Tuesday, 12 June 2012

You Can Say No!

I just finished watching the third season of HBO's True Blood for the second time, and there's one incident I completely missed on the first run through that really struck me the second time around. If you're not familiar with the series try looking here http://www.tv.com/shows/true-blood/, but basically it revolves around mortal woman Sookie Stackhouse, who becomes involved (romantically, sexually and otherwise) with a series of vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings. In typical HBO style, the series involves lots of sex and violence, fairly frequently combining these two aspects. As is typical of vampire texts, blood-drinking is eroticised, and part of any sex scene between mortal and vampire.

All this fascination with combining sex and violence raises some important issues that relate to sexual violence and consent, which I'll return to in a later post. But the incident that struck me is refreshingly unproblematic in its treatment of sexual consent. It's exciting because it implicitly sanctions a person's right to say 'no' to sex, no matter what point a couple has reached in a potentially romantic or lustful encounter. Sookie's brother Jason meets Crystal, a woman he wants to pursue a relationship with. One night, he asks her to go for a walk with him, and they start kissing. When they are lying on the ground, and it seems like they will have sex, Crystal stops, and tells him to wait. Instantly, Jason also stops, and asks if she is OK. He does not try to pressure her, or imply that she has 'led him on', but appears genuinely concerned that she might be upset.

This might seem like a small thing, but it's actually not all that common in the media these days - instead, western culture is saturated with the idea that if you do certain things (go home with someone, kiss them, ask them in to your house for 'milo'), this means that you want to have sex with them. The worst thing about these assumptions is that they are often used to deny a person's right to say 'no', which they ethically and legally can at ANY point. You might remember when Collingwood footballers were accused of raping a woman after the 2010 AFL Grand Final, fellow footballer 'Spida' Everitt tweeted 'Girls!!... if you decide to go home with a guy ITS [sic] NOT FOR A CUP OF MILO!' As if the act of 'going home' with someone means that you cannot therefore say 'no' to sex. Jason's response implicitly refutes this, and instead endorses the importance of all parties engaging willingly.

Jason's concern that the women he sleeps with do actually want to sleep with him might not turn this tide, and True Blood does some other really problematic things in terms of sexual violence. But at least it's at least a step in the right direction.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Girls Play Games Too (and They're Pissed)

I'm borrowing the title of Karen Healey's excellent blog on gender in comic books here http://girl-wonder.org/girlsreadcomics/. I love boardgames. I love games with little figurines, ones with battles and strategies as well as building and playing co-operatively. When my partner recently bought an Xbox, I discovered that I also love console games. However, I am heartily sick of the way women are continually excluded, marginalised and portrayed in games.

It's pretty rare to find a game that doesn't presume players are male - most game rules use the exclusive 'he' to represent 'the player', and while women's names occasionally feature in example scenarios, I still feel like the game is telling me I shouldn't be playing it.

Far more male characters or avatars are available than female, and where there are women, they are usually sexualised and function as a spectacle for male gamers rather than characters to identify with. As one example, only two of the 'races' in Smallworld are coded as female: 'Amazons' (who wear very little clothing) and 'priestesses' who wear dresses. Not only does this sexualise and stereotype women, it makes ALL of the other races (and there are a lot) male. It also makes male the default, universal sex and female defined by its difference from that default (practically speaking, maybe that's why you have to send your Smallworld race 'into decline' after a few rounds - they also can't breed!).

The first console game I played was Halo 3, and while I really enjoyed it, I realised that I actually didn't appreciate having to play as a beefy, butch bloke that I couldn't identify with in any way. The next game we played, Hunted, gave me a female avatar! Yay! I really enjoyed the game, too. Only she's an elf with huge breasts who goes in to battle wearing only a few 'strategically placed' strips of cloth. Very practical. She also mainly fights with a bow, while her butch bloke friend fights with big swords that are much more powerful, and in the many scenes where the two characters squeeze through a narrow space, E'lara goes second, so that the gamer can stare at her almost-naked behind, centred in the frame and shot from below. It constructs an objectifying gaze, not an identifying one.

So why do game producers persist in pretending that women don't play games? That women don't want to blow stuff up (eg: Halo), plan military operations (Rune Wars), or even build stuff (Settlers of Catan) and fight pollution (20th Century)? Karen Healey points out how a marketing representative from Marvel comics explains that, when trying to market to women, they have to be careful not to alienate their (male) consumer core. It seems that games marketers are similarly more concerned with placating their heterosexual male consumers.

If this is the case, they're presuming a lot about these male gamers: mostly that they would buy fewer games if women were included, and would not buy games that did not objectify women. Perhaps they could do some research - they might discover a lot of men and boys who would buy MORE games if they were more inclusive and less objectifying.

Really, it goes far beyond marketing to women: most games actively deny that women (can/should) participate at all, or if we do, we have to play as men - often literally. Of course, what I DON'T want to see is 'women's games', created specifically for women, that insist on other stereotypes like restricting them to going shopping, looking after children and wearing pink. That might seem like an exaggeration, but Lego's attempt to attract girls by creating 'Lego Friends', rather than exploiting the gender non-specific attributes of the product, comes to mind as one such attempt to expand a market across gender. See http://blip.tv/feminist-frequency/lego-gender-part-1-lego-friends-5921928 for a great feminist analysis of the campaign.

As I'm a new console gamer, perhaps I shouldn't judge just yet, but conversations with long-time gamers tell me that this is the norm, and I've played enough board games to know how common these problems are. So, games producers: I don't need you to market to me, I just need you to acknowledge that I exist! Cheers!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Here's me, looking at me, looking at- what the?

Happy new year everyone! Thought I'd start 2012 off with something cool I've noticed lately: quite a few TV programs have featured extended shots of women looking at themselves in the mirror (Crownies, now sadly over, featured at least two of these that I can recall, in its only season). It might seem like a small thing, but what's really cool about it is that it actively disrupts an objectifying gaze, because it positions the viewer to look at the woman through her own eyes. It's a private moment, and both the woman and her image are present in the frame. Her eyes are prominent, emphasising the fact that she is gazing on and evaluating her own image, not inviting evaluation or objectification from any outsiders.

It makes me think of Laura Mulvey, the film theorist whose 1979 work 'Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema' now seems pretty dated but still makes a good point. If you're not familiar with Mulvey's work, she basically argues that cinema positions its audiences to view the female body as a sexualised object. Most importantly, she argues, this gaze is constructed as (heterosexual) male, and a female viewer is therefore positioned to look at women as sexualised objects, through a (heterosexual, lustful) man's eyes.

By contrast, by encouraging the viewer to share the woman's gaze on herself, these 'mirror shots' actively work against the kind of camera work Mulvey writes about. They invite a viewer to see the woman's body as she herself sees it, in probably the only gaze that is explicitly non-, or even anti-sexualising.

Good stuff.