Gendered Violence

I largely feel that when adding a female protagonist into a mostly linearly plotted game (read: no emergent gameplay; nor creation of your own character or characters that aren’t fully developed, instead being ciphers to ludic pleasure), the whole tone of the game changes. Not because I want it to do so, but because whoever may be designing the game designs it with different expectations, and brings their own societal biases (don’t worry, we all have them). In the past, I’ve already discussed how we perceive females as the weaker sex in terms of physical activities, and this means we normally give them a more full range of emotions and make them less blood hungry. Due to my previous post and then reading Brinstar’s review of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and her comments of the sex selection of the game, I want to now explore the exploration of how violence is shaped by the sex at hand–particularly that of the few female icons we do have in games.

I don’t know about you, but even growing up with a very pro-feminist mother, I was raised in a world that told me I was more predispositioned to violence than my female counterparts. Somehow that magical Y chromosome donated by my father meant I could at any instant turn into a bloodthirsty killer; it was up to me to determine whether this was as a soldier for a proper cause or as a madman who’d just gone off his rocker. Males are told that as XY bearers we have the inherent ability to carry out a battle, to wage war, to shoot a gun, and to take another human life–in the proper context.

Contrast this with the way I saw many of my female peers raised: they were caregivers, morale boosters, supporters, pleasers, and had the ability to create a new life. We are not comfortable with the idea that a female who is capable of producing life also has the ability to take away said life. In a world that often is painted in stark binary terms, it does not offer a cohesion of principle and clearly categorized worlds. This is why we have problems justifying and accepting bisexuality and intersexuals as a society at large.

When either sex adopts the supposed incongruities of the opposite gender, comedy frequently follows. Here is the norm, here is the norm subverted. Isn’t that a barrel of non-intersexed monkeys!

This, then, gets into the question of one’s belief on how gender is created in a particular sex. Do you believe that this is because of the chemical workings of the chromosomes that dictate how we react and our particular behaviors? Or, perhaps you believe that we are placed in an environment that fosters these behaviors and reinforces them so that when we rebel against them, we show equality of the sexes is actually possible? Nature versus nurture, folks. Essentialism versus construction.

While I am a large believer in Judith Butler’s assertions that gender is a role we adopt, a mask in which we feel comfortable presenting ourselves as the appropriate sex to our society, I do not believe in pure binaries, and believe the truth may be closer to a point somewhere in the middle. This does not shake the fact that if you ask the average person the difference between gender and sex, many will believe the two largely interchangeable. It certainly is in videogames so far.

When we are given a female protagonist such as Jade or Faith, the game becomes less violent. Suddenly gone are headshots, gore splattering all over the place, the walls dripping with the blood we forcibly ejected from our opponents. Putting a female face on a videogame spells out the fact that this game is less violent, gory, and more palatable for the female sex (unless survival horror). Even the violence performed by Samus Aran falls into Nintendo’s realm of not being gratuitous or gristly (however, so does Link’s). Survival horror sees its fair share of female protagonists, fighting supernatural or scientifically altered non-human beings. This fits into what I see as females being okayed to fight against less-than or not-quite humans.

As I stated yesterday, we don’t often see the emotional reactions of our protagonists to the violence they inflict, and when we do, it’s usually from female quarters. Yet, we’re to believe that suddenly a violent act inflicted on someone with whom we are familiar in the game world should tug at our heart strings, be it Jenny from The Darkness or Aeris from the oft maligned Final Fantasy VII. Violence against females is supposed to bring a reaction from us, which plays on our society’s need to protect its mothers, sisters, and daughters. In The Darkness we come a step closer by portraying Jackie’s response to his changing humanity, but violence is the solvent to almost everything, with one important exception through which he is guided by Jenny’s voice. His reaction is more focused on the symbol of his violence through the Darkness, however–not directly to his acts.

Contrast this with Lara Croft, who has a very strong reaction when she kills her first fellow human. Again, violence against non-humans is seen as fine, but if a female suddenly fights her own species we’re told to pause. Something important happened here! We don’t give this pause to our male protagonists. Killing is an everyday occurrence for the most part. Normally we have to dehumanize the foes for our females in some manner, and even then, the deaths are quite frequently not visceral. Why?

