Thursday, February 9, 2012

Project: Representation

Hey guys, this isn't so much an update as an a request for input. I've been kind of bothered by a certain niggling issue and I wanted to see what you guys thought about it. You see, when dealing with issues of depicting sex and gender, I've had a pretty solid baseline in the past: don't make it a big deal. Utility is going to be the same regardless of sex, gender, race, orientation, etc, and that should be more important than a need to stereotype and objectify. However, I think it's also possible that simply ignoring those traits is not always going to be the best route for equal representation. Simply pretending that an attribute doesn't exist doesn't necessarily empower the people who possess that attribute, and two people depicted in the same manner are not necessarily going to truly be "equal".

For example, several sources (like this Cracked article and this Shortpacked comic) have taken a stance against "False Equivalence", the idea that despite both sexes being similarly clad and  being depicted attractively, both are designed for a "male perspective": the women are there to be desired, and the men are there to be emulated. While I've generally been of the opinion that if men and women are wearing the same things (i.e. "both serious" or "both ridiculous") that it's generally okay, the issue they're talking about is also a problem of the depiction of their physiques, personalities, and so on. Women are designed to be attractive to men, and men are designed to be impressive to men. When you get games like Angelique Trois that are designed entirely by women, it's easy to note a difference in the way that both sexes are portrayed.

Similarly, in terms of depicting personality, there's an issue of whether or not certain traits properly "represent" a certain group of people, be it a sex, a racial minority, a sexual orientation, etc. It's easy to say (as I have done in the past) that such traits should simply be ignored, since they end up seeming like a forced stereotype - yet it may also be true that people who are actually in those groups may feel that there is some trait or attribute that they feel is central to their identity as part of that group. Simply ignoring those attributes could be considered akin to saying "all characters, regardless of sex or race, should act like white men", which naturally could have its own problems if "white men" is considered a stereotype of its own and not just a name for "doing things sensibly".

Again, though, attempting to apply such things can backfire; the movie Red Tails was designed to be empowering to a black audience, and it apparently does this by making its WW2-era black characters talk like somewhat stereotyped "modern blacks". The idea that there are speech patterns, behavior patterns, or personality types that are "connected" to a minority status might be just as offensive as the idea that everyone should act like a white male. I've heard different opinions about all of these things, and that's why I'm trying to get everyone's opinions about this.

So here's the project that I'm trying to embark upon. What I need from you readers is to answer a few questions based on whatever minority groups you identify with (if any). I'm looking to try to sort of isolate the traits that would make for better, more believable characters without simply ignoring issues of race and sex. If your answer is "just make them efficient/utilitarian, their minority status has nothing to do with it", then that's fine. If you're a straight white male, that's fine too, because I think it's a false idea that comic-book standards are attractive to all white people or all men and it would be good to get some input on whether or not you actually find comic standards appealing.

[At the top of your reply please note any relevant statuses in brackets]

1. What attributes would define "attractiveness" in a manner that you'd want to emulate? If men in comics are designed to be empowering for men (i.e. men read comics because they want to be like the strong, powerful men depicted in them), how would you do the same for women/minorities in terms of physical appearance? What aspects of attractiveness would be part of a character that you would want to be, as opposed to a character that is there to be objectified? I'm talking about things like facial features, physique, aesthetic/fashion sense, bearing, and so on. How would you make a good-looking character that makes you feel more empowered, rather than a good-looking character who is there to be ogled?

2. What attributes would define "good character" in a manner that you'd want to emulate? This is the "personality" version of the last question. What traits would you look for in a character who you'd use for escapist purposes? Would there be any aspects of the character that would be connected to a minority status, or would that be irrelevant/unimportant in comparison to their other traits? By "traits" I mean not only aspects of one's personality, but also speech patterns, attitudes, and values.

3. What attributes would define "attractiveness" in a manner that you'd want to pursue? I'm leaving the subject of this question vague because, of course, there are going to be androsexual and gynosexual readers answering this question. In essence, if women in comics are designed to be attractive to stereotypical men, how would you design a character who is attractive to you? This is both in terms of physical attributes and personality traits. I leave this open for descriptions of female characters because I've heard lesbians say that the way women are presented in comics is not appealing to them, and as such having them describe what would be appealing is also part of this project.

