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.


  1. Excellent essay.

    I'm not sure the problem is just the fact that the characters in-universe are preposterous, and only make sense with a sex appeal meta-justification. It sounds more like the problem is that there are those who can't distinguish between a wholly fictional creation that is in no way realistic, and a person portraying that creation. I don't think it's wrong to create sexual appeal characters, provided that people keep in mind that these are not real.

    I'm also a little troubled by the idea that creating sexually appealing images must have a "reason" or justification, otherwise it's considered a bad thing.

    1. If you need to create fake, empty characters for the sole purpose of becoming aroused and that reflects on your view of women then yes that is actually a problem.

    2. I wouldn't say so much that I "need" to do it, but that I don't see anything wrong in creating fictional characters where sexual arousal is the end goal, provided that you're not delusional enough to interpret that as applying to real women (or the actors/models doing the portrayal). That would be absurd - like seeing Batman in The Dark Knight and assuming that it somehow tells you anything meaningful about Christian Bale.

      Or more specifically, I think sexual arousal by itself can be a valid end-goal for artistic depictions.

    3. But it's not. You're creating empty, hollow shells for your own gratification. You're dehumanizing women conceptually by doing that. And if you think liking Batman doesn't reflect on your psyche, then ask yourself why the idea of a vigilante going around beating up criminals is enjoyable to you.

      There's never "just fantasy". What makes it a fantasy is itself a statement about your own mind.

    4. In my opinion, it's not only dehumanizing to create a female character solely for the purpose of being sexy, but also terrible writing. If you're going to have a sexy character, they might as well be, you know, a character and not a caricature.

    5. I don't see creating a hollow character whose purpose doesn't go beyond sexual arousal--that is, fulfilling a sexual fantasy--as particularly worse than creating any other hollow character. Is it really worse than creating some two-dimensional action hero who's nothing more than the fulfillment of a power fantasy?

    6. Yes, it is worse. A flat "power fantasy" protagonist exists to be worn like a suit by the player-character, and thus reflects upon themselves in a positive fashion. However, when it happens to others, it reflects upon their treatment. As soon as the character becomes "not me", their being hollow reflects a lack of empathy on the part of the player. A hollow character exists to be treated like a non-person - that's it. You can do what you want to them because they're not people. It's not even comparable to a "hollow" protagonist.

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    8. I think Karimul just gave the coup de grace of the argument

  2. Its all power fantasy, we go there to get what we need because we lack it in the real world, its a short cut because getting it from the real world might be harder and more dangerous or just lazyness. Yes, it tells a lot about our own mind but by definition sex is ultimately something to apply to somebody else. Building complex realistic characters might be something you need to keep up the suspension of disbelieve but most people arent as empathic, especially when it comes to primal "needs". They fulfill as specific desire, the fluff around it is nice, but way more costly for production.

    In a perfect world, sex would always be coupled with empathy and i guess we should strive towards that. But our brain has enough primate in it so that sex is always a higher priority than empathy. Once the sex part is saturated, then empathy can kick in and you become a balanced human being.

    Most teenagers dont have that luxury though.

    In the end it boils down to metaphysics:
    Do we create all of this as purely an escape mechanism? (let off steam)
    Or do we use it to "guide" the lost souls to the path that we have decided will give them most out of life? (apply virtual knowledge to the real world)

    1. "It's all power fantasy" is a ridiculous thing to say and demeans the entire concept of fiction.

    2. agreed, lets subtract the word "power"

  3. Excellent article.

    Not too long ago someone pointed to Juliet Starling and said that how women should be. It pissed me off. It wasn't the fact that she was skimpy dressed or peppy, because that's all fine with me, but because she pretty much got attacked and harassed every second and never complained about it. The guy was pretty much telling me that women should get used to this kind of abuse, especially when they're wearing *that* and shut up about it.

    I think the reason we end up hating the image or character is simply because we can't see the people who have created her. We channel our anger upon Juliet Starling because it's easier to hate something tangible than say a name or a group. Another reason to hate the character is because we indirectly punish the developer(s). Basically we're raging at their creations, their children, because they made such bad ones.

    But as you said, most people just hate the creation and could not care less for the parent. He's invisible, so it doesn't matter to them.

  4. Well-written article, I loved the style and writing empowering characters articles.

    While I agree with the first point wholeheartedly and, having recently completed Lollipop Chainsaw think the things the enemies said neared Catwoman-in-Arkham-City levels (holy shit Zed), I don't entirely agree with how the second point is reached. Saying a character doesn't have agency on a metatextual level is blindingly obvious and kind of pointless. Arguing on that level, no character: male, female, or otherwise has agency. They are all tools of the author or creator, which means they're all victims of a sort. So where do you go from there?

    And Vasquez isn't a good counter-example to Juliet; her solid, positive female character was culled to add drama. She was victimized by the story in a much more visceral sense than being made a fetish object; she was put in the story to die. She got fridged. She was a victim, Juliet is a fetish object.

    The latter is more of a problem because she in whole or in part encapsulates a body type and personality that real life girls have died for. Not because she's some abused toy of the patriarchy. There is a very good point in this blog post, but the support for it is off.

    1. This is a blog about believability. The entire concept behind it is to create things in such a manner that they're passably justifiable as being the coherent workings of a logical universe. Your argument about "characters not having agency" ignores this fact completely - the whole point is to give the characters the REASONABLE ILLUSION of agency as opposed to putting them in a scenario that feels orchestrated and fake. "What would a reasonable person do in these circumstances?" "Would a character actually seek to protect themselves or would they wear something impractical?" These are the things we're dealing with and "well duh they're all made by an author" is missing the entire point.

      As for Vasquez- "She was put into the story to die"? Well, that puts her on the exact same level as literally every other marine in the story, which is all that matters. It's not about whether they live or die, "Dambed_Twisted", it's about whether they're taken seriously and treated with respect by their authors. If "live or die" mattered then we wouldn't need stories about war in the first place.

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