Over the past few months, Feminist Frequency has been delivering a new slate of videos with increased, if you’ll pardon the pun, frequency. Like the videos Anita Sarkeesian produced in previous years, the new additions to the ongoing series are intended to take a look at video games through a feminist lens.
While this in and of itself shouldn’t be a big deal, Sarkeesian’s criticism of the video games she references is rarely on point and the sins of the games are magnified to exaggerated effect. More often than not, her videos omit credible counterpoints that would otherwise impact her interpretations, subjecting them to much-deserved derision.
The latest Feminist Frequency video broaches the subject of the “Sinister Seductress,” or the femme fatale. It’s a commonly used trope in all forms of fiction that sees female characters using their sexuality to harm others—usually men.
Sarkeesian’s main point of contention with the trope is that it demonizes women’s sexuality by casting it in a negative light. Women, she argues, are unable to be sexual without their sexuality being regarded as also dangerous, if not downright creepy. Some horror video games combine sexual appeal and creep factor to great effect. Diablo III’s Cydaea, the Lady of Lust, is depicted as a half-human monstrosity whose thighs, torso, and head are feminine in form but whose lower body is that of a spider. Doom 3’s Vagary is depicted in very much the same way, but with far less sex appeal.
Throughout the video, Sarkeesian argues that the vilification of the female body has its roots in mythology. Citing Lilith and Pandora as primary examples of characters from antiquity with misogynistic origins, the culture critic isn’t wrong in her assertion that they were the products of a deeply patriarchal culture.
Some of these regressive views remain today, especially in less cultured parts of the world—but video games have nothing to do with that. The social justice warriors should be directing their attention towards fighting for the rights of women in these places instead of attacking video games. There’s no risk of having acid thrown on your face for calling gamers “misogynist” over the Internet.
Sarkeesian enters murky waters when she cites the Greek myth of the sirens, who preyed upon sailors and brought them to their watery graves. There’s a problem with simply cherry-picking examples, however — many of these female characters have male counterparts who are no less shamed and even demonized for their sexuality.
Narcissus stared himself to death after becoming unable to leave the beauty of his own reflection. His excessive pride and love for himself could even be construed as a classical observation on “fragile masculinity,” due to his need for the affirmation of his own desiring gaze. The German author Goethe would later ascribe such narcissism to men in his works, Faust, and The Sorrows of Young Werther as two distinct forms of the trait.
Satyrs, the male companions of Dionysus, were often depicted with their penises erect in both paintings and sculptures. Though originally worshiped as deities of fertility by Greeks and Romans, Christians would later use their goatlike characteristics to depict demons, perhaps as a way of poisoning the well and turning these creatures into monsters.
To Renaissance Christians, the goat-like demon Asmodeus, whose main trait was his lechery, was considered the King of the Nine Hells. Asmodeus was cast as the demon of lust, responsible for twisting sexual desire. Being lecherous was generally seen as a bad thing — in both men and women.
Feminist Frequency cites a few popular examples of mythological creatures “created explicitly to demonize women.” Sarkeesian mentions the succubus, a female demon who “sexually lures and seduces men,” but neglects to mention that the succubus has a male counterpart — the incubus — and that both creatures brought sickness and death to otherwise hale men and women after seducing and having sex with them in their sleep. Medieval treatises on the demons concluded that the incubus and succubus were one and the same, capable of shapeshifting into either form.
Sarkeesian also mentions the harpy, a bird-like monster with the face of a woman, but ignores countless examples of male monsters. The Minotaur might be the best-known example of a distinctively male monster, whose only purpose in Ovid’s account of the classical myth is to be slain by Theseus. So much for agency.
Of course, none of these creatures actually exist, but it is egregious to highlight only a few select examples while omitting many others. A better critique of tropes in video games requires more objectivity and far less narrative-pushing interspersed with facial contortions and mock disgust.
Video games do not only use female bodies to present a mix of sexuality and horror. Male appendages also feature heavily in one of the games taken to task by the Feminist Frequency video. When referencing Dante’s Inferno, Sarkeesian pointed out the grotesqueness of Cleopatra and her nipples, which release demon babies, but makes no mention of the game’s primary antagonist, Lucifer. For those who haven’t played the game, the fallen angel Lucifer runs around naked with his gigantic member flopping around. It’s not quite as graphic as the Cleopatra fight, but for most gamers who played the game, the sight was unexpected.
And there’s a good reason why that’s the case. Literal censorship contributes to the lack of nude male bodies on display. The ESRB and other ratings boards like the European PEGI will give any game that depicts nudity with an “M for Mature” rating. For the record, Dante’s Inferno was singled out for depicting bare breasts as well as Lucifer’s penis. But a game like Soul Calibur V, which has skimpy outfits, excessive cleavage and a bit of cursing will afford it a “T for Teen.”
For game developers releasing titles in the 2000’s, which Sarkeesian’s videos mainly address, having a “T for Teen” rating meant getting premium shelf space at brick and mortar stores. Until 2013, the ESRB had very strict restrictions on the promotion of Mature-rated games, making them more difficult to promote and sell. Those restrictions have since been lifted. As more and more games are developed without the fear of being rated M, gamers can definitely expect to see more explicit displays of male sexuality—and all things being equal, that’s not a bad thing.
Less censorship, whether self-imposed by developers or otherwise, can always be an improvement. After all, the Japanese-developed Shin Megami Tensei’s use of phallic imagery never hurt those games, but instead gave them more character. Western games inspired by the art of H.R. Giger would be a welcome addition to the medium.
Contrary to Anita Sarkeesian’s arguments about “harmful” notions about human sexuality being perpetuated through video games, I would argue that transformative body horror is exactly what video games need to establish a deeper connection with those who play them, and perhaps dispel some of the notions she’s so afraid of. After all, the fears and anxieties we feel about ourselves, and our bodies, have deep roots in how we think of ourselves as individuals. What better way to explore the human condition than to interact with it? And interaction is what video games were made for.