The answer, I believe, is two-fold. We want to believe females not capable of such acts. We do the same with serial killers as I’m seeing occurring with our females’ foes, often painting them in mystic tones and making them less than human–no human could do this, erego inhuman. At the same time, the draw of a female protagonist is also to play the market in a heteronormative fashion: appeal to the male libido and assure females they can play as someone of their own sex. The female gaming market is growing, especially in the cases of The Sims, Harvest Moon, and other such titles. These are generally non-violent games (give a tool to anyone and they’ll manage to play around its original intent), which grows the expectation we’ve been given in general society: females are not violent.

Which is a lie. Reading bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, I was reminded of a fact we often overlook: just as many cases of domestic violence are perpetrated by women against their own children. These are often either ignored or not reported, so it becomes difficult to navigate that terrain, especially when children are not given the tools or rights to speak up on their own behalf; to believe females are generally pacifist and have little capability of violence or prefer such is very likely just a fallacy in which we like to believe. We just prefer the idea of a father who is abusive physically and a mother who may be more critical with her words–this makes sense to us.

Therefore, to just place a female in a game is not to provide equality, as it quite frequently comes with a caveat. We should not ignore the society that shapes us as human beings, including our diversity. We do need to step beyond the boundaries which we place on ourselves, however. It is one thing to acknowledge and make us aware of what may have shaped a female in attaining the skills she has, but it is another to say that she is not as capable as a male at certain tasks, or has to be sexualized to achieve the same goals. That does not mean I wish to see G.I. Jane the licensed game, but it means that it may be time to be more creative and acknowledge truths with which we may not be comfortable. How about more games where the male is the non- or less violent entity, as I’m sure many of us see Faith; alongside this, provide females who can give us grisly deaths and are not the villainess?

Would we accept such? (Thanks to Groping the Elephant for the link.) Should that stop us?

Edit: Many examples have since been brought to my attention, which I explain (slightly) further in depth here.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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20 Responses to Gendered Violence

  1. Jorge Albor says:

    In regards to violent females, I am reminded of the Deception series ( in which a female lures people to gruesome deaths in a booby-trap filled castle. Interestingly, when females do get to be violent, they also tend to be hyper-sexualized. I don’t think it is coincidental that the violent types also wear skimpy clothing. Beastrider is guilty of this, as is Ivy from Soul Calibur, and I am sure there are more.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    @jorge: If I were to venture a guess, and this may be something I try to expand on in a future post, the sexualization of these females (and I told Dan that this would probably bore me in <>Beastrider<>) is a way to make them safe.It’d be interesting taking this premise and subjecting it to Mulvey’s argument about the gaze, and how making them sexual objects not only dehumanizes them in some way (again, objects), but makes them a consumable resource over which we hold power.Female villains are also something which I’m interested in exploring after I replay the <>Starcraft<> series. Blizzard has an interesting way of presenting them (Silvanas and Kerrigan), and it might be interesting to note the differences between someone like Kerrigan and Edea in how they’re portrayed (though this may not work because of difference in genre).

  3. Brinstar says:

    Great analysis. It’s spot on. I can think of few games with female leads in which violence towards enemies is just as extreme as similar male-led games. Right now I’m trying to think of FPSs, though admittedly my knowledge of the genre is not terribly good as I don’t play FPSs often.

  4. Scott Juster says:

    Excellent post! This kind of nuanced analysis is why I love the video game-blogging community.This isn’t to bash on your mother, but I was really happy to see you caution against some of the male-gender stereotypes. Even with the Y chromosome, we are more than our genes and we can control them to a certain extent.I was really intrigued by your observation of the lack of games where the male is the non-violent/less violent entity. I’m having a hard time thinking of an example, but I think Link is an interesting case:He often starts the game as non-violent/childlike and is transformed by events into a warrior. A reluctant one maybe, but every Zelda game tends to begin with the loss of Link’s innocence.

