and I didn't even make a Sir Mix a Lot reference, Anita, Anita Sarkeesian, Batman, Bayonetta, camera angle, camera control, camera design, Catwoman, character design, Faminism, game design, games, Games Discussion, games media, Gaming, gaming cinematography, gender, Lara Croft, Men, response, Sarkeesian, sex, Tropes, Tropes Versus Women, video games, Women
Anita Sarkeesian. Feminist. Has YouTube channel Feminist Frequency. Talks about video games. That’s all the background you need. Here’s a link to the video. I’ll be giving time stamps so you can follow along. Is my opinion needed? No. Is it really that constructive? Nope. Does anyone even want to know what I think about this? Probably not. But it’s fun for me so I’m doing it. And don’t take what I say here too seriously; I’m hardly an expert on video games, and I’ve mentioned that I’ve mentioned before that I moderately oppose Sarkeesian’s work, but also moderately agree that sex representation in gaming isn’t entirely egalitarian. I’m just ragging on this video because a) it’s fun, b) it’s an easy target, and c) I’m an asshole.
So, Strategic Butt Coverings. When I first saw that title, the only way I could make sense of it was thinking Sarkeesian had found a way in which pants were sexist and should be abolished. Well, I was half right. It seems as though “Strategic Butt Coverings” refers to the supposed trope in games of men’s behinds being deliberately hard to see, while women’s are given excess exposure. So let’s get into, uh… that topic I guess.
0:23-0:45 “If you want to get to know a character- learn about their interests, goals, or desires- their butt is probably not going to give you that information. […] But video game designers often choose to put tremendous focus on butts of certain character, while going to almost absurd lengths to avoid calling attention to the butts of others.”
True, you probably won’t learn much about a person through their butt… I don’t think this needed to be explained. You also won’t learn much about the layout of a house from the plot of land it sits on, but for some reason houses continue to be built on the ground. What’s up with that?
In a video game you have to have characters. Characters, in pretty much every context outside of philosophic dialogues, are presented with bodies. Bodies have butts. Thus, it’s hard to have a character, and nut give them a butt, so though it may not be relevant to the interests, goals, or desires of the character, video games will have butts.
Also, you won’t learn much about Aiden Pearce through his cap, or the Hitman guy through his red tie, but. Square Enix and Ubisoft have for some reason deemed these items important and “iconic” enough to justify special editions.
Thankfully we can ignore the stuff about focus for now because that’s basically the whole rest of the video, but the choice of characters in this shot isn’t exactly making me optimistic. For Sarkeesian has a picture of the front and back of Lara Croft up. For men, she switches to Aiden Pearce. Yup, fair and balanced and Fox News. We’ll get to these characters again later.
0:45-0:55 “These carefully crafted choices developers make  […] significantly impact how players think about and relate to these character .”
Okay, so this is her introduction, and that’s her thesis. You don’t need a citation for your thesis, you argue for it in the body of the work. Except (spoiler alert) she doesn’t. She sets it up this way, but then actually uses the rest of the video to just cover examples, never providing evidence or argument to support that claim.
0:55-1:00 “Third person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full body view.”
Okay, here’s what her examples actually do act as evidence for, and we’ll be going through them. But first, again her choice of thumb nail is annoying. She shows a picture of the games Wet and Remember Me, both critical and commercial failures; bottom of the barrel stuff, and not appropriate to represent gaming.
If any and all applications of a certain medium are equally valid as representation of that medium, then photography would primarily be about selfies and duckface. Obviously, the art of photography is not primarily about selfies and duckface. Most films are home movies. Yet home movies are tiny part of the culture and ethos of films.
You need a proper weighting system so a flood of crap in any given field doesn’t define it, and instead it’s defined mostly by its well-recognized and regarded works. What exactly the weighting system would look like is hard to define and probably necessarily a little vague. But games with high sales figures, positive critical reception, and/or widespread recognisability and recognition (these are two different things) are much more significant in gaming than Wet or Remember Me, and should be weighed as such. Likewise, niche or irrelevant examples should not be used. And this goes both ways, so I won’t bring up any obscure visual novels or long forgotten puzzle games to refute your points.
