96: Resident Evil's Second Sex

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"That's the key point: The Resident Evil women are judged on their worth as human beings, and not just as women. Ultimately, there is no One or Other status in Raccoon City; or, if there is, it's between human and zombie, not man and woman. The characters forever race against infection, time or death and in the process must cast away everything that's not absolutely essential to their own survival, including philosophical distinctions between the sexes. After all, it's hard to find time to subjugate and oppress an entire gender when you're both running from a guy with a flaming axe."

Resident Evil's Second Sex

Lara Crigger:
Yes, I know, plowing through a lumbering mob of the undead with a flamethrower doesn't exactly call to mind bra-burning protests.

Well... unless the zombies are wearing bras. ;-)

The overwhelming theme is women really aren't as strong as they seem; while they may appear attractive, intelligent and capable, emotionally they are weak. It's the natural product of a competition between two paradigms: The feminist ideal of strength, freedom and competence, and women's continued status as the Other in society.

Insightful point.

Still, I think that "feminist ideal" needs rethinking a bit. You discuss earlier in the article the "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em" trap. But this whole business of having to constantly be strong and competent sounds a bit like more of the same. Not that strength or competence are inherently male, but rather the stereotypically male idea that it's never OK to show fear or to fail at anything. Is this a case of feminists taking on the worst of male culture and embracing it as their own?

In the context of video game design I see this quite a lot. Games are often designed in a way that punishes the player (not their character, the actual player) for failures. I think the whole mindset underlying that could do with being called into question.

Next time I'm in a zombie infested city I'll be looking for a good strong girl (or man) to take care of me. And yes, I might cry. I don't see why this should be considered a character flaw. I just want to keep my spicy brains!

Still, I think that "feminist ideal" needs rethinking a bit. You discuss earlier in the article the "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em" trap. But this whole business of having to constantly be strong and competent sounds a bit like more of the same. Not that strength or competence are inherently male, but rather the stereotypically male idea that it's never OK to show fear or to fail at anything. Is this a case of feminists taking on the worst of male culture and embracing it as their own?

Yes and no. I don't think any school of feminism advocates that women must always be strong and competent, because that's impossible, whether you're a man or a woman. Instead, strength, freedom, competence; these are the ideals toward which we should always strive. We should always try to be the best we can be.

But you're right: By adopting that ideals, women do risk developing those same fears of failure and of showing weakness that men stereotypically struggle with. But rather than that as something wrong with those ideals, I think it's a problem with how we understand fear and failure. Naturally, nobody idealizes failure, but perhaps the proper response is to instead understand its role in forming all those qualities we DO admire; that without failure, strength, freedom, competence, etc are meaningless.

Some games do in fact punish the player for failure, and I think that's a mark of poor game design rather than sociological bias. Thankfully, that style of game/player interaction seems to be going out of fashion these days.

Hi!

I have a question for Lara.
You say in your intro that "[you] instinctively recoiled from Ada when [you] first played RE2".

Could the same be said for a feminist playing a RE game for the first time, and starting from episode 4?

Sorry for being so down to earth, but... is the dress Ada's wearing in the solo mode an efficient combat suit?
They did gave her a real and coherent infiltration gear in that extra mission to recover Plaguas samples. But it's a minor mission you're unlikely to replay once completed.

However, in the Mercenaries quests, it's back to a minidress, high heels and pantyhose.
Bizarrely, you're ought to play those Mercenaries bonus missions far more than the Samples quest, because of the necessity to pop the score and grab those stars.

So does it make any sense, in universe, to wear some inapropriate but extremely sexy clothes?
Then, as such, from the consumer point of view, isn't the message "Always look damn super gorgeous and wear the most cumbersome apparel, in any kind of situation, because it's a top priority directive"?

Finally, isn't it obvious that the more Ada's going to get screentime, the sexier she will have to be?
Let's imagine what a RE spinoff centered on Ada would look like...

Isn't there a bit of Red Ninja after all?
We see to be stuck in the sexy Amazone brain bug all over.

PS: I'm trying not to take any sides here.

Sorry for being so down to earth, but... is the dress Ada's wearing in the solo mode an efficient combat suit?

