Miss-Leading Characters: The Hyper-Sexualization of Females in Video Games

With gaming profits reaching nearly 140 billion annually, the video game industry has been corrupted by marketing imperatives that target boys and men through the over-sexualization and objectification of female video game characters. 

By Noelle Haslam

Video games have become more and more popular over several decades.  “With over 155 million Americans playing games, over 50% of households owning a dedicated gaming console, and over $22 billion spent on the games industry by consumers in 2014, it is important that we understand how this form of media affects its audience” (Murphy, 2016). The effects of hyper-sexualization in video games and other media is real and extremely damaging.  “As much as 50% of college undergraduate females are thought to suffer from body-image dissatisfaction.  Body image dissatisfaction has been shown to be a predictor of other mental health issues including depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders” (Murphy, 2016).  Video game imagery has been shown to negatively affect self-image and therefore self-worth.  “The results of the current study suggest that women participants, after playing a video game that emphasized the female body, felt significantly worse about their bodies.  After male participants played a video game that emphasized the muscular male body, they had a decrease in their body esteem and attitudes toward muscularity” (Bartlett, 2008).

The images that we feed our brains effect not only ourselves, but how we think of others as well.  “Females who played the more sexualized character experienced a decrease in self-efficacy…Females also rated the sexualized character to be less physically able than the non-sexualized character.  It is possible that the participants rated sexualized female characters to be less physically able because female characters in video games appeal to men and often include potentially degrading qualities” (Murphy, 2016).

The way in which we interpret ourselves and others is crucially important in our lives. Most people picture a gamer to be a teenager or an adult. However, because advanced technology is being introduced at younger ages, more children are taking part in gaming. By becoming gamers at a young age, children are introduced to the systematic issues of misrepresentation that lie within corporate media.  “Digital media such as the Internet and video games have become increasingly important in the lives of children and youth. Even when young people are consuming other media, such as TV, music and movies, they are likely to be doing it through the Internet. Nearly all the media they consume, from TV shows to toys, have Web pages, virtual worlds, video games or other digital spinoffs associated with them” (MediaSmarts, n.d.).

A problem that persists in games targeted towards children is their avatars or in-game personas.  Many games have cartoon characters or even animals which are less influential on body image.  Meanwhile, other gamers targeted at older children sometimes have a more limited selection of characters which often promote gender stereotypes and can be highly influential.  Having media introduced to children at a young age can alter their perceptions of their own bodies and what is considered attractive.  “Even in virtual worlds where avatars are fully customizable, research has shown that players make their avatars fit mainstream standards of attractiveness: [4] girls choose to make avatars that look…taller and thinner while boys make theirs look…taller and muscular. The narrow range of avatar customization available in the most popular virtual worlds, along with the pressure from oneself and others to create an “improved” avatar, means that the freedom to customize one’s appearance in virtual worlds mostly results in even more insecurity about appearance and body size” (MediaSmarts, n.d.). These ideals and insecurities can become deeply rooted in children’s minds and carry over into adulthood.

Although video games were originally designed to be a fun activity for everyone, the video game industry has been corrupted by marketing imperatives that target boys and men through the over-sexualization and objectification of female video game characters.  With gaming profits reaching nearly 140 billion annually, sex and violence have become cheap industrial ingredients.  But at what social and cultural costs?  In most video games, females in particular are often portrayed as hypersexual, submissive, and unintelligent.  Sexualizing women in video games is how these companies make more profits.  “It was found that box art which contains sexualized, non-main female characters is correlated with higher sales, and box art that depicts the central female character (sexualized or not) or female characters in the absence of male characters has a negative association with sales” (Murphy, 2016).

In response to the criticism of the damaging representation of women in video games, some companies have released what appear to be strong, independent female characters in their products.  While putting women in the lead role is a step in the right direction, not all representations are positive.  A majority of corporate media are produced and managed by heterosexual white males who curate content to appeal to the very same kind of audience: heterosexual white males. While video games are an ever increasingly popular source of media, gaming content is often created to appeal to the male fantasy.  This means that characters are designed by men to appeal to men. If alternative non-sexualized images of females are shown at all, these characters often do little to nothing to help promote healthy representations, and are merely a way for corporations to make more profits by masquerading as progressive.

When content is produced by men for men, we tend to see higher percentages of dialogue and overall screen time for male characters.  Having fewer representations of females in media implies that men are somehow more valid or important than women.  Screen time is how a character becomes more developed and human, which means that women who have little to no active screen time end up appearing more like background decorations.

In a 2009 study analyzing 60 video games, there were 489 individual characters with identifiable genders.  Exactly 419 out of the 489 characters were male, and the remaining 70 were female (Downs, 2009).  Another study showed that out of 47 games published by Nintendo, 92% of the characters were male, while only about 8% were female (Murphy, 2016).  These studies also reveal that when women are shown, they are more sexualized and submissive. “It was found that females are represented far less often in video games and when they are represented, they are often represented in a highly sexualized way compared to their male counterparts” (Murphy, 2016).

