Not Your Exotic Fantasy – Feminist Frequency

Not Your Exotic Fantasy

#Tropes vs Women in Video Games

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Anita Sarkeesian

Executive Director and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Enthusiast

This episode explores the ways in which sexist, racist stereotypes about Black women and tribal cultures that date back for centuries are often still perpetuated today in representations of women from indigenous and tribal cultures in video games.

These representations link sexism and racism to exotify these women, depicting them as primitive, savage, and hypersexualized. We examine the historical roots of these racist and sexist myths in America and the damage they continue to cause, and demonstrate how these representations are acts of cultural appropriation. We then conclude by sharing some examples of games that challenge damaging stereotypes rather than reinforcing them by offering representations of people and cultures that are honest, respectful, and humanizing.

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This episode explores the ways in which sexist, racist stereotypes about Black women and tribal cultures that date back for centuries are often still perpetuated today in representations of women from indigenous and tribal cultures in video games.

These representations link sexism and racism to exotify these women, depicting them as primitive, savage, and hypersexualized. We examine the historical roots of these racist and sexist myths in America and the damage they continue to cause, and demonstrate how these representations are acts of cultural appropriation. We then conclude by sharing some examples of games that challenge damaging stereotypes rather than reinforcing them by offering representations of people and cultures that are honest, respectful, and humanizing.

This is the seventh episode in season two of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. For more on the format changes accompanying season two, please see our announcement on Kickstarter for more information.

About the Series

The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects. This video series is created by Anita Sarkeesian and the project was funded by 6968 awesome backers on Kickstarter.com

Games Referenced in this Episode

Far Cry 3 (2012)
Resident Evil 5 (2009)
Hyrule Warriors (2014)
Diablo III (2012)
Golden Axe: Beast Rider (2008)
Gun.Smoke (1985)
StarTropics (1990)
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
Street Fighter IV (2008)
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 (2006)
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (2007)
Remember Me (2013)
Mafia III (2016)
1979 Revolution: Black Friday (2016)
Never Alone (2014)

Transcript

CLIP: Resident Evil 5
“Wait! Wait! You’re not going alone.”

Ubisoft’s 2012 game Far Cry 3 casts players as Jason Brody, a young white American man vacationing in Bangkok with his brother and their white friends. But their carefree fun comes to an end when a skydiving trip goes wrong and they all end up being kidnapped by evil pirates–who, you guessed it, are not white. Jason escapes and encounters a group of island natives called the Rakyat, who enlist his help to rid their island of the pirates. Ushering Jason into his exotic and exciting new role as a tribal warrior and white savior is Citra, a young woman who is viewed among her people as a “warrior goddess.” Under her guidance, Jason’s adventure rapidly becomes an absurd hodgepodge of racist stereotypes about tribal cultures and Brown women.

At one point, Citra gives Jason a hallucination-inducing drink which leads him into battle with an imagined giant; after he defeats the monster, he’s rewarded with a topless Citra telling him that he is now part of the tribe. Citra’s strange mystical powers return later in the game when she blows a glowing dust into Jason’s face, triggering another hallucinatory sequence that culminates in the game-ending choice: to save Jason’s friends and leave the island, or to do Citra’s bidding: to savagely kill his friends, and stay on the island with her. If players choose to murder Jason’s friends and stay with Citra, a scene plays in which the two of them have sex, then she stabs him while stating that their child will become the new leader of the tribe. I guess those mystical tribal powers of hers just immediately let her know that she’s already pregnant.

CLIP: Far Cry 3
“And I’ll be yours.”

On one hand, Citra is yet another example of a female character whose sexuality is presented as a motivator and reward for the presumed straight male player. But there’s something more insidious happening with Citra: Her body paint and magical powers which suggest she practices some sort of tribal mysticism, which also root her in a longstanding tradition of racist stereotypes. These elements of sexism and racism intersect, turning Citra into a stereotype of an exotic, primitive, mystical, savage, sexualized woman of color.

This linking of sexism and racism is an example of what’s called exotification. Exotification occurs when a group is treated as inherently different, alluring, and strange.

CLIP: You Only Live Twice
“…like a lamb to the slaughter.”

