Tag Archives: feminism

This is the Way the World Ends

Warning: This post will deal with sexual violence against women, and include examples of it from literature, movies, and games. Read at your own discretion.


Plague has struck. It starts slowly. A sniffle here, a fever there. Then it spreads, faster and faster. Soon, everyone is sick. Then most people are dead. The few humans who were immune start to band together and rebuild, but not everyone has the same goals.

Death comes, but it doesn’t stick. The dead get back up and start walking. Start feeding. Soon the world is overrun. Those left alive are no longer living, they’re merely surviving; going from place to place in search of food and shelter from the horde. Of all the limited resources, trust in other people is the most scarce.

War. Two nations are at a standstill and then someone presses a button. It doesn’t matter who fired first, but soon the warheads are dropping and the world will never be the same. Survivors separate into factions based on differing ideals, and soon a different kind of war is underway.


The apocalypse is rife with opportunities for storytelling. There are so many ways that humans can destroy themselves, and just as many avenues to explore about starting over again. Stories about the end of the world usually describe people at their best – banding together to rebuild – and at their worst. Part of humans at their worst that gets shown in these stories tends to be men capturing, subjugating, commoditizing, and raping women.

Apocalyptic and dystopic fiction was always one of my favourite genres so I’ve read/watched/played a lot of these narratives and unfortunately, I can think of more of them that use this device than ones that don’t. Five years ago, this may not have bothered me. But now that I’m aware of the issue and see how prevalent it is, it’s impossible to stop seeing it.

Rape, or threat of rape of female characters tends to be used for one of three, often overlapping, purposes.

To show how bad the situation is, or how evil a villain is.

  • In the book Blindness a group of violent infected take control over a hospital and the women are subjected to rape in exchange for food.
  • In the movie Waterworld, the male protagonist considers trading the two main female characters to slavers.
  • In the show The Walking Dead, threat of rape is used by The Governor to get information from a woman he has taken captive.

So they can be saved.

  • In the book Dies the Fire a mother and her children are captured by a group of survivalists. The mother is killed, and one of the daughters is about to be raped before she is saved by the male protagonist.
  • In the book The Stand, two of the women who become part of the Free Zone were rescued from a group of other survivors who had repeatedly raped them.
  • In the game Dead Rising one of the psychopaths (who is female) has captured a group of women and is torturing and killing them. You must kill the psychopath and save the women.
  • In Dead Rising 2 one of the psychopaths kidnaps and tries to forcibly marry a woman so he doesn’t have to die a virgin. You must kill the psychopath and save the woman.
  • In the movie 28 Days Later the two main female characters were taken as the “answer to infection”. They were dolled up and handed over to male soldiers to be raped. Ultimately they escape this, saved by the male protagonist.

For character development

  • In the game The Last of Us, Ellie is taken by another group of survivors. Their leader tries to take her under his wing, but when she doesn’t cooperate he decides to kill her. When she injures him, it’s suggested that he intends to rape her before killing her. In the chapter after this experience, Ellie is noticeably quiet and withdrawn.
  • In the book Dead: Revelations a young girl is captured by a man and repeatedly subjected to rape, physical abuse, and psychological torment.

The severity of the sexual violence against women that is portrayed varies, but the thing most of these examples have in common is that it’s completely unnecessary. It’s not driving the story forward. It’s not adding any real character development.

The use of rape rarely tells us anything we don’t already know about a villain. In The Walking Dead, we know that The Governor is a bad guy. We’ve seen him manipulate and kill. We’ve seen him send his own people into the zombie-fighting arena for sport. Why do we need to see him force Maggie to take her shirt off and threaten her with rape in order to get information when we know the thing that makes her vulnerable is sitting in the next room? This seems like something added for shock value rather than any real narrative reason.

Similarly, adding rape to the all too familiar “save the women” trope is a lazy and gratuitous way to make male protagonists more heroic. In The Stand, Dana and Susan’s backstory of having been part of a harem wasn’t even mentioned in the original release of the novel, it was added in as part of the unabridged re-release. Did mentioning their ordeals before they joined Stuart’s group add anything to either of their stories? Did adding in rape somehow make their characters more understandable? relatable? interesting? Not really. In Dead Rising 2, the woman you save from being forced into marriage and sex isn’t even distinguishable from any of the other dozens of survivors you save once it’s over.

