Monday, August 13, 2012

Getting to the root of sexist design.

"Wearing what society forces her to, what a cruel male-dominated culture!" is most accurate.
Within fiction, the constraints of an author's interference means that things exist in two separate states. The first is "things as they are", and the second is "things as they have been made to be". The former is the reality understood by characters in-universe and deals with issues of an in-universe perspective. The latter deals with authorial intent and things outside of the universe itself. When discussing the design of a game or movie or novel, it is important to distinguish these two aspects. As a connoisseur of believability, the divide between  what is real "in-universe" and what is orchestrated by the author's overt influence falls directly into my domain. What I deal in is material that distracts the audience from what should be a seamless self-contained narrative, and for many people "the sexist influence of an author or artist" is distracting and unpleasant enough to cause problems.

Today I'm going to talk about revealing clothing on characters and the perceptions of sexism that they entail. This is something I've talked about before, if you're interested. Addressing the various -isms (sexism and racism primarily) is almost always a question of the meta. Characters can have varying beliefs without hurting a story. A character can be misogynist and racist and it won't reflect poorly on the author or on the book itself. However, this is done by separating the character's perspective from the author's perspective. A character's beliefs in-universe are "things as they are". If it feels like the author endorses that character's beliefs, or if the author directs events in the story to support those beliefs, then it changes to "things as they have been made to be". It calls back the artificiality of the exercise and suggests that the author is doing things for reasons other than simply telling a coherent story.

In many cases I've seen well-meaning feminists attack "things as they are" when they meant to attack "things as they have been made to be". The preeminent connection between "sexy clothes" and "creepy author intent" made many women leery of feminine clothes at all, to the point where that dislike is itself a trope. I can also find plenty of examples of "non-feminine" women who saw themselves as being different from (and thus better than) more traditional women. This piece by Jenn Frank, for example, reflects a time in her life where she believed this to be true. These people are (or were) missing the point of complaints about sexist design: it isn't what they're wearing, it's why they're wearing it.

Let's discuss this image. Two female knights clad head-to-toe in realistic plate armor and carrying reasonably-designed weapons are confronted by an 80s fantasy standard - the improbably-clad "warrior woman" obviously designed as an insane sex object and not as an actual character.  One woman has an eyebrow raised in disbelief. The text below reads "I say we kill her on Principle".

Given the background of the gaming community and game-related art designs, it's easy to defend this as a feminist piece. Two realistically-designed female characters standing up to a "blonde bimbo", representative of the chauvinist male designer? Sounds pretty progressive. But is it really? Is two women threatening to murder another woman for the way she's dressed really progressive? No, that's what we call "slut-shaming" or "body policing", and in its own way it's just as bad as making a female character sexualized in such a way in the first place.

The problem with the scenario depicted in this image is that they're addressing "things as they are" and not "things as they have been made to be". The reason chainmail bikinis and high heels are offensive and misogynist is founded in meta-reasoning, not in direct in-universe reasoning. In fact, the decision to wear them is inexplicable in-universe, which is the problem. Women are shown looking like, and wearing, what the author thinks is sexually attractive, and not what makes sense for them as human beings. There is no reason for the female fighter to be wearing those things. It is not that the things are wrong for her to wear, or that she is a bad person for wearing them. It is that the designer is a bad person for reducing her to a sexual object incapable of making sensible decisions. It is the artist, not the character, who is at fault here.

Now, in-universe, there is a total absence of justification for the woman's garb. She even looks kind of confused in the picture. And yet what do the well-armored women say to her? "I think you should die." For what crime? For being objectified by a force that is beyond her control? Yet it is also a force beyond their understanding; being inhabitants of this fictional reality, they cannot acknowledge the artist without breaking the fourth wall. Now, for purposes of this comic, they could have easily done that: a caption akin to "I feel like we should kill an artist for this" or something along those lines. But they didn't. They blamed her, because there's no one else to blame. They have been presented with a scenario that, in itself, does not make sense. What are they to make of this?

