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Body Language & The Male Gaze – Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Movement can be a powerful thing. Most of us who play games can appreciate the importance of a well-timed jump in a platformer, or a skillful dodge in a fighting game, but sometimes it’s the seemingly ordinary movements that actually tell us the most about a character. The way they do simple things like walk, or sit down. And like anything else about a character, movement can be used in ways that resist tired gender stereotypes, or in ways that reinforce them. In Bungie’s hugely successful online shooter Destiny, players start by creating their own character, a Guardian who will fight to protect the last remnants of humanity. As with character creation tools in other games, this one lets you choose from different genders and races. In most ways, Destiny treats its playable female characters almost identically to how it treats its male characters; for instance, the armor you acquire when playing as a female character isn’t sexualized, but looks just as practical and stylish as the gear equipped by male characters. However, there is one way in which the male and female characters are differentiated by gender, and it has to do with their movement. Watch how a male guardian sits down, taking a load off after a long, hard day fighting the forces of pure evil. It’s simple. It suggests confidence. When a female character sits down, however, it’s a completely different story. She sits like a delicate flower. This is supposed to be a hardened space warrior and yet she is sitting around like she’s Ariel from The Little Mermaid. A character’s animation and movement is just as much a part of who they are as their appearance and their clothing. And like any other aspect of a character, game designers use movement to communicate information about them to the player. This isn’t inherently a bad thing; expressive character animations are just a way for the game to contribute to our understanding of who a character is and what defines them. How a character walks, jumps, even how they sit down can tell us a lot about them. For instance, Ree-u Hayabusa’s precise and graceful movement conveys that he is a highly trained ninja, while the way Nathan Drake scrambles and fumbles in dangerous situations is meant to suggest that he’s more of a relatable, ordinary guy who just keeps finding himself in extraordinary circumstances. Nathan: “[Laughing] We were almost in that!” By contrast, the way that women move in games isn’t just used to suggest their confidence or their skill or some other facet of their personality. It’s very often used, in conjunction with other aspects of their design, to make them exude sexuality for the entertainment of the presumed straight male player. Catwoman from the Arkham series has a deeply exaggerated hip sway when she walks. In combination with her clothing and the game’s camera angles, all of this is meant to drive the player’s focus to her highly sexualized butt. In Resident Evil: Revelations, Jill Valentine somehow manages to wiggle her whole body while she runs. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Evie Frye is a character who avoids falling into many of the sexualizing traps that some playable female characters do. But she still walks with an exaggerated hip sway. In Saints Row the Third, you can change your character’s gender at any time. If you go to the clinic and swap your gender from male to female, you also come away with a newly sexualized walking animation, even though you’re literally supposed to be the same character. Male heroes are allowed to simply walk like normal human beings, in ways that are “average” or strong or graceful or goofy. Meanwhile, motion-captured animations for female characters often make them look as if they’re walking down a runway at a fashion show in stiletto heels, even when the characters are actually in combat situations. Watching these characters in-game movement animations, you’d think that the director of the motion capture session directed them to walk like a model instead of a hardened space warrior or master thief or bioterrorism agent or crime boss or vampire or assassin. Of course, in the real world, people do walk with a sway of the hips when wearing high heels. If we want to get really technical about it, this slight hip sway occurs in order to maintain balance. This in and of itself is not a problem, (other than generally being deeply uncomfortable), but it raises an important question: why are these female characters in combat roles wearing high heels!? With all the fighting, running, and climbing these women have to do, dressing them in heels is clearly a decision rooted in sexualized aesthetic pleasure rather than believability. In fact, animating so many female characters in games to fit into this very gendered, sexualizing walk pattern is an example of one of the ways the male gaze manifests in video games. The term male gaze was coined in 1975 by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey and refers to the tendency for the visual arts to assume, and be structured around, a presumed masculine viewer, or in this case, player. The male gaze manifests when the camera takes on the perspective of a stereotypical heterosexual man. An indisputable example of this is when the camera lingers, caresses, or pans across a woman’s body– although it’s not always that obvious. In games, it can be as simple as the in-game camera resting so that a character’s butt or breasts or both are centerline, it can be cutscenes that rest on a woman’s butt, it can be clothing that they are wearing or the way they talk, or it can be as basic as the way a female character moves around the game world. The male gaze reinforces the notion that the man looks, and the woman is looked at. Or as art critic John Berger explains in the 1972 book Ways of Seeing, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.” To be clear, the male gaze is not a hard and fast rule; it’s a theoretical concept that is meant to help us understand the sometimes subtle and nuanced ways in which our culture influences media, and the way that media, in turn, can shape and reinforce existing gender dynamics in our culture. The male gaze is also not in any way limited to men or heterosexual people. Almost all of us internalize and sometimes identify with the male gaze to some extent. Eradicating the male gaze is not as simple as introducing an inversed female gaze that sexualizes men, either. Not just because equal opportunity sexual objectification isn’t the answer, but also, because it isn’t actually equal. One reinforces preexisting oppressive ideas about women that are real and damaging to women in their everyday lives, the other does not reinforce anything. Nor are the two interchangeable. For example, when the satirical website The Hawkeye Initiative reimagines male characters in sexualized poses that are common for female characters, it isn’t using the “female gaze.” This is just the male gaze, applied to men. When male characters are depicted as shirtless or wearing little clothing- like the character sometimes dubbed “Hot Ryu” from Street Fighter V- their lack of clothing demonstrates their power and strength, rather than depicting them as erotic playthings or reducing them to sexualized body parts. The same is true when it comes to movement. Male characters get to move in ways that emphasize all sorts of characteristics and personality traits, but there’s a whole world of untapped potential for representations of female characters who aren’t animated in ways that frame them as sex objects, but who get to just be stealthy or strong, swift or imposing, clumsy or graceful. The way Ellie moves in The Last of Us communicates a sense of tension and danger, demonstrating what it’s like when female characters are animated in ways that emphasize their personality and emotional state rather than serving to sexually objectify them. The path towards equality and liberation does not lie in equally reducing men and women to objectified parts, but in treating people of all genders and with all types of bodies as full and complete human beings.

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