4. Would you say that intent/presentation is more or less important than actual traits? I believe that a large part of the problem with sexist or racist depictions of characters is not what they are, but why they are. There's nothing "sexist" about a large-breasted woman, but if you know she's there purely for titillation it's going to end up feeling fake and offensive. With that said, is it enough to get around that by changing the traits themselves, or is the assumption of sexism/racism going to hinder the depiction of minority characters no matter what?

5. Is identifying or labeling a minority character worth doing in terms of design? There have been lots of attempts to empower minorities by making a dedicated product around them. The idea of creating a "strong female/black/gay character" has been thrown around a lot without much real success. However, it's not like good minority characters don't exist; they're just not designed in such a way. Do you think it's worthwhile to try to make minority identity a major part of a character's design, or is that a secondary concern? Is it better to create "a strong minority character", or a "strong character" who happens to be a minority?

6. List examples of characters who you think positively represent your identified group.

When you've answered these questions in such a manner that you're satisfied with your response, just post it in the comments on this article so everyone can read it and compare/contrast with their own responses. Link this article around, too, because the more people who respond, the clearer a picture we'll have. If you have any questions about the questions, don't hesitate to ask for clarification. Thanks!


  1. [White male, US Army]

    I wouldn’t particularly care how a character looks in terms of facial features, physique, and so on. However, general fitness I do examine as I believe it a good measure of self-respect and diligence as well as capability. Depending on that role of the character, grooming could also be important. Whenever I see members of the regular military depicted with personalized outfits and shoulder-length hair it immediately shatters all suspense of reality for myself. However, for a bandit or mercenary, I wouldn’t mind.

    The ability to make a decision he believes to be right even when it requires great sacrifice. And extending from that, grit, endurance, or ingenuity shown in achieving those goals is important. Genuine leadership is also to be desired, particularly of the peer variety. I find the development and maintenance of leadership an area ignored in most characters. They always are presented with or without it. I could write far too much about what I believe genuine leadership to be, so I will avoid defining it in this response for brevity’s sake.

    I don’t think she has to be a bimbo, but certainly attractive by the common denominator. Things like a reasonably symmetrical face; defined bone structure; full, vibrant hair; and a toned, shapely figure are key. And these attributes can vary somewhat for each person. I myself have always favored red hair. Something about it is so bold and distinguishing in a way quite separate of sexual attractiveness. Clothing can draw some attention to titillating parts, but should not do so flagrantly. BLUF: Whatever she wears could be worn in public without undue attention.
    My expectations for female characters’ personality traits are mostly similar to the expectations I have for male characters I should emulate. The only difference would be in the area of self-respect. She must have self-respect, but quite separate of one rooted in a sense of reparation for her sex (ie, “bitch reappropriation”). Such self-respect could come from many other places (heritage, personal achievements), but that is largely irrelevant. It is the strength of it which allows her to operate separately of stereotypes, particularly sexual ones, that is important.

    There’s a reason why stereotypes exist: there is some truth to them. Stereotypes are an important tool we use as humans to simplify large groups of people into manageable objects. This simplification can often leave many persons of that group poorly described, which is the primary reason why we find stereotypes so offensive. I think a problem with characters in fiction is that we automatically look for symbols and generalizations which may not have been intended. Of course, if an author includes a strong stereotype unintentionally or with the expectation that we would not generalize the character that is poor writing. A general rule is that if a strong minority character is included, they should be sufficiently explored to give them depth beyond the surface stereotype.

    Always. Majority-minority interactions can be found in all walks of life and pose many difficult questions. However, the trope of empowering minorities because they should be pitied has often been taken too far. I don’t think the presence of minorities is necessarily the problem, but rather that they are almost always depicted as the enlightened, righteous party. Minorities can be and often are wrong.

    I’ve always liked Ripley of the Alien franchise, particularly in James Cameron’s Aliens. She has a steady bearing in the face of extreme skepticism of her fears, and a stoic attitude towards the challenges the xenomorphs present her with. She’s a strong female character, but not just to compensate for years of discrimination against her sex. More than that, she is a leader attempting to effect change against a new and vastly dangerous threat.

