I recently read a post titled Game Gals, posted by The Jones Rant. In it, the author discusses the notion of objectification in video games. In sum, he suggests that 1) It’s not bad to objectify video game characters, 2) 1 is true because all video game characters are meant to be acted upon. As always, I encourage you to read the article prior to reading this, as there’s a lot of context that I will not be adding to this post, only to save time. This post serves as a rebuttal in part, but mostly as a reply to very interesting questions both in the body of his post, as well as the comments that further inspired this post. Unlike the great many posts I have come across concerning this issue, this particular article attempts to articulate important questions, indeed a different point of view, that should be included in any conversation that pertains to the current debate surrounding video game culture.
The author of Game Gals states he read a comment in a Forbes article that said, essentially, what he wanted to say, and that the individual who wrote the comment began by defining objectify, and sexist, and that mixing the two begets sexual objectification. For the sake of integrity, I will also define those words here.
According to the dictionary, objectify means:
1 : to treat as an object or cause to have objective reality
2: to give expression to (as an abstract notion, feeling, or ideal) in a form that can be experienced by others
and sexism (sexist) means:
1 : prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women
2 : behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex
Our modern understanding of objectification began with Immanuel Kant, especially within the feminist framework. Kant believed objectification to be the act of reducing someone to an object, in effect removing (or ignoring) their humanity, and he believed humanity to refer to a persons ability to make rational choices. To him, humanity led to the concept of dignity, and in the end, he believed that the humanity of people should be treated as both a means and an end, not simply one or the other. Kant also believed that objectification outside of monogamous relationships made it more likely for people to be objectified only for means of sexual desire. Lastly, Kant agreed that both men and women can, and indeed are, objectified, but that women bare the brunt of that objectification.
Kant’s influence on feminist notions of sexual objectification cannot be ignored, as it created the philosophical underpinnings for our modern view of the term. That being said, objectification has since been more broadly defined by Martha Nussbaum, who identified seven traits in treating people as objects:
- instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
- denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
- inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
- fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
- violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
- ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
- denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account
Another scholar added three others:
- reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
- reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
- silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.
Nussbaum has also stated that objectification isn’t necessarily, or always a bad thing, and that context matters. She also states that her classifications may also be too broad, in some ways they can lead to the idea that everyone is objectified. Several individuals, most notable Alan Soble, and Leslie Green, have argued that everyone is in fact objectified, although Soble takes it to a different level, arguing that no one person can dehumanize another due to a lack of ontological status. Although that may be the case, Nussbaum states that context is extremely important. If a husband catcalls his wife, consent is present, indeed, it may be a regular routine in that relationship. The context of this event does not necessarily negatively dehumanize the individual, as the husband readily understands the humanity of his wife, and in fact, may in part be doing what he is doing not just out of some primal desire, but because he also admires his wife. The wife may also find pleasure from this.
In contrast, however, if a woman is walking down the street, and a random man driving down the road catcalls a woman, there is no consent present. The man has no understanding of the woman, and in fact is only doing it because he finds her sexually appealing. Her capacity to make rational decisions means little to nothing to the man. The woman walking down the street may feel dehumanized from this event. Indeed, in a great many instances, that is how women feel. To this point, it is important to state that women must live up to very specific standards of beauty. These standards have an impact on anxiety, and depression. This cannot go ignored, or understated in context of this discussion. Moreover, research has shown that these beauty standards impact self-esteem, and image of themselves, in a negative way. A recent post that I wrote elaborates on some of the research, and you can read more on the topic here as well. Fore examples of marketing and objectification of women, you can read this article.
At this point, some of you may read this and say: “but men experience that too!” First, I would say that you are correct. Indeed, many scholars on the topic of sexual objectification, indeed feminists en mass, would readily agree with you. They may also say that this is a sign of trouble, and not progress, because it in fact makes the problem worse. Feminists would also say that this is indeed a product of patriarchy. Second, I would say that although true, stating as such is not a valid rebuttal towards the sexual objectification of women, nor does the fact that men also have beauty standards negate, or reduce, the overall negative impact that it has on women, or the overall case that women tend to be the victims of said objectification.
