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What did they do to you?: Our women heroes problem Exclusive

What did they  do  to you?: Our women heroes problem
June 11, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

June 11, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Programming, Exclusive, E3

Lara Croft is a strange icon, and her recent arc in games is even stranger: We're going to legitimize this fetish object from the 1990s by battering her, and then taking her to therapy. I winced when I saw the 2012 trailer, the grunts of a woman being tenderized like a nice steak.

Yesterday at E3 it was announced that the "story" of Lara Croft is continuing, through Rise of the Tomb Raider -- we see the action heroine talking with her therapist about post-traumatic stress. And I winced again.

This, we are made to understand, is how you become a heroine, a tomb raider. Our lead characters have to be hard, and while we accept a male hero with a five o'clock shadow and a bad attitude generally unquestioned, a woman seems to need a reason to be hard. Something had to have been done to her.

"I know it's upsetting, what you've been through," whispers another treatment figure to the heroine of Infamous: First Light, another game with a ponytailed heroine shown at E3 2014 last night. Like Lara, she wears a cozy hoodie, curls in on herself. We like to peek through the windows and behind the shower curtains and into the doctor's appointments of our fragile heroines and voyeuristically thrill at their damage, looking forward to their moments of revelation and revenge.

It seems that when you want to make a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to make a man into a hero, you hurt... also a woman first.

Men in video games are frequently defined by their fridge maidens. A man's wife dies. Or his girlfriend, or his daughter or mother, and he is shattered, out for retribution.

I asked Twitter to help name video games where this happens, and my replies feed has been updating almost constantly since, across numerous conversation threads: Max Payne, God of War, Gears of War, The Darkness, Shadows of the Damned, Dante's Inferno, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dead Space, Watch Dogs, and on and on.

A common reply: "all of them." It's very nearly true, even for games lauded for storytelling: Braid, Shadow of the Colossus and ICO feature characters whose purpose is a lost woman; The Last of Us, a game I love, opens by introducing us to Joel's stunningly-believable daughter, a drowsy kid with glow-stars on her ceiling, before taking her away. The intro is gut-punching. People keep doing it because it works.


One can't abolish classic structural tropes. Each instance taken separately isn't inherently wrong, and nobody is trying to erase it. But the picture of how we understand heroism in games is bizarrely unbalanced at a distance -- to some extent the games industry can clearly tell its audience is exhausted of the grizzled warrior staring sadly down at the torn photo of a dead girl and that it's beyond time to change things up, to offer something new. Now, they're giving us women who stare sadly down at their own trembling hands.

Tell me what they did to you, we croon, pupils dilating. We need, for some reason, to see that she can be vulnerable. We need to know how she can still be a bad-ass while she still looks so approachable, so hot, so much like we can have her.

I'm far from the first person to criticize the focus on "strong" when it comes to female protagonists. As Sophia McDougall puts it in this New Statesman piece, "Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong." Further, we seem to have problematic ideas of how women become Strong -- men break them, we assume.

Abstracted ideas about post-traumatic stress disorder or the catch-all "mental health issues" are common in games -- apparently the logic is if we're trying to advance narratives in action games, we need to find nuanced rationales for why we're killing so many people with aplomb. "Mental health issues" are always why people shoot other people, if you believe the news lately (despite the fact that sufferers of mental illness are more likely to be at risk of violent harm than to perpetrate it).

And every time we have conversations about the traumatized protagonist, there's an understandable retort: "why can't games deal with trauma and disorder?" Of course they can. Arguably they should, as video games are nothing if not an elaborate way for us to self-manage, self-soothe. In this personal essay, Rhea Monique shares why it's important to her to see women who don't have to apologize for showing their wounds, and that perspective matters: No one is wrong for what they relate to.

But here's the unfortunate thing: We've really only got this one mode of approach. I don't think it's farfetched to theorize that video games are still largely populated by men who feel unsure about how to write and build nuanced women. These days we often discuss our recent year or so of dads in games, as, we assume, the majority-male game developers mature from young men who'd like to attain and impress a woman to older adults with kids of their own, and a vulnerable girl shifts from object of desire into something to protect.

That's an understandable reflection of the experience of those creators. But in all these Dad Games, where are their mothers? In The Last of Us, Joel's daughter Sarah's mother is absent; she just left, somehow. Clementine's mother in The Walking Dead is a distant figure, later revealed to've gone undead. Ni No Kuni and Brothers are both recent games about children whose mothers have recently died. The mother of BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth is shown at one point to be an actual evil ghost. Mothers are rarely heroic in games, but are literally peripheral spectres, distant and often frightening.

Well-intentioned men sometimes chastise one another about sexism: "She could be your wife. She could be your daughter. Think about if someone did this to your girlfriend or your mom." How about just "she's a human being"? It's all part of a bigger problem, in that media, especially geek media, still too often only understands women in terms of their relationship to men. The question is never who is she, but what did they do to her.

There is still little exploration of how heroic qualities -- not necessarily "strength", but relatability, motivation, complexity -- in women can exist independently. There are still few roles for them other than catalyst for male revelation or victim defined by male abuse.

All people exist in an ecosystem and are defined by their experiences and affected by the people in their lives. But when we want to know why our favorite male leads are the way they are, we don't just think about the women who happened to them or the trauma they endured: We think about their beliefs, their thoughts and feelings, their goals and desires. Their personalities, their habits, their quirks, their flaws.

This isn't to say that videogames' square-jawed, square-shouldered guy heroes always have a good infrastructure to answer those questions (nor always need one). Perhaps if we uncoupled the weird cause-and-effect relationship games seem to have between suffering women and men, we'd have more nuanced male characters, too. Why don't we see more men who get to be broken, for example? Many studies say men are less likely to seek help for mental health issues than women -- why reinforce that as correct?

And most of all, I'd like to see more games that see women as people, not the passive sum of what they endure until they're "done", ready to come out of the oven and fight.

Until then, the well-intentioned therapy sessions in games will keep making my skin crawl. "I can't help you unless you open up," someone croons to Infamous: First Light's squirming Fetch Walker. "A girl your age should be exploring new horizons," Lara's doctor tells her as she taps her foot anxiously. "I'd like to know you're taking care of yourself."

Right. I'm sure.

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