The Question of Representation
In the world of games as we know it – where female characters are still, for the most part, either brainless beauties or nonexistent – a genre like survival horror stands out from the crowd. The constructive, in-game representation of women has always been an important issue in the fight toward gender equality in the video game industry. It’s no surprise that female gamers often seek out titles that present strong, independent women. That this search, however, has brought to light survival horror games as prolific breeding grounds for such characters perhaps comes less expected. In these games, whose goal is the production of fear, gamers often play not as men but as gun-wielding, female protagonists.
By the numbers, it would seem that survival horror, as far as gender representation goes, has a leg up on other genres – that perhaps here women can find the role models lacking from many other areas of the market. Yet real representation isn’t as simple as counting characters.
In order to fully understand the portrait of the feminine painted by survival horror, we need to look at the implications of the roles, the archetypal images, it presents. This evaluation does more than simply teach us about the qualities of one genre. It uncovers larger male perceptions of women, both in the games industry and society itself.
Viewed through this lens, the beautiful damsel transforms into a doll, and the traditional heroine risks losing her power. We are thus forced to search for new role models outside the expectations of male-dominated culture, in the realm of the monstrous.
Damsels, Heroines and Monsters: Exploring Feminine Roles
Female characters in survival horror games are typically cast in one of three roles: damsels, heroines or monsters. A woman of the first category is one who is in danger, who requires the help of a man in order to save her from certain demise. She exerts almost no active force, except as the attractive bait that entices the main character to fight his way against terrifying odds, with the hope of chivalrously saving her (and, in all fairness, himself).
For example, take Ashley in Resident Evil 4, who, for the majority of the game, does little more than shout, “Leon, help!” while bouncing around in a tight sweater and a schoolgirl skirt. Moreover, she’s the president’s daughter; talk about a damsel in distress. Look at Eileen from Silent Hill 4: The Room, the cute, blond next door neighbor, who, like Ashley, ends up as a tag-along, non-playable character whom the strong male protagonist must watch over and keep alive.
This role is a common representation of women in historical storytelling, if not in survival horror games. Here, as elsewhere, it reinforces stereotypical gender expectations. When danger arrives, men will act bravely and women will need saving. The world has yet to see a horror title that features a bold female character forced to drag around a weak, whimpering male NPC. The image of the damsel, of course, has implications for the perceived role of women within our larger culture. But it also reflects on the industry’s lack of awareness and respect for the female gamer, who, in order to identify with a character, must either strip herself of her femininity and subsume her gender with the masculine, or in retaining her sex assume the position society has prescribed for her, that of the helpless damsel – or simply refuse to identify, and exist in an identity-ambiguous middle ground.
More uplifting, perhaps, are the female characters who fill the role of the heroine. Survival horror remains unique in that, within the genre, women protagonists are not a noted exception. If they can’t be called the norm, they are at least normal. Jill Valentine, of Resident Evil fame, comes to mind as a classic example. She’s tightly clothed, but not outrageously so, and she can shoot herself a mean zombie. Alexandra from Eternal Darkness is another tough, well-grounded lady who fights her way through the forces of creepiness, albeit with the help of a lot of male relatives. True, she isn’t sporting what most of us would consider ideal monster-battling attire, but if I were her, my insanity meter would have been off the charts, and for that I have to give her credit. The meeker, though still effective Mio of Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, armed with only a camera, rounds off the sampler of heroines.
Each of these heroic women seems a good role model candidate, especially in comparison to the damsels discussed above. Yet even such seemingly empowered female characters come with ambiguous implications. While their presence does speak to certain pro-gender equality ideals – more representation of capable women in games, more opportunities to play as women – their submissive relationship to interactivity puts them once again at the mercy of male gamers.
Men, as the ones most often holding the controllers, exercise control over playable female characters, redistributing the power balance in favor of the male. And while there’s something innately sadistic about this interaction, there’s also something highly voyeuristic. Male gamers often claim to enjoy playing as women, not because they are interested in stepping into their shoes, but because it gives them a chance to stare at attractive female characters. Granted, women gamers could be said to be doing the same thing when they play as men, but given the less-sexualized depiction of males in games, and the significantly smaller percentage of women holding the controllers, the implications of such a phenomenon would be almost negligible. The fact remains: Onscreen women, however brave in-game, are simultaneously performers for their primarily male audience.
Weak women, strong women; damsels, heroines. Both choices are questionable at best. So what route is left for truly empowered female characters? To be less than women, but also more than women. Female monsters, though certainly rarer than their male counterparts, have appeared in a number of survival horror series, such as Silent Hill, whose hellish demons have always included recognizably feminine ones.
The ghosts of Fatal Frame II are more or less equally male and female.
Who could forget the terrifying sight of the Woman in the Box, well, crawling out of a box? Resident Evil confronted the issue of monstrous women with the introduction of Lisa Trevor, once a lonely little girl but now an invincible, chain swinging creature, in the Gamecube remake of the original series title. The idea lived on, finding its way into Resident Evil 4 as a handful of pitchfork-wielding female enemies dispersed among the zombie-like townspeople.
The dichotomy of damsels versus heroines is one constantly debated by feminists, in and outside of the gaming world. The issue of women monsters, on the other hand, is discussed far less frequently. In dealing with monsters, the question is no longer one of activeness or passivity, but of self and other. In some ways, women monsters in survival horror represent a new type of gender equality. They have been stripped of the cultural niceties normally associated with the feminine, and can be fought and killed with as little hesitation as men. At the same time, in most video games, female enemies appear much less frequently than do male.
