Some Thoughts on Katniss Everdeen and Female Emotion

Originally published on Big Tall Words, January 5, 2015

*Spoiler warning for The Hunger Games trilogy*

Oh, the tears.

There are probably reasons why these novels and films hit me so hard. I just finished a class about happiness (or the lack thereof) in Romantic literature led by a professor who feels so acutely that many members in the class tear up at his words. (No, really. The man has some kind of aura around him. I thought it was just me, but he has this effect on many.) Trauma, sadness, pain, and depression figured largely in the class; we read a lot of psychoanalysis and novels about characters who waste away and/or commit suicide. Needless to say, the class was not all that uplifting at times, and it has certainly had an effect on my own state of mind.

I tried to remember this while sobbing my way through the novels. I tried to remind myself that I was reading too much into the novels by thinking of them as stories about recovering from trauma. I tried to remind myself that there was going to be a happy ending because there often is in post-apocalyptic fiction, especially young adult post-apocalyptic fiction. When all this failed, I tried to tell myself: GAWD IT’S JUST A BOOK GET A GRIP! (It didn’t work.)

The thing is, I don’t think I am reading too much into the novels to say that they are about recovering from trauma. Katniss’s world is a damaging place where the odds are never “in your favour”, where bad things happen to good people, where death is often hasty and meaningless. Though she survives this world, she cannot (and does not) emerge unscathed.

At the beginning of The Hunger Games, Katniss’s father has died, and the burden of ensuring her family doesn’t starve to death has fallen on her shoulders. She has grown up too fast, learned too quickly that death is inevitable, that the price of survival is almost never too high. Take Buttercup, for instance. On the very first page of the first novel, Katniss tells us matter-of-factly: “He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed” (3). How many 16-year-olds would be so cavalier about the need to drown a kitten — the very picture of innocence — because they understand that the resources of the household cannot stretch to accommodate it? This is a young woman hardened too soon by too much trauma.

Prim, of course, can afford to be innocent. She can beg and cry to keep the kitten because she doesn’t know its true cost. And Katniss works very hard to let Prim keep the cat, though she has no love for the creature herself. In fact, Katniss’s description of her own relationship with the cat sounds to me like she is incapable of the innocence that loving it would demand: “Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me. Entrails. No hissing. This is closest we will come to love” (4). Prim is about the only person she trusts enough to love; she feels shame that Peeta’s act of kindness gave her hope when she was younger, and anger at her mother’s grief.

These early passages make it clear to me that Katniss has dealt with trauma long before she steps into the arena for the Hunger Games. Afterwards, of course, she is a shell of who she was, and terrified to trust another enough for love to develop. In Catching Fire, when Gale confesses his love for her, she replies, “I can’t think about anyone that way now. All I can think about, every day, every waking minute since they drew Prim’s name at the reaping is how afraid I am. And there doesn’t seem to be room for anything else. If we could get somewhere safe, maybe I could be different. I don’t know” (97). Here we have Katniss confronting the unknowability of the future; the uncertainty as to whether she will ever be able to move past the trauma (the loss, the hardship, the adversity) that has plagued her.

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In Mockingjay, the final novel, Katniss’s grief comes to a head. Like Haymitch, she becomes addicted to a painkiller; like Annie, she acts like a lunatic, screaming and throwing fits and blacking out. This part of the novel made me wish for an exterior narrator. But the fragmented present tense captured something of the raw emotion Katniss deals with after everything she’s been through. Her home has been destroyed; she is constantly a pawn in a larger game, the rules and players of which she may never fully grasp; her closest companion has grown into a ruthless military tactician; the cause she tries to support resembles l’Ancien Regime more and more each day; her mother shuts her out again; and worst of all, Prim is killed, possibly in one of Gale’s engineered bombings. Of course she murders Coin. Of course she becomes a morphine addict. Of course she shuts everyone out. Who wouldn’t?

What I love about the series and its final installment is what some readers really hate about it. It goes to dark places. Katniss suffers. Good people die for no reason. Some readers (particularly Goodreads reviewers) claim that certain characters “deserved better” or that the final novel’s epilogue feels tacked on. Some (again, Goodreads reviewers) protest that Katniss isn’t strong anymore, she isn’t in control in the final novel, she’s messed up and no one wants to read about that. Movie Bob from The Escapist said something similar in his review of the latest film, stating sarcastically that everyone wanted to see the characters “moping around” for two hours.

Sigh.

The Hunger Games is based on a philosophical problem as old as humanity itself: why do bad things happen to good people? The simple answer is because we are not in control. We live in an absurd world where chaos reigns. Katniss is never “in control” at any point in the series. Even when she’s kicking ass, she’s doing it because she is a cog in a larger machine. Anyone who thinks that she was strong early in the series and weak later must have fallen for her propos because she was never as strong as she seemed; she only had people watching her for signs of weakness. Katniss is a hunter. She knows that weakness means death, and strength means survival. So she performs for the cameras. But, more than any of the other novels and films, Mockingjay shows us Katniss away from the cameras. And yes, she cries. Yes, she faints and vomits and hides and blacks out and panics. She suffers. Mockingjay shows us that no one can live in the world without suffering, though some may be better at putting up a brave face.

So why is it that, when Katniss starts to visibly suffer, people accuse her of being weak? Or they accuse the series of losing its appeal because its main character is just “moping around”?

Because Katniss is a woman.