What about adding rape for character “development”? When I was about halfway through The Last of Us, I was ecstatic that I had yet to see any questionable content about women. I knew how poorly the genre could treat women, and given the dark setting I expected to hear something that indicated women were a commodity in the post-infection world. But I didn’t. Then, Winter came. We were now playing as Ellie instead of Joel. Ellie gets taken captive by David, the leader of another group, who tries to assimilate her into it. When he realizes she’d never join them he decides to kill her. When she fights back and injures him, apparently killing her isn’t enough and he attempts to rape her first. Why? What purpose did this serve? We already knew David was a bad guy, this didn’t do anything to change that. We already knew Ellie was strong and could defend herself; her fighting off a rapist rather than just a murderer did nothing to change that. At this point Ellie had been captured, injured, faced with cannibalism, separated from her only friend in the world and feared for his life. She had been left alone – something she had earlier admitted was her greatest fear. If the goal was to emotionally traumatize her, they had done all they needed to do. And then, almost flippantly, with a couple of seconds of cinematic and 2 lines of dialogue, rape gets added to the equation. I guess she needed to be punished for being so uppity? Fucking awful.

While I think most authors add rape to their stories without worrying about the consequences out of laziness, ignorance, or a desire to be edgy, some seem to use the end of the world setting as a sandbox for depravity. The book Dead: Revelations is probably the worst example I’ve seen, where there are more female characters being enslaved and abused than not. That’s one zombie series I will not be reading any more of.

The only one of the examples above where the inclusion of rape adds any nuance or social commentary to the story is 28 Days Later. It raises questions about who the real monsters are and shows how those in charge of the safety of citizens can be the most dangerous ones, especially when it comes to women. That’s 1 out of 10 that doesn’t make my skin crawl too much, not a very good ratio. Incidentally, 9 out of 10 of these examples were penned by a male, with Dead Rising 2 being the exception.

A scary thing about this post is that I didn’t have to go looking for any of the examples I’ve used here. They’re all from books, movies, or games I’ve finished where the violence portrayed against women has stuck in my head. I’m sure there are more examples that I just don’t remember. The amount this happens in fiction and in the dystopic, end of the world genre in particular is staggering. Adding rape to fiction with fantastical elements, which end of the world stories often have, seems especially gratuitous and hateful. The dead getting up and eating people? Totally believable. The hand of God coming down and setting off a nuclear blast? Sure, why not? Women not getting subjugated and violated by men? No, never, not going to happen.

Media affects how and what people think. Lazily throwing instances of rape into dystopic stories in order to show how dark and dangerous the world is, to prop up male heroes, or to “develop” female characters normalizes it. Yes, rape is something that happens in the real world, but casually adding it or eluding to it in fiction is just not necessary and does more harm than good. Many people are all too familiar with it, and don’t need fiction to remind them of the trauma. We also don’t need reminders or reinforcements that men often have power over women’s bodies. We get to see that in the news, and in our governments. We get to hear men comment on a women’s physical appearance before giving any heed to the things she has to say. We get to hear the vocal subsets of small-minded, awful men who think women need to be punished for having sex, or not having sex with them, or wearing certain things, or just existing in their space.

If rape doesn’t add anything to the story… why add it to the story?

Doing it Right: Remember Me

Doing it Right is a feature that looks at games that I think are making positive strides in regard to females and representation in games. While it’s important to call out games when they are sexist and reinforcing negative stereotypes, I think it’s equally important to recognize the games that are succeeding at elevating themselves away from that. 

Remember Me was released by Dontnod Entertainment in June of 2013. It’s an action-adventure game set in future Paris, in a world where memories have become a commodity. A large corporation, Memorize, has developed technology to allow people to upload and share their memories, as well as get rid of the unpleasant ones. This gives the corporation an immense amount of information and power as they have access to everyone’s memories and the ability to erase them. The main character Nilin is a memory hunter who can steal and remix people’s memories and is intent on taking Memorize down.

Remember Me Nilin

Review

Remember Me was not very well received and the reviews were mediocre. To each their own, but I thought the game was very enjoyable. It looks great – it’s really cool to see the familiar Paris landmarks in a futuristic setting. It reminded me a little bit of how Earth is portrayed in The Fifth Element. I appreciated the story because it was something different from the norm. The specifics were kept a mystery for much of the game and you didn’t always know if you were working for the right side, so it kept me intrigued.

