So in case you haven’t seen it, Anita Sarkeesian released her 4th video in her “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games” series. Her topic of discussion this time was the “Ms. Male Character” and going into its origins and effects of its constant use in video games as well as other media.
I wrote this response to a Kotaku article on the video, but thought it was worth sharing here too. Give it a read and let me know what you think!
I’ve been watching these videos every time they come out, and feel like I learn something “new” each time I watch them. I say “new” in quotes because the fact of the matter is that somehow, in the back of my head, I always knew the things that Anita was saying. However, watching these videos made me aware which is important if I hope to properly think about them. It’s far more dangerous to not think about these sorts of topics, because otherwise it perpetuates a habit of not questioning the world around us which is necessary to learn and grow (even when we reach adulthood; we don’t just stop growing).
In this episode, I really agree with Anita that the “Ms. Male Character” needs to shrink down in terms of presence in video games. Many other mediums out there are capable of showing varied female casts, and what’s more, not require on “stereotypically” female traits to identify them as characters.
By now, we know that Ed is a girl. But up until the end of the first episode that Ed appeared in, nobody (not even the characters in Cowboy Bebop) knew that Ed was actually a girl. And what’s even MORE important is the fact that Ed being a girl DOESN’T MATTER!
Ed is Ed
Ed is kooky, energetic, childish, a brilliant computer wiz, a pain in Spike’s ass, best friend to galaxy’s greatest Pembroke Welsh Corgi: Ein, and whose past remains a mystery for most of the series. Anyone who knows Ed typically thinks of Ed like this.
BUT… I bet most people DON’T think of Ed’s sex or gender AT ALL when it comes to thinking about Ed as a character.
With the Ms. Male Character, being a girl is pretty much the ONLY defining characteristic that makes them unique. Take away their “Girl-ness” and you have the original male character that they are meant to be a distaff counterpart too. Worse, when surrounded by other characters who are all male, invoking “The Smurfette Principle”, it reinforces that being a girl is adefining character trait.
But females, girls, ladies, women, all of them are NOT defined by their genetics or stereotypical female appearance. Or more accurately, they SHOULDN’T be defined like that.
Take Noa Izumi:
Now if you’re familiar with Patlabor, then you already know which one of the two people in this picture is Noa Izumi; a female. If you aren’t familiar with who’s who, here’s a challenge:
One of the characters in the above picture is female. The other is male. Which one is Noa Izumi?
If you guessed the dark-skinned, long black-haired person on the right…
…you were wrong!
That is Badrinath Harchand, a 15-year old BOY from India who is used by Schaft Enterprises to illegally test out their newest labor. Noa Izumi is the short, red-head on the left who pilots her Shinohara Ingram-98, nicknamed “Alphonse”, for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police to stop and prevent crimes involving labors.
You know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”?
Just because someone doesn’t look like they’re female doesn’t mean that they aren’t. They still have female body parts like breasts and vaginas, but them being female has very little to do with their characters, situations, or narrative in their respective stories. Noa Izumi is defined by her positive attitude, fangirl obsession of giant robots, masterful piloting skills of Alphonse that let her be one of the best pilots on the force, ability to tolerate the wacky antics of her fellow officers and superiors, and the bizarre situations she and Special Vehicles Division 2 find themselves in. Rarely does her being a woman come into play
In contrast, there’s Kanuka Clancy; also from Patlabor:
Kanuka Clancy has a far more feminine appearance than Noa Izumi. She’s older, more “developed” and her feminine features stand out more. Due to her good looks and appearance, many of the male officers in Special Vehicle Divisions 1 & 2 are very attracted to her. However, Kanuka is also a VERY skilled police officer. As tactical backup for Division 2, she is extremely skilled in the use of numerous firearms, bomb disarmament, fluent in both English and Japanese, and actually is a temporary transfer from the NYPD to assist the Tokyo Metropolitan Police for a short term assignment. She’s a no-nonsense police officer, a capable fighter with firearms or hand-to-hand combat, and can even crack a joke every now and then.
But when she first appears, the first thing that the other male officers in the unit seemed to think of her was “WOW! SHE IS HOT!”
This is why, for some women, they feel that in order for them to be taken seriously as the people they are, they have to “shed” their femininity in order for others to see it. Like Naoto Shirogane of Persona 4:
For anyone that’s played Persona 4, you know exactly where I’m going with this. If you haven’t, WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
When Naoto Shirogane first appears, Naoto presents themself as a teenage boy aspiring to be a detective. As the story progresses, it’s revealed that Naoto is actually a girl. The reason Naoto pretends to be a boy is that, while growing up, she became convinced that the only way she would ever be able to be taken seriously as a detective and prove her worth was if she was a man. This damages her psyche so much, that it’s when confronting the horrific imagery of Naoto’s temptation to surgically alter their body to try and “become” a man that leads to revealing Naoto’s Persona and the boss fight required to help Naoto accept who they are.
In Naoto’s case, Naoto didn’t WANT to be a man, which would, in essence, make her what’s known as “Cis-Gendered” (Someone who identifies their gender with the sex they were born with) as opposed to “Trans-Gendered” which is identifying with a gender that doesn’t match with sex they were born with.
In other words, the notion of being a “man trapped in a female’s body” or “woman trapped in a man’s body” is actually a real thing and not just some phrase or saying.
Science has actually shown that someone born with a male body can have neural patterns and behavioral responses that match more with those typically found in female bodies. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V for short) is the current “bible” when it comes to diagnosing mental disorders and is critical not just for health reasons, but for legal reasons as well. There are Laws that exist which are based around the contents of this manual.
In previous versions, it was considered that the belief that someone was a man in a woman’s body or vice-versa was in and of itself a mental disorder. This is no longer true. It’s actually now considered a normal enough occurrence for it to be natural.
What IS a mental disorder is the feeling of stress, anxiety, and mental trauma brought on by this feeling which isn’t caused by something within the person’s body, but from social factors of the outside world. It’s why psychologists and psychiatrists work with people not to try and change who they feel that they are, but be able to cope with the social pressures and difficulties brought on because they feel that way.
In Naoto’s case, she DID identify as a female born with a female body, but felt that she HAD to identify as male if she ever wanted to be taken seriously as a detective. It’s that stress, anxiety, and psychological trauma that lead up to the big battle inside the Midnight Channel to unlock her Persona.
So… what’s the point of all this writing and lecturing here?
To state that we as writers, artists, musicians, TV Show runners, directors, game developers, producers, etc. should STOP constantly thinking that a female character can ONLY be defined by the fact that they are female. It’s much better to be think of characters as “The biker-gang badass”, or “The bookworm”, or “The computer wiz”, etc. instead of all that plus “The girl”. Or flipping it to “The girl biker-gang badass” or “The girl bookworm” and so on and so on.
It may seem silly that the best way to think about sex and gender roles in video games is to not think about them, but consider this. Did it ever matter if Samus Aran was a girl in Metroid?
All that mattered was that Samus Aran was a bounty hunter with an awesome arsenal sent on a mission to the planet Zebes in order to stop an evil band of space pirates from cultivating a parasitic alien species called “Metroid” for their malicious purposes.
It didn’t matter if Samus was a boy or a girl. All that mattered was that they were Samus… and the galaxy needed saving.
That’s how we need to try and start thinking on a more regular basis.