In his review of Mockingjay Part 1, Movie Bob claimed to understand how significant Katniss is as a female protagonist. He claimed that she is an excellent role model for young women (better, he states, than Bella Swan, though that’s saying very, very little). He claimed that he understood why people loved her and loved the books, and loved the series, but he — poor defenceless film critic as he is — just wants to know why they can’t make a better movie, why the final installment had to be divided in two even though it means that the first film is filled with the characters moping around.

I would reply that Movie Bob understands jack about shit when it comes to Katniss as a female protagonist, and he wasn’t watching the film very closely to conclude that it is useless because she was “moping around” the whole time.

In the latest Hunger Games film, President Coin is played by Julianne Moore. I thought this was a bizarre casting choice, since I read Coin as a very hard woman, and Moore is, well, soft. (At least, I always thought so.) The filmmakers added a scene, however, that justifies their decision. In this scene, Katniss breaks away from the crowd, and Coin finds her. The two converse a little, and there is an unprecedented moment of connection between them. Katniss is grieving her losses, and Coin opens up a little about her family being murdered by the Capitol. She concludes by telling Katniss that in difficult times, people like the two of them find something inside that pushes them onward. It is an emotional moment, and both actors give the scene the emotional gravitas that it deserves. I was quite impressed. Here was the film justifying its own focus upon the emotional deterioration of Katniss Everdeen. What I got from the scene was that Coin was telling Katniss, it’s okay to be an emotional wreck; you can be both strong and emotional.

A great woman once said, “My emotions give me power.” This great woman suffered hardship: saddled with responsibility beyond her years, willing to give her life multiple times for the ones she loved, she sacrificed everything for her younger sister, lost a parent before she felt capable of being on her own in the world, became a brick wall that shut out those who loved her, and cried when no one was looking. This great woman also said, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”

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And people called her whiny.

Too frequently, I think, texts with female protagonists rely on their leads embodying so-called masculine traits to be “strong” (i.e. physical strength/ stamina, leadership, assertiveness, independence/cutting emotional ties, a tactical mind, technical mastery of a skill or weapon, etc.). Katniss fulfills many of these traits; ironically, Movie Bob pointed this out in a different video, claiming that the reason she is strong is because she is hardly perceived as “female.” Though this may be true of the first installment of the series, as it develops, the weight of Katniss’s trauma becomes greater, and she becomes more visibly emotional (which is, of course a stereotypical female trait). Catching Fire and Mockingjay show us a Katniss who is suffering, who is both emotional and strong, perhaps even strong because she is emotional. This is an unusual stance, and I think very highly of The Hunger Games for taking it.

I know why it is unusual for texts to take this stance: to do so risks being associated with essentialist thinking that claims that women are emotional while men are not. Even what I wrote above may approach the essentialism line. But I think it is possible to say that women are emotional because they are socialized to be able to show emotion more than men because they are expected to be weaker, and emotion is a sign of weakness. Therefore, to have a female protagonist who draws strength from perceived signs of weakness is an accomplishment, in my mind.

Yes, Katniss spends some of the movies and books “moping.” But I encourage those who criticize her for it to think of the Careers — the tributes brought up to fight in the Games. They don’t “mope,” but they are also ruthless human beings, capable of murder and torture. Katniss remains human, which is why she gave Rue such a moving send-off and wanted to save the wounded in the burning hospital. As readers and viewers, we should be pleased that Katniss can feel, that she draws strength from those feelings, that she can heal, rather than complain about having to go with her through the slow and painful healing process.

The beauty of Mockingjay is that Katniss does heal. Slowly. Painfully. Imperfectly. Some readers hated the novel’s epilogue, claiming that she settled for a certain way of life, but I loved it. I thought it was a movingly simple coda: the continuation of life in the face of ongoing hardship. In the novel’s conclusion, Katniss becomes the mockingjay: “A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist. They hadn’t counted on the highly controlled jabberjay having the brains to adapt to the wild, to pass on its genetic code, to thrive in a new form. They hadn’t anticipated its will to live” (Catching Fire 92). In the final novel’s epilogue, we see this symbolism embodied (though it’s admittedly on-the-nose). She has adapted to the wild; she has healed, passed on her genetic code, and survived (though I would not say thrived) in a new form. She still has nightmares; Peeta still has flashbacks. They still suffer. But they survive. The world has become a better place, but pain lingers.

Here is a woman who manages to be strong while still in touch with her emotions despite unspeakable hardships. Here is a heroine.

Oh, and P.S. The Hunger Games is NOT about a love triangle. It never was. (Anyone who thinks that the tension of the first two novels was driven by Katniss’s choice of boyfriend needs to go back to the Twilight fandom where they belong. I’m looking at you, Goodreads reviewers.) I have many, many more thoughts on the misreadings of the series, and when I’m not busy writing for my MA, maybe I’ll share them here.

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My Last Princess: Women as Objects in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Originally published on Big Tall Words, July 28, 2014

“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.”
Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess” (1842)

In The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Link saves a total of nine people from the villain, Yuga. They are (in no particular order):

Gulley, the blacksmith’s son and Link’s childhood friend
Queen Oren, ruler of the Zoras
Lady Impa, advisor to Princess Zelda
Osfala, apprentice to Sahasrahla, elder of Kakariko Village
Irene, a witch and granddaughter of the potion brewer
Seres, daughter of the priest
Rosso, a miner
Princess Zelda, of Hyrule
Princess Hilda, of Lorule

Notice anything about that list? That’s right: six of the nine people Link rescues are women. The sad part is that that’s pretty much normal for a Zelda game. In many ways, the latest Zelda title is very similar to its numerous predecessors, and it’s not exceptional here, either. In Ocarina of Time, five of the seven sages were female (Darunia and Rauru being the only men), and Zelda getting captured is the impetus for nearly every game in the series. But A Link Between Worlds goes one step further than its predecessors in that it turns women into literal objects who not only need saving but also serve no function apart from being a “lovely” piece of property for men to fight over.

