Friday, August 2, 2013

Feminine Voice of Reason

Pacific Rim hit theaters just a little while back and made over thirty-seven million dollars during its opening weekend. It is an action-packed film, and for a movie about large robots fighting off hulking monsters, it has a surprising amount of story. If you haven’t heard already, Pacific Rim has a woman of color as a main character but, sadly, the film still does not pass the Bechdel Test. There is another female robot pilot, but she has almost no screen time and very few lines, and in the background only a few women can be picked out of the crowds of the main setting. But there is one familiar female voice that graces the screen, that of Ellen McLain as the voice of robot Gipsy Danger.

There has been a rise in the use of fictional computer voices, artificial intelligences, and virtual intelligences in recent years, accompanying the rise in science fiction’s popularity.  Voice actresses, such as Ellen McLain, portray voices that are mechanized, concise, educated, informative, and helpful. And it is almost always feminine. This can most prevalently be seen in the realm of video games, where science fiction and computer advancements have always been part of popular game design. For female-voiced AIs, video games and movies are their domain.

GLaDOS from Portal, voiced by Ellen McLain

Ellen McLain, most recently voicing the computer of the main robot from Pacific Rim, is most well known for her voice work in the Portal franchise. While McLain’s GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) from Portal may be one of the best-known AI/VI voices from video games, the line goes on. From the popular Halo series the AI Cortana (voiced by Jen Taylor) assists and informs the player, but also evolved to be more sexualized as the series and graphics allowed it to. From Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 there comes EDI (voiced by Tricia Helfer), a female voiced AI that chooses a provocative robotic female body to integrate with.  Going farther back, before the turn of the century, there was the intense computer SHODAN (voiced by Terri Brosius) from the System Shock series. Some of the most memorable computer programs from the last few generation of game consoles have been vocalized as feminine.

SHODAN from System Shock, voiced by Terri Brosius

Why is this?  With the recent backlash at the video game community for its lack of strong female characters, it is interesting to see that many of the ‘fake’ people or minds in video games are portrayed as or performed as female.  Artificial intelligences are not true people, but the prevalence to refer to GLaDOs as ‘she’ instead of ‘it’ remains.  These computers contain a mixture of stereotypically gendered traits, from the feminine gracefulness to the masculine lack of emotion. But these computer programs share a lot of traits with successful women in the workplace; they are effective, hard working, confident, knowledgeable, and self-reliant. Given this there is still, in most cases, no realistic middle ground; these AIs are either helpful, following orders as an artificial assistant, or they are cruel, manipulative and against the player character.

The evolution of Cortana's appearance.
Sadly, it seems that video games create more female voiced or bodied avatars when they make them out of metal instead of bone.  This trend is changing as reimagined classic female characters reemerge and new characters are created, but video games still have a long way to go in character equality. Fully-fledged female characters in video games are still hard to come by, but these exaggerated, objectified feminine computer programs are actually very well known and persistent.  Video games have a bad reputation of objectifying women and organizing female characters by tropes. While characters such as GLaDOS and SHODAN are loved, these AI characters are not doing video games any favors towards more realistic interpretations of women.  While these AIs may be viewed as intelligent women, some are sexualized without choice or representation. While Halo’s AI Cortana started off as blocky graphics back in 2001, her most recent rendition depicts her as a seductive and naked digitized woman. Mass Effect’s EDI implants her own consciousness into the empty robotic shell of a metal femme fatale.  It is noted throughout the game that EDI has chosen to inhabit an attractive form.  With their attractive bodies they are also mostly void of emotion but brimming with information and assistance.

The use of feminine-voiced computers has allowed video games and movies to give us some beloved characters, but there is a clear split between those that use it to represent a creation of intellect, or a creation meant to objectify the female form. It is interesting to note that the helpful female AIs are usually given attractive female forms, while those who are independent and usually malicious are abstract voices. 

As the realm of science fiction expands, computer graphics increase, and stories continue to be written, it will be interesting to see how the artificial and real women of video games and movies are represented. AI characters are a wonderful addition to science fiction and allow for great story expansion. Yet these artificial female representations do not create a pass for appropriate objectification, especially if the AI is the only slight version of female representation in the film or game.  When a high-budget summer release such as Pacific Rim can still fall short of the Bechdel test, and video games are still under fire for their lack of strong female characters, certain changes have already been called for. Adding to those, a change in the way mechanical humanoids are used, in some but not all cases, to exploit the female form and emphasize stereotypical feminine traits. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Guide to Gaming Children