I think we're supposed to assume that among Ada's many talents, she also has an uncanny ability to make her outfits bend the laws of physics. ☺

Actually, now that I think about it, it isn't her dress that's the problem. I mean, if you're gonna be a super-ninja-spy like her, then a halter-top dress with a constructed bodice and a high slit for extra mobility is probably a very good fashion choice. Corsets and halters are surprisingly supportive, especially for athletic frames, and the slit gives you that extra flexibility in motion. Plus, you wouldn't need to concern yourself with tugging the bodice to stay in place, or adjusting falling dress straps, or stepping on your hemline. Not a bad choice, if she wants to look glam and kick ass at the same time.

The real issue is those shoes: You'd think she'd have chosen flats, or boots, or at least something with an ankle strap, if she's going to be doing so much running around. Poor girl, I bet she's sporting some mean blisters on those heels. I hope after all the Ganado killing is said and done, she gets herself to a pedicurist, stat.

Then, as such, from the consumer point of view, isn't the message "Always look damn super gorgeous and wear the most cumbersome apparel, in any kind of situation, because it's a top priority directive"?

Maybe. But there is some element of fantasy about the RE4 character design, too. If Leon can always look like he stepped off the set of a Calvin Klein commercial, no matter how many Ganados he mows down, I see now reason why Ada can't look the same.

You wrote:

As I said before, Ada looks like the stereotypical "girl power" sex kitten, and many such female characters in other stories are waiting for a man to do just that. For instance, recall Cameron Diaz's character in the second Charlie's Angels movie, which was at the time lauded for its "strong" female protagonists; Natalie Cook's physical prowess was unequaled by anything but her emotional insecurity. Or consider the young, professionally successful main characters in modern chick lit, who are, for the most part, elaborately self-destructive nut jobs.

The overwhelming theme is women really aren't as strong as they seem; while they may appear attractive, intelligent and capable, emotionally they are weak.

This is a concept that struck me as interesting. Can you recommend further reading?

Lara Crigger:
Some games do in fact punish the player for failure, and I think that's a mark of poor game design rather than sociological bias.

Well certainly it is poor design, but I'm constantly amazed by how many otherwise good designers will actually defend things like 20-minutes-apart save point spacing. Almost without exception their argument revolves around "if we move them closer, the game will be too easy". This argument briefly seems coherent until it becomes apparent that the content the player is being forced to repeat is something they have already accomplished.

But no, I don't think it's "sociological bias" as such... I just can't imagine a female designer making this error. Can you?

Thankfully, that style of game/player interaction seems to be going out of fashion these days.

That would be nice. I think that's a little way off, though. Certainly in analyzing where Final Fantasy XII went wrong this class of problem was a significant factor.

Maybe. But there is some element of fantasy about the RE4 character design, too. If Leon can always look like he stepped off the set of a Calvin Klein commercial, no matter how many Ganados he mows down, I see now reason why Ada can't look the same.

:]
On the hairdos, even the most respectable shows on TV abide by this rule.

Time to take sides.

I'm not disputing Ada's mental. She's clearly strong minded. Well, as far as cutscenes go. The trouble is in the superficial image and the skin, which is obviously going to be the first target of critics, above all those who won't bother to go deeper.

But the problem lies in the rest. The condition of women has always been reflected by the way how women are allowed - or forced - to dress due to some asinine rules.

So let's see. Leon wears this brown and battered leather jacket, similar to that of civilian cop who's been working on the street for quite some time (sort of). It's believable enough. At least for me.
He's sent into a rural region, to infiltrate, somehow, a civilian community, and unveil whatever goes on, and gather more info about the President's daughter.

On the other hand, you have Ada, sent as a professional agent to grab precious and dangerous biosamples from a foe which seems fairly more indentified by the organization she's working for than by the US government.
Ada must pack all chances on her side. So why can Leon get a gear that seems reasonable and logical, and even be able, at some point, to buy a rather relatively convincing bullet-proof vest, and on the other hand, have Ada parading around in a sexy dress and high heels (plus explosive sunglasses), like if her real goal was to date with the whole Ganados community within 7 minutes, instead of wearing a suit perfectly adapted to combat, with a minimum of heat insulation and body protection?

Trousers can be tight enough to let the humps be obvious as well, after all. Would have the game been less appealing if she had been wearing the same logical and credible "spy" suit seen in the Samples quest?

Even I, as a guy who thinks that a pretty asian female in a tight sexy gear is a win-win case in certain situations, I see it extremely forced here.
At some point, it may even get insulting, with the expected pair of eyes rolling out of their sockets, past the front door and down the street.

As far as I'm concerned, she's been dressed like an Amsterdam sex queen for the okatu audience.