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Yuga is the villain of A Link Between Worlds and his goal is to merge with Ganon and possess Hyrule’s Triforce. To this end, he captures each of the descendants of the original seven sages and uses their power to open the realm where Ganon had been imprisoned many years prior. He captures them in a unique way: using a magic rod, he turns each sage into a painting. Now, one only has to read Robert Browning’s classic dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” (quoted above) to realize that immortalizing someone in a painting can be as much an act of power as an act of art. Painting someone turns that person from a ‘someone’ to a ‘something’; you can possess a painting in a way that it is impossible to possess a person. So when Yuga is running around Hyrule acquiring pieces for his art collection (to use his words), he is, quite literally, objectifying these people. In my opinion, it is no accident that most of these people are women, since the Zelda games have a history of treating women as objects participating in a man’s destiny rather than agents of their own.

Though Link does rescue a total of six women, three of them stand out in my mind when looking at gender and power dynamics in A Link Between Worlds. These three women are Seres, the first woman to be captured, and a pair of princesses, Zelda and Hilda.

Seres is the daughter of the priest at the Sanctuary north of Hyrule Castle. As an apprentice to the Blacksmith, Link’s first quest is to head up to the Sanctuary in order to deliver a sword to the captain of the guard. Outside the temple he meets Seres and Dampé, the gravedigger. Link (silently) explains the situation to Seres, who promptly goes into the Sanctuary to get the captain. While she is gone, Dampé tells Link that the guard captain is “just makin’ excuses to see Seres.” Thus, all we really know of Seres is her relationship to two men, her father and her suitor. Dampé also calls her “lovely,” a word that will be repeated numerous times throughout the game in regard to women.

Before Dampé can finish his thought, he is interrupted by Seres’ scream. Link heads into the temple and meets Yuga for the first time. Yuga tells the priest that his mission is simple: he has come to Hyrule seeking perfection. “And you, my dear, are perfection,” he tells Seres, and says she is lovely. Embodying Browning’s Duke of Ferrara, he tells Seres, “I will put you on a pedestal. Or rather, upon a wall — perfect forever.” After he transforms her, he says she is “even lovelier as a painting.” Yuga then notices Link, but disregards him and disappears, taking the painting with him. The priest implores Link to save his daughter. So, after only a few minutes of gameplay, the player learns that Yuga and Link ironically share the same goal: both wish to acquire the woman (though for different reasons). Seres’ capture is the first of many times throughout the game that a woman’s only purpose is to be an object sought after by men.

Throughout the game, we see Yuga transform sages into paintings three more times. All other transformations are given to take place off-screen. Including Seres, three of the four sages we see him transform are female. The only male is Osfala, Sahasrahla’s apprentice. Osfala’s transformation happens between Seres’ and Zelda’s, and what is interesting to note is that Yuga hardly has much to say about Osfala’s appearance. He accuses the young man of “posing” and “preening,” but doesn’t say anything about putting him on a pedestal or about how lovely he is in painting form. These words are reserved only for women. In fact, immediately after he transforms Osfala, he states, “Oh, how I long to hang that exquisite Princess Zelda on my wall.” Therefore, Yuga, and the game, seem to emphasize that women are more suited than men to being desired and/or possessed.

Zelda’s transformation into a portrait is very similar to Seres’, with one notable difference: Zelda attempts to discover Yuga’s goals. I say “attempts to discover” because Yuga does not acknowledge Zelda’s questions, let alone answer them. Instead, he compliments her on her beauty (“Ah, what golden hair you have…”), speaking condescendingly and patronizingly. He tells her, “Rid your mind of all concern. I don’t want your portrait to feature any unsightly worry lines. I wish to preserve you at your very best.” Evidently, Yuga doesn’t see her as a viable threat, even though she supposedly rules the realm he wishes to destroy.

Yuga finishes his speech by saying, “I find your protests inelegant. Not to mention irrelevant,” which stresses appearance over everything else in terms of a woman’s worth. He continues, “I wish only to possess your beauty, Princess Zelda, not all of these ugly words of yours!” When he has transformed her, he cries, “My lovely masterpiece! […] Dare I say it’s my best work ever!” Yuga’s lines (complete with their possessive adjectives and pronouns) stress the fact that he sees Zelda only as an object to be possessed.

I would argue that the game sees Zelda the same way. Just as both Link and Yuga view Seres as an object to be obtained, both hero and villain wish only to have Zelda for the sake of having her. The game offers no explanation as to why Link must rescue Zelda, other than the fact that Yuga took her. It’s not like she alone has the power to defeat Yuga (oh wait, yes, she does, but more on that later). She doesn’t even govern Hyrule; it is called a “kingdom,” signifying that, somewhere, there is a King of Hyrule, perhaps Zelda’s father (as in Ocarina of Time). Seen in this way, Zelda represents no more than a political figurehead when she is not in Yuga’s possession, and when she is, she is merely a piece of property that has fallen into enemy hands. She is thus an object playing a role in both Yuga’s and Link’s clashing destinies, with no agency or control over her own fate.