Remember Me - Future Paris

The combat was fun, and quite similar to the Arkham series with basic melee attacks, combos, dodging (instead of countering) and a couple ranged abilities to take advantage of. However, unlike the Arkham games, I never felt like the fights were excessively long and hand cramping. Every so often you’d get access to a new special ability which kept a sense of progression throughout the game. You could also create your own combos which gave combat a surprising amount of depth. You could add attacks that regenerated health or reduced the cooldowns on special abilities, allowing you to tailor combat to your enemies or your personal preferences.  Aside from combat there was also a lot of fun, though not particularly challenging, platforming. All of the action was very fluid and slick-looking.

The one part of the game I had the most issues with was the memory remixes. Though this was a very innovative idea, I didn’t think they were executed all that well. It was interesting to watch them, and see how a small alteration could result in a vastly different outcome, but they weren’t that fun to play. The controls were irritating and the solutions were pretty much a guessing game. However, there were only four of these sequences in the game so they didn’t detract too much.

Overall though, I’d definitely recommend the game. Nilin is a great main character with lovely voice acting, and the story will keep you entertained. Some of the dialogue occasionally veers into melodrama, but I found those instances rather fun and campy. I played this on PC and it took about 10 hours to finish. I really recommend playing with a controller rather than mouse & keyboard if you play on PC, the controls are 100x better (if I had played through with the keyboard my rating would have been lower).

Rating: 9/10 – Smooth combat and platforming, a beautiful futuristic setting, and a novel story concept make this game well worth playing. There is the occasional sequence that is less well done, but overall the game is a lot of fun.

Nilin

Remember Me’s protagonist Nilin is one of the most powerful and well-known memory hunters. Before the game begins the authorities had arrested Nilin and attempted to wipe her memory because they feared her and what she could do.

Remember Me Nilin

Nilin is a mixed-race female who stands in stark contrast to the bevy of stoic, white males who usually lead games. While there are actually quite a lot of female protagonists, they are also generally white so it’s refreshing that Dontnod wanted to represent someone else.  The developers know that different can be scary to some consumers, but thought it was important enough to do it anyway.

“…we wanted Nilin to stand out. I think these sort of issues become self-fulfilling prophesies; people saying that only white males sell so then everyone only does white males. If you start believing these things you get your head inside this cold marketing strategy that you cannot get your head around. It becomes a pretty fucking racist and misogynistic way of thinking about lead characters.”
– Jean-Maxime Morris (source
)

Nilin is capable, sarcastic, and compelling. She’s also very human. She has to make a lot of difficult decisions throughout the game, she hurts and manipulates people to achieve her goals and we get to see that Nilin is internally conflicted about many of these actions. When it comes time to act though, she never lacks conviction.

Remember Me has a distinct lack of the male gaze when it comes to Nilin and the other female characters. Nilin is beautiful, but the camera never treats her as a sexual object – there are no gratuitous butt shots in the game.

A World of Women

Remember Me’s future Paris is filled with women characters. The game opens with an image of a woman. And not just a woman, an older woman, a demographic which gets very little representation in games. Though this character is only used to help set the stage for the game world, choosing her face as the first one we see makes me feel like the developers aren’t afraid to do something different.

Remember Me Memorize ad

Women play many of the most important roles in the game and they are all powerful, smart women with their own motivations. Women get to be both the protagonists and the antagonists.

Besides Nilin, we also get Astrid Voorhees, the power-hungry and sadistic governor of La Bastille prison, who delights in wiping the memories of her prisoners. She respects Nilin’s power, but also considers it a challenge to overcome.

Scylla Cartier-Wells is the president of Memorize and built it up to become the most powerful corporation in the world. Though brilliant, she’s also bitter due to events of the past and approaches the business of memories without thinking about who is being hurt.

Remember Me - Scylla Cartier-Wells

These are strong, independent women who are real characters. They have their own backstories and goals.

Even the characters who are more minor still get fleshed out and we learn something about them. Olga Sedova is a feared bounty hunter trying to make money to save her sick husband and one of the only opponents that manages to give Nilin a real challenge. Alexia Forlan is in the midst of leaving her husband because she doesn’t want to be his trophy wife anymore when Nilin comes into their lives. Kaori Sheridan is one of Paris’ most brilliant architects and holds the secrets to gaining entry into the most secure places.

It’s very clear that in the future world of Remember Me there are a lot of women in the most powerful and respected jobs.