      The opportunity to play video games at a young age is a great step forward in educating children about technology and modern electronic interaction. Children of the technological age are growing up with skills that my parents are still taking time to learn. These skills will give gaming children a great boost towards understanding what will become their everyday world (not that I don’t support good old-fashioned stick fighting, tree climbing, and outdoor play).  Because video games can be so beneficial to these parts of a child’s life, as well as boosting imagination, motor skills and much more, it can be a great bonding activity for parents and their children.
      There are of course games that are made for children spanning all ages. There are games for infants, such as flash games that simulate peek-a-boo. There are those that follow popular children’s TV shows or movies, such as Disney’s many games.  Educational games, such as those that teach math or spelling, are made for classroom and at home use, but they are not the only manner in which video games can become educational.  There is a plethora of ways to make games not intentionally built for educational purposes educational.
Gaming Fun for All

A recent video by Extra Credits took on the topic of parents using games to the benefit of their children and the relationship they have with their children. Their examples prove that even games such as Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty can open up a child’s mind to the greater issues that games discuss or are based around. It even brings up the ever-important idea of cross-media research and non-gaming interaction. One of the most beneficial things non-gaming parents can do to show interest in their child’s gaming hobby is to sit with them and attempt to assist them. Giving a child a game should not be a cop-out on parental interaction, especially if the child has a great interest in games.  It should be seen as an opportunity for bonding, an opportunity to become part of the child’s hobby.  It can be a great experience for both the parent and child.  A parent sitting down and fervently translating a cypher while their child breaks through an Assassin’s Creed II glyph can be just as engaging and supporting as attending a child’s soccer game.
      The example above also shows how a game can open up great avenues of conversation. Games like Assassin’s Creed II open up questions and conversations about geography, history, cryptography, realms of science fiction, and much more.  Almost every game can be broken down into ideas worth discussing. An educating game does not have to be an ‘educational game’. 
Gender: Sex: Trait: Role - Very little choice
      Cooperative games are also a great device in the family bonding tool-kit. For younger children, playing a game from the LEGO franchise with their parents will build teamwork skills and perhaps act as a trust building exercise. It is also important to think of the impact games have on a child’s idea of gender roles. Playing games like LittleBig Planet will not only let a child’s imagination run wild, but through creating there own little Sack-avatar they can play with what it means to make representation of themselves (or just a mustached cook with a purple afro), which is far less constricting than some older games (Harvest Moon 3’s, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’).  It is important to sit down and discuss the gender stereotypes seen in most games, and then choose games with less constricting and more positive views on individual differences to counter the negative input.
      In some ways it is up to gaming parents to protect their children from some of the negative aspects of video games they are not yet prepared for, but it is also up to them to use video games as a positive, educational, and constructive tool.  The video game industry and these games’ influences are growing every year.  Rather than skip out on this opportunity due to the media through which it is presented, parents should look for ways to enhance their child’s gaming experience.


As an endnote, I should state that I am not a parent. But as a child who played video games I sometime had a great time playing with my parents and siblings. To this day my family still uses video games as entertainment and bonding during family visits. I am glad that my parents took the time to show interest, and that they continue to do so.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What’s All the Hullabaloo About?

Earlier on this blog we may have touched on the recent Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games  controversy, and while I don’t believe we contributed a full post to it, it felt as though everything that had to be said had been said.  Now that the first two sections, both touching on the Damsels in Distress trope, have been posted and the internet has responded in its total manner of chaos blended with intellect, the truth is really there. Is this really the product that every mean-hearted, trolling, and down-right horrible post was scared of? And, yes, in my opinion they were scared. They were scared that this project would somehow damage or break the walls of the gaming community, the ‘gamer’ identity, and the realm of gaming that has for so long presented itself as being open.
But, as discussed on a previous post about the 'Gamer' identity, the ‘Gamer’ label is in itself exclusionary, and the realm of gaming does have walls.  Did these trolls and harassers think that the walls they spend so much time building and reinforcing were going to be so easily broken by one web series about women in video games? I could only hope. But no, those walls are strong, and the exclusionary, predominantly white heterosexual male girders holding them up are not easily taken down. 
Anita Sarkeesian’s first two released videos are tame, very much so. These videos brim information, with detailed research into the history of the Damsel in Distress, the history of video games, variety of the trope, a multitude of both modern and more classic games, and how the Damsel in Distress trope was transferred over to video games from earlier media.  Anita appears to have taken great care in ensuring that her videos can reach a wide audience.  While I am sure that she is fully capable of in-depth feminist discussion with the appropriate jargon, she presents herself and the information in a wide-reaching manner.  This allows for an open audience and open discussion between its viewers. 
This makes it even less threatening in some ways, and more in others. The videos are clear, concise, and intellectual and can be understood by all. Those trolling harassers can see her side of the argument in full, plain view and they can no longer fear that it will be feminist jargon, going over their heads on purpose to alienate them from what is attacking them.  There is no alienation, the video is all access. So, this is less frightening. But then comes the more frightening.
Because everything is so clear Anita can get her points and her research across quickly and efficiently. And for viewers like myself, it is a frighteningly large amount of information on just one of the several tropes she will be exploring in her series.  The pure amount of information, of games that conform to these tropes, is overwhelming. As a female gamer I now spend a portion of time examining games as I play and enjoy them. But I did not do so when I was younger or until just a few years ago.  Just the massive amount of games I have played that were on her list upset me (For the list, please visit this link for the Damsel in Distress Video).  
Check out all the example of a Damsel in Distress over at the Tropes vs. Women in Videos Games Tumblr.