The original Legend of Zelda was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986, so by now, we’re used to seeing Zelda as a damsel in distress — the sole impetus for Link’s heroic journey. But the saddest part about A Link Between Worlds is we see the iconic “Princess Gets Captured By Villain” scene three times (not to mention the other three women who are captured off-screen). The third woman to be captured, much later in the game than Zelda and Seres, is Princess Hilda of the Kingdom of Lorule. While Link is in Lorule, Hilda is Link’s Navi, if Navi were invisible and only spoke once before becoming entirely silent. Link enters Dark Wor– sorry, Lorule, via portals scattered across Hyrule, and each time he arrives in a new area, Hilda offers some helpful advice about where he should go. Each time Link rescues a sage, the player is treated to a cutscene in which Hilda stares at Zelda’s portrait, sighing, “Oh lovely Zelda,” and lamenting the general crappiness of Lorule. Finally, once all the sages have been rescued, Hilda urges Link to Lorule Castle to confront Yuga.

Hilda reveals her true colours after the first phase of Link’s battle with Yuga. She reveals that she set Yuga upon Hyrule in an attempt to steal its Triforce. She steals Zelda’s Triforce of Wisdom and orders Yuga to give her the Triforce of Power so that she can finish what they started. But because a Zelda game just can’t handle a woman who isn’t a damsel in distress, Hilda gets transformed into a painting. Yuga is careful to put Hilda in her place: “Now you, my dark beauty, must serve your purpose.” After the transformation, he gloats: “I can hardly decide which of my princess portraits is prettier. But I do know which of you foolish royal girls has what I need. And now it will be mine.” At this point, because objectifying and insulting her just isn’t enough, he absorbs Hilda’s power.

When Hilda first revealed herself as the mastermind behind Yuga’s attack, I got really excited. I thought, “Wow, what an awesome plot twist!” (Though, really, I should have seen it coming, what with Yuga’s “Her Grace” comments earlier.) I thought, “Finally, a woman (other than that one time when Zelda dressed up as a dude) with agency! How refreshing for The Legend of Zelda series!”

And then Yuga turned her into an object and ate her.

And then Yuga turned her into an object and ate her.

Is it not 2014? Haven’t we been rescuing princesses for nearly 30 years? Can’t we have something different?

Some could argue that, because Yuga is the one who patronizes and objectifies women, and because Link eventually kicks Yuga’s ass, the game itself is presenting these behaviours as unacceptable. I disagree. Just as a text is not feminist just because its heroine is strong (MrsDawnaway. “The Stake Is Not The Power: Patriarchical Power Systems in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Arkham City.” bigtallwords. Dec 15 2013). A game does not become un-sexist when it features a villain rather than a hero acting in a sexist manner. Let’s face it: The Legend of Zelda’s history does not do it any favours.

Even apart from the series, there are within A Link Between Worlds aspects of the game (other than Yuga) that suggest that women are “lovely” objects to be possessed. For instance, there is “Blacksmith’s Wife.” She has no name. Plus, all she talks about is her son, Gulley, so she is strictly defined by the two men in her life. She has no personhood aside from them. To be fair, “Blacksmith” doesn’t have a name, either, but just as “Mrs.” is short for “Mr’s,” signifying the husband’s possession of his wife, here, she is only an object to be owned by the blacksmith.

I’ve already discussed how Hyrule (and Lorule) are called Kingdoms, meaning that their respective princesses are ceremonial figureheads, but something I’ll add to my previous point is that Zelda tells Hilda of a “sacred duty” that a princess has to her land and people. I don’t know what that duty entails, partly because Ravio interrupts the conversation, but mainly because I have never seen Zelda performing any duties. She is always admired and beloved by her people, but how is that a duty? Furthermore, in Link’s final battle with Yuga, Zelda gives Link a special bow (the light arrows) that he can only fire when he is in portrait mode. This twist confused me quite a bit. Up to this point, the game had told me that sages who had been transformed into pictures could not do anything to change their fate (hence, Link had to rescue them). Suddenly, Zelda is able to communicate and conjure a weapon for Link. My biggest question, though: why couldn’t Zelda have used it herself? Though she has the only power that can defeat Yuga, she is not allowed to use it. The game forces her to sit and wait for the hero to rescue her; therefore, the game does not allow her to be an active participant in her own destiny. She can only play a role in a man’s fate.

And one final note that I’ll end on: A Link Between Worlds features a quest in which Link’s goal is to save the Queen of the Zoras from… getting fat. Yes, you read that right. A thief stole her magic diet pill and she begins to swell. Link is tasked with retrieving the stone before the Queen becomes too large to fit in her throne pond. If that, on top of everything else I’ve discussed here about women being favoured only for their appearance, doesn’t convince you, I’m not sure that anything will.

Yep.

Yep.

The Stake Is Not The Power: Patriarchal Power Systems in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Arkham City

Originally published on Big Tall Words, December 15, 2013

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, by many accounts, a feminist text. But what does that mean? Many would argue it means that it features a “strong female character.” But what does that mean? Buffy is certainly strong physically: she kicks ass (everyone knows that). But the fact that its heroine kicks ass — is that what makes the show “feminist”? I’d argue not.

Just because a text features a woman who can beat the crap of anyone who says that she can’t does not mean that that text is inherently feminist. Furthermore, not all feminist texts feature a heroine who is physically strong or capable of beating up bad guys. (For instance, Orange is the New Black is a woman-centred drama that lacks an ass-kicking heroine; regardless, it examines and critiques the oppression and exploitation of female inmates in the American prison system.) On a related note, some texts that feature an ass-kicking heroine can still be labelled “sexist.”