The way in which women are modeled typically represents an ideal created by the hegemonic elite who control media production.  This ideal is often spread across media to reduce women’s self-esteem and encourage them to buy products that promise to increase their value.  In most mediated content, including video games, women are encouraged to strive for hyper-feminine ideals and behaviors, while men are motivated to strive for hyper-masculine values and activities.  Within video games, female characters are shown with a slim figure, but large breasts and buttocks.  Their facial features include seductive eyes with long eyelashes and colored plump lips.  In contrast, men are depicted with a muscular body and wide shoulders.  A chiseled jawline and generally broader features are common facial features.

Such bifurcated representations present an interesting paradox in which female characters are often criticized for being too sexy and contributing to an already sexist media outlet, while others celebrate their representations in video games as freeing and progressive.  This leads us to ask, is it enough for female characters to be included in video games, or should their representations and body types be diversified?

Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider series and the franchiseis a quintessential example of both sexism and feminism in the gaming industry. According to H. Murphy, “Although Lara Croft became one of the first female protagonists to become widely recognized, she still faces challenges of being hypersexualized. With large breasts and a tiny waist and short-shorts, it is easy to see that this progression may not have been as progressive after all” (Murphy, 2016).

Likewise, for Maja Makula, “Lara is everything that is bad about representations of women in culture, and everything good – and thus analysing the circulation and discussion of Lara in Western culture allows us to explore the current predicament of feminist identity politics, epitomizing the range of contemporary feminist stances in relation to the body and the consumer culture of late capitalism” (Mikula, 2003).

Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series and franchise serve as a relevant example due to their extreme popularity.  Croft “has featured as the cover model of more than 200 magazines around the world, including Newsweek and Time, and proved her global popularity with her entry into the Guinness Book of World Records as the “Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine” in 2001” (Han, 2014). Although her games have been widely successful and well received, they are also at the center of controversy over female representation in video games.  A character portrayal of Lara Croft is even used as the accompanying photo to the Wikipedia article for “gender representation in video games,” captioned with “Video game heroine Lara Croft, here portrayed by Alison Carroll, is a common example cited for the sexual objectification of women in games” (Wikipedia, n.d.).

So why is it that some people view Lara Croft as sexist, while others view her as a feminist?  For starters, it’s important to examine Lara Croft as a feminist role model.  The original Tomb Raider game was released in 1996 and was one of the first video games to feature an independent female as a lead character.  Croft’s emergence was considered progressive at the time because the gaming scene was highly male-dominated.  The success of Tomb Raider and Lara Croft’s character actually led to an increase infemale lead characters in new video game releases, which is known as “The Lara Phenomenon.”

As more female characters have been incorporated into video games, critics have asked for better tests to determine their depictions, such as “The Bechdel Test.”  “The Bechdel Test is a test for movies/television/games. In order to pass, 1) two named female characters have to 2) share a scene together, and 3) discuss something other than a man” (Pinchefsky, 2013).  Women in video games often wear fewer clothes and speak even fewer lines, but Lara has exceptional representation in her own games.  “Until recently there were few female characters in video games. Women were largely represented by ‘damsels in distress’ – vulnerable victims of violence, to be rescued by muscular male heroes. It was the first Tomb Raider game (1996) that broke away from the familiar pattern. Instead of being the ‘object’ of rescue, Lara Croft is the protagonist and the driving force of the game plot” (Mikula, 2003).  On those measures, Lara Croft is a good example of positive female video game representation. Yet given her skimpy clothes and unrealistically perfect body, many believe that Lara Croft is a personification of sexism in the gaming industry. Originally, the Lara Croft games were designed for males between 15 and 26 years of age (Mikula, 2003).  This means that Lara’s model was designed with an ideal in mind.  As the quality of games has increased over the years, so has Lara’s depiction.  Although more realistic, she still has a conventionally attractive body that conforms to normative standards of beauty for Western audiences.

What’s more, Lara Croft’s gaming intelligence and actions are not always regarded as smart choices:  “Here’s a quick conundrum for you. Your evil arch enemy is crossing a canyon on a thin, wobbly metal ladder which has been laid across the gap. How do you stop him reaching the other side? Do you… (a) shake the ladder, thus ensuring that he plunges to his well-deserved doom? Or do you … (b) leap onto the ladder yourself, thus ensuring that you’re just as likely to plummet to your doom as he is? If you answered (a), then congratulations, you are officially cleverer than Lara Croft, the dim-witted and generally inept heroine of Tomb Raider,” (Barber, 2018).

