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Anita Sarkeesian

Executive Director and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Enthusiast

This episode explores how female villains in games very often function to demonize femaleness itself, drawing on patterns of female representation that have roots in creatures from myth and folklore which reinforced misogynistic attitudes about women in their own time.

We look at Grotesquely Female characters: those who communicate that femaleness is abhorrent and disgusting, and at Sinister Seductresses: those who suggest that female sexuality is inherently threatening and misleading. We then explore characters who blend these two notions, initially appearing attractive and alluring, only to have their true form revealed as monstrous and deadly. Finally, we demonstrate that it’s entirely possible to have great female villains who don’t serve to reinforce false, misogynistic ideas about women as a whole.

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This episode explores how female villains in games very often function to demonize femaleness itself, drawing on patterns of female representation that have roots in creatures from myth and folklore which reinforced misogynistic attitudes about women in their own time.

We look at Grotesquely Female characters: those who communicate that femaleness is abhorrent and disgusting, and at Sinister Seductresses: those who suggest that female sexuality is inherently threatening and misleading. We then explore characters who blend these two notions, initially appearing attractive and alluring, only to have their true form revealed as monstrous and deadly. Finally, we demonstrate that it’s entirely possible to have great female villains who don’t serve to reinforce false, misogynistic ideas about women as a whole.

This is the fifth 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

Doom 3 (2004)
Diablo 3 (2012)
God of War II (2007)
Dante’s Inferno (2010)
Bloodforge (2012)
Battletoads Arcade (1994)
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 (2009)
Hitman: Absolution (2012)
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013)
DmC: Devil May Cry (2013)
Ms. Splosion Man (2011)
Gears of War 3 (2011)
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (2014)
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II (2004)
Portal 2 (2011)
Portal (2007)
Where in the U.S.A. is Carmen Sandiego? (1996)

Transcript

CLIP: Mass Effect 2
“Look into my eyes and tell me you want me. Tell me you’d kill for me. Anything I want.”

Id Software’s 2004 game Doom 3 took the basic concept of their earlier Doom titles–a space marine singlehandedly fighting his way through hordes of demonic abominations–but it used the vastly improved computer graphics of its time to create a moodier, scarier tone. Along with the reimagined environments, sharper textures and more atmospheric lighting effects, the creative team also designed some unsettling new monsters for this latest confrontation with the forces of hell. One of those new monsters was the Vagary, a monstrosity with the upper half of a naked woman and the lower half of a giant spider, who also happens to be pregnant with a demon fetus in her abdomen.

It’s no mistake that the Vagary blends female sexuality and fertility with elements designed to be unsettling or horrifying. The book The Making of Doom 3 reveals that the game’s creative team summed up the driving concept for the Vagary with the equation, “sexy + gross = creepy.” What the makers of Doom 3 may not have realized is that this equation was in no way new, original, or innovative. On the contrary, by singling out the Vagary, the only female enemy in the game, for her gender and using this to make her uniquely repulsive, the designers were participating in a very long tradition of creating female creatures who function to demonize femaleness itself.

To understand how such characters function, we actually need to venture back a few millennia, to times when myth and folklore were part of how people interpreted and made sense of the world. Just as modern media both reflects and shapes our culture today, those ancient stories weren’t simply meaningless entertainment in their own time. They reflected and reinforced cultural values. Sadly, misogyny has been part of cultures for the past few-thousand years, and the myths and folktales of those cultures reflect that, with female creatures and monsters who represented beliefs that women are inherently deceptive, manipulative, or evil.

In his book Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, Jack Holland explores this through the story of Pandora from Greek mythology. The first woman, Pandora was created by Zeus specifically to punish humanity after Prometheus stole fire from the gods. She’s given a sealed jar and told to never open it, but because Zeus designed her to be evil and lacking in morals or manners, of course she does open it. By doing so, she unleashes evil into the world, dooming humankind to labor, suffering, aging, illness, and death. Hmm, where else have I heard a story about the first woman doing something she’s not supposed to and being responsible for all the bad things in the world?

