Feminism and Pop Culture

Living down the street from an independently owned feminist bookstore (Women & Children First) means I have come across some rather great books as they are released. This week’s case in point: Feminism and Pop Culture by Andi Zeisler (cofounder and editor of Bitch magazine). Reading the back cover summary, I quickly realized one aspect of pop culture that was not mentioned was one on which this blog concentrates:

“In Feminism and Pop Culture, author and cofounder of Bitch magazine Andi Zeisler traces the impact of feminism on pop culture (and vice versa) from the 1940s to the present. With a comprehensive look at representations of women in film, television, music, advertising, and news media, this book is an ideal introduction to discussing feminism and daily life.”

Initially I raised my brow and contemplated whether this would just be an intro book of little worth to me, but decided the book was worth a chance. I was not mistaken; neither was Zeisler’s aim.

What the book does is exactly what it says: displaying how feminism and pop culture have had an (often contentious) exchange that has shaped both in ways that probably were not expected. Videogames are also not entirely discounted, having three mentions in the book, pointing out that Zeisler is aware of them and the role they may well play in the future, and acknowledging that they are a part of pop culture. Have they added to feminist discourse however?

The one full example of the book dealing with videogames in more than a passing note is illustrating how Lara Croft rose out of a general atmosphere of pop culture’s acquisition of the riot grrrl scene and turning it into girl power through the use of groups like Spice Girls and in advertising through catch phrases coopting and at times even expanding women’s empowerment. “Though Lara Croft, the impossibly buxom heroine of the Tomb Raider video games, was by the late ’90s the most mainstream pretender to a girls-kick-ass throne, she was also the pixelated embodiment of a male gaze-centric fantasy of what a heroic woman looked like” (96). She then goes on to provide examples of women during that time that were more nuanced and fully realized female protagonists in other media: Xena the Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, to some extent, even the Powerpuff Girls.

One question we’re facing here is of scale. Many of the examples Zeisler uses are ones that are viewed and more readily accessible to people: television shows, advertisements, music, and film. Videogames are expanding, and because of their relatively new stature, the effects of what they’ve given to pop culture are still being teased out and examined in even a more general sense. If we are to believe some of the wacko politicians in the other country that holds claim to my supposed loyalty through citizenship, many videogames are merely Killerspiele. Of course, this is hardly the property of any one particular country, but we’re currently the comic books of the 1950s, under careful scrutiny by many parties. Many people play videogames, but have many played the examples which we could discuss from the past? Would they care to go back and take a look?

Another aspect to note is how the media Zeisler discusses all had massive efforts to target and advertise to women (‘chick flicks’, women’s products, girl groups, et cetera). It feels as if videogames have only very recently, within the last ten years, even attempted to realize there exists a whole other sex that might be interested in the games provided. While we could probably argue that they started off in a somewhat sex neutral space (even saying this feels circumspect), there definitely exists a time when the top titles were not aimed at women in the slightest. Now that we have seen it, it’s almost painful to watch how easily it has stepped into the feminist backlash phase of advertising in many regards.

One other point to consider is that Zeisler does examine many of these pop culture phenomena from a personal vantage point. While offering various readers’ responses to prompts in excerpts found throughout the book, her own personal voice makes it very clear that she has been at least somewhat immersed in many of the various media of which she speaks. If videogames are not of interest to her, I could hardly expect her to wring out information on a topic that holds no interest to her. After all, this is a woman who admits that pop culture can often be problematic, but she consumes it all the same. Every one of us does in various manners. We make our decisions based on our interests, and this may mean that some aspects of pop culture may never speak to us directly.

Will videogames affect feminism and proffer a similar exchange that can both be enlightening and frustrating? I believe they already have (or so my blog posts would lead us to believe) on both counts in varying degrees. It certainly is a topic about which I feel passionately, and it was useful reading this book just to refresh and fill in some of the gaps of my education while tracing the second wave of feminism and beyond’s battles and cooperation with various media.