A sexist text is one that is defined by, and supports, the attitude that one gender is inherently weaker or less valuable than another. Bob Chipman of The Escapist (a.k.a. “MovieBob”) tackles sexism in a recent “Big Picture” video, in which he addresses “The Pink Aisle” (“Pink is not the Problem.” The Escapist. Dec 3 2013.). He notes that The Hunger Games, while featuring a strong, ass-kicking female character, still supports the notion that women are inherently weak or evil. Therefore, Katniss is an anomaly; she is essentially a male hero who happens to be female, while the villains of the film are effeminate (and therefore weak) men. I think Chipman makes an excellent point: sexism is so insidious that it can creep into even woman-centred stories.

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A few years ago, Film Crit Hulk criticized Arkham City for being sexist (“GODDAMMIT VIDEO GAMES: THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF ARKHAM CITY IS LOTS OF FUN BUT SUPER-DUPER SEXIST.FILM CRIT HULK! HULK BLOG! Oct 19 2011.). The internet protested that the game simply could not be sexist! Yes, prisoners used the word “bitch” a lot and the Joker was unkind to Harley, but Catwoman kicked ass! She beat up all the men who cat-called her (pun absolutely intended). How could this game be sexist when it features such an ass-kicking woman? Isn’t she a “strong female character” that feminists wanted in the first place? Well, no. An ass-kicking heroine does not a feminist (or even non-sexist) text make. Film Crit Hulk is right: Arkham City is a sexist game, even if Catwoman kicks ass.

Like seemingly all media related to comic books or comic book lore, Arkham City seems to view women only as a supporting cast for the men, the “real heroes.” Notable women in the game, like Harley Quinn and Thalia al Ghul, have no role outside of the men in their lives, whether that man is a love interest (the Joker and Batman) or a father (Ra’s al Ghul). Even Catwoman, despite her ass-kickery, only appears in relation to men. The first time we see her is in relation to Two-Face; then, the Joker tries to kill her for the sole purpose of rattling Batman; and for the rest of the game, she appears only to further Batman’s quest. She saves Batman from the Joker (“See, she’s so strong!” cries the internet) but only because if she doesn’t, the game ends. In fact, should you, as Catwoman, choose not to save Batman, you will be treated to a brief credit roll that implies all is lost without Batman, and you are forced to go back in time to save him. In this way, Catwoman is literally a plot device: she is a means of advancing Batman’s story and nothing more.

At other points in Arkham City, women use their sexuality as a weapon, making them femmes fatales. Poison Ivy, Thalia Al’Ghul, and Catwoman herself are notorious for this, since they are Batman’s most prominent female foes. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with women who are sexually confident and comfortable in their own sexuality. Where there’s an issue is when being sexual is their only shtick. In one of her “Tropes vs. Women” videos, Anita Sarkeesian points out that the femme fatale trope is dangerous if overused, since it feeds into the sexist myth that women are deceivers who use their bodies to manipulate men (“Tropes vs. Women # 4: The Evil Demon Seductress.” Feminist Frequency. Mar 19 2011.). Therefore, Catwoman is not as “strong” as she may appear since she in fact embodies this damaging, sexist trope.

The only women, arguably, who do not fulfill the femme fatale trope in Arkham City are Harley Quinn and Oracle. But they offer, at best, problematic representations of women. Harley Quinn is highly infantilized. The game treats her as a spoiled brat who throws temper tantrums, thus justifying Joker’s abuse as “punishment.” Oracle, meanwhile, is only a ghost, a voice in Batman’s head. Her encouragement could even be perceived as justifying Batman’s quest, since he is going after the Joker, the man responsible for paralyzing her. If we think of her this way, she’s “in the refrigerator.” (“Tropes vs. Women #2: Women in Refrigerators.” Feminist Frequency. Apr 7 2011.). Thus, Oracle is merely a plot device as well: a means of keeping the story going.

The biggest strike against Arkham City, and the main reason Film Crit Hulk is correct in calling it sexist, is the way that it internalizes the sexism or patriarchy of our world and doesn’t seek to challenge or change it. In this world, Catwoman (like Katniss) is an anomaly. She is a “strong woman,” no doubt, but she doesn’t challenge the oppressive systems that hold her down; she manipulates them to her advantage. By featuring a “strong woman” who does this, Arkham City is implicitly stating that women cannot change the systems that oppress them. Instead, they must do as Catwoman does, and turn these systems to their advantage. Doing so means that resistance (symbolized in the game by Catwoman’s violence) is ultimately fruitless; for all the men that she beats up, there are a dozen more who shout derogatory names at her and attempt to attack her.

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It is important to note that Buffy is an anomaly in her world as well. Buffy, like Catwoman, proves everyone wrong when she kicks their asses — in fact, one of the reasons behind the series’ creation was the hilarity of the idea that a tiny blonde girl named Buffy can actually be powerful, again displaying the sexist notion of our culture that women are weak and/or stupider than men. (For a great example of the joke in action, check out the first few minutes of S1.12, “Prophecy Girl.” The look on that vampire’s face is priceless.)

The show often does not hesitate to show that the patriarchy is just as powerful in Buffy’s world as it is in our own by having characters that perceive femininity as weakness. The sixth season’s villain, Warren, is the most obvious examples, calling hot women “baby” and Buffy “bitch,” and telling Xander he hits “like a girl” (S6.19 “Seeing Red”). In the seventh season, when Amy’s curse turns Willow into Warren, she starts crying, then he says, “look at me, crying like a little girl” (S7.13 “The Killer in Me”). But we expect these phrases from him; he is a misogynist, and the show actually identifies him as such: “Warren was a cold-blooded killer of women,” Xander says in S6.21, “Two to Go,” and in “The Killer in Me,” Willow calls him a “murderous, misogynist man.”

