“Girl power” is a curious phrase. It’s a contradiction when you apply it to adult women: “Power” clearly suggests mobility and capability, but “girl” is infantilizing. We’re grownups – we work and hold jobs and handle money and manage relationships. We can take the bus by ourselves if we want to. I won’t argue that the “power” part is appropriate, but the phrase is never “women power”; always “girl power.”
Videogames and their surrounding culture are populated with images of girls – not women – wielding guns, swords or world-shattering magical forces. Adult weapons, girl power. It’s a juxtaposition of formidability and cuteness.
Cuteness also entails prettiness – more often than not, a strong female videogame lead is a pretty one, or at least a stereotypically feminine one. As a child, I always liked to play Samus Aran in Metroid – her skin-covering metal exoskeleton allowed me to play a woman character without compromising my own notions of femininity. In Nintendo’s upcoming Smash Brothers Brawl, though, Samus strips off her armor to reveal a form-fitting body-suit, skinny curves and a body image I find much harder to identify with.
Outside of the polygonal landscape, the Frag Dolls inhabit the “capable and pretty” overlap. The Frag Dolls are a team of women sponsored by Ubisoft to attend videogame tournaments and blog about games. Their “About Us” page reads – beneath an illustration by a Maxim pin-up artist – “We’re here to represent the ladies in gaming with the taste and talent for beating you at your own games.” How many lady gamers resemble Maxim pin-ups?
The Frag Dolls are marketing disguised as empowerment, and they are by no means an isolated case. The “Girls of Counter-Strike” website hasn’t launched yet (it’s currently in invitation-only public beta), but their page on Myspace proclaims, “The site’s purpose is to help rid negative stereotypes people often have about females who play internet games.” How does Girls of Counter-Strike go about accomplishing this admirable goal? “Girlsofcs.com is a nude pinup gallery for female gamers interested in playing and becoming active in a mature gaming environment.”
But is the visibility of women gamers really as urgent a problem as these sites make it out to be? I know that sometimes it’s alienating to be a woman in a sphere like videogaming, but I can’t help thinking that the “issue” of “girls in games” has largely been manufactured (or at the very least exacerbated) by marketers. The boys themselves are part of this equation, too. When the Frag Dolls say they’ll “beat you at your own games,” men (the demographic of young-adult males that Ubisoft counts on to buy their games) are the “you” they’re talking to.
Samus may take off her clothes for the benefit of the boys, but in the mean time, I still enjoy playing a strong videogame lead who isn’t necessarily a man. That’s important to marketers, who are trying desperately to understand how women buy and play games.
We are becoming a demographic, albeit a risky one, since publishers still aren’t sure how we think – which is why game marketers are crafting ways to target young women, while simultaneously appealing to their reliable old standby: young men. Publishers are conspiring to target women as consumers in order to consolidate us into a neat demographic that can be understood, predicted and marketed to. Simultaneously, publishers are trying to take advantage of and market this influx of women to men in order to get them to buy games women might be playing.
Selling female subjectification to women, while at the same time selling female objectification to men, is what produces these absurd hybrid images of lethal alien bounty hunters slinking around in skin-tight catsuits. The phrase “girl power” might be indicative of many broad trends in our larger culture, but in videogames, it only means one thing: money.