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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2 Responses to Feminism and Pop Culture

  1. Gary Powell says:

    I think an important thing to keep in mind regarding the vacuousness of Lara Croft, compared to Xena and Buffy, is that Tomb Raider is a non-linear piece of media that lasts X amount of hours, while Buffy and Xena are linear media that, while they may be serialized, are of a specific length each episode, for a specific number of episodes each season. Therefore, they naturally can have more development.The thing about game writing, particularly for the genre Tomb Raider exists in, is that having a vacuous character is key to the genre and maintains the ability of the game to be produced within budget. Tomb Raider probably wouldn’t have the same appeal to people if it were an RPG, which would naturally have more depth, but the cost of developing more and more content to flesh out a character is exorbitant.Lara Croft is simply a character that is no more objectified and “manned-up” than that guy who shoots things in Quake, that guy who kills people in Assassin’s Creed, or that marine’s name that shoots somebody in that other action game. Action games inherently objectify people and appeal to the physical ideal of the player. Do Lara’s boobs need to be that big? Well, does that marine need to have those big of muscles?I think, while the game industry is male-centric, it’s working to expand its bounds. The only difficulty at the moment is that girls generally want to play different games from guys, so it requires some serious restructuring and retooling, which involves risk with money that’s already inherently at a lot of risk in the first place. Games, like all other media, will eventually expand to appeal to niche groups, like Zeisler did with her magazine. This is already becoming the case with independent and homebrew companies who do things for “love.” And, again, with huge titles, everyone will have to give in one way or another. It can be argued that “women have to give up so much in popular movies/books/etc. and they should be displayed with more dignity!” Well, frankly, I don’t like how guys are often portrayed either. That’s the nature of a common cultural language. Nuance dies when you appeal to a large market.I have serious qualms about most ‘isms,’ including feminism. They often involve people riling themselves up and pissing themselves off because things don’t agree with their belief system. This often comes at the expense of themselves because they miss out on a lot of life by taking things too damned seriously.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    The problem with Lara Croft’s objectification versus that of a marine’s is that the breasts serve absolutely no function in terms of her capabilities. Muscles past a certain extent can be said to be superfluous, but they still offer a tangible benefit to the marine.Thankfully, and this is something many outsiders may fail to see on which gamers may correct, Croft’s cup size has been slowly shrinking over the years as she has become more acrobatic, and, I imagine, the ridiculousness of such was noticed.The great thing about this book was that Zeisler calmly looked through history and noted how these changes occurred, hardly riling herself up. The notion of the angry feminist is unfortunately one that the media likes to feed us, but does not account for the entire breadth of the feminist spectrum (much like with any community, there are different aspects to this one–some of which would rile themselves up over myself, a male, considering himself a feminist).As for the linearity, I think your monetary point is a decent one to make, but the story itself is pretty linear, even if the gameplay is not. Considering the development of those particular storylines, the developers and writers would be capable of further characterizing her. The genre, as you say, also plays a role, and perhaps we don’t want to characterize her…Except we do give her a voice (unlike Link or Samus), hire actresses to portray her, and create films out of her. There is a monetary aspect to these (and a sexualized one), but again, this creates a window into which we can look at this. In fact, the progression of Lara Croft through her various games is an excellent chance to look at how not only game development has changed her, but how more exposure to the public has created a mythos around her, begging there to be something of substance. She’s certainly not a faceless entity whom we often forget, for various reasons.Videogames will most definitely create niche markets of themselves, though I do believe we’ll also see many middle of the road games that appeal to both (this may well fall on the shoulders of RPGs). However, just because females may not play the genre, I find it hard to say that we cannot more critically look at what is being fed to us that has already been influenced by the media at large.For me, this is a thing of curiosity and an interesting point into which I can look at how videogames just reflect a larger culture. We are not removed from pop culture, merely another microcosm that is influenced by many of the same factors.

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