  5. Denis Farr says:

    @brinstar: It’s rather disturbing if one actually thinks back on it. I can’t even recall many FPSs that have female protagonist, let alone one that develops a character. It seems the moment we give the female something more than just pixels, we expect her to be more demure than her male counterparts, even if she is brazen in personality.@scott: Oh, that isn’t bashing my mother, but I realize that more than my mother raised me. It’s a testament to her method of upbringing that I’m not some lumbering example of machismo, as I may well have been given my father’s view on life.Link and Samus are very interesting cases mainly because of Nintendo’s desire to keep away from violence in the graphic sense. Both are also very open personalities, where everyone seems to have his or her own grasp on the character and personality (which is why I think it is popular for many people I know to view him as gay/non-straight).

  6. Diddy_Mao says:

    The Silent Hill series actually has a magnificent reversal of gender expectations through the majority of the earlier games. (I through III mainly) With Harry Mason slogging his way clumsily through a town full of monsters in a surprisingly paternal desire to protect his child, James Sunderland being equally as combat inept and suffering through a town intent on shining a light on his own neuroses, and Heather Mason being significantly more combat effective, actively seeking revenge and at the game’s conclusion having to reject her maternal role.

  7. Dane says:

    I’m reminded of a scene in the recent Gears of War 2, in which the very masculine Dom has to confront a huge emotional loss. “Marcus, I don’t know what to do…”, he cries. He is frozen, for the first time in the game, unable to take action when it involves more than the pulling of a trigger.

  8. Certainly, Silent Hill 2 does a good job of reversing this – when the protagonist James is put into the position of killing somebody, it’s immensely significant about what it overtly foreshadows James’ potential for violence in a way killing dozens of monsters only does covertly.

  9. Josh says:

    There’s also an interesting reversal of gender reactions in a game one might assume is as male as could be: <>Crysis: Warhead<>, though it occurs only in a cutscene. The male character “Psycho” (as male and violent a game character as you might imagine) is attempting to chase a North Korean general escaping in a helicopter. One of his fellow soldiers is knocked off the bridge, and Psycho reaches down to grab him. The soldier begs for Psycho to drop him into the river below, so that Pyscho can reach the detonator needed to blow up the helicopter. Psycho does so, but fails to destroy the helicopter as the detonator fails. He drops down to the river, only to find that the soldier did not survive the fall. Quietly and slowly, Psycho gets up, walks over to a moaning enemy soldier, and strangles him to death, then nearly has a breakdown.It’s a reaction highly unexpected in a character as seemingly stereotyped as an FPS bad-ass hero, and was quite striking in its context.

  10. Anonymous says:

    In games as well as films tv music videos etc I find that female characters are more violent than male.Violence against males is used to show women as being the better of males not just emotionally and intellectually but also physically. The last or only ability men have over women in this feminist world (not that I buy into this men aren’t as emotional or smart as women nonsense)Look at any female character and she will be violent to her male companion be it partner, team mate even family member but rarely violent against a female in a similar situation.When you see a female character in a game you can guarantee she bit the male (the character you’re playing) during the game but the male will never hit back or defend himself.Males in games treat females far better than females treat males.So much for equality.I’m sorry your mother was an ardent feminist and made you feel your gender is inferior, A way of treating the opposite gender she probably objected to men doing, as that should be considered child abuse.

  11. HighwayCello says:

    Really interesting article, sorry if my comment is pants in comparison. The only thing that crossed my mind during reading is when you discussed Y Chromosome and the difference this can cause that may make males more violent.In other species, at least some insects, it is the female possesses the Y chromosome (ie they are the XY gamete producer) and all males are XX gamete producers.Maybe this is why female insects, like spiders, are the more agressive?Good read anyway.

  12. I think the No One Lives Forever series are the only mainstream FPS titles to feature a female protagonist.Though those games make a point of the sexism of other characters in the world, for the majority of the game Cate Archer could be Kevin Archer and very little would change.