For instance, when certain white men falsely view Asian women as inherently more obedient or submissive than women from other cultures, and sexually fetishize them as a result of these false notions, those women are being exotified, and their race is falsely depicted as the defining aspect of their character and personality.

CLIP: The Barbarian and the Geisha
“America…so far away.”
“Not so far away that I’ll forget you.”

For the purposes of this episode, we’re focusing specifically on racist stereotypes of tribal and indigenous cultures, but it’s important to note that women of color from any background can be and often are stereotyped and exotified. Sometimes Black female characters are exotified entirely through clothing that simultaneously sexualizes them while also evoking racist stereotypes. 2009’s Resident Evil 5 introduced a new character to the series: Sheva Alomar, a Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance agent who joins Chris Redfield as he confronts an outbreak of infected in a fictional region of Africa. The first time you play through the game, Sheva looks like this. However, once the story has been completed, if players also collect all 30 BSAA tokens scattered throughout the levels, they unlock a new outfit for Sheva called the “Tribal costume.”

Equipping this outfit takes Sheva, who up until this point has been wearing somewhat practical attire for the work she’s doing, and shoves her into a leopard-print bikini top and a few tatters of fabric around her waist, while also applying paint markings to decorate her face and body.

In Hyrule Warriors, the villain Cia is one half of the spirit of the original Sorceress, a noble being who watched over the balance of the Triforce. When the evil Ganondorf drives the light from the Sorceress’ soul, she splits into two, with her virtuous half becoming Lana, who, like the similarly righteous Link and Zelda, is fair-skinned. Meanwhile, her evil half becomes the darker-skinned Cia, who casts dark magic, wears an extremely sexualized outfit, and whose body is adorned with markings reminiscent of tribal body paint. These differences between Lana and Cia, two halves of the same being, directly link the color of their skin to their goodness and virtue, falsely suggesting that a lighter skin tone reflects a purer, more noble spirit. In reality, lighter-skinned women of color are often depicted as more desirable and more virtuous because they come closer to meeting the culturally dominant white beauty standards. This insidious notion that a darker skin tone reflects a less moral or virtuous soul is hardly new to the Zelda franchise, in which the heroic and noble characters like Link and Zelda are fair-skinned while the recurring villain Ganondorf is associated with the darker-skinned Gerudo people.

In Diablo 3, there are six–soon to be seven–classes to choose from, but only one of them is represented by Black characters–the witch doctor. Employing just about every visual stereotype about tribal warriors in the book: elaborate piercings, skull masks and body paint, and carrying voodoo dolls and shrunken heads as items of power, the witch doctor is a caricature of tribal identity rooted in centuries-old racist imagery that has no place being perpetuated in the 21st century.

And this is nothing new. Harmful, ignorant racist stereotypes have been used in the design of supporting characters and enemies in games for decades. And often the result is female characters who are both sexualized and exotified.

CLIP: Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
“Have you come to kill me?”

It’s no secret that fighting games often feature sexualized female characters, and often feature characters whose design is rooted in ethnic stereotypes. Sometimes, these two elements combine in sexualized, exotified female characters. In Street Fighter 4, Elena wears…well, she wears almost nothing, but the bands that she wears on her arms, legs and neck vaguely suggest African tribal culture, and she possesses that stereotypical character trait of a mystical connection to the earth.

CLIP: Street Fighter 4
“I’ll show you my dance! You ready?”

All these stereotypes are anything but harmless. Here in the United States, racist images and stereotypes of Black women have been doing tremendous harm for centuries. In fact, false ideas about Black women as inherently hypersexual beings were perpetuated in Southern slaveholding society. This was a time when oppressive Victorian ideas still held sway, creating a false sense of womanhood as inherently domestic, submissive, chaste, innocent, and modest. But the reality of Black women’s lives as slaves was irreconcilable with these notions; not only were female slaves of course denied any and all basic rights as people; they were also often forced to be naked when on display at auctions, were regularly whipped in partial or total nudity as punishment, and were frequently sexually assaulted and raped by their owners. In her essential book Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry explores how myths about Black women’s sexuality were deliberately perpetuated by white people as a way of rationalizing their cruel and dehumanizing treatment of female slaves:

“The myth of black women as lascivious, seductive, and insatiable was a way of reconciling the forced public exposure and commoditization of black women’s bodies with the Victorian ideals of women’s modesty and fragility. The idea that black women were hypersexual beings created space for white moral superiority by justifying the brutality of Southern white men.”