  2. [Mixed-minority male]

    1.This is entirely unique to every individual, and it's going to vary from game to game and from universe to universe, but I think as long as someone is consistent with their background and their adaptation to their current situation, it's attractive to me. Most of the Dynasty Warriors women are generals within the game, yet they continually wear evening dress while battling. While I like the idea of "looking good and kicking ass, too," I can't completely support characters who are overly made up and haven't been given proper justification for doing so. It's why I can't take Power Girl seriously, but would give Darkstalkers' Morrigan a free pass.

    2. Again, it depends the proposed setting, but keeping the character's goals clear and consistent throughout a given situation helps a lot. I personally don't mind how bright or stupid a character is, as long as they're consistently so. Speech patterns don't make a difference to me, since the way one talks doesn't necessarily reflect their ability to handle a situation. Values have to be in line with the plot and the character's motivation.

    3. I personally like smart, sensible, and practical characters, so if there is a character who is well-built (but not overly so, because large muscles would be cumbersome) and with a sense of reality for their role, that makes them more attractive. People can only control their body shape to a limited extent, so how they react to situations is more important than their bodily design.

    4. This is pretty much what I've been championing the entire time in an argument. I don't mind what a character looks like as long as it doesn't feel like they were shoehorned into the role, or included purely for the sake of titillation or "diversity." I put "diversity" in quotes because the cast is often too formulaic. If I'm playing as a white character in a game that features a mostly white cast, I'd find it too typical that the minority characters are far more likely to be a big black "urban" male and some sort of young svelte Asian female. I tend to write off those "affirmative action" characters unless they're given an uncommon backstory and not portrayed as stereotypically tough or smart. I was unimpressed by Dead Nation's first three characters of an average white male, tough black male, and petite Asian female, but when I saw the fourth character, a black Aboriginal female former police officer, I felt like some barrier had been broken.

    5. After the GTA: San Andreas debut announcement, I remember reading in forums where people wrote that they didn't want to play as a "black guy" (they didn't always write "black guy") whereas I thought it was exciting to have a distinctly non-white character to play as, for once. CJ turned out to be likeable (for a criminal) and I for one was glad that the stereotypes in GTA:SA weren't as bad as they could have been. It's definitely worth creating a strong character first and foremost, and having that character as a minority can be empowering if they don't have to "explain" their minority status. GTA:SA didn't linger on why CJ was black; gang members killed his mother, and he simply wants revenge. Meanwhile, Faith from Mirror's Edge isn't presented as simply; in all publicity she is described as "Eurasian," as if we had to be reminded that she's not completely white. Luckily, in the game it's not focused upon so much, but the marketing certainly dehumanized the character.

    6. I can't go on without mentioning probably the best example, Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance. Not only is she a minority, she's smart, dressed practically, completely helpful, and cognizant of her situation. While Saints Row 3 is terribly misogynistic, at least the female S.T.A.G. officers are dressed in the same clunky armor as the males, and are treated as relative equals.

    1. My main problem with Alyx Vance is that while people say she's empowered, she literally exists as a character to play off of, and fall in love with, a silent protagonist.

  3. [white russian, male]

    Since the subject is dealing with minorities it is hard to seriously discuss them without slipping into racism/chauvinism, so please forgive if i come off as one, it is only meant to better illustrate a point and not to specifically hurt this or that group.

    Look and essence derives from the soul, you cannot separate one from the other.

    The biggest problem with minorities is, as you have mentioned, to inject them into the story solely for better customer demographics. In a believable story usually only their utilitarian functions matter, they would not be (often) in a "intensive/important" situation if their function would not be a priority. But in modern media it is exactly the other way round.

    That said, in real life the function of minorities lies in viewing and acting upon the world through different patterns. It is comparable to Campbells Hero Journey, where the hero leaves the tribe to go out and gather more knowledge of the surrounding world, but in order to do that he first has to unlearn what he has learned so that his ego is not in the way and he can gather this knowledge unbiased from previous preconceptions and then return back with the holy grail and show his tribe what new advantages and increased survivability this new knowledge will bring to all, (with lots of convincing (killing) of the old folk).