Also, Microsoft Word recognizes “duckface” as a word… Now I’m just depressed.
1:00-1:03 “A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games…”
Not much critical respect, but the games were successful, the franchise is still going, and everyone knows who Lara Croft is. Alright, that example works.
1:03-1:13 “Which are presented from a third-person perspective, wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen…”
Count with me! “…third-person perspective…” One true statement! “… Lara Croft’s entire body is visible.” Two true statements! “…Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen.” Oh, only two true statements.
Okay kids, pause the video where she says that, get out your rulers, and find the vertical center of your screen. The center is actually just above Lara’s head, and though I’m not an expert on anatomy, I’m pretty sure the ass is below the head. And this is with Sarkeesian’s borders around the video, which actually move everything up a little bit. The true center isn’t even close to Lara, let alone her butt.
1:15-1:17 “… along with the sexualized clothing…”
She’s wearing a tank top and shorts. Do you recommend a parka for raiding tombs?
1:30-1:38 “In Batman: Arkham City, for instance, the player’s gaze is drawn to Catwoman’s behind, which is emphasised by her costume, and her exaggerated hip-sway.”
Three points here, a) how the direction supposedly draws the player’s gaze, b) the costume, and c) the hip-sway.
a) How is the direction supposedly drawing the player’s gaze? The Arkham City camera actually puts whichever character the player is using at any time off to the side of the screen. The direction instead emphasises the environment. In the footage Sarkeesian shows, Catwoman is allocated to the left third of the screen, putting the central focus on the shot on the path in front of her, and potential climbing points. Or is the far left also the center of the screen?
b) This and the next part are what start to annoy me. Sarkeesian is concerned that these visuals are not providing insight into the character, right? Then why should Catwoman’s costume be an issue. She’s a cat burglar. The design of her costume emphasises stealth and flexibility, two key aspects of her character. Now, if you said it was sexually provocative, you’d probably be right (though I don’t think that necessarily means it’s bad; again, there is good reason for her suit to be tight, and a tight outfit is probably going to end up being sexually provocative), but the stated criticism at the beginning of this video was about expressions of character.
c) Again, the hip-sway is an expression of Catwoman’s character. She is sexual- it’s part of her nature, and she expresses it fondly. To reject it would be to reject a part of her character, thus reducing her. There’s more to say on this, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to get to Bayonetta at some point here, so I’ll save it for then.
1:41-1:52 “Golden Axe: Beast Rider makes extremely sure that we notice the protagonists butt…”
Here the video talks about Golden Axe: Beast Rider. I have never played Golden Axe, and am hardly even familiar with the title, so I can’t go into detailed commentary. However, a brief search revealed that this particular title was panned across the board, sold poorly, and my sheer unfamiliarity with it tells me that’s it’s not well recognized. It’s not a good example.
On the plus side, I agree with Sarkeesian here. It’s actually quite a positive sign that the first potentially accurate example of sexism she’s shown got panned by gamers. What’s this about gamers being sexist again? (And I’m not saying this one is an accurate example of sexism, I’m just saying I don’t know enough to refute it.)
1:52-2:07 “And here, in Tomb Raider: Underworld, to say that Lara’s butt is being emphasised would be putting it mildly.”
First of all, too many games have colons in their titles.
Second, this one’s mixed. On the one hand, Sarkeesian chose a shot where Lara Croft is wearing a swimsuit just before going swimming. Not a particularly revealing swimsuit, just a standard women’s one-piece. I reiterate, do you want her to wear a parka?
On the other hand, it’s subtle and may or may not be intentional by the developers, but the camera does get more ass then necessary in. It’s too subtle to say whether this was a conscious, or even unconscious but deliberate, choice, or just coincidence, but it’s there. But it’s not nearly enough to support Sarkeesian’s case.
This is just more examples of the same point, so I’ll try to rapid fire through them.
–Remember Me: Not a credible example.
–Wet: Not a credible example, and I don’t even see how the footage here is supposed to accentuating the character’s ass.
–Bayonetta: I’m not addressing this in detail until Sarkeesian does; Bayonetta is sort of a big deal when it comes to discussion of depictions of women and female characters in video games, and has a lot of nuisance to it that shouldn’t be skipped over. I need Sarkeesian’s stated opinion here, not just one second of footage.