The truly insidious nature of sexism becomes evident, however, when characters other than outwardly misogynist villains also identify femininity as a weakness and use “woman” or “girl” as an insult. Many beloved characters do this in the show’s earlier seasons. For example, Giles and Riley both use the expression “throw like a girl” (S3.12 “Helpless” and S5.1 “Buffy vs. Dracula” respectively). Xander warns Anya, “I’m actually turning into a woman as I say this,” before explaining that sex is supposed to be emotionally meaningful (S4.3 “The Harsh Light of Day”). Even Buffy insults Wesley by saying “If I need someone to scream like a woman, I’ll give you a call” (S3.21 “Graduation Day”). Some have criticized the show for portraying sexist ideology, and rightfully so, but when you examine the show as a whole, its trajectory is one of overcoming oppression. Thus, it needed to show us oppression before it could show us freedom from that oppression.

So, both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Arkham City prove they exist in our (flawed, patriarchal) world. Buffy and Catwoman aren’t expected to be strong because women are perceived as weak. But whereas Arkham City has strong women who manipulate the system to their advantage and thereby seems to implicitly to accept this flawed world as is, Buffy seeks to change it, arguing through its ultimate trajectory that oppression can be overcome by strong women.

Buffy isn’t content to just have her power, which was given to her by a group of powerful men. Buffy would rather share this power with women everywhere, radically altering the power imbalance between Watchers and Slayers (men and women). In S7.22, “Chosen,” the series finale, Buffy’s voiceover captures the freedom from oppression that her spell symbolizes:

In every generation, one Slayer is born because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. […] I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. […] From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power — can stand up, will stand up. Slayers. Every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?

The images used during this voiceover include two powerful shots: one of a woman on the floor, the other of a woman stopping a hand from slapping her face and standing tall to look her attacker in the eyes. These two shots, combined with Buffy’s words make it clear that her goal is to undo millennia of oppression. This goal — the ultimate trajectory of the series — is what makes Buffy feminist.

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To conclude, I leave you with this snippet of dialogue from S7.1, “Lessons”:

Buffy: It’s about power: who’s got it, who knows how to use it. So, who’s got the power, Dawn?

Dawn: Well, I’ve got the stake.

Buffy: The stake is not the power. […] Who’s got the power?

Dawn: …he does.

Buffy: Never forget it.

When looking critically at texts (be they movies, television shows, video games, or comic books), it’s important to remember that the stake is not the power. Female characters may be able to kick ass, but that doesn’t mean that a text is feminist. That text may even uphold sexist norms and values. Just because a woman holds the stake does not mean she holds the power.

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NOTE: In a recent discussion on BBC Radio, Neil Gaiman noted that television missed the point of Buffy, stating that though she’s strong physically, that’s not why she’s a strong character. I think that’s pretty neat. (Alderman, Naomi. “Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon on the legacy of Buffy.” BBC Radio. Dec 19 2013.)

It’s A Man’s World: The Implications of Makeup in Mass Effect

Originally published on Big Tall Words, March 14, 2014. Subsequently re-published on the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK & Ireland) Blog June 4, 2015.

“Human sperm cells were seen with the earliest microscopes in the seventeenth century. The human egg is several thousand times larger, but — despite earlier postulates — it was not visualized until 1827. […] For something to be found, it must first be imagined and sought.” (Duffin, Jacalyn. A History of Medicine, (Toronto, ON: Toronto UP, 2007), p. 249.)

Videogames are not a space for women’s voices when parts of women’s experiences are not addressed or taken seriously; like scientists dismissing out-of-hand the possibility of the ovum’s existence, game developers are dismissing out-of-hand the chance to engage in meaningful dialogue with women about even their most banal experiences (like wearing makeup). How, then, can we expect games as a medium to look at the more profound aspects of women’s experiences? Until game developers imagine and seek to include women’s experiences in games (and until gamers stop complaining about their inclusion), we can’t.

Makeup is a choice in the character creation in Mass Effect. From that point on, it is a permanent feature of female Shepard’s appearance, which is not realistic.* Attitudes towards wearing makeup vary depending on the person wearing it*, but regardless of one’s opinion, etc., makeup remains a choice. It is not a permanent feature like jaw width or ear size. Attitudes towards makeup also vary tremendously depending on a person’s class and culture. Additionally, makeup has different meanings depending on where someone situates themselves on the gender spectrum. Mass Effect treats makeup like bone structure: it is fixed, and the game implies that the player (and the world) should give it no thought.

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But makeup doesn’t work like that. Makeup deserves to be thought about, talked about, written about. We live in a culture that objectifies women, viewing them as figures to be admired above all else. This culture values and praises women who meet a certain standard of beauty — one which involves heavy makeup — to the exclusion of all others. When pop culture media (like videogames) uphold this standard without question, the message can be immensely damaging, not only to women and girls, but also to society as a whole. So, while makeup may seem like a minor aspect of videogames, it’s not.

Every person you meet who wears makeup will likely have a series of (usually banal) statements when it comes to makeup. Everyone who wears makeup (usually, but not exclusively, women) knows the time and effort involved in putting on degrees of makeup. Some people spend an hour every morning applying layers of foundation, eye shadow, lipstick, and blush. Some people take five minutes to daub on some concealer and a bit of mascara. But regardless, one will change their look when they choose to or when circumstances demand it. So why can’t we change Shepard’s makeup?