The trope of Damsel in Distress not only permeates a large number of games, but it does so in such varying manners as to have subsets.  She examines these subsets not only in how they change gaming, but how they effect and have been effected by additional types of media. And it is so common. These tropes are being used to pump out low quality games with poor storytelling just to force feed the gamer mind. A Forbes contributor, Jen Bosier, said it just as I wanted to, “This isn’t just demeaning to women, it’s demeaning to gamers in general”.
            I want better games, for everyone. And that means creating in-depth stories that are not demeaning for the ever-expanding gaming community. These videos should in some small amount be feared, they are airing out the video games community’s closet and showing the world that, yes, things do need to change. 


Monday, June 10, 2013

The Art of the Fantastic

I had the great luck to be able to attend Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 2 just a little while ago.  The drive to Kansas City, MO took far longer than I should have wished, but it was well worth it. The variety of great artists filling the gallery hall was a site I will remember in both my memory and my photo album. These are the paintings that inspire children to dream of dragons, for men and women to visualize as they read through books to escape their lives for a short time, these are the pieces that create a world beyond the real.  While my main objective for this trip was to enjoy the fantastic art I have loved since childhood and to have informative conversations with artist of a far better caliber than myself, I always have secondary objectives. 
Spectrum 20 Award Gala, Beautiful

Walking around the hall, rows of paintings, sketches, sculptures, and live demonstrations, it is easy to identify some of the classic depiction of sci-fi and fantasy women. Sadly, these classic depictions are most commonly that of the Damsel in Distress, the Evil Seductress, or the Power is Sex(y). There were rows upon rows of booths, but within those rows, hidden sometimes at the corners, these upsetting depictions of the women in sci-fi and fantasy were still alive. At one point I began to notice that some of the paintings, prints, and illustration that had more graphic sexual content were being censored with small slips of stick-notes. They were stuck on, hiding nipples or genitalia, while the rest of the picture was open for the viewing public. The picture of the chained woman with the distressed face and her legs spread, the exposed captured woman being taken off, the seductress enthralling onlookers with her sexual power, were all okay for viewing, all undamaging, as long as those few key pieces of anatomy were covered.  Seeing this it gave off a sad message: Viewing women as disempowered and objectified is fine, so long as that sticky-note stayed were it was stuck. I know this may have been for the sake of the children, since both artists and spectators were free to bring their children and some certainly did, but that does not really make the situations any better in my opinion. By blocking off those parts, but not the image it self, it may make it appropriate for public viewing, but it certainly does not decrease the impact it would have on how a boy views women or how a girl will choose to view herself.
I would like to clarify that I am not at all opposed to nudity in art. Nudity in art has existed since the beginning of art itself. The human body can convey power, grace, beauty, sexuality, environmental interaction, and the spectrum of human emotion.  David Palumdo's Fed is a great example of the power nudity can convey to an image. It is a disappointment when these such powerful works are overrun by the objectified and over-sexualized female figures so common in the sci-fi and fantasy world.  Again, though, similar to the argument about who has the power in what children see if video games, who has the power to change what is seen on book or comic covers?
Dan Dos Santos, a great artist I had the pleasure of meeting at SFAL2, was indirectly accused by a BBC article of being sexist in his works by using one of Dos Santos’ works as the example for sexist science fiction art.  The article goes on, giving other examples including the classic Conan depictions. The article brings up a few good points, such as how “many science fiction and fantasy readers are disappointed to encounter everyday sexism in a medium that is supposed to offer an escape” (which is similar to the immersion-problem many feel when playing video games).  It also points out that many science fiction covers, classic and modern, are still created to attract a heterosexual male audience, even though the amount of science fiction and fantasy female authors and readers, as well as members of the TGLBQ community, is on the rise.  One of the most powerful, and true, lines from the BBC article comes as a quote from Tracy Hurley:

"Male characters [are] powerful and strong, and women's sexuality will be emphasized. And why is that a problem? It's constraining for both men and women."