I shouldn't even have to begin to discuss on that, because it's glaringly obvious that the suit she wears has absolutely no logical place in here.
Well, if we consider that the game is somehow meant to be credible enough. With a plot that's about a rather original terrorist movement planning to destroy the US from the inside, by using biological agents - a kind of touchy subject these days - I think that we indeed have the right to wonder why we should cherry pick.

So should we really dissect Resident Evil? Was the game a good choice? Is the genre even a good choice, especially when translated into video games?

Isn't the game supposed to be rather far fetched from the get go, like some big budget yet low grade film put into a game?
After all, most horror films have always made sure that their female roles were very gorgeous gals, often to be slashed as a reward for their stupidity, almost relieving the audience as they're, as you say, "self-destructive nut-jobs" screaming on and on.

I don't know, but from the moment we actually take the game seriously enough to write papers and posts on Ada's this and that, her attitude and her sort of place in the (video game) society, I don't think we can dismiss the "packaging" just because it's what outside and, as some people say, what only matters is what's inside.

Arbre:
Isn't the game supposed to be rather far fetched from the get go, like some big budget yet low grade film put into a game?

Yes. Which is exactly why it's a good choice for analysis. If feminist thinking applies only to the highbrow and never to the tabloid then it's not going to achieve much.

This is also what complicates the Ada costume issue. You argue that Leon's costume is reasonably realistic where Ada's is ridiculous (true enough). However, if both are in fact appropriate to the not-intentionally-realistic character archetypes being portrayed then that may not be intrinsically bad. The real question is whether Ada corresponds to some valid character type within the realm of cheesy, fun entertainment or whether this is the kind of sexism we want out of our games.

I've already explained above why I think Ada's outfit could work, within the context of this fantasy environment. But Dom Camus said it best: If feminism only applies to highbrow aspects of life and not pop-culture, then really, what good is it? Any philosophy that only applies selectively isn't of much use at all.

This is a concept that struck me as interesting. Can you recommend further reading?

I thought long and hard about this question, and really, the only recommendation I can make is to pick up Beauvoir's "The Second Sex". As far as philosophical works go, hers is surprisingly readable and accessible to a modern audience.

So why no "feminist literature"? Because "feminist literature" tends to be self-defeating, as it's too narrow and exclusive; that is, it's written for women and only women. But of what use is that? Men can - and are - feminists, too. As I said before: Any philosophy that applies selectively isn't very useful, and too much of what you find in the "gender studies" section in Borders is selectively applied philosophy. Beauvoir offers one of the best universal gender approaches I've encountered.

But if you're just dying to read some good ol' fashioned feminist writings, I have to point you toward the classics, particularly Betty Freidan's "The Feminine Mystique". In many ways, the expectations put upon women that Freidan describes in the book haven't disappeared over time; they've only been amplified. (BTW: There's a recent book called "The Feminine Mistake" that recently came out, arguing that women who stay home with their children are making a grievous error. Don't waste your time on it. It's mostly poorly argued invective.)

While I'm at it, I also recommend "The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women", by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, especially if you have kids yourself. Just in time for Mother's Day. ☺

Finally, you may want to pick up an issue of "Bitch" or "Bust", which take a feminist approach toward pop-culture issues and icons. I prefer the writing and subject matter of the latter, but you may like either one. I can find both at my tiny, local Borders.

But no, I don't think it's "sociological bias" as such... I just can't imagine a female designer making this error. Can you?

I don't see why not. Women can be just as capable of borking a game as men are. ☺ Unfortunately, there just aren't very many female designers in the industry so far, so I fear we can't get a good representative sample to tell either way.

Lara Crigger:
I don't see why not. Women can be just as capable of borking a game as men are.

Design screw ups are different in my eyes from bad design choices which the designer subsequently remains prepared to defend. These sorts of things tend to reflect the designer's own gameplaying preferences. That's definitely an area which currently shows a strong correlation with gender.

But yes, sadly few female designers to test our theories on.

Dom Camus:
But yes, sadly few female designers to test our theories on.

Why is this? Thoughts, anyone?

Lara Crigger:

This is a concept that struck me as interesting. Can you recommend further reading?

I thought long and hard about this question, and really, the only recommendation I can make is to pick up Beauvoir's "The Second Sex". As far as philosophical works go, hers is surprisingly readable and accessible to a modern audience.