Commenting on what the tale of Pandora and others like it actually tell us about ancient Greece, Holland writes:

“As well as burdening Pandora with responsibility for the moral lot of man, the Greeks created a vision of woman as ‘the Other’, the antithesis to the male thesis, who needed boundaries to contain her… Any history of the attempt to dehumanize half the human race is confronted by this paradox, that some of the values we cherish most were forged in a society that devalued, denigrated and despised women.”

And in his book The Gender Knot, Allan G. Johnson discusses the relationship between mythology and misogyny, saying:

“The cultural expression of misogyny–the hatred of femaleness–takes many forms. It’s found in ancient and modern beliefs that women are inherently evil and a primary cause of human misery–products of what the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras called the ‘evil principle which created chaos, darkness, and woman.’”

So there’s a little mathematical fun fact for you: the guy who came up with the theorem you learned in geometry class wasn’t just a brilliant mathematician, he was also a total misogynist!

The equation “sexy + gross = creepy” pertains not just to the Vagary but to a whole category of characters I refer to as “grotesquely female.” These are characters who incorporate highly gendered or sexualized elements in ways that are specifically intended to be creepy or disgusting.

Other examples of the grotesquely female include Diablo 3’s Cydaea, the maiden of lust, who spouts dialogue in a sensual, seductive tone while also taking the form of a giant spider woman.

CLIP: Diablo 3
“I will take great pleasure in your suffering.”

Clotho, the third sister of fate in God of War 2, has naked breasts all over her body in a way that is clearly meant to be repulsive, while in Dante’s Inferno, Cleopatra’s nipples release demon babies who attack the player. And, well, I don’t think this footage of the boss Cailleach from Bloodforge needs any explanation.

CLIP: Bloodforge
“[yells]”

Now of course, there’s no shortage of male characters in games who are also meant to elicit disgust, but the unsettling nature of those characters is not explicitly tied to their gender. They don’t function to suggest that maleness itself is inherently disgusting or dangerous. With these female characters, on the other hand, their grotesque nature is inextricably tied to their gender. Elements that are often presented as titillating in other contexts are twisted and made repugnant, so that their femaleness itself is what serves to make them disgusting.

Exploiting women’s femaleness is not always done by presenting them as repulsive. With some, it’s their attractiveness or seductiveness that makes them worthy of fear, scorn, and contempt. Among the most famous female mythological creatures are the Sirens, whose voices were irresistibly alluring to men who sailed near their island and heard their songs. But the music of the Sirens was as dangerous as it was captivating, and the sailors who were seduced by the sound soon found themselves shipwrecked and stranded. Some interpretations characterize the Sirens as cannibals who murdered the shipwrecked men and feasted on their flesh.

And there are endless other mythological creatures created explicitly to demonize women such as the succubus: a female demon who sexually lures and seduces men; the harpy: a screeching bird creature with the face of a woman; and of course the classic witch, a dangerous myth that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of real women across Europe and the American colonies in the 16th and 17th centuries.

These archaic villainizing notions about femaleness are anything but ancient history. Their contemporary counterparts still show up in many games today, communicating the same regressive ideas about women’s sexuality.

In the 2010 game Mass Effect 2, players can agree to help the asari justicar Samara capture her daughter Morinth, a fugitive who suffers from a genetic disorder that makes mating with her deadly. When Samara confronts Morinth, players have two options: to keep their word and help Samara, or to betray and kill Samara, and add Morinth to their team in her place. If players side with Morinth, she later tries to seduce Shepard with talk of the incredible ecstasy they might experience with her.

CLIP: Mass Effect 2
“You and I can share something so intense, so deep, it will change your life.”

 

But if players are swayed by Morinth’s promises and choose to be with her, Shepard dies, just like all of Morinth’s other lovers.

