a man, thus being 'unfeminine' - and then we come right back to the caricature of femininity, skimpy clothes and improbable body shapes in order to counter what we perceive as 'masculinity', i.e actually being in control of their own lives.

  3. I think that Jade from 'Beyond Good and Evil' is a pretty strong (and awesome) candidate.

    She's tough and independent, but also open-minded, funny and creative. She's also *relatively* unobjectified compared to most female leads.

    Jade starts out running (and defending) a building for children orphaned by alien attacks, and soon after becomes a scientific photographer and investigative journalist, helping to expose a planet-wide conspiracy.

    In a nice bit of reversal, at one point in the game she rescues your archetypal action-hero figure from a torture machine and leads him to safety.

  4. Ms. PacMan - feminist hero


  5. Oh yeah, and the "female Gordon Freeman" is probably Chell from Portal.

    But I agree with you, that mainly game designers seem to think that only men are playing their games...with only one hand on the control pad.

    Play Portal - it will make you feel better :)

  6. I can attest to Portal's awesomeness :-D.

    And I never got to play Beyond Good & Evil, which is rather remiss of me to say the least.

  7. Sebastian - I've never played that game, but I might have to pick it up. Thanks!

    Sayem, JenniferRuth - Portal is very interesting, not least the idea that Aperture is a literal 'sister company' to Black Mesa, almost a parallel female Half Life world. I've always thought Alyx from Half Life 2 has more than a whiff of Femihero about her too.

  8. Actually, another character that sprung to mind who had a lot of potential to be a really good one, were it not for silly little T&A jokes, was Meryl Silverburgh from the Metal Gear games. I actually quite liked her character in number 4 (although I never understood whether to laugh or cry at her suddenly falling in love with Johnny Sasaki, a diarrhetic terrorist who eventually joins her unit and is still as useless as ever...).
    They should so do some of the games involving her. I actually found her character fairly moving from the first game.

  9. First at all, I disagree with you because the first woman character in a video game is Samus in Metroid for the nes. She is reliable and you don't know that Samus is a girl until the end of the game that you need to fulfill in certain amount of time (if you achieved it she appears in her pixelated underwear) but She always wear a special suit.
    Second, you are completed right about girls as a sex symbols in those games but the biggest audience for that kind of games are males. so the character has to be compeling for that audience (there are money involved). Right now video games are moving to different areas to increase their profits. Sex symbols is one of those and the another is in-game advertisements. In some game you can even see viagra ads.

  10. Pepitorevolution - are you defending the objectification of women in games on the grounds that sex sells? That's not an argument. That might explain why game makers do it, but it certainly doesn't excuse it!


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