So why no "feminist literature"? Because "feminist literature" tends to be self-defeating, as it's too narrow and exclusive; that is, it's written for women and only women. But of what use is that? Men can - and are - feminists, too. As I said before: Any philosophy that applies selectively isn't very useful, and too much of what you find in the "gender studies" section in Borders is selectively applied philosophy. Beauvoir offers one of the best universal gender approaches I've encountered.

But if you're just dying to read some good ol' fashioned feminist writings, I have to point you toward the classics, particularly Betty Freidan's "The Feminine Mystique". In many ways, the expectations put upon women that Freidan describes in the book haven't disappeared over time; they've only been amplified. (BTW: There's a recent book called "The Feminine Mistake" that recently came out, arguing that women who stay home with their children are making a grievous error. Don't waste your time on it. It's mostly poorly argued invective.)

While I'm at it, I also recommend "The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women", by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, especially if you have kids yourself. Just in time for Mother's Day. ☺

Finally, you may want to pick up an issue of "Bitch" or "Bust", which take a feminist approach toward pop-culture issues and icons. I prefer the writing and subject matter of the latter, but you may like either one. I can find both at my tiny, local Borders.

Thank you, although I was referring more specifically to the bit about the self-defeating emotional weakness. It is my perspective that a society's outlook is reflected most undistortedly through the light entertainment made five years later. I was wondering if, perhaps, there was some sort of article or other dedicated to psychoanalyzing the sort of characters you refer to here, or whether this was a conclusion you reached independently. Even so, it this looks like quite a substantial list. Thanks.

Bongo Bill:

I was wondering if, perhaps, there was some sort of article or other dedicated to psychoanalyzing the sort of characters you refer to here, or whether this was a conclusion you reached independently. Even so, it this looks like quite a substantial list. Thanks.

You can go check what was written about the Ally McBeal character--that's pretty recent. Some people thought she was the fourth wave of feminism; other people thought she encapsulated the death of feminism as well as Altamont encapsulated the death of the 60s. As I remember, the opinions were that divided on that character.

It's a little further back than five years ago, but, it's still pretty recent. And she was a woman competent enough to function as a high-level attorney, but was depicted as a complete neurotic mess, which is what I think you're looking for.

[Disclaimer: I never finished RE2 and I haven't had a chance to play Ada's new missions in the PS2 version of RE4. So my opinion of her is largely based on her scenes in the GC version of RE4.]

One of the things I love about Ada in RE4 is that while she may look like a stereotypical sex kitten, she doesn't act like one. She's not there as Leon's love interest or sexual conquest; she's not a damsel in distress waiting for his arrival (unlike Ashley). She's always sexy, yet never stoops to being just a sex object; she never flirts with or tries to vamp Leon because she doesn't NEED to - that's not why she's here. She can be mysterious and enigmatic - not because of some nebulous "feminine mystique," but because she's a cunning, crafty customer who keeps her cards close to her chest.

She has a soft spot for Leon, hauling his bacon outta the fire more than once; but at the end of the day, she's here on a mission and she's determined to finish it. The one time Leon saves her life at the end of the game, how does she thank him? By putting a gun to his head and swiping the game's all-important McGuffin; then giving him the key to the jet ski so he and Ashley can escape. Classic.

I would like to see more unattractive female game heroes.

In all the thousands of games I've played, I can only recall seeing a single ugly female hero. She was in an arcade game that was similar to SNK's Ikari Warriors. She was the largest character in the game (twice the size of the male heroes you could choose), extremely strong and had the most powerful weapons. She was also obviously drawn to be ugly and beast-like, and had animations that were very... unsexy.

Basically, she was a female version of Marcus Fenix from Gears of War. She was pure awesome. Every single other female game hero I can think of has been drawn to be "attractive." Yawn. Anyone know what game I'm talking bout?

I don't know what game you're talking about shihku7, but I'm quite glad most females in games are drop-dead sexy. Because ... well ... duh. But like Lara says in her article, sexiness does not indicate (or imply) a lack of feminism. Sexy, respectable, good with guns ... dreams can come true.

I think the argument for over-sexing certain game characters (Laura Croft, we're looking at you) goes like this: If I'm going to be looking at an ass for 25+ hours, it'd be nice if it was a hot ass. Does this objectify women? Perhaps, but most game characters are (by a wide margin) male. If/when a female is offered as a playable option, she's just as likely to appear with an overabundance of desirable qualities as her male counterpart is to have bulging muscles and steely eyes.