–Blades of Time: I’ve never even heard of this one. Again, brief search revealed that it is not a credible example.
–X-Blades: Fifth verse same as the first, second and fourth. Also, again, I don’t see how the character’s butt is emphasised in any way.
–Lolipop Chainsaw: Hey, a good example. Sort of. I can see this one being contentious. On the one hand, a lot of people will say, “It’s satire, so it’s fine.” But it’s not satire. It’s definitely parody, but not satire. It’s not making any sort of point or statement with its parody, so it’s not satire and we don’t even have to go into when that defense does and doesn’t work. It’s also a comedy game, the main joke being the juxtaposition of a cheerleader (complete with actual cheerleading), and zombies getting mowed down by a chainsaw. And while the panty shots can be largely attributed to the fact that women, unlike men, wear skirts, I won’t deny that, had they done this same gag with an equally ditzy male football hottie, the cut-scenes and cinematography (which is a thing in games, no matter what Total Biscuit says) would have been a bit different. However, in keeping with the game’s sense of humour, I expect it would at least make some jokes about the guy’s junk, and have equally ridiculous costumes (say, just a cup).
And before anything brings up the fact that the main character in this game was stripped of his agency and treated as a useful “thing” and an ornament, that’s not what this vid addresses. This is about the ever important issue of Strategic Butt Coverings. When Sarkeesian talks about women in game being stripped of agency and objectified, and she fails to mention Lolipop Chainsaw, then you can hammer her with that criticism.
2:18-2:24 “Let’s contrast the way that women’s butts are emphasised with the sometimes absurd lengths taken to cover up or hide men’s butts.”
Nothing to say right away here. Just wanted to establish where this is going before diving into the next set of cherry-picked examples.
2:24-2:32 “If some of this footage looks jerky, that’s because in some game trying to get a glimpse of male character’s butts can feel a bit like wresting with the camera [citation need].”
Again, I don’t assume malice, but you’re making it really hard. The game and camera system is not designed to prevent you from looking at the character model (with the exception of Smash Brothers, which has traditionally locked the pause-scene camera from changing angles beyond a certain point in order to avoid having it look up Peach and Zelda’s skirts; I noticed Sarkeesian hasn’t pointed out that camera control quirk despite Smash Brothers being a perfect candidate as an example). That would be ridiculous.
If we assume Sarkeesian genuinely believes what she is saying, I can only guess she somehow just got a lot worse at controlling the camera between capturing the male footage, and capturing the female footage. And alternative explanation is that she is knowingly lying in order to justify the sudden and intentional drop in camera control finesse.
2:33-2:37 “Common ways men’s butts are hidden is by preventing the player from seeing below the character’s waistline…”
The example here is the 2008 Prince of Persia game. However (and this is an example of cinematography in games), the camera in this game acts as if it has a large hitbox, and stays away from solid objects in general. This is because Prince of Persia is parkour based, not uncommonly with a degree of urgency (gotta go fast), so the camera has to be designed as to not get caught in tight spots. The game does not prevent you from seeing below the protagonist’s waist. In fact, you spend most of the game dangling off walls with his whole backside just hanging out.
2:37-2:41 “… or employing a more over-the-shoulder camera angle.”
Now she’s showing Gears of War 3 footage, a third-person shooter. Over the shoulder camera is used here because you need to see over the character’s shoulder to play; that’s the direction the bullets go.
And though, yes, this is used more for men then for women, it’s not a difference based on how much ass the developers want to show, it’s a decision based on the genres of games they are in. Male characters dominate shooters. Female characters are more common in platformers. Is there good reason for this? You know what, probably not to the degree that it’s true. I do think it can partially be defensible because of consumer demographics, but yes, women are underrepresented in the combat shooter genre, which does happen to still be a large portion of the gaming industry.
More rapid fire examples
Kane & Lynch 2: A reasonable example, but unfortunately I’ve never played K&L, so don’t have much to say. A quick look at some gameplay footage though did show me that camera does zoom out to show the full character when you run, and it appears to be a shooting focused game, so seeing in the direction bullets go is useful.