Art Hall, filled with fans, both men and women.
In response to this indirect critique, the artist collaboration blog Muddy Colors responded internally with a post by Arnie Fenner, retiring co-director of the long running Spectrum books that inspired/created the whole SFAL event.  Arnie brings up the key of the whole issue in his post Objectify:

“But unless I'm missing something, here's the thing that bugged me about the BBC article and Hines' cosplay: the artists get the "blame" for what appears on the books' covers. Not the writers whose stories and descriptions lend themselves to the interpretations being decried; not the publishers, not the editors, not the art directors, not the sales reps, not the retailers, and not the consumers. All of whom dictate what the commercial artist creates and delivers. If they don't approve, if the artist doesn't follow direction and give them what they're paying for, the art is never seen. If the customers don't buy the books, other solutions are sought.”


I agree, mostly. I agree that it takes a whole line of people from writer, to an art director, to an artist, to a publisher, to the consumer to create the sphere of influence in which these art pieces (both written and visual) can exist.  There is no easy solution. It is a whole cultural setting in which the realm of the idealized men and objectified women is written about, enforced, and portrayed. No individual or part of the chain of creation can be completely at fault, and blame cannot be so easily delegated.

            So, when a talented artist such as Dos Santos creates works such as the one critiqued by the BBC article, it took several stages for it to become that particular piece. The writer created the character, the art director gave input for the work, and the art was completed through the views of several people, not the artist alone. Also, to have called out an individual piece without these correct justifications was an obvious mistake. Sexist and objectified depictions, in video games, in comics, in the world of Fantastic art, do not exist in a vacuum and do not under the majority of circumstances come into the public view through the work of an individual.

            I’ve heard it said that in the art world that you have to take the jobs offered to you. To start off, you need all the money, work, and publicity you can get. Young artists, or artists just starting off, may find that falling in line with these constricted image types is the best way to begin a career, but this will only continue to perpetuate these images for years to come. Once set in their career, artist can choose to be picky. Steven Belledin, another artist I have had the great opportunity to meet, never compromises his values in his depiction of female characters.  He has said that this has at times put him at odds with those offering jobs, but I would like to assure him that for some viewers and new artists just knowing that not compromising is an option is a light for a better future. 


Let's Talk About XBox One Game

I just got done watching Spike’s live coverage of Xbox One and its exclusive game reveals. Granted, I’m not going to purchase an Xbox One, but I thought it would be fun to see some of the trailers for new games. And it was. Until something so repulsive and yet so familiar happened.

A producer for Killer Instinct was playing a game with an Xbox Live employee, Ashton, in order to demonstrate the powers of Smartglass. Ashton quipped in good humor that whomever thought it was a good idea for her to fight the producer of the game was “gonna get it.” She was a good sport about having the producer massacre her at his own game in front of thousands. And then he said, “Just let it happen. It will be over soon.” To which the audience laughed and applauded.

Yes, because the very real threats of violence against women are FUNNY. The world witnessed what non white hetero cis men experience in the gaming world regularly. Ironically, as Microsoft pushes for more ways to connect to others while gaming, this demo clearly illustrates why this might NOT be a selling point for some.

That would have been enough, but the producer kept going. “Wow, you like this,” he said to Ashton. Her response, “Uh, no. I don’t like this.”

My sentiments exactly. “Uh, no. I don’t like this.”


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Expertise, Comics, and Geekdom

The writers of this blog read/discussed comics last week, so I wanted to write something about them. I mulled it over for awhile. What should I talk about it? I’ve read a few things, like the new Batwoman and New X-Men. I’ve liked most of the things I’ve read so far but I wouldn’t consider myself an avid comic fan. I quickly decided to drop the comic book idea. It’s not that I dislike comics, I just didn’t feel like I was qualified to talk about them.

I explained this to a fellow blogger and they asked, “Why don’t you feel qualified to talk about comics? I think a man with the same amount of exposure to comics as you would not question his authority to speak on the topic.”  Touché. There’s my topic!

If I don’t feel like I know enough about comics to write about them, how many would I have to read to be an expert? Personally, I’d want to have a firm grasp on all the major superhero comics like Batman, Spider-Man, and the Avengers. I’d want to be up to date on their on all of their current plots and know their past histories. Essentially, I’d want to be an expert before I said anything.

Of course, I don’t have to be an expert to give my opinion about something but in the realm of comics I feel like my knowledge, as a woman, would be called into question. It’s not enough to generally like something. In order to be taken seriously, I need to know absolutely everything. If I don’t know everything, well, that would just make me a “faker.”  