    Similarly if we view our biosphere something of a predecessor for a single organism (lets just say "world tribe" for the more grounded of us), simply said: The minorities act as Campbells Hero for the "World Tribe". It is of paramount importance for believable minorities to bring something to the table. They have to show that their world view, their methodology of gathering and processing information leads to new "advancements" that eventually increases survivability and enriches world culture as a whole.

  4. Example:
    Ghost in the Shell - Ishikawa

    There is scene in the movie where he asks the main protagonist why he has been transferred to section 9, since he has almost no cyborg augmentation, was a simple police detective and uses a revolver. Compared to all the high tech super advanced equipment and training the rest of the squad have he is but a peon in a world of gods. The major replies: "It is because you are different that we choose you. If we would act and think all in the same way we would become predictable, it is our unpredictability that makes us strong, otherwise it would be slow death.

    The essence here is "slow death". A specific world view, even if immensely successful will lead to eventual self destruction because it views its methods by which it gained that power as absolutes and is unwilling to experiment with other concepts unless it is on the verge of crumbling.

    Another example:
    Blues, Soul, Jazz, etc...

    It is through these means that blacks have gained "value/popularity" to modern world culture and acceptance from white people (i am talking 1920, severe racism). Somebody who would never mingle with blacks would be drawn to these new sounds, (like mythological lure of the sirens) and thus through contact otherwise never established, bridge gaps imposed by thousand years of prejudice and xenophobia. Even the most vile racist would probably admit that this music was of "some value". Later this "knowledge" would lead to Elvis, Beatles and so on, who would spread it even further, simply because they are more accessible (white).

    Similar thing with gays, if sexual orientation benefits new achievements / approaches, excellent.
    Again, example form the music world, Freddie Murcury. A combination of sensitivity coupled with male prowess lead to now familiar results. It is not enough to be gay and run around in provocative costumes throwing around quirky remarks, anybody can do that. Show your achievement / abilities, something you can be proud of and then as a matter of fact mention that you are gay, not the other way round.

    The lesson here is that its the "knowledge" and influence on the world that is of vital importance, not the medium that brought it. A true Hero, is a tragic Hero, somebody who is not remembered and cherished but who's "knowledge" has never the less spread and whos actions influenced future generations without them even knowing who to thank. We take fire for granted, we don't have a statue of the first primitive man who came back with a burning stick. We Idolise those people only to motivate such behaviour and give tangible manifestations in moments of need. Statues crumble, but "new methods of interaction with the world" live on.

  5. Women

    Women are a trickier matter, we are generalizing, so please forgive. First some anthropological background.

    Women, from a purely biological point of view, are designed by nature to give life and raise children. They have a third less muscle mass and have stronger emotional interaction with the world and are better at multi tasking. They are the preservers of life and new paths. Men have better orientation, are more aggressive and a stronger sex and exploration drive and prefer focusing all their attention on one matter at a time. Men also have an inbuilt drug "testosterone" (essentially weak cocaine) that enhances these attributes and thus shortens their life span. Essentially this comes down to men exploring new paths of development and women select, improve and nurture the most successful ones. This is also the reason why the overwhelming amount of discoveries are made by men. Not because they are smarter (statistically there is virtually no difference in intellectual capabilities) but because they are designed that way, to fool around with new stuff, to tweak and experiment, often putting themselves in needles dangers, etc. More so neglecting self preservation for curiosity, than women (i am talking about facing environmental challenges, not social).

    For a woman it is more important how she is perceived than what her position is. If that is not the case then she is not a woman. If you ever moved into a new house with a woman you will have noticed that she is more concerned with how the house looks (is perceived) than functions (puts away your tools, although you aren't even close to finish what you are trying to build, fix, etc...). And this is completely normal and even nececery.

    But this is also the reason why there are so few female leaders. In order for them to be successful as a leader they would have to view the organisation as part of themselves, as an extension so to speak. That and they have to be careful with their emotions as they are a luring target for manipulation by a hostile party (hence the "cold bitch queen", because she has been "had/played" too often).