While grotesquely female characters are designed to make femaleness repugnant by blending sexuality and repulsiveness, temptresses like Morinth make femaleness threatening because of their sexuality and attractiveness. This tradition of sexualized, evil women in the temptress mold includes characters ranging from the Dark Queen of the Battletoads games to Elizebet from Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. In Hitman: Absolution, if players track the target, Layla, to a secret room in the penthouse, she strips for Agent 47 in an attempt to distract him before drawing a gun and trying to kill him.

The problem with these representations is not that they depict female characters who are sexual. It’s the way that sexuality is presented, as a threat or a weapon rather than as something to be enjoyed by these women and those they choose to consensually share it with. It’s a false notion of female sexuality rooted in ancient misogynistic ideas about women as deceptive and evil.

Games sometimes blend the two extremes of the temptress and the grotesquely female, presenting us with female characters who initially appear attractive and alluring, only to have their true form revealed as monstrous and threatening. The critically acclaimed 2013 game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons tells the story of brothers on a quest to find a cure for their ailing father. At one point on their journey, they rescue a young woman who it appears is about to be sacrificed. The seemingly innocent young woman then travels with the brothers for a while, flirting with the older one and luring the two of them off course and into a shadowy cave. Here, her true nature and intentions are revealed when she transforms into a giant spider and tries to trap the protagonists in her web. The boys escape from her trap and fight back, ultimately killing her, but not before she gives the older brother a fatal wound.

DmC features a scene in which Dante confronts Lilith, a character whose sexualization is intended to be unsettling rather than titillating, as if she thinks she’s sexually appealing while the player is meant to find her unattractive. Lilith then undergoes a horrifying transformation as the demonspawn she’s carrying inside of her emerges to fight Dante.

In Ms. Splosion Man, the final boss initially appears to be a cartoonishly sexy woman in a wedding dress. However, when she is defeated for the first time, she reveals her true form, a gigantic, grotesque female creature. While this is played for laughs, the core idea that female sexuality is inherently deceptive or threatening remains the same.

With all of these character types, their femaleness or sexuality is an intrinsic part of what is intended to make them dangerous or repulsive. As a result, when male heroes defeat them, their victory is often explicitly gendered, emphasizing that the male protagonist has overcome the female threat and reasserted his dominance and control. This can be as simple as the use of gendered slurs, as in Gears of War 3, when Marcus Fenix stabs and kills the Locust Queen.

CLIP: Gears of War 3
“…and everyone else you killed, you bitch.”

Or it can be graphically sexual, as in the killing of Cleopatra in Dante’s Inferno, or in this boss fight with Carmilla in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, which ends with the protagonist impaling the vampire through the mouth. Yeeeeah….

Of course, it’s entirely possible to have female villains who don’t reinforce the idea that female sexuality or femaleness itself is threatening or repulsive. In Knights of the Old Republic 2, Kreia is a richly developed and complex villain whose evil is not tied to her gender. In the Portal games, the malicious AI GlaDOS’ obsession with taunting and killing the protagonist is presented in a smart, engaging way that doesn’t reinforce misogynistic ideas about women as a whole.

CLIP: Portal
“ The Enrichment Center once again reminds you that android hell is a real place, where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance.”

And no list of cool female villains from games is complete without the dashing criminal mastermind, Carmen Sandiego.

These representations are often defended because they are rooted in storytelling traditions that date back for thousands of years. But for as long as it has existed, misogyny has been reinforced by the stories that cultures have told themselves; myths, legends, folktales and religious teachings have been used as tools to contribute to the oppression of women for millennia. When games today uncritically employ such representations, they aren’t tapping into some intrinsic truth of human existence. They’re doing what stories involving such characters have always done: perpetuating false notions that women are inherently misleading and manipulative, and that female sexuality is something to be shamed, feared and controlled. Those ideas were harmful 2800 years ago, and they’re still harmful today.