Binary Domain: Another shooter, and in the gameplay footage I found the camera does actually rest far enough back to see the character’s butt when you aren’t aiming down sight.
Alan Wake: Camera seems to function nearly identically to Binary Domain’s. At this point I am willing to call Sarkeesian out on blatant dishonesty.
2:47-3:04 “The most amusing solution is to simply include a cape, tunic, long coat, or very conveniently positioned piece or tattered fabric, which actively prevents the player from [looking at] the protagonist’s butt.”
More examples. Also, wasn’t this about how the ass doesn’t help develop the character? Are you saying it’s sexist because tunics do develop the character? Or at this point can I just assume the issue being criticised is sexualisation? Because you never stated that.
Assassin’s Creed: Main character is an assassin. Cloak and dagger stuff.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2: I guess armour’s not allowed either? Sure, female body armour in a lot of games is kinda ridiculous, and I’d grant that if you put it forward, but it doesn’t make sense if you present only the much more sensible male variant and call that sexist.
Watch Dogs: The main character is a criminal in broad daylight. Of course he’s gonna be covered up and try not to be recognized. At the same time, he’s not exactly inconspicuous. But the trench coat is a pretty common symbol of identity concealment and shadiness, so it works as a visual shorthand to the player.
The Saboteur: What even is this?
Dante’s Inferno: Never played it; don’t know.
Star Wars: The Force Unleased: Oh, goodness, a Jedi/Sith/whatever Star Wars allegiance this guy was wearing tattered fabric.
Devil May Cry 4: I can see a lot of these being written off as, “That’s just the character design,” but that doesn’t really answer the criticism. With this example, I can see the picture coming together. Yes, female character designs are different in certain ways, and at least part of that probably is because of character designers thinking, “She’ll be prettier like this,” and sometimes even cynical companies telling them, “It’ll sell better if she’s like this,” (though I think moves like that are what ultimately ends up as Wet. Remember Me, or other pathetic flops).
But at that level of what some might call micro-sexist-aggressions (and I wouldn’t even call them that), these videos don’t matter. A video series like this only serves to spread awareness, which works in cases where transgressions are clear and substantial. Awareness makes the general public more critical of clear transgressions, while also making potential transgressors (in this case, character designers) more careful about their work. It stops things like Daddy of the Year from getting though Steam Greenlight because someone actually takes a second look and says, “Wait a second, that’s fucked up!” But it’s not going have an effect on character designs who think giving Dante a jacket looks cool while putting Sharla in tight shorts looks cuet, because whether these are mistakes or not, they are perfectly innocent design choices.
The way to change character design representation isn’t to criticise what you see as micro-aggressions, it’s to promote diverse representation among character designers. Promote new artists. Let’s see what different people want to create; what they find cool, or cuet, or sexy, or badass. Because honestly, this entire time I’ve been wondering, “Do women like guys’ butts?” I guess we need more women working on character designs to find that out. But this video does not promote that.
So there’re three minute left, and they do a better a job of explaining what I basically just admitted is a small but not egregious issue in games. Yeah, if Nathan Drake can wear baggy jeans, there’s really no reason Lara Craft can’t as well.
There are further points I disagree with, like, “[This is] not an accident … a conscious decision made with great care…” (4:37-4:40). I cannot accept that strong claim about the artists’ intentions. However, yes, the designs aren’t an accident, and in fact the word “accident” has no place here. Typically they are likely innocent reflections of the designer’s tastes, and only sometimes are they indeed probably intentional (Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V, and that one shot of Harley Quinn in Arkham Night; you know the one).
But generally speaking, when a female character is blatantly objectified, it’s in poorly made, unsuccessful, unwanted, unmemorable crap that was already crap anyway, typically rely on criticism like this for their marketing, and that have little to no place in a serious discussion about what games are as a whole.
And one last point. Don’t use several images of Bayonetta to make your point without stopping to actually examine her and where she stands within gaming feminism. She’s a great character and there’s a lot of good debate to be had, but without ever going into context it is just a cheap way to through in images that look less nuanced than they are.
Don’t Lose Your Way