So I suppose the real question is: Does Felix Marcus objectify men?

I don't know if Ada really was intelligently handled with care... or if the game developers were simply trying something novel; I never played all the way through RE4. One of the problems with games, in general, is that characters have to appeal to a wide audience. The bulk of sales are probably consumed by a younger audience... but the most influential criticism and opinions seem to come from a more mature audience. How do you solve that problem? Let's present a strong-willed female... and slap on a slinky dress, incase that strong-willed aspect is lost on any (or most) of the gamers.

I know I'm being cynical, but until I see a videogame pull off "attractive" without resorting to showing skin... I'm going to remain skeptical of any attempts otherwise.

Now excuse me while I go sit on my porch and yell at some kids. ;-)

-----

In some of the screenshots for Mass Effect, we see some futuristic, armored vixen with a visor. The only flesh we see is the lower-half of her face. Her lips become the focus of her attractiveness. It's unfortunate that BioWare also made her armor a fraction of an inch thick and perfectly fitting to her obviously attractive feminine curves. (The future is spandex armor, apparently.) I have the feeling we'll see another Ada-like character in her; possibly smartly written with enough attractive physical distractions for those not appreciative of her mind.

If I ran the zoo... I would have made the armor bulky and functional. With the attention to her lips, I would have left her visor completely opaque to leave more up to the imagination; Bioware seems to let the light through a bit so that you can see her eyes and nose a little too much.

They did it again with some blue girl with tentacles on her head. It would have been intriguing to see an unattractive (not necessarily revolting) female alien become attractive entirely through her actions and choices. Someone forgot to tell BioWare that just because James Kirk was presented with an attractive, green-skinned female alien at every turn, they didn't have to fall prey to the same game.

I know I'm being cynical, but until I see a videogame pull off "attractive" without resorting to showing skin... I'm going to remain skeptical of any attempts otherwise.

Get thee to a copy of Beyond Good and Evil. Or, of course, the original Resident Evil. While I won't deny that the vast majority of female game characters are forced into the box you describe, there are a few that make it out with their midriffs and hemlines intact.

Also, let me build on what Russ said. Most male videogame characters are also undeniably attractive, rippling with muscles and sporting a sexy five o'clock shadow or Pantene Pro-V hair. Leon, Chris Redfield, the ex-con guy - all three characters are incredibly good-looking. Choice hunks of prime man-meat, you might say. But are they somehow limited in their capability and competence because they are easy on the eyes? Clearly not.

If not, then why should their female counterparts be held to a different standard?

Ideally, people should be judged on merit, not appearance; that's one of the main goals of feminism. But that idea goes both ways: for both unattractive people and the drop-dead gorgeous. Sexiness does not equal sexism, and I see no reason that beauty must be a hindrance to competence.

Lara Crigger:
Ideally, people should be judged on merit, not appearance; that's one of the main goals of feminism. But that idea goes both ways: for both unattractive people and the drop-dead gorgeous. Sexiness does not equal sexism, and I see no reason that beauty must be a hindrance to competence.

I don't disagree. I'm just tired of seeing sexiness as a cop-out, trying to hide the flat, unimaginative characters. I guess, if we look at it from a different angle, my concerns stem from bad writing. The closer to an intelligent script, the more unnecessary stereotypical, physical sexiness is. In fact, it distracts. We're still in the action movie phase of game design, I suppose... but as we inch closer to the mature, drama phase, massive explosions and flawless physical beauty become a distraction.

My problem stems from wanting games to grow up.

I suppose my gripes have little to do with actual sexism. I gotta learn to stay more on topic. ;-)

Yes. Which is exactly why it's a good choice for analysis. If feminist thinking applies only to the highbrow and never to the tabloid then it's not going to achieve much.

It's not what I'm saying. I believe there's quite some room to wiggle between highbrow and lowbrow games.

I don't think the problem is that male heroes can have the bodies of Greek Gods, it's what goes with it.
A *cough* famous philosopher said that sexiness is what you can't see. Or something like that. :D
Now, let's talk about voyeurism...

Russ Pitts,

There are many ugly and hideous male game heroes. Take Street Fighter games. You can choose from all sorts of freakish male characters, but there isn't a single freakish female character I can think of outside of the character I mentioned before. Out of tens of thousands of female heroes. What gives? Why such an extreme double standard?

