I have a complicated relationship with Ada Wong.
My first impressions of her were embarrassingly Pavlovian. Ada, the undercover spy first introduced in Resident Evil 2 who also played a pivotal role in Resident Evil 4, is undeniably an attractive woman. OK, fine, she’s a total fox. In her sleek bob and her backless red dress with the slit up to there, she’s the femme fatale archetype given pixilated form. Men want to sleep with her, and women want to steal her shoes. As a self-professed and proud feminist, I instinctively recoiled from Ada when I first played RE2, thinking her obvious sensuality meant the developers, leaning on familiar and tired stereotypes, had once again objectified a powerful female character. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this article that I realized I’d fallen into the trap of equating sexiness with sexism. Clearly, a woman’s attractiveness to the opposite sex is not an indicator of her explicit surrender to gender-based oppression. Why couldn’t a strong, feminist role model also be beautiful and sexual?
Which raises the question: Is Ada a strong, feminist role model?
Yes, I know, plowing through a lumbering mob of the undead with a flamethrower doesn’t exactly call to mind bra-burning protests. But there’s something about Ada, something curious that sticks with you long after you’ve finished the games. The Leon-Ashley interaction might be the impetus of RE4, but Ada is its soul, its raison d’etre. She’s a different kind of heroine, if you can even call her that. Unlike Jill and Claire, whose cleverness and puzzle-solving skills were well-matched to intricate, booby-trapped mansions and police stations, Ada’s character has been molded to fit the Leon scenarios’ faster-paced, shooter-style gameplay. Even in RE2, she is a character explored entirely in sound bites: Charismatic. Single-minded. Cunning. Vixen. Mysterious. She’s definitely the modern image of “girl power,” but is that enough to make her an admirable feminist?
Feminist, yes. Admirable, I’m not so sure. She reminds me of Simone de Beauvoir’s peculiar brand of French existentialism; which, I guess, is a good thing.
Like all great existentialists, Simone de Beauvoir‘s life was a soap opera of VH1 proportions. The late 20th century French philosopher, a mathematical and linguistic prodigy, is most famous for making a pact with her life-long partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, that allowed each party to have affairs outside their relationship as long as they told each other everything that had happened. Naturally, that led to some steamy exploits, especially one interlude in which Beauvoir’s lover married the sister of Sartre’s mistress (who Sartre had initially pursued, only to be rebuffed by Beauvoir, who wanted the underage student for herself). But aside from her sexual escapades, Beauvoir was also one hell of a philosopher, and by tying women’s rights to the robust existentialist movement, she managed to greatly advance the cause of both.
In her 1949 work, The Second Sex, Beauvoir observed that all societies hinge upon an us vs. them mentality: That is, the group higher in the social hierarchy (“the One”) inevitably stereotypes the group lower than them, assigning them the role of “the Other” in order to justify their respective rankings. It doesn’t take a French existentialist to see ample support for her claim in race relations, class struggles, religious conflicts, even American Idol voting patterns. But nowhere, Beauvoir writes, does that One vs. the Other conflict occur with such frequency and consistency as between the sexes. Historically, she says, men in positions of power have assigned women a “false aura of mystery,” a quality subtle, ill defined and – obviously – entirely made up. To Beauvoir, that mystique is an excuse for men to consciously ignore the thoughts, voices and opinions of women: Why should men work to understand women, when feminine traits are inherently incomprehensible to the male mind?
You have to admit: As far as justifications for oppression go, that one’s pretty clever; and even better, it works like a charm. According to Beauvoir, that role as the Other is fundamental to women’s oppression in society, and neither gender is blameless in the situation. Men may do the marginalization, but by allowing it to happen, women are complicit in the act.
Beauvoir writes that often, the only solution apparent to the Other is to emulate the One, in a sort of if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em approach. To find acceptance and success, women, as the supposed deviation from the norm, assume they should strive to be more like men. I speak from five years’ experience in the sciences and 10 years as a gamer when I say that yes, this is a very tempting thought. I’ve often imagined that all my social and professional problems would vanish if only I were more like a man – or, at the very best, a neutral target, with all trace of femininity suppressed.
Beauvoir, of course, would have none of that. She explains that the solution isn’t for women to become men, since that acquiescence affirms the artificial One vs. the Other nonsense in the first place. Instead, we should shrug off notions of hierarchy altogether. “People have tirelessly sought to prove that woman is superior, inferior or equal to man,” Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex. “If we are to gain understanding, we must get out of these ruts; we must discard the vague notions of superiority, inferiority, equality which have hitherto corrupted every discussion of the subject and start afresh.” Women, she concludes, are just as capable of choice and freedom as men are, so they should choose to elevate themselves, taking responsibility for their own persons and for the world.