Mainly, I wear makeup to work. I imagine that I have this in common with most women, regardless of profession. Shepard is no different; she may be working in a predominantly male field (as a ranking military officer), but it makes sense for her to wear makeup to work just like I do (even though I work in an office that employs mostly women). Also, her job being athletic does not preclude her wearing makeup. Professional female athletes (like hockey players) wear makeup while they’re “at work,” as well. My issue with Shepard wearing makeup does not stem from the belief that female soldiers (or firefighters, or police, or hockey players, etc.) do not or should not wear makeup, since that’s absurd. My issue is that the makeup is a permanent feature of her face.

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If we only ever saw Shepard in a professional capacity (i.e. while she’s “at work”), Shepard being fully made-up all the time would be excusable. Shepard’s job forces her to divide her time between the Alliance (Cerberus in the second game) and the Citadel Council. As an Alliance marine/Cerberus operative, she flies in and out of hot zones, fighting bad guys and protecting civilians. As a Council Spectre, she may shoot bad guys and protect civilians, but she also meets with diplomats and negotiates with politicians. In both of these roles, it would be feasible to expect Shepard to wear makeup. But Mass Effect is not only about Shepard in an official or professional capacity. If it were, if it were more like Gears of War, for instance, and Shepard were nothing but an object by which the player shoots enemies and blows things up (in other words, if she were Marcus Fenix), the permanent presence of makeup wouldn’t matter.

In the case of Marcus Fenix, we only see him doing one thing (shooting bad guys) all the time. We never really see him “off-duty,” and we only see him “on-duty” for more or less one day. In a game like Gears of War, we are offered one (intense) day in the life of a soldier in the COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments). Mass Effect is very different. For one thing, Shepard is “on-duty” for a lot longer than one day. More importantly, however, Mass Effect shows that Shepard is a person, while Gears of War treats Marcus only as a tool for the player to use. Mass Effect allows us to build Shepard as a character by giving the player choices. For instance, if a player chooses to complete some of the innumerable potential side quests, the game gives the impression that Shepard is choosing to help passersby or collect items, which contributes to her characterization. If a player chooses to interact with her crew or pursue a romantic relationship, that choice also reflects upon her as a person.** The game shows us Shepard as much (possibly more) when she’s “off-duty” as when she’s “on-duty.” Mass Effect is as much about Shepard as a person as Shepard as a soldier/Council Spectre. The same simply cannot be said of a game like Gears of War.

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As such, we see Shepard in many circumstances where there is no logical reason for her to be wearing makeup, especially as the series progresses. Most notably, each game contains a sex scene and its immediate aftermath (unless, of course, the player chooses not to pursue a romantic relationship). Makeup tends to, um, smudge during sexual encounters, yet Shepard’s remains immaculate. In the second game, we see Shepard immediately following extensive surgery. She wakes up from the dead with perfect makeup. Did Miranda meticulously apply her eye shadow, blush, and lipstick while Shepard was unconscious? (That’s a bizarre thought.)

At the beginning of the third game, she is forced reluctantly from planet Earth when the Reapers attack without warning. She rushes to Mars and then the Citadel, seemingly without a moment in between. Given these circumstances, is it really feasible that her makeup is still perfect when she gets to the Citadel, especially after experiencing a vicious sandstorm on Mars? Maybe she had time to reapply it while the Normandy travelled, but that would mean that Shepard had somehow stored makeup on the Normandy before it got impounded. (Even if she had, it would have been long expired and unsafe to use after a year… unless it was some kind of special space mascara. Discussions of futuristic makeup technology aside, I think you get my point.)

Over the course of the third game, it also becomes apparent that Shepard isn’t sleeping well. She is plagued by nightmares. The crew worries for her. Garrus even says “I’m starting to see some wear and tear,” implying that her lack of sleep is showing on her face, but all we see is her perpetually perfect makeup. After Thessia’s destruction, she can hardly bring herself to answer Hackett’s call. Why would she bother to apply makeup? Though she’s going through hell, we never see Shepard cry, but isn’t it possible that she does? Isn’t it possible that, in the face of the biggest threat ever known to the galaxy, her makeup smears a little, and she can’t be bothered to fix it?

In thus analysing the presence of makeup in Mass Effect 3, it dawned on me how much better the third game would be if Shepard’s makeup changed based on the sombre context of the third game. Imagine if we did see the “wear and tear” that Garrus mentioned. In the Batman Arkham games, Batman’s suit gets torn, his cape becomes tattered, and his clean-shaven face develops a thick stubble. The changes in Batman’s appearance emphasize to the player that it has been a long, tough night. Bioware could have taken a cue from the Arkham games and demonstrated to the player the true impact of this brutal war. Why didn’t they?

The presence of makeup at the times that I mentioned above broke the spell of the game for me. Everywhere in the third game, people are dying. They’ve lost their homes, their families, their livelihood. Everyone says it’s the end. The game keeps insisting that the galaxy will not emerge from this war unscathed. But Shepard’s makeup does. It makes no sense, and because it makes no sense, the game seems to contradict itself.

Shepard’s perfect makeup has ramifications, however, beyond the game itself. The presence of makeup can impact a player’s perception of Shepard as a person. As I mentioned above, makeup is a choice; it involves work, and it carries a wide array of associations and implications depending on the person who chooses to wear it. I can only speak for myself here, but I perceive the desire for constantly having perfect makeup as coming from an inherent insecurity about one’s looks or from an inherent vanity: both are rooted in the desire to be perceived as attractive in the eyes of another. Therefore, when the game forces Shepard to have immaculate makeup at all times, I find myself sometimes associating the presence of that makeup with Shepard being insecure or vain. That realization broke the spell of the game for me because the game praises Shepard continually: she’s strong, brave, loyal, and committed to saving as much of the galaxy as she can. In short, she seems neither insecure nor vain. But her makeup can be perceived to send a different message.