There are others who have written about how women must qualify their background and display their credentials before talking about comics or games. Noah Berlatsky phrases it well in the article “‘Fake Geek Girls’ Paranoia is About Male Insecurity, Not Female Duplicity”, “Geekdom is built on cultural knowledge; on how much you've consumed; on what you've consumed; and on how long before everyone else you were able to consume it. That knowledge is—deliberately, essentially, intentionally—used, and meant to be used, as an identity, and, therefore, as power.” Unless I can field all types questions, my knowledge would potentially be challenged. This isn’t limited to geekdom but happens in other realms outside of housekeeping and child rearing (academia, sports, politics, to name a few). Women are just held under tighter scrutiny.

I wanted to bring this up because this fear of being challenged/not knowing enough actively dissuaded me from making a post about comics today. It dissuaded me from writing about something I like. For any girls or women who might find this post, I’d like to encourage you talk about the things you’re interested in. Anyone should be able to engage in a discussion about something they like regardless of if they’re new to it or a long-time fan.

- J. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

She-Hulk, Superheroines, and Seeing Ourselves as Heroes

The cover of Sensational She-Hulk #40
Enter Issue 40 of Sensational She-Hulk: She-Hulk bears all on the cover. An “off-screen” male hand hands her a jump rope while she tries to hide her body behind a newspaper. While essentially nude superheroines are nothing new to comics, She-Hulk laments on her cover “Hey-- No...! You’re kidding right?”.

The issue continues with her addressing the reader (breaking the fourth-wall) and discussing how ridiculous it is that a woman of her power and standing is reduced to this for some boosts in sales. Not only is the commentary hilarious, it is also poignant. Here is a woman in comics that is saying “Hey, do you ever notice how ridiculous this sexualization is?”.

She-Hulk doesn't care for your sexualization.
To male readers she may open their eyes to the double standard. Whether these pages and She-Hulk’s overall powerful lady persona do anything to change men’s minds about sexualization, I think She-Hulk’s true power lies in her ability to reach out to women and girls. She is a superheroine that makes no apologies. She’s strong, and often angry, and many of her comics (especially the Savage She-Hulk and Sensational She-Hulk versions) comment directly on sexist attitudes.

In the recent GDC panel on #1ReasontoBe, one panelist said that because the culture is hostile and the games sexualize and erase women, young women don’t think of themselves as gamers and thus don’t think of themselves as becoming game developers. Comics have that same potential. Women and girls often see themselves as sexual objects in comics. Even with superpowers, female characters are written and designed to be enjoyed by a heterosexual male audience. How can young women strive to be superheroes, strive to be comics artists, writers and editors, if the books that come out and the culture surrounding comics is so hostile to women?
She-Hulk is often aware she's a comic book character.
And yet there are beacons of light. I think that Savage and Sensational She-Hulk is an example of a great role model character. Unfortunately, she’s not an A-List hero. Her trademark break of the forth wall was popularized later by male superhero Deadpool and many write her off as “just a female Hulk” before they even pick up an issue.

Jennifer Walters is a successful lawyer who becomes the She-Hulk thanks to her cousin Bruce Banner. In her hulked form, She-Hulk gains confidence and speaks her mind. She doesn’t lose her ability to articulate, but she does gain physical strength. Once she learns to control her ability to hulk, she actually prefers her hulk form. She later becomes a successful lawyer who serves other superhumans in the Marvel Universe. She-Hulk is a member of the Avengers and a reserve member of the Fantastic Four, among other teams. She values strength, but also justice and compassion and her character is often hilarious.
Savage She-Hulk fights Iron Man, with intelligence!

She-Hulk isn’t a total win, though, because she is often sexualized. Her hulked out form increases her breast-size and she doesn’t get nearly as much muscle as her male Hulk counterpart. It’s important to recognize these components when discussing She-Hulk, even if you are fan of her, as I am.

I think She-Hulk and other strong, successful women deserve their own series. These superheroines not only give women (young and old) role models that can help them feel welcome in comic creation and comic culture, but these superheroines show women as they really are. Sure, real women don’t have super-strength, the power of flight or invisibility-- but real women do have incredible strength, emotionally and physically, are successful and are incredibly complex. Comics should reflect the complexity of women not just to help young women recognize their potential, but because complex women are a reality and we should celebrate that. We should be able to imagine ourselves as heroes-- because we already are heroes.


(For more on seeing women as heros, check out this ongoing Kickstarter and this excerpt from the Wonder Women! the Untold Story of American Superheroines documentary).