  13. Ikkin says:

    I’m not so sure that the reason why women don’t get placed into the lead role in grisly games needs to be due to a perception of women as less-violent; it seems as if it could simply stem from the reasoning behind making games like that to begin with.From what I’ve seen, the brutal, “realistic” violence is generally part of the first-person immersive ideal – and, therefore, tends to be mostly perpetrated by invisible protagonists who are little more than placeholders for the player. Since the protagonist isn’t really supposed to be a character of his own anyway, it makes sense to make him someone more similar to your biggest demographic.(Are there really any well-developed characters who take part in visceral violence who aren’t intended to be somewhat monstrous and would, therefore, contradict this impression?)As for protagonists’ reactions to their own violence, I think part of the reason why we see more reaction from women protagonists is because the guys have almost always had past experience in that regard. Which is, quite possibly, a problem of its own, but a rather different one.My own thinking is that it’s not just women who we feel uncomfortable imagining being able to fight until they’re soaked in the gore of their enemies yet come out untraumatized, but any well-developed character. But, on the other hand, we don’t like thinking about the trauma, so those type of characters tend to be given several levels of justification in order not to think about it.Women just get the worst of it, because they never show up as characters who aren’t developed enough for that not to be a problem.

  14. Anonymous says:

    there are some which were forgotten, joanna dark (perfect dark) and naroko (heavenly sword).i belive female protagonists can be as violent as men, but the game industry,sadly, have not expanded on that.

  15. Nowhere says:

    I think you may have it backwards: the other possibility is that designers who are interested in putting women in games are simply less interested in putting hard violence in. Sure, there’s still some conceptual bias in there. I don’t disagree with any of your points but I think the major cause is simpler.Another point is that Samus doesn’t really count. The original Metroid was on par for violence at the time, and Samus’ gender wasn’t made explicit. Metroid violence has stayed the same, just like in Zelda.I think it’s mostly as simple as this: the designers of violent games are generally men, and they’re designing them for men (and boys). It’s only natural to put men in there for the designer and audience to identify with.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Let’s not forget Perfect Dark.

  17. Anonymous says:

    “Look at any female character and she will be violent to her male companion be it partner, team mate even family member but rarely violent against a female in a similar situation.”A degree of truth there, but it female on female violence does happen. MGS1, Sniper Wolf/Meryl anyone? “When you see a female character in a game you can guarantee she bit the male (the character you’re playing) during the game but the male will never hit back or defend himself.”Snake eventually shot Sniper Wolf :P The whole second battle was about defending yourself, or that’s how I see it.

  18. Anonymous says:

    like it or not, females are not generally attracted to violent games. men play these female characters, and so they are catering to their fantasies. and a psychotic serial killer type woman generally is not their fantasy object. and perhaps the sexual object puts men into a state of mind that is less open to ultra violence. and perhaps that is good. theres also the matter of whether guys want to learn a back story. basically guys don’t care about a guys backstory that much. a female character is a sexual interest, so making her more compassionate is for sexualization, its fantasy, hypermasculine/feminine forms exist in comics and games alike. the reality is violence fits female characters less. it is less realistic to begin with. women like it or not are biologically less equipped to fight, they are built less robustly as their bodies are for reproduction. there is nothing politically correct about biological reality. and they have evolved their own social intelligence strategy for getting what they want. any woman who used violence as freely as men did in early history basically committed genetic suicide. and any society that committed women to battle as a first resort also committed genetic suicide in the long run. why is it that mens entertainment must cater for women yet women targeted entertainment is far more sexist than mens. look at women targeted entertainment, invariably the main character and most of the rest are female. in mens entertainment a good amount of the time the main character is female. sure she might be sexy but thats far more than womens entertainment generally offers which is nothing. anyways if there were a demand for such ultra violent video games targeted at women, someones either missing a massive gold mine of potential money, or it simply doesn’t exist as something people men or women want.