Overall

In addition to being a fun game with a cool story, I found Remember Me to be a very positive experience from a feminist perspective. Nilin was presented as a strong, capable woman, but not a perfect one. I think that showing game protagonists as complex and nuanced characters is a great thing, not just from a feminist standpoint but also from a writing standpoint. Most people aren’t all good or bad, most people aren’t 100% confident they’re doing the right thing all the time. Creating more characters like these in video games will take games to a much deeper and powerful place. Aside from Nilin, Remember Me was full of female characters who had their own stories and were often leaders in their fields. It’s really nice to see a big budget game where females fill so many of the roles and none of them are being exploited.

Dontnod has just announced they are working on a new title – Life is Strange – with Square Enix. It looks like another game that will be full of interesting female characters and I’ll be following it closely.

Doing it Right: Tomb Raider (2013)

Doing it Right is a new, hopefully regular, feature I’ll be writing that looks at games that I think are making positive strides in regard to females and representation in games. While it’s important to call out games when they are sexist and reinforcing negative stereotypes, I think it’s equally important to recognize the games that are succeeding at elevating themselves away from that. 

I played through the Tomb Raider reboot on PS4 for the first time not too long ago. From a gameplay perspective, I thought it was amazing. It looked and sounded great, and the controls were smooth as silk. It was one of the most engaging and entertaining games I’ve played in a while. But how does it hold up when I look deeper? Through her history Lara Croft has been interpreted in many ways, from strong female role model to virtual blow-up doll. Have Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics re-invented Lara in a positive way or have they fallen back on lazy and sexist video game tropes?

Lara Croft

Classic Lara Croft

When I think of classic Lara Croft, the above image is what comes to mind. On the bright side, she looks fierce and determined. But she has completely unrealistic body proportions. Besides the huge breasts, which she was always known for, she also had small hips and a teeny, tiny waist. She has an unnaturally wide stance. She was always an ass kicker, but she was also eye candy, with her physical assets at the forefront.

Lara Croft reimangined

This is the new Lara. She looks just as determined, though maybe a little less fierce (this is an origin story, after all). Her body proportions are much more realistic. She looks like someone who is strong, who can climb up cliff faces and use a bow with a heavy enough draw weight to take down an enemy. Her outfit is a reasonable outfit for raiding tombs. I do have to suspend disbelief a little bit that those skinny tank top straps or her bra straps never slide off her shoulders, but I can get past that. The new Lara makes me believe that her designers thought about function just as much as form.

You can also choose to put Lara in different outfits, which I believe were DLC originally, but were included in the PS4 definitive edition. In most games I find games that the ‘bonus’ outfits for female characters tend to be much more revealing than their original costumes (see games ranging from Metroid to Cool Boarders 2 to Bayonetta). In Tomb Raider, it’s very refreshing to see that this isn’t the case.

Tomb Raider skins

The extra skins actually put more clothes on Lara. Her starting tank top is as revealing as it gets. Again, function is just as important as form. She gets the Sure Shot outfit, which puts her in archery gear. She gets the Hunter outfit, which adds camouflage to her normal attire. Three of the six bonus outfits have sleeves. Most of them cover her chest. Lara is still gorgeous, but not in a “we need to make her overtly sexy so men will want to play this game” way.

The new Lara is also smart. Not that the old Lara wasn’t, but here it’s made very clear that she’s an academic. She knows a lot about other cultures, she has good instincts, and is continuously puzzling things out throughout the game. She figures things out when other people can’t. When she finds an artifact in the game she shows reverence towards it. The term “tomb raider” doesn’t really fit Lara, as she’s not going to exotic locales to pillage another culture’s historical artifacts. She yearns for discovery and knowledge. Through journal entries found throughout the game, we see that Lara’s brains and bravery also inspires adoration from the rest of the Endurance crew.

There was a lot of controversy about the Tomb Raider reboot and how Lara is portrayed, and most of that was due to some incredibly dumb things said by the executive producer before the game was released. Things like “we’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again” and suggesting that “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character… They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.'” I can tell you that’s not the Tomb Raider I played. People will interpret things in different ways, but to me, Lara was never broken. Lots of bad things happened, but she overcame them all. The game occasionally showed that she was scared or in pain or doubting, but she kept going. I can’t fault a game for trying to make the protagonist more emotionally realistic. Most people can’t be in mortal danger, drop hundreds of bodies, or have their friends die without being a little shaken up.

Damsel in Distress

Tomb Raider does use one of the oldest tropes in the book, the damsel in distress. Early in the game, Lara’s friend Sam gets kidnapped. Sam is a descendant of the Sun Queen Himiko, so Lara literally needs to save the princess. However, a couple of things set this scenario apart from the usually problematic cliche.