Which brings me back to Resident Evil. I’m certainly not about to claim the games are modern-day sequels to The Second Sex, or that the series’ developers clearly had Beauvoir’s notions of One vs. the Other in mind when they created the Umbrella Corporation. But as a consequence of certain creative decisions, Resident Evil does look somewhat Beauvoirian in the zombie-consecrated moonlight.
That impression comes from more than just the conspicuous lack of glass ceilings in Raccoon City, although that, in itself, is worthy of note. The Resident Evil universe supports a relatively even mix of male and female characters. Players can choose from male and female protagonists (Jill and Chris in the original Resident Evil; Leon and Claire in RE2); do battle with his and her mad scientists (particularly the Drs. Birkin); and consort with guy and gal spies, like Luis and Ada. Even the enemies split down gender lines: The peasant housewives in RE4, for example, are just as nasty and ravenous as their Ganado husbands (not to mention the chainsaw-wielding Bella Sisters). It’s a pleasant change of pace from many other videogames that rely on machismo and adrenaline to create a tense, suspenseful atmosphere.
The series takes a progressive approach toward the actual character and personality of its women, too. Simply put, the Resident Evil girls don’t suck. For example, take Jill Valentine. Within the Resident Evil universe, she’s invaluable to her Alpha Team; competent, clever and professional, she’s the resident bomb expert and, of course, the master of unlocking. But she also offers certain advantages to the player. While she can’t take as much damage as Chris can, she does have those two extra inventory slots, which, when you’ve discovered a cache of shotgun shells, can make all the difference. Jill is an asset, both inside the story and out; she’s not “good, for a woman” but simply “good.” And while Rebecca, Claire and Ada each have their individual strengths and weaknesses, like Jill they are all powerful and competent human beings.
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. Zombies are equal opportunity killers, and they’re not about to refrain from sucking on your skull-goo just because you’ve been designated “the weaker sex.”
But then there’s Leon Kennedy. The likable rookie cop is the only person in the entire series who seems to buy into the idea of women as the Other – and even then, just for one person: Ada Wong. He trusts Claire readily enough, leaving her to deal solo with the zombies in RE2, but he acts far more protectively with Ada. He tries to take care of her, even over her own protests, protecting her from zombies, reassuring her they’ll survive and watching over her when she’s injured. Granted, part of Leon’s motivation is he has fallen instantly in love with Ada, and, intoxicated by adrenaline and terror, he wants to play her knight in shining armor. But he also underestimates her, judging her weaker and less capable than he. Especially in RE2, Leon’s actions suggest a conviction that he’s the only who really gets Ada, and that he believes all she needs is a good, strong man like himself to take care of her on an emotional level.
I don’t blame him for thinking that way. 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. 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. Leon is just a product of his environment, and he assigns Ada that “false aura of mystery” mostly out of habit.
However, while Ada isn’t exactly forthcoming with her true purpose, she isn’t nearly as mysterious as Leon seems to believe. For a woman with so much to hide, she’s terrible at lying when it counts. She drops numerous hints in RE2 of her motives, such as running off whenever new, critical information about Birkin and his G-Virus is revealed. In RE4, she all but tells Leon that she needs a Las Plagas sample before she forcibly takes his. Yet, at the end of the game, as Leon zooms away with Ashley on the jet ski and pines for the woman who got away, it’s clear he still thinks of Ada as a mystery, something unintelligible and Other in essence.
Obviously, Ada likes Leon, and she even claims to love him at one point. But Ada also reflects Beauvoir’s philosophy in many ways. She never truly relies on Leon’s protection in either game, and by doing so, she also refuses to share any responsibility for her actions and well-being. Her decisions are her own, and thus her fate is hers alone, too. Ada has already elevated herself in exactly the way Beauvoir prescribed, even if Leon can’t see it yet.
As Beauvoir says, interaction between the sexes is not a matter of superiority, inferiority or even equality; it’s about relating, person to person, human to human. Ada is already there, relating to Leon on a level even he hasn’t quite achieved and leaving him floundering in her wake.
So yes, Ada is definitely a feminist icon, and an admirable one at that. But, you know, that doesn’t make her nice. Because when all is said and done, existentialism is still kind of a bitch.
Lara Crigger is a freelance science, tech and gaming journalist and frequent contributor to The Escapist. Her email is lcrigger[at]gmail[dot]com.