  19. Denis Farr says:

    @diddy_mao: You raise an excellent point that has been playing in the back of my mind for quite some time. While we’re dealing with typically non-human enemies, the gendered playing field is more equal (I’m not sure I’d argue fully) between the two sexes in the survival horror genre. I’ve only ever played the beginning of the beginning of one of the Silent Hills (cannot recall which), and it definitely played very well on the father being connected to his child. This is probably why I raised an eyebrow at the film adaptation.@dane: First, I enjoy your name, as it also happens to be my brother’s. I have yet to play the game, but that sounds like a terrific moment. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much that will stand out in a game that will most likely overshadow such a moment with its own (reportedly, cannot speak first hand yet) excellent multiplayer. I will definitely give it a look as soon as I am able.@alien_rope_burn: The more and more this issue comes up, the more I realize that the entire Silent Hill series (and very likely the survival horror genre) needs a much closer gendered inspection. The titles seem to be rife with so much good material. The first few titles in the series at least.@Josh: What a poignant scene, made even doubly so by the inability (from how you describe it) to express his emotions fully, or witholding them in some manner. I’m a firm believer that males do express emotion, but that it is often presented in the form of anger or action-oriented and driven feelings of betrayal, revenge, et cetera. These are all backed by emotions, despite the portrayal of no tears=no emotional depth.@anonymous1: It is curious how the violence of an ensemble is portrayed. I have yet to explore it, but I think you may be on to something as to the treatment within a team itself. This itself sets up another double-standard which is curious to note–but camaraderie and presenting a female with foes are two separate activities I feel. One allows a greater freedom, as it doesn’t put the female in danger of actually fulfilling a sense of bloodlust.Also, my mother had no such effect on me. Some would argue I perhaps like my own sex too much.@highwaycello: Hardly pants at all. That is an interesting point of research about which I know feel the need to learn. While I cannot speak for the actual genetics of that statement, I do believe that humans as a fully sentient and intelligent species are also able to rise above pure genetics, and offer a wide array of possibilities without the same expectations on genetic survival/evolution.@CrashTranslation: Curse you for adding another game to my queue. ;)@ikkin: Very valid point. One which I would have covered more, though I was looking directly at the texts themselves. Unfortunately, I was already pulling a few different methods of critical approach in this post, but your structural/historicist one is well worth another look.As for the monstrous, I’m not sure the entirety of literature isn’t rife with this precedent. Males usually have some manner of transformation to achieve huge levels of violence. Either that or they are painted as heroes, and above the normal male anyway. However, this often gets placed as the pinnacle of what a man can become. It’s a curious dichotomy, one which I believe may not be far removed from the virgin/whore one in which women are often painted, but on the battlefield for men.@anonymous 2: I have yet to play either game, unfortunately. I have blank spots in my gaming history, but if I look at how many games I have played, I also think about how great it is to be able to be pointed in a new direction. For the latter example, she presents a compelling case, but she is also problematic due to how sexualized she is. Those clothes are quite revealing.@nowhere: You are right on many different levels. A recent interview with one of the designers for Mirror’s Edge also underlines your point very succinctly. In this case I was ignoring authorial intent to some degree and looking at the overall cultural reflection seen in games. Since this same problem is faced in many different mediums, it was a case of looking at videogames in particular. Any way we look at it, I’m not particularly comfortable with the decision, but it is one that is ingrained in culture (I just so happen to consider this to be for a detriment).

  20. Anonymous says:

    Had to get my say in on this. I think that basically, video games have been made for males. To identify with what we do in the games, the lead is usually also male. I think back on all the stories from my childhood, and it’s always the male rescuing the female. Right or wrong, it’s how a lot of us were raised, and in this new story telling medium, this has carried over. In fact, I have noticed when they try to bring female into games in a role where they aren’t being rescued, they are overly masculine. Mostly they remind me of the video game female Marine stereotype: Acts bitchy so they seem to fit in somehow. I probably didn’t explain that very well, but if someone cares enough to ask me to clarify, I will. I have also noticed that I personally avoid games with female leads. I find that the games are usually not as good, have really soft/metro/sexually ambiguous male characters in it, the women almost never wear any clothing, and have proportions only found in LA Plastic Surgery recovery rooms. I don’t find this to be very inspiring. How could I possible relate, or want to relate to that? What we need is some strong female leads. The first that always springs to my mind is Samus. Why? Her gender didn’t matter. You didn’t even know she was female until the end. It would be nice to see more games where the lead could be someone of either gender. Who says a women couldn’t be kick ass, while still being feminine and not overly sexualized.

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