And Marcus Fenix is a terrible example of "the objectification" of men. The guy is hideous and has no sex appeal whatsoever. What he does do is achieve the "ass kicking Nazi" look that men want. But he's in no way designed to appeal to women, that's for sure.

shihku7:

And Marcus Fenix is a terrible example of "the objectification" of men. The guy is hideous and has no sex appeal whatsoever. What he does do is achieve the "ass kicking Nazi" look that men want. But he's in no way designed to appeal to women, that's for sure.

Speak for yourself. I think he's a grubby, dirty sort of hot, brimming with testosterone and sweat and chest hair. I can only speak for myself, but you may be underestimating his sex appeal.

I'll let Lara's opinion on that matter stand, but I do think you're overstating your case a bit, saying there are "tens of thousands of female heroes." Although you do have a point: There are not many ugly female game characters. I can't speak to why this may be, although if I had to guess, I would say it had something to do with the fact that most games are made by men, and that most men like looking at hot chicks, not ugly ones. Granted, I'm going way out on a limb here ...

I don't think anybody's wondering why attractive females appear in games, Russ. The question seems to be why there appear to be (virtually) no unattractive ones - which is, of course, a question that can be applied to entertainment as a whole, not merely games.

Because people like pretty things to look at, and sex sells?

Yeah. I'm with Joe on this one. There is no separation there. Un-pretty things don't appear for the same reason pretty things do: we like pretty things. Looking deeper is simply an exercise in obfuscatory investigation. And yes, I made that term up. You can use it if you like.

Maybe I was unclear. That's still explaining why attractive ones are so common. The question is why everybody is buying into the "sex sells" rationale - that there is not even a single radical visionary out there who'll make entertainment with an unattractive female lead, even when unattractive male leads are out there.

Unattractive heroes exist. They're uncommon, but they exist. They have even been used in serious, protagonistic, and admirable roles rather than comedic, antagonistic, and pitiful ones. Why can the same not be said for heroines? Is it that men are more easily motivated than women to see sexy things? Is it that women find it harder to identify with a really ugly main character than men do? Is it just that the idea has become entrenched in the business side of entertainment, and the sheer inertia of money is keeping the uggos out of pop culture?

I don't believe that it's just a matter of preferring to look at pretty things. That would explain why attractive characters are more common (and they are), but not why unattractive characters are absent.

Russ Pitts:
So I suppose the real question is: Does Felix Marcus objectify men?

No, I say he doesn't. Why? Just think of the words: 'objectify' means 'to make into or treat as an object, and not a subject'. Objectification is not necessarily the same thing as finding someone sexy--it's turning someone into a sex object, an object of one's sexual desire. That can occur whether the person is considered attractive OR ugly--the outcome of the objectification isn't important, it's the fact that the person has been reduced to an object in the first place.

So Felix Marcus' bulging muscles and hulking frame? I think it leads to the opposite conclusion: this guy is a subject, with a will of his own. His value comes from what he's capable of doing, not what can be done to him. The same attributes that Lara Crigger finds "hot" also I think make her and everyone else think 'this guy is large and in charge'. You think 'hey, this is a guy I can rely on' not 'hey, this is something I can exploit.'

In short, however much his attributes may lead to sexual objectification, they ALSO lead one to think of him as a fellow subject. I think this is what the author was going for in discussing Ada Wong: the attributes that make you want to sexually objectify her *also* make you think of her as a subject, and not just an object.

Bongo Bill:
The question is why everybody is buying into the "sex sells" rationale - that there is not even a single radical visionary out there who'll make entertainment with an unattractive female lead, even when unattractive male leads are out there.

I think it's that not only does sex sell, but stereotypes sell. I think it's that our stereotypical expectations of women are different than they are for men. And that's really what a hero is: a personification of our stereotypes, same in modern games as in ancient myths. And we've always considered 'attractive' part of the 'total package' for women to a much, much greater degree than we have for men. On the flip side, a man who is a 'total package' can be on the ugly side, but he can't be incompetent.

A woman in a story can be as helpless as can be as long as she's attractive--the typical princess in need of saving. A man can be kinda ugly as long as he's capable; in fact, that's the whole point sometimes: a guy gets the girl who is 'out of his league' by rescuing her or impressing her or somehow proving himself by fulfilling his quest.

So why aren't there unattractive female lead out there, despite the fact that there are plenty of unattractive male leads? Same reason there are plenty of helpless female leads, and basically no helpless male ones. It's less 'radical' and 'visionary' to create a competent--but still attractive-female lead because you're only adding to the stereotype, not directly challenging it by putting in say, a handsome prince who is locked in a tower waiting for an ugly, kick-ass female hero to save him.