Yet even in that sense there were other options available. If the concern was practicality, then the sentiment expressed should have been one of matronly or sisterly disapproval - "Oh, come on, you're going to get yourself killed going into battle like that", or even a simple "are you kidding me?". It should, in short, have been something other than "we have to kill her for dressing like that". There are women who dress in revealing or "impractical" clothes, and while many feel that they are forced into doing so to gain societal acceptance, many women simply enjoy doing it for its own sake. To express disgust at these women for making a choice is neither "feminist" nor "okay". It's like people who see the "skinny versus curvy" discussion and, rather than coming to the conclusion that all body types are okay if the woman in question is comfortable with it, instead deciding that skinny women are just wrong and should instead become curvy. The problem isn't that "one's better than the other", the problem is that women should be allowed to make choices like adults (and phrasing it like "one's better than the other" boils it down to "you should have a different body type so men will find you attractive"). "Making choices" is, itself, at the heart of this discussion, even if the choices themselves are illusory.

Let's look at the game Lollipop Chainsaw. When discussed in a "things as they have been made to be" sense, LC is a pretty open-and-shut case: it's a game where you play a ditzy, airheaded, incredibly objectified female character who wears skimpy outfits in a manner that's obviously designed for the arousal of straight male gamers. Everything about Juliet's design is a cliche "peppy cheerleader" who doesn't particularly mind that all her foes are calling her "slut" or "whore" or threatening to rape her, who doesn't mind that the men she rescues are more concerned with her appearance than anything else, who doesn't mind much of anything really. For some, Juliet is the "perfect" video game girl - she's attractive, energetic, and doesn't mind when you say rude things to her. In fact, she doesn't mind much of anything. But that's things as they have been made to be.

From a perspective of "things as they are", Juliet Starling is an energetic, attractive highschool student in a relatively "goofy" universe. Nothing about Juliet's character is impossible, just unlikely. All her traits can be found in "real people" with the notable exception of her reaction to death and danger - and even that is common in-universe, as nobody really seems to give much of a damn about dying. It could definitely be argued that some of her behavior is problematic - her fixation on thinness, for example - but as it stands she is not an impossible or even an unrealistic character. From an in-universe perspective, Juliet is by no means "unbelievable". She wears what she wants, she does what she wants, she acts how she wants.

But Juliet's not just "in-universe", is she? She's not a person. She's a construct, designed by an artist to fulfill a role. That role is "be a sex object", "be as many arousing things for nerds as possible", "exist for the pleasure of others", etc. The player's role in the game is "the camera", constantly panning and zooming and rotating around Juliet's body without her being aware. If the player attempts to take a peek up Juliet's skirt, she will unconsciously move her hand to block the player's view - she doesn't know that the player is there (because the player's not real in-universe), and yet something compels her to protect her modesty. This is non-consensual voyeurism. Attempting to look up her skirt nets you an achievement. The game rewards you for this, as though it's goofy harmless fun. Here's why it's not:

This is professional model and Cosplayer Jessica Nigri, who was hired to play Jessica Starling at Lollipop Chainsaw's E3 booth. She's blonde. She's attractive. She's wearing the same skimpy clothes that Juliet wears. She's sporting the same peppy attitude. The difference is that she's also an actual human being, with her own identity and agenda and desires. Jessica enjoys cosplaying and does it frequently; she doesn't seem to mind wearing revealing clothing in the least. But she's not Juliet Starling. Juliet Starling is okay with rape threats and ogling - she takes them in cheerful, goofy stride. This is not a realistic expectation for Jessica Nigri, who is a real person.  "Sexy cosplay" is frequently associated with a desire for attention and, by extension, automatic consent. "Dressing sexy" is considered "asking for it"; the act of wearing those clothes makes you implicit in any untoward behaviors directed at you. "Dressing sexy" is not the bad part - that's the exercising of individual choice. What's bad is the assumptions made by others about what "dressing sexy" permits them to do to the person doing it.

Here's the problem with Juliet Starling, the video game character: she doesn't actually have agency. She doesn't even really have the illusion of agency. In-universe she's doing what she wants, but it's impossible to address the game purely in-universe. Juliet is designed to appeal. She's designed to be flirtatious, sexually open, ditzy, and easy-to-please. She's designed solely to want to please men. This is the real "unrealism", and this is the real thing that makes her design sexist and disgusting: not what she wears or who she is, but the fact that she has been created as a puppet, an automatic consent-giver who the player can ogle without reprisal or chastisement. Players can move the camera around her body all they want and she can't say "no" or ask them to stop or become creeped out. She can't do anything about the player because the player isn't real to her. This kind of "fantasy" setup doesn't seem like it should extend into real life (and many argue that it doesn't - it's just a game, after all), but in many cases it does.