So that I may move on from theory, and tackle the article for which this post serves as a reply/rebuttal, I encourage you to read Feminist Perspectives on Objectification published by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is linked above in regards to the facets of objectification. I have in fact read the vast majority of the sources used to create the post, and their page serves as a really good source on the philosophical roots discussed in here, and in other posts. I also encourage you to read Papadaki‘s paper Sexual Objectification: From Kant to Contemporary Feminism published in the journal Contemporary Political Theory, which you can read here. Papadaki shares many views of Nussbaum’s, but also some of the criticisms, particularly that of broadness, as well as futility in actually defining the term sexual objectification.
Moving on, to quote from the Game Gals article:
What is so bad about objectifying a VIDEO GAME CHARACTER. For starters they are already objects. They are not real people and as such have no human rights, liberties, or dignity other than the attributes given to them by their creators. If I want to make a character that is an absolute slut and sleeps with everything that moves (even animals) then that is what she will be….
What about sexualization?…No other medium receives the criticisms and scrutiny that video games receive. Is there some angst that feminists have against young boys being attracted to women – never mind their attraction being perfectly normal, healthy, and necessary for their development as men…We want completely boring, un-sexy, and domineering women to parade around in completely practical armor, and never need rescuing….
So if game characters aren’t human and have no rights, why are we attempting to give them rights?…
We need to stop this crusade against video games and their developers, it’s only serving to stifle creativity and to regress the medium….because sexy women are inherently evil.
Let me be clear – objectification and sexualization are not inherently evil. We do it everyday to people we meet in almost every occasion….
So that no one is confused, each “…” indicates content that I did not include in the quote above. I did this in order to quote the important bits that I want to tackle. Moreover, the bits that I did not quote from do not necessarily redact context. As such, as I stated above, I encourage you to read the entire article for yourself.
That being said, in replying to a comment that I made, the author responded with this:
All video game characters, whether they are male or female are “acted upon”. Even the main protagonist whom you play as is acted upon….Why is it we make a special case for female NPC’s? The shopkeeper in an MMO is there for the player to click on and buy things from. Whether or not it is male or female is irrelevant….
When you catcall a woman on the street are you really “reducing” her? Are you explicitly saying “you are nothing more than legs and breasts”? No, what you are saying is “I acknowledge your beauty”. (following this, the author refers to our biological tendency to seek the most “fit” – although these are my words, I am explaining here to save room)
There’s nothing inherently evil about the “male gaze” despite what Anita Sarkeesian might want to tell you.
First, let’s talk about game characters, and ‘acting upon’ them. The author is correct in saying that every character in any game is an “object”, however digital they may be, or as he refers them “bits of data in a SQL table.” In his reply, he details the fact that you must act upon your main playable character, in order for them to interact with other NPC’s, or, to act upon. Another way of wording it is that you, the person, must act upon to act upon a character. Still, games such as Halo, and Dishonored (for the most part), the main playable character’s actual features are hidden behind a mask. Although there’s been much speculation as to when, or if, Master Chief’s face will ever be shown, there’s been a lot of conversation as to why it remains covered. The voice actor for Master Chief stated back in 2005 that the character is likely left masked so that the identity of him can remain with the player. In a similar mention, Frank O’Conner, the franchise directer, in 2012 stated that he’s left masked so that the player can remember that they aren’t a hero, and that there’s no expectation to be a boy, or a girl.”