There's no question that (non-casual) videogaming remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated entertainment medium, on both the producer and consumer side of things. As such, most games are made to appeal to traditional male tastes; in particular, your average game is some variant on a male power fantasy, with the usual heapings of sex and/or violence.

When it comes to characters, this usually means badass men and sexy women: both are idealized, but from the perspective of male tastes; the women are far more likely to be reduced to sex objects or McGuffins. So the male hero may or may not be attractive, but he is always confident and powerful (i.e., the sort of guy male gamers want to be); while the women may or may not be able to hold their own in a fight, but they are always sexy (i.e., the sort of gal male gamers want to bang).

That's an over-simplification, of course, but it's a reasonable generalization of the industry, IMHO. Fortunately, there are exceptions to the norm, like the ladies of Resident Evil: they're all attractive young women, but they're also capable and good at their jobs. Rarely are they reduced to the role of token love interest or damsels in distress (Ashley being an obvious exception).

Fighting games tend to represent the best and worst impulses of the game industry when it comes to female characters: Dead or Alive is a prime example. On the one hand, the women are meant to be sexy: physically well-endowed and usually dressed in rather ridiculously revealing outfits. [Personally I find the proportions on the DOA ladies to be disturbing and getting creepier with each release, but maybe that's just me.] So: male gaze. OTOH, they're all capable fighters: usually smaller and weaker than their male counterparts, but faster and more agile; they can outmaneuver their slower lumbering male opponents. So in theory: equal status.

Now as it happens, there are quite a few women who like the same things their male gamer counterparts do. But that's not the same thing as saying the industry is marketing those games towards women. There are women who enjoy good ol'-fashioned violence as much as any man; they just prefer it when the female characters are not a bunch of slutastic window dressing. :-)

Bongo Bill:
I don't believe that it's just a matter of preferring to look at pretty things. That would explain why attractive characters are more common (and they are), but not why unattractive characters are absent.

Actually, I believe it does. When given a choice, one will defer to one's preference. After all, game devs (who are mostly male) have to look at all of those female characters, too. Often for far longer than we do. Why not make them pretty?

Besides, let's not overlook the possibility that even the most pixellated, slightly-not-quite-super-model-esque female game character is attractive in some way to us because we're trained to find certain features attractive (i.e. breasts), and adding them (of any size) to a game character is a sure-fire way to make said character "attractive." Even the hint of a breast can be said to titillate (some would say more so than a full-on view). Hell, there are folks who find Samus attractive (in a full body suit) just because they know there's a woman in there, somewhere.

Are sincerely we looking for a deep philosophical reason why, in a market dominated by the 18-24 male demographic, in an industry predominantly run by males of approximately the same age, there's an overabundance of female eye-candy? I don't want to quash anyone's inquisitive leanings, but fellas, please. This one is pretty black and white.

The reasons why things are the way they are aren't really in question. It's whether or not they should change - and if so, in what ways - which are the interesting questions...

Ferrous Buller:
The reasons why things are the way they are aren't really in question. It's whether or not they should change - and if so, in what ways - which are the interesting questions...

I'm not sure it should change. From a business perspective, an ugly hero or heroine doesn't serve the target demographic: human beings.

People like sexually attractive people (of both genders) because they tickle the survival/reproduction part of our brains - you know, the part buried wayyy under the frontal lobe. Having a strong preference toward a visually appealing member of the species is older than humanity. But I'm pretty laissez-faire when it comes to genetic memory. If a 300-pound fat dude becomes a symbol of fertility and survival in the coming generations, that'll become the image of the hero.

As far as exceptions to the rule, they're usually exceptions that prove it. When writers make a point to mention the hero is ugly, it's either to give him something to overcome or to make a statement. The most notable instance of an unattractive heroine I can think of is Brienne in The Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin spends page after page after page reminding us that Brienne is ugly so ugly oh God is she ugly hey guys did I mention she's ugly? He's clearly trying to make a point about the sexy heroine in the fantasy genre, and probably mirroring himself a bit. Also see Tyrion in the same series. They're characters you like more just because they're forced to deal with a handicap - in this case, their appearance. But I sure wouldn't want to be them. And what kind of hero is that?

As I recall, Lancelot was supposed to be ugly, and none of the Arthur authors ever really dwelled on that, just mentioned it.

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