Lara and Sam

First, none of the women need to be saved by a man. Lara is the one who does all the rescuing. She saves a number of the men in her crew as well.

Second, Sam is never portrayed as an object or a prize, as the damsel in distress so often is. We learn about her through her interactions with Lara and the rest of the crew, as well as through journal entries. She’s not just a plot device, she’s a real character. The relationship between her and Lara is established.

Diversity

Women play most of the important roles within the game, from the hero, to the skeptic, to the one who needs rescuing, to the big bad.

The crew of the Endurance is fairly sexually and ethnically diverse. There are 4 men and 3 women. Four characters are white, one is black, one is Japanese, and one is Polynesian.

The nameless bad guys who Lara has to fight are also very diverse. In many games where the protagonist racks up a big kill count the antagonists are the “savage” natives, or just some kind of non-white/non-Western group. As you learn through journal entries found on the island, the Solarii Brotherhood is made up of the people who have crashed on the island, who come from all over the world.

It’s not stated anywhere in the game but if you wanted to, you could absolutely interpret the relationship between Lara and Sam as a romantic one.

 Overall

In addition to being a whole lot of fun, I found Tomb Raider to be a very positive experience from a feminist perspective. Lara was presented as a strong woman, who only got stronger throughout the game. That’s not to say that it’s completely without problems but, as I mentioned, I wanted to focus on the good things. If you want to hear some more opinions about the game, and hear some discussion of the more problematic things, go listen the episode of Justice Points I was a guest on. I tried not to overlap the article with the podcast too much.

Hear Me Roar

The topic of sexism in video games is not a new one, but is one that has been becoming more and more prevalent, at least in the corners of the internet that I frequent. As a female who has been gaming since I developed the manual dexterity to use a keyboard or a controller, the topic is an important one to me.

I will admit that I didn’t always consider being a woman in gaming one worthy of much discussion. Over the past 25 years or so, I’ve had few memorably negative incidents that stemmed from the fact that I was a girl. Sure, there have been some “oh, my god, a girl!” exclamations when I spoke in voice chat in WoW (I actually managed to completely silence a Mumble channel by talking earlier this week). I’ve been asked for pictures, told my voice is “hot”. I’ve also been told I sound like a 12 year old, and putting those two sentiments together is problematic. But in general, I never felt othered for being a female who games.

However, my experiences are not representative of every woman’s. I know I enjoy certain privileges. I know I’ve been lucky. I don’t frequent gaming areas that are known for having a toxic atmosphere or play many games with people I don’t know. I have a very good IRL ignore function that lets things I don’t care to see and hear go by without me having to register them. I also have a thick skin and a big ego. So if anyone were to suggest that I was less of a gamer or my opinions were less important because I have a vagina I could beat them at video games, tell them to fuck off, and then forget they ever existed.

The problem is that even though I haven’t had much overt sexism directed at me personally in games, it’s still there, ingrained into attitudes, opinions, and actions all around. It’s in SCOTUS rulings; it’s in things the mayor of my city says; it’s in game tournaments that exclude women; it’s in women getting minimized, insulted, and threatened for daring to criticize the status quo.

Video games, just like all other media, absolutely influence the way people think and how they relate to other people. When surrounded by countless examples of women as prizes/decoration/helpless/weak/shallow/disposable/sex objects the idea that women are less than can definitely take root (or, in many cases, become more deeply rooted).

Gaming is something that I love. It’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I care enough to speak up and voice my opinions. As Anita Sarkeesian prefaces all of her Tropes vs. Women videos: “Please keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable.” If no one was ever critical, even of the things they like, nothing would ever evolve and get better. Calling out inequalities and bullshit is worthwhile. However, I think that in addition to pointing out the things that need to change, it’s just as important to point out the positives in games. In my experience, criticism is a lot easier to take and more likely to be accepted when it’s balanced with some good. Plus, if I only focused on the negatives, I’d drive myself crazy.

So, I’m going to start what I hope will be a regular feature writing about games that I think are doing things right – being representative, creating nuanced female characters, not falling back on lazy tropes. Few games do this perfectly but they deserve kudos for making an effort and the things they do get right.

This past weekend I was on the Justice Points podcast to talk about the Tomb Raider reboot, so that seems like a good place to start. Later this week I’ll kick things off by talking about Tomb Raider and all the ways I think the developers and writers did right by Lara Croft.