Halo is both a poor example, and a good one. For one thing, it’s a poor example in context to sexual objectification, because the whole franchise revolves around (for the most part) playing as Master Chief and shooting aliens. But it’s a good example in context of acting upon characters, and more importantly the “gamey elements” (Frank O’Conner) that are put into games that allow, indeed invite, the player to be in the game. The objects, i.e., the main playable characters, are mean to become extensions of the real physical player. The character, then, is nothing more than a virtual vessel to act upon and interact the other characters in the game. Books work in much the same way. First person dialogues allow the reader to “become” the character discussing life. In third person, you are viewing the events. Although that’s the case, literature still allows the person to fill in the blanks with whatever they think, or wish, to happen. Movies, in large part, lack both the ability to “fill in the blanks”, or even to “act upon”, being reduced only to observation. Video games, on the other hand, allow you to participate, to determine endings, to interact, to juxtapose your own moral values into events, such as Fable, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age.
Context is everything. Referencing back to a recent post (In Defense of Anita Sarkeesian, Pt. 2: Tropes vs. Women), I discussed in part this context. Although I didn’t elaborate so much in that post, it may be pertinent to somewhat elaborate on it now. This having to do with societal roles. Part of the feminist critique of objectification stems from social and gender roles. To this end, feminists argue that women are expected, as per their gender roles, to conform to a standard of beauty, and for no other reason than to gain attention from men by meeting this standard of attraction. Juxtaposing this line of reasoning, with respect to roles, into video games, a trend occurs.
Indeed, the context of role cannot be ignored if we are to discuss objectification, sexualization, or other concepts in video games. In Halo, your role is to kill aliens throughout a very linear campaign. Your role, although hidden behind a mask, is to be an aggressor. As such, you cannot be victimized. Even to that extent, the notions of victim-hood and aggressor, right, wrong, etc., become skewed in context of war – which is a theme in Halo. That being said, in games like Grand Theft Auto, where you play as a male character, and can kill prostitutes, the context is different. Your role, which is changeable only in the way that you want to play, is to be a criminal. There then becomes a very clear notion of victim-hood. The context was coded in that way. Just because a video game is nothing more than bits of data, code, or what have you, does not negate the implementation of very real world situations. It does not negate the fact that you can exercise criminal elements, or violence against women, or see women in battered and violent environments.
Having stated all of that, individuals, such as Anita Sarkeesian, aren’t criticizing the fact that such content exists. Those critiques stem from research, predominantly concerning pornography, and sexual objectification in media, that show how consuming such media, or interacting with such media, leads to male acceptance of the rape myth, as well as an increased likelihood to sexually harass women. There’s a dearth of research with respect to video games, but the trend has most certainly been seen with pornography, media, even marketing. Sarkeesian is arguing that it’s logical to assume the same trend with video games, where women are largely underrepresented, and of that representation, largely misrepresented. Her point isn’t just nuanced explanations, it’s a statistically upheld trend that has existed since the 1980’s. It has little to with making “a special case for female characters” and NPC’s, and more to do with, very conceivable, real world consequences. Moreover, Sarkeesian rejects the gender roles, or the expectation that women should look a certain way: i.e., huge breasts, butts, etc., and having that role completely juxtaposed on video game characters. Sarkeesian’s point isn’t about being including for NPC’s, but inclusive to the interests of female characters. A great many women who play video games would greatly like to see more options, and that’s really the bottom line here. So to that end, I would like to reiterate that no one is attempting to remove nudity, or cleavage, or sexualized characters, or even objectification out of games. That’s never been the point, except by a few more politicized individuals (such as those congressional leaders that aimed to censor music CD’s), Sarkeesian not being on that list of people.
Second, it should be noted that no one is attempting to give video game characters rights, liberties, dignity, or any other modern day facet. This is a straw man argument if used to rebut criticisms of game content, particularly Anita Sarkeesian. She has not advocated for such things. Nor has anyone suggested, or insinuated, that sexy video game characters, or sexy women, are inherently evil. This also is a straw man argument. To her credit, she has argued the contrary. She has stated that 1) having sexualized characters does not automatically make the game sexist, 2) you can like sexualized characters, 3) she argues that attempting to add diversity would actually increase creativy, believing the overused plot devises actually weakens creativity, 4) she has very clearly stated that removing the damsel in distress trope, removing cleavage, or even doing it equally to male characters, are not answers to what she views as a problem. Frankly, all she has genuinely asked for with respect to video games, is more creativity, different challenges, and more accurate representation of women in video games. Hardly a call for abstinence or revenge.