    The problem arises, in the natural desire for women to be accepted as mans equal and hence they are portrayed as such in the media, being able to do what any man can do. This is counter productive and is essentially going against natures design. In general terms a woman cannot be equal to a man (muscle mass) as much as a man cannot be equal to a woman (give birth). They are designed differently. There is a reason why in sports men and women are separated.

  6. Equality (rights, respect) does not mean equal capabilities.

    The trick lies in acknowledging and playing upon these differences in a supporting way.

    So if we want to build a believable strong female character we need to consider all of the above.
    First we have to stop giving women the same physical capabilities as men, they would never stand a chance in pure strengh. If focusing on combat attributes, it would be more agility, cunning, manipulation, deception, backstabbing, using sexual lure as a weapon, guerrilla tactics, etc... Fortunately modern warfare does no require (while of benefit) such insane physical condition as centuries ago, with the use of high tech weapons it is easier to include women. For instance, women have a lower heart beat than men, thus making them better snipers (Snipers shoot between heart beats).

    From a characteristic point of view it would be:

    Preservation: james camerons women fall well into that depiction.
    Emotionality: marteurs, sacrifice, emotional endurance... (Joan of Arc, a woman as a symbol of french revolution, and so on..)
    Multi tasking: the game Home World had a women sacrifice herself to be an AI central command HUB. While this role could be easily taken by a man oddly a woman seems more fitting for the task.

    Lastly i would like to give an excellent character:

    Cowboy Bebop: Faye Valentine
    While it might seems at first that she contradicts with some of my above statements, she doesn't. Her attitude is in sync to a harsh awakening and a cruel unforgiving world. She uses her skills well without appearing masculine and she does not play on an "equal" playing field, but creates her own.

    I am sure there are a lot of things i missed and I know some of these things don't give positive implications, but remember we are exploring believability not positivity. Also forgive the longs text, it started out as a small one, but its hard to keep such a subject brief, in no means did i want to impose upon your articles, although it turned out i wrote one myself. I very much admire your work and hope this is of some use.

  7. White Bisexual Woman here I know this was posted ages ago, but I have some stuff to say so I'm gonna' post anyway. I was really sad no women had responded.

    What attributes would define "attractiveness" in a manner that you'd want to emulate? Curvy but muscled. Wide hips, “normal” sized breasts (not overly huge or overly perky, just a B or C cup), sharply defined arms (not big muscles, just cut). Comfortable, practical clothes: relaxed fit jeans, funny tee shirts, tank tops. Clothing which can be a bit revealing (like tank tops) but is fitted in a comfortable way, not a “I'm so sexy” way. No spandex. Spandex is uncomfortable. And posed in “power” poses like men. No downturned eyes, boobs & butt inexplicably showing at the same time craziness. Strong jawbone, large eyes, little to no makeup. Smooth skin, hair pulled back from face. A lot of it is in the way she holds herself, strong and confident, never “come hither”. Also, very importantly, not a woman who is strong only in comparison to weak male characters (I'm looking at you Brave). Making men weak does not make average women strong. Making women strong makes women strong.

    I also think there's a separate issue: making sympathetic characters that aren't attractive but that we relate too. Maybe a character is very overweight, but that doesn't define who she is. Sure, it's not something everyone wants to “emulate” persay, but I think it can be really useful. Sometimes it's nice to see an unattractive character (male or female) to remind us that things other than attractiveness matter. Even if it's attractiveness we want to emulate, sometimes we need a break from worrying about emulating attractiveness altogether. We need more female characters who are flawed or shy or sweet or cruel. And not in a one-hit-wonder sort of way. In a realistic sort of way. I know this isn't what you asked, but it's very important to me. All of us (men, women & more) need to see characters that remind us of our own flaws (and the flaws of others around us) but are interesting and complete characters too.