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For example, let’s say the player chooses to pursue a romantic relationship with Kaidan. In the cut scenes, Shepard is shown to have perfect makeup right before meeting with Kaidan in her cabin. Given what we know about makeup being a choice and possibly being associated with insecurity, we can analyze its presence. Why is she wearing makeup? Perhaps she is trying really hard to impress him. Maybe she’s insecure about his affections and trying very hard to be beautiful so that he will continue to love her after they have sex. After they make love, Shepard is awake before Kaidan, and her makeup is impeccable. Is she so vain that she doesn’t want him to see her without makeup? Or maybe she fears she’d be too vulnerable without it. Perhaps she’s embarrassed about having sex with her lieutenant. Her makeup can be seen as a mask here, a way of putting the sex act behind her and moving forward; perhaps she is using it to re-establish the chain of command.

When Mass Effect refuses to acknowledge the implications of makeup, it says to me that no one on the development team ever considered the implications of wearing makeup. It says that they do not understand, nor do they care to examine, the implications of wearing makeup as clearly as someone who actually wears makeup (i.e. a woman) would. Mass Effect sees a man as the default. Maybe the developers assumed everyone would play as a male Shepard. Maybe they assumed that those playing as a female Shepard were male and therefore they designed the character with the male gaze in mind. Maybe the male gaze is so pervasive that it never even crossed their minds that they were catering to it.

Regardless of why they ignored the implications of wearing makeup, by doing so, the game fails to take into account my voice as a woman. As someone who wears makeup, I can raise these issues, but because the game doesn’t seem to take them into consideration, I am shouting in an empty room. The game perceives me as a minority, and I begin to think that I am, that no one else who plays videogames knows about makeup the way I do (read: I am alone as a female gamer), and therefore, I (and my opinion) don’t matter. I begin to wonder if my Shepard should have been a man because then I wouldn’t be pestered by such troublesome questions. I begin to wonder if there is something wrong with being a woman.

Here’s where I return to my epigraph from The History of Medicine. Scientists looking to discover the secret of procreation perceived women as passive participants in the process, vessels to hold the male seed. Thus, no one ever considered that perhaps the woman’s anatomy played a role in creating life. Even though the ovum is much larger than the sperm, the sperm was discovered much earlier because scientists bothered to look for it. How much different would games be if, when designing characters, the game developers bothered to take into account the opinions of makeup wearers?

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So, Bioware, I ask you: how difficult would it be for Shepard’s appearance to change over the course of the game? In the second and third games, facial scars appear or fade depending on a player’s Paragon/Renegade score, so why not have her makeup change as well, like Batman’s face and clothing in the Arkham games? Alternatively, how hard would it be to allow players to change Shepard’s makeup? Games, like all forms of art, strive to break away from the banality of life, so I understand that players may not appreciate having a mini-game in which Shepard rolls the mascara brush over her eyelashes. I feel it’s also important to note that many games that do directly involve the player making decisions about the protagonist’s appearance are considered “casual” games and are usually marketed to women and girls. Adding a “casual” aspect may not go over well with the target market intended for “hardcore” games like Mass Effect (read: men); however, I’d like to remind readers (and Bioware) that not all gamers are male, so why shy away from taking a chance to integrate women’s experiences?

If Bioware isn’t willing to incorporate the actions of applying/removing makeup (which, I’ll admit could be rather boring), why couldn’t we click on the mirror in the captain’s cabin and bring up a “Remove/Apply Makeup: Yes/No” dialogue box? The image could fade out and fade back in. Or the mirror could bring up the character creation screen (like in the Dragon Age 2 “Black Emporium” DLC) and feature new Shepard in future encounters. Or perhaps Shepard could have a default ‘no-makeup’ setting upon re-boarding the Normandy. Major cut scenes taking place off the Normandy (Council meetings, Citadel scenes, etc.) could feature Shepard with makeup, and Normandy conversations could be makeup-less. Would it really be that hard?

If you’re a person who chooses to wear makeup (most of the time, that means you’re a woman, but not necessarily), you understand that makeup is a choice. When a game like Mass Effect ignores the implications of wearing makeup, the game developers are de-valuing the experience of wearing makeup; they are stating that the choice to wear makeup does not matter. Therefore, they are de-valuing one (albeit small) part of being a woman, while reinforcing the belief that videogames are (or should be) made with the male player in mind. When developers are hesitant to introduce changes that may appeal to different demographics, the perception of gaming as a space where women are not welcome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women gamers may feel unwelcome or alienated by the game’s omission and devaluation of their experiences, however banal those experiences may be. Furthermore, the game thus upholds the belief that women, even powerful, kick-ass women like Shepard, are viewed primarily as objects to be admired, and therefore cannot not be pretty. This view is damaging to women and men, and I wish my favourite game franchise would take a step towards changing it.

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*Note that when we first create the character, and at the beginning of each of the two sequels, we can choose to have no makeup. But it’s also unusual or unrealistic for a woman to never, ever, ever wear makeup. (I have friends, for instance, who never wear makeup in an everyday capacity, but they have still worn it a handful of times for theatre productions, weddings, cosplay, photo shoots, etc.)

**More than one person I know has justified their Shepard’s actions through a complicated analysis of the character’s thought processes, preferences, moral code, past behaviour patterns, etc. For instance, one player’s Shepard decided to save the Rachni queen because she thought that it was the right thing to do, while another’s Shepard might have saved the Rachni queen because she thought that it could be useful for the Rachni to owe humanity a debt.