From "Oh, You Sexy Geek!" by Courtney Stoker:
The video is not meant for geek women to view, and feel empowered by seeing representations of other geek women. It is meant to be viewed by men who wish to believe that, despite their own inability to meet cultural standards of masculinity, there are geek women available to them who are “sexy” in two ways: 1. These women do fit a physical standard of beauty, and 2. These women want to please men, want to be sexually appealing to them.

Because geek women are often clearly aiming their performances at geek men, geek men and women often place blame on the women who dress this way. A comment on Geek Tyrant, written by a blogger who is posting a collection of “cosplay cleavage,” is illustrative. Venkman writes, “And ladies, maybe some of you will find these images offensive, but these are women that are dressing like this. We didn’t ask them to, they do it on their own, and if women dress like this, the fact of the matter is…guys are going to stare [sic].” This sentiment lands the blame for the objectification of geek women squarely on the shoulders of women, and characterizes men’s responses to these women as inevitable, natural, and uncontrollable.

The voyeur culture that games and movies tend to support is part and parcel of this problem. Sexist artists and authors design female characters who exist to be ogled without complaint (or meaningful complaint - many characters of that ilk will whine in a manner that's meant to be, in itself, arousing). Characters like Ivy or Taki from Soul Calibur are designed as sexual objects in manners that don't even bother to match up with their backgrounds and personalities. This ad, for example, offers Ivy herself up as an "advertisement" - look, if you play our game, there will be large breasts and you will be able to look at them. Again, it's not that they're wearing revealing clothes that's the problem, it's the fact that those revealing clothes exist as part of an overarching effort to dehumanize them and remove their agency as characters. They are "fap fodder". They exist to arouse. And while many will argue that "it's fine" because "nobody's really getting hurt or objectified" (they're fake characters, after all), the way these characters and how they're allowed to be treated reflects on real life more than people assume it does.

There's two lessons here that are wholly intertwined. The first lesson is about "who you should direct your frustration and anger at", and that's the author or the artist, not the character themselves. Hating a character, or a cosplayer, or a model, or anyone for "dressing sexy" is not okay. If you feel like they were forced into it and that's your problem, blame the person doing the forcing, don't blame them. The complaint about female characters dressing in impractical clothing should be that "they would choose something different", not "they look like a whore". Agency is the most important aspect here - it separates a person from a non-person, after all. Characters who are "dressed" in sexy clothing are deprived of agency by their artists. Women who are objectified at conventions are deprived of agency by their oglers. If a woman chooses to wear revealing clothing, that's entirely her business - "wearing sexy clothes" is not an implicit agreement to surrender agency.  Ostensible feminists deride and despise scantily-clad female characters because they've come to the understanding that those characters are "sexist", but they don't follow up on the root cause of what makes it sexist.

The second lesson is that the difference between a "good character" and a "bad character" is founded entirely on whether or not they can be reasonably justified in-universe. Juliet Starling is difficult to deal with "in-universe" because she seems flagrantly unnatural, even though her component aspects are not necessarily that bad. The same is true of Ivy or Taki. When things don't make sense "in-universe", the blame goes to the creator. It's entirely possible to make attractive characters who make sense and aren't sexist, it's just a question of why those characters exist. Vasquez from Aliens is a well-known example of a solid female character, and despite Hudson's taunting it's actually pretty hard to mistake her for a man. The point was that you didn't notice it because it never felt like Jeanette Goldman was hired for the size of her bust, but instead for her ability to convincingly portray the role she needed to portray. By contrast, characters like Juliet can't feel real because the artist's intention is always there. There's no sense that their design "makes sense in-universe" or that their wardrobe is "reflective of their choices" because you're too busy being overwhelmed by the sheer force of "this character exists to sell the game to teenage boys". The reduction of a character to "basically a pair of tits" is implicitly condoned and supported by the game's developers.

This is my closing link: an editorial by Patricia Hernandez concerning the representation of Juliet Starling in Lollipop Chainsaw, and how it relates to her own life and her own experiences. This is an incredibly emotional piece in a way I don't even feel I'm qualified to comment on. But if there's one thing I'd like you to take from it, to draw from it and apply to this article, it's the fact that Juliet isn't the "problem" or the "aggressor". You shouldn't hate Juliet. She is what she is, and by itself that's fine. If she is anything negative, it is the victim of a misogynist design process. You shouldn't blame the goddamn victim for being mistreated.