    What attributes would define "good character" in a manner that you'd want to emulate? Does not use her seuxality to get ahead, but to please herself & her chosen partners. I hate it when “empowered” female characters use sexuality as a weapon. She should either be non-sexual in the context of the film/comic/book or she should be sexual in ways which please her. Never to get information, to manipulate someone, or anything like that. She can be promiscuous or not, but must be one or the other because that is how she enjoys her sexuality, not because of expectations set upon her by others (including the author/audience – no one night stands with an incredibly weak and uninteresting male lead). Emotionally strong in the face of danger/cool under pressure but able to let loose and/or be emotionally available in lower-stress times. Uses intelligent but believable language – not contrived slang or unnecessarily simple/complex terms. She shouldn't be the “smartness is so hot” scientist or the “dumbness is so funny/hot” sidekick. She should have her own agency, her own reasons for doing what she's doing instead of being a foil to another character. Not motivated by past trauma (even if she had past trauma – that shouldn't be WHY she does everything in her life) but by her own goals & ambitions. Has a strong set of moral values and does not change them all because a man “showed her the way”. Has a strong sense of self-worth, including hobbies, loved ones, and a real “life”. Not a one-trick pony.

    1. I definitely agree with you about needing more normal and diverse characters, and that's definitely something I've tried to establish conceptually, but this specific article was about "power fantasy" specifically and in that regard your answers have been very helpful! Thank you very much!

  8. What attributes would define "attractiveness" in a manner that you'd want to pursue?
    As a bisexual woman I feel like I have a unique perspective here. Women can be attractive in many different ways, but for me the characteristics I listed above can be sexy or sexually attractive as well. However, women in slinky dresses, etc. are also nice. I think it's important that if she's dressed “pretty” or “sexy” it's because she wants to be (and frankly – no action hero would want to be whilst action hero-ing). But after a long day of being an action hero wanting to go out to a club and dance it out? Totally hot. The key here is having her be a whole character/person. In a person's life they don't usually want to be sexy/attractive/pretty all the time – sometimes they want to eat ice cream in their pjs and watch bad horror films (or maybe that's just me). Sometimes they want to dress up in their nicest lingerie and f*ck the brains out of someone they find sexy. I realize there's a lot of overlap here with what I said above, but I find strong, confident women sexy.

    Would you say that intent/presentation is more or less important than actual traits? I think, for the time being, as a general rule of thumb if you have a character who has a physical trait associated with a stereotype, you should have another who does not. This obviously won't always be possible or believable, but I think it's a starting point. You can have a slim, large-breasted woman if you have an equally strong person of size alongside her. If you have a character who is a person of color from a bad socioeconomic background, try to include one who comes from a good socioeconomic background. And then (and this is important) DON'T make the one from the good background “better” or “worse” or more or less important. Highlight that difference is not inherently problematic. It's just different. And always consider the setting of your story. If your story takes place in an inner city ghetto, almost all of the characters will be of lower socioeconomic status. In that case, maybe include one or two white characters who share major aspects of that culture. If your story takes place in a small middle-class town, DON'T have the only character who is a person of color be of a wildly different background or status than all the other characters. If you have a character who plays into one stereotype, be sure they don't play into others. If you have an attractive, large-breasted blonde – don't have her be dumb, overly feminine & always in tight clothes. And if you want an attractive bodied soldier – don't put her in makeup she wouldn't wear. It's about thinking of them as real people in the real world – how would they really behave, act and dress given their histories?

  9. Is identifying or labeling a minority character worth doing in terms of design? I think in general you should make strong characters who happen to be a minority. I think there is a place for minority-centric fiction but it should probably be written by members of that minority. I know that for me as a queer person it's usually obvious when straight people are writing “empowering queer stories” and they just come off as fake. However, plenty of straight people have written good characters who happen to be queer.

    6. List examples of characters who you think positively represent your identified group.
    Chell from Portal I (portal II became much more sexist for me, but I don't have time to get into that here)
    Brigitte from Ginger Snaps (falls squarely under empowering but NOT sexy)
    Kara Thrace from Battlestar Galactica
    May from May
    Ripley from Alien
    Katniss from the Hunger Games Book Series – not the film (I really like “reluctant hero” characters, and I like that she doesn't want to be a figurehead for the resistance)
    Velma from Scooby Doo
    Regina Mills & Emma Swan from Once Upon a Time
    Cordelia from Buffy/Angel (particularly her growth in Angel)
    Beverly Crusher from Star Trek TNG
    Eve from Wall-E
    Hermione from Harry Potter
    Sara Connor from The Terminator I & II
    Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

    (Ayyyeee, sorry that had to be posted as three comments! I talk a lot).


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