Should we be pushing for equal representation as the gaming other in the same way we push for equal representation as the gaming self? Why do only men get to be the bad guys? We still have to keep in mind that most gamers are male. Do we really want to provide more women for them to hunt down and kill? Of course it looks bad, but in the end, is it really any worse than killing men? These issues, while important, remain relatively unexplored. Like many questions of gender equality, they have no easy answers.
The Implications of Fear: Intimacy and the Uncanny
The questions above ask again and again: What “should be” in video games? As both game analysts and members of a larger gaming community, we often get caught up in these questions. Yet, once we move beyond the topic of what “should be” in video games we can begin to constructively talk about games for what they already are – giving ourselves the best possible chance to understand the culture around us. What can we learn from the representation of women monsters in survival horror, as it stands? Perhaps the easiest way to broach the subject is through the very heart of the genre itself: fear. Everything in a horror game, which has been created with the main purpose of frightening the gamer, can be illuminated with the question: What makes this scary?
The representation of gender roles is no exception. Damsels, for example, are scary because of their potential to come to harm. The player fears for them, especially if they are NPCs whose safety depends directly on the protagonist. They are unable to defend themselves, a frightening idea in a game world full of nasty creatures and hazards. This is scary, both for themselves and for their protectors, who must worry about their own safety while protecting their damsels.
Heroines, on the other hand, are not scary because they hinder the player, but because they are the player. All of the weakness and vulnerability the gamer associates with femininity in the case of the damsel is transferred onto the female protagonist, making the experience terrifying for the player, who feels himself more susceptible to harm in the skin of a woman. The idea of roaming a haunted village, for example, would be a lot less unnerving if you could play as a big, brawny man with camouflage gear and combat boots, instead of a frail, pale-faced girl in a matching skirt set. Here, again, we see the heroine not as a model for the empowered female, but as a device with an end clearly bound by traditional gender expectations.
What, then, makes women monsters scary? Indeed, they are potently frightening. Perhaps it is because they represent such an undeniable disruption of the norm because they are capable of effectively producing fear. Because they are so unusual in games, female enemies always possess an element of surprise. They produce shock. But this shock is not only due to their in-game rarity, but also the abnormal nature of their behavior, as compared to accepted standards of womanly conduct.
Here in front of the player is a woman, a symbol of comfort and submissiveness. Yet she bears claws, fangs, rotting flesh. Suddenly, that femininity which culture has taught him should be beautiful comes before him as unrelentingly, unapologetically ugly. That femininity which he believed should serve him attempts, without sympathy or remorse, to devour his very body. That femininity which society has told him to protect, he must kill – not peacefully, respectfully, but in the most violent of manners, one befitting the slaughter of an animal. Now, that which was the most tamed is most wild; that which was once most humane is most foreign.
It is precisely this unwillingness to yield to expectations that makes the female monster so terrifying. Released by her monstrousness from the constraints of culture (or perhaps made a monster by her disavowal of them), she completes a dialectic of womanhood. As a woman, she is the most familiar, but as a monster, the unknown; this combination makes her uncanny. She is the ultimate other to the male gaming self, in her extra-humanness as well as her gender. She is unspeakable, and therefore cannot speak. She is the awful, and for this reason powerful; the Terrible Female.
The woman monster stands as well outside the normal sexual boundaries of complacent femininity. In her undeniable association with death, she exudes sexual energy – two forces that are inextricably linked in the human mind – and introduces a dynamic of sexuality into situations where none existed previously. Before the gamer, she is a sexual predator. She is a zombie, in more ways than one, in that she is untamed in her desire for the consumption of flesh. This threat of sexual dominance is, perhaps subconsciously, as frightening to the gamer as the literal threat of in-game death. At the same time, the sexual interplay her presence creates makes the situation at hand more intimate, implicating the player to a higher degree in the extreme violence at hand, and therefore making his own actions terrifying.
Women Gamers as Monsters: Embracing the Other
Monsters, by definition, are altered human beings. Zombies, for example, fit this mold nicely, as do ghosts and vampires. Women monsters, as seen above, have been altered not just physically, but also ideologically. They’ve changed themselves by stepping outside the accepted image of complacent womanhood. Yet they possess the remnants of humanity. We, in turn, see ourselves in the monsters. We begin to understand our own monstrousness, our own departure from the “human.”
Women gamers are in this way also monsters. We – indeed, all intelligent, independent females – break the accepted standards of womanhood. We have defamed our traditional femininity by dabbling in a supposedly male world, that of video games. As many men would readily agree, we have made ourselves a monstrosity. In hopes of fighting this image, women have struggled for years to convince the gaming industry of our true humanity; they have sought out power and respect.
Women, of course, have a right to want strong female characters in the games they play. But maybe they’ve been looking in the wrong places. What better role model than the monster, whose ability to incite fear is so powerful it reaches out from the game? In the parallel worlds of survival horror and the gaming industry, both dotted with damsels and heroines, perhaps it’s time to turn and embrace ourselves, the monsters.
Bonnie Ruberg is a video game journalist specializing in gender and sexuality in games and gaming communities. She also runs a blog, Heroine Sheik, dedicated to such issues. Most recently, her work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, and Slashdot Games.