Similarly, women in video games often have incredible bodies and little to no personality.  While Lara has personality, there are flaws, and perhaps they contribute to the trope of a beautiful, yet empty-headed woman.  “Since her introduction in 1996, the character of Croft has been criticized for her “unrealistic” breast size; Lara was claimed to personify “an ongoing culture clash over gender, sexuality, empowerment, and objectification” (Flower, 2007).

While Lara Croft’s impact continues to be studied, two other characters should be analyzed when studying female representations in gaming, namely Bayonetta from the Bayonetta series, and Quiet from Metal Gear Solid: V.  Like Lara Croft,  these female characters are strong and independent, but remain hypersexualized. Bayonetta is a witch who wears a tight black bodysuit with an open back and open cleavage, along with black heels. The cover art of her game features her facing away from the viewer and showcasing her behind and slanted hips. It is one of few gaming covers that does not show the main character’s face.  Many of Bayonetta’s in-game attacks are highly sexual, including a special attack called a “climax” where her clothes are removed and her more explicit body parts are covered only by her hair.  To compensate, she is given personality outside of her sexuality.  Instead of the usual “damsel in distress” scenario, the narratives in Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 often include a male character needing to be rescued by Bayonetta. In spite of this, Bayonetta represents yet another female character whose individuality is overshadowed by her hyper-sexualization.

In Metal Gear Solid: V, Quiet is a mercenary assassin who, through most of the game, wears only thin undergarments, transparent leggings, and some light combat gear.  This hypersexual appearance has led to harsh criticism of her design. According to her creator, her lack of clothing is due to her supernatural powers which he argues would conflict with a modest outfit.  However, this explanation is not well-supported in other misogynistic depictions that emerge throughout the game narrative.  As her name attests, throughout the entire game, Quiet has only one scene where she speaks for an extremely short time. Meanwhile, her other appearances are typically focused on her body, including a torture scene where she is electrocuted in her upper chest while the camera focuses on her cleavage, a drawn-out scene where she strips to crawl and roll around in the rain, and a rape scene where she is choked and held underwater while a man attempts to rape her. Within these scenes, Quiet is an example of the trope of women being “just a pretty face” and over-sexualized female character without much power.

After having decades of games filled with hypersexualized characters, audiences are ready for more positive and complex representations in the near future.  As younger and more diverse audiences turn to gaming across a variety of platforms, media producers will need to better address growing concerns over bifurcated gender constructs that reproduce stereotypes and misrepresentations.  After all, video games were designed to be a fun activity for everyone, so why shouldn’t they be designed with everyone in mind?

Student Author: Noelle Haslam, Worcester State University

Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University

 

References

Barber, N. (2018). Why Laura Croft is no feminist role model. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180314-why-lara-croft-is-no-feminist-role-model

Barlett, C. P., & Harris, R. J. (2008). The impact of body emphasizing video games on body image concerns in men and women. Sex Roles, 59(7-8), 586-601. https://gold.worcester.edu:2090/10.1007/s11199-008-9457-8

Downs, E., & Smith, S. L. (2010). Keeping abreast of hypersexuality: A video game character content analysis. Sex Roles, 62(11-12), 721-733. https://gold.worcester.edu:2090/10.1007/s11199-009-9637-1

Gender representation in video games. (2018, October 31). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_representation_in_video_games

Flower, Z. (2007). Getting the Girl: The myths, misconceptions, and misdemeanors of females in games.

Han, H. (2014). Characterization of Female Protagonists in Video Games: A Focus on Lara Croft. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 20(3), 27-48,156. Retrieved from https://gold.worcester.edu/login?url=https://gold.worcester.edu:3475/docview/1618835205?accountid=29121

Jansz, J., & Martis, R. G. (2007). The Lara Phenomenon: Powerful Female Characters in Video Games. Sex Roles, 56(3-4), 141-148. http://gold.worcester.edu:2090/10.1007/s11199-006-9158-0

Martins, N., Williams, D. C., Harrison, K., & Ratan, R. A. (2009). A content analysis of female body imagery in video games. Sex Roles, 61(11-12), 824-836. https://gold.worcester.edu:2090/10.1007/s11199-009-9682-9

MediaSmarts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://mediasmarts.ca/body-image/body-image-internet-and-video-games

Mikula, M. (2003). Gender and Videogames: the political valency of Lara Croft.  Retrieved from http://gold.worcester.edu:2066/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=f3897e5c-5973-4e5c-8247-de2ea9103d08%40sessionmgr120

Murphy, H. (2016). Effects of female videogamecharacter body-idealization exposure (Order No. 10193442). Available from ProQuest Central. (1840915333). Retrieved from https://gold.worcester.edu/login?url=https://gold.worcester.edu:3475/docview/1840915333?accountid=29121

Pinchefsky, C. (2013). A Feminist Reviews Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolpinchefsky/2013/03/12/a-feminist-reviews-tomb-raiders-lara-croft/#b4833435d925

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Julie Frechette, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, MA. She is the co-editor of the book Media Education for a Digital Generation, as well as the book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).

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