These false, harmful stereotypes and their tragic impact have remained alive through the centuries and into the present day. Throughout most of American history up to and including much of the 20th century, the sexual assault and rape of black women by white men was almost never treated as a crime. In her book Dark Continent of Our Bodies: historian E. Frances White writes, “Virtually no legal protection was provided for women who were portrayed as loose and licentious. Under such conditions, black women–promiscuous by definition–found it nearly impossible to convince the legal establishment that men of any race should be prosecuted for sexually assaulting them. The rape of black women was simply no crime at all.”

Obviously, the problem here is not with the idea of representing women who come from tribal cultures. Our media absolutely should reflect the cultural diversity of the world we live in. But that’s not what characters like these do, at all. These are not respectful, well-researched representations of actual cultures. Rather, they represent a form of cultural appropriation: when a dominant culture exploits, and often profits from, the history, culture, or traditions of a marginalized group. Like a white person putting on a sombrero and a fake moustache, grabbing a bottle of tequila and saying they’re going as “a Mexican” for Halloween, these offensive and embarrassing depictions reduce rich cultures down to a few stereotypical signifiers. Mystical powers, skimpy, tattered clothing, body paint, and racialized hypersexualization are used as shorthand for “exotic.” As a result, these signifiers reinforce extremely false and damaging stereotypes about the people and cultures that they’re appropriating.

These false, harmful myths and stereotypes continue to contribute to the marginalization and oppression of women of color in America today. For instance, in her book The Politics of Disgust feminist theorist Ange-Marie Hancock demonstrates how racial stereotypes about Black women contribute to a political system in which the marginalized continue to be underserved, oppressed, and unheard.

We very rarely see portrayals of women of color in games that incorporate the cultural history of those characters in honest, respectful ways. In many ways Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 and its follow-up episodes is a great character, and it’s good to see a non-sexualized woman of color in such a prominent role, but the game isn’t concerned with her cultural background. Nilin, the biracial protagonist of Remember Me, is a sexualized female protagonist, but the sexualization doesn’t employ racist tropes. Like Alyx, her cultural background is treated as irrelevant.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many positive examples of women of color in games whose cultural history isn’t erased but also isn’t presented as the stuff of racist stereotypes. And that’s a shame, because characters whose cultural background is incorporated honestly and respectfully can work to challenge the deeply racist status quo. We are at least seeing some improvement where Black male protagonists are concerned. Though they’re both far from perfect in terms of representation, 2016’s Watch Dogs 2 and Mafia 3 center Black male characters and acknowledge Black identity and structural racism as aspects of those characters’ lives. Mafia III does feature a supporting character named Cassandra, a woman of Haitian heritage whose background is very important to her character. Cassandra fights the entrenched Italian mafia and their racist brutality against the poor black citizens of the game’s fictional southern city.

The game 1979 Revolution doesn’t center a woman as its protagonist, but in telling the story of the Iranian Revolution it illustrates how games can introduce players to new cultural perspectives in ways that are respectful and compelling, and that work to counteract stereotypes rather than to reinforce them.

CLIP: 1979 Revolution
“We’re a nation of equality greater than western capitalism!”

One game with a female protagonist that does an excellent job of incorporating a character’s cultural history and traditions is Never Alone, which stars a young girl named Nuna, a member of the Inupiat people of Alaska. Folklore and traditions of the Inupiat are incorporated throughout the game in a respectful way that enriches the player’s understanding of these people and their experiences.

This kind of respectful treatment of cultural history and traditions should be the norm, but instead games more often just plunder marginalized cultures with no sense of respect and no concern whatsoever about accurately reflecting the people and traditions they’re appropriating from. To put it simply, it’s not okay for games to reduce these cultures to stereotypical costumes and personality traits in an effort to add a bit of exotic flair to their worlds. It should not be too much to ask for and expect representations of people of color whose cultural backgrounds are acknowledged and woven into their characters in ways that are thoughtful, validating, and humanizing.

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