Third, on the matter of catcalls vs compliments, saying “hey baby,” or “hey sexy,” or “nice legs” or what have you, aren’t really compliments. For one thing, that woman isn’t “yours” to call “baby”. This follows the line of thinking that women are taught, from a very early age, that everything they do must be done for men. Regardless of this, catcalling tends to be in the form of very sexual comments, yelling, whistling, blocking paths, or staring, among other things. Saying “that’s a lovely dress” is far different than saying “you have nice legs.” Moreover, the context completely changes when it’s a stranger saying it, as opposed to a friend, or family member. For one thing, a stranger knows nothing about you, they indeed view the woman as an object.
The question then, inevitably, arises, “is catcalling a bad thing?”, or “but I don’t mean it to be mean, or offensive.” First, a great many woman experience that kind of stuff, a lot, and a great many woman, do not like it. So, is it a bad thing? Well, knowing that many women don’t like it, I would simply argue that it’s in her/their best interest for men not to do it, so as not to risk making women feel unsafe, uncomfortable, etc. Second, if you find a woman, who is also a stranger, to be attractive, good for you. How you word things, and when you word things, makes a difference. But more importantly, knowing my first point, it then becomes your discretion to determine if if your feelings should trump hers. I.e., you may not mean to be offensive, but what if how you said it comes across offensive? But my point, overall, is simply this: why even catcall a woman to begin with? I may find many woman attractive, but I have never catcalled them. I’ve never complimented them. There are a great many ways in which you can make a persons day, that don’t risk offending them, or making them feel uncomfortable, and that doesn’t involve their attraction. Tell a joke, simply smile and say “hello”, or “how are you?” Etc. The differences between these examples is that one acknowledges their body, the other acknowledges their humanity. Whether or not catcalling, from a philosophical, or scientific point of view, actually reduces a woman, isn’t really the point that I am attempting to make, support or show. My point is simply this: if women feel uncomfortable experiencing it, and a great many do, why do it?
The male gaze, along with catcalling, are concepts and behaviors (respectively) that take no consideration in the fact that women have a sexuality as well. That they aren’t there simply for men to enjoy. That they are in fact, people. Moreover, Sarkeesian, and others, aren’t saying that it’s inherently evil. They’re point is that it’s a construct of social roles, and that it would be nice if women, in a societal context, weren’t treated in a way that suggested that they exist to be looked at, as opposed to being treated like a person.
Still, it isn’t enough to resort to the biological notions of our sex drives. Indeed, women also have sex drives, but are not prone to the sort of engagement that would render men feelings afraid, or awkward. In the same way that men are programmed to find hips as being more “fit”, women also find various physical traits to be “fit” as well. Yet, it is astounding the subsequent lack of women catcalling men for having “ripped abs” or “hairy arms”, or what have you. Our conceptual notion of catcalling would be reduced to a kind of “mating ritual” akin to frogs, or birds, if we are to go with the notion that we’re just biologically programmed to do it. We are not though. We may be biologically prone to viewing a woman, and finding them attractive (or vice versa for women, or the same (or different) for LTBTQ) for purposes of mating, but that is not the same as saying that we’re biological prone to saying “nice boobs!” Even more to the point, catcalling isn’t about reproduction, or finding a “fit” partner, it’s about sexual pleasure, which is a very important distinction. Following feminist and sociological thinking, that sexual pleasure is in context of a society that overtly, and overly emphasizes the idea that women are meant to be used by, or looked at by men for their pleasure. There are social influences that alter our notions of attraction. Sexual attraction is a waltz between biological and social influences, with biology taking the lead.
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Edited: added the last paragraph concerning biological notions of attraction.