Sunday, November 24, 2013

Crescent's Thoughts On: Anita Sarkeesian's Ms. Male Character Video or How Making Female Characters Feminine is Sexist.

MY GOD! She is wearing a different plaid shirt!
Before I begin this week's incoherent ramblings, I have some good news: The Mighty no. 9 community forums is online and all those who have backed the Kickstarter have received their Mighty No.s. I am Mighty no. 61357 AKA CRES. If you see me on the forums say hi and for the love of god check out my blog, I'm very lonely here. Anyway, over the course of last week Anita Sarkeesian has released her next video in her "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games" series at the impressive rate of one video every 3 months. This latest video "The Fighting Fu-" um, I mean "Ms. Male Character" is focused on the presence of the female version of several popular male counterparts, and how bows apparently are the worse thing to happen to girls since the dawn of time. Throughout the 25 minute video, Anita Sarkeesian makes only two points, one regarding the Ms Male Character and the other referring to the Smurfette Principle, but she makes up for this lack of content by making her first point over, and over, and over, and over again. And so, since unlike last time with the Damsels in Distress Part 3 where she had absolutely NO content to work with, I have a brand new wealth of arguments to vivisect and expose just how poorly thought out her criticisms are.

It was love at first sight, unfortunately Pacman has no eyes.
Let's start logically with what the Ms. Male character trope is. Well what it is is invented, by Sarkeesian herself. Searching it through Google will only bring up videos and articles regarding Anita's video, and TV Tropes doesn't list the item at all, instead describing a similar trope called the "Distaff Counterpart." Anita even admits to this herself by stating that this entire trope is something she decided on by herself. In other words, she is INVENTING problems so that she can prop herself up as the solution. She does define her terms as "A female version of an already established or default male character. Ms. Male Characters are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterparts via their visual properties, their narrative connection or occasionally through promotional materials." But this definition is so broad that nearly any female counterpart to a male character is automatically a "Ms. Male Character." I know her intention is to look solely at the "Distaff Counterpart" but with her definition non-Distaff Counterparts such as Megaman and Roll or Mario and Peach can be lumped together into a Ms. Male character because of their relationship to the male character. What we are seeing here is that Anita is REALLY trying to force feed tropes with sexist bents to them even when such tropes DO NOT EXIST! "Women in Refrigerators"? Happens so often to male characters that it has been changed to "Stuffed in the Fridge." "Ms. Male Character"? Well, "Distaff Counterpart" doesn't sound sexist enough for her purposes.

But regardless of why she chose to create a new trope name when a pre-existing and far more prevalent name exists, Anita begins with the story of Ms. Pacman and later asks, in regards to Pacman and Ms Pacman up top, the question: "How do we know what gender a particular character is? Other than their names, how do we know that the collection of pixels on the right signal male while those on the left indicate female?" She goes on to state that Ms. Pacman is merely Pacman with feminine iconography paste all over her, The lipstick, the mascara, the beauty mark, and of course the bow on top. Which she isn't wrong that is pretty much what Ms. Pacman is, but what I disagree with is the notion that Pacman by design is gendered male.

"Other than their names, how do we know that the collection of pixels on the right signal male?" They DON'T, and this is my primary point of contention with Anita's video, she goes on and on about all these female signifiers, but pays NO ATTENTION to any and all MALE SIGNIFIERS! In the case of Pacman, there are no male signifiers. He is just a yellow circle with a chunk removed, the only reason why we know he is male is because of his name and Anita for the purpose of this example told us to ignore their names. In fact, the only reason anyone would think that Pacman is male in the picture above is because Ms. Pacman is obviously female and that they are in love. Then again Pacman could be a lesbian.

Little did everyone know that Nana was the boy all along!
Sarkeesian then continues by listing several Pacman-Ms. Pacman like relationships in early video games including Lolo and Lala from the Adventures of Lolo and Popo and Nana from Ice Climbers and even Sonic the Hedgehog and Amy Rose from Sonic CD, stating the same thing over and over again. The male character is the default while the female character is the deviation from his design with pink colors and a bow (excluding Nana). However, what Anita fails to address once again is that three of her male examples, Lolo, Popo, and Sonic contain a massive male signifier in their character design: They are all Blue. The color Blue is as much of a male signifier as the color Pink is a female signifier. This is how superficial the complaint is, if Nana was Player 1 in Ice Climbers then Popo will be the "Mr. Female Character" by the EXACT SAME LOGIC as Anita is using for "Ms. Male Character." Anita claims that by using since icons for female characters they are being "Marked" as something different from the "Unmarked" males. But if it is so harmful to female characters to add the color Pink to help identify their sex, then it should be equally harmful to male characters to have the color Blue to identify their sex. And adding a bow on top of their head? What about adding a Baseball cap or a Propeller hat on male characters? What about Donkey Kong's Neck Tie? Male Characters do not go unmarked, there are overt and subtle identifiers of masculinity such as harsher facial features, facial hair, and wider upper torso. There are characters who are completely unmarked as far as gender goes for example everyone's favorite pink creampuff: Kirby.

Male? Female? How the Hell should I know?
Anita uses Kirby as an example of a male character sporting the color pink, but is Kirby really male? What identifiers signal that Kirby is a boy? None, in fact Kirby is as close to gender neutral as possible. Kirby's design is so simplistic and nondescript that there are no gender identifiers to be found. Sure Kirby's Pink but that would mean that she is female according to standard gender icons, and Kirby's common depiction on most US box art show an angry Kirby which leans more towards the masculinity side of gender identification. Kirby's voice is likewise nongendered as it could be either fit an effeminate boy or a tomboyish girl. In fact, throughout all my gaming history with Kirby, there is only ONE moment I can remember which actually identifies Kirby as male, and that is when he get's love-struck after being kissed by the female fairy Ribbon in Kirby 64, and that was only because I knew Ribbon was most likely female... and probably not a lesbian. My point is that male characters are as marked by their gender as female characters and if they have no gender icons in their design they must be marked in a different way otherwise they are genderless. The reason why the color Pink, Bows, Makeup and feminine body characteristics (such as soft facial features, wider hips, and breasts) are used to identify females is because they the only female gender signifiers we have. Likewise the color Blue, Baseball caps, facial hair, and masculine body characteristics (such as harsh facial features, wider shoulders, and no breasts) are the only male gender signifiers we have. Signifiers beyond that are largely gender neutral with the possible exception of hair styles but there are gradients of gender in different hair cuts.
With 100 agents, I'm sure there is at least one other girl somewhere.
After making the same point about gender icons over and over again, Sarkeesian finally moves on to talking about the Smurfette Principle, where an ensemble cast contains ONLY one female character who represents all femininity in that ensemble. Again, I actually agree that this is sexist in the same way that the token Black Guy is racist. Having only one Smurfette in a cast of male characters is sexist ONLY IF that Smurfette is a shallow stereotype of female characteristics. However, Anita's use of examples of the Smurfette seems to be including any and every example where you have a group of guys but only one girl. I mean, how can the Valkyrie in Gauntlet (one of my Mom's favorite games by the way) be a Smurfette when none of the characters in Gauntlet HAVE personalities? (Also, in later Gauntlet games the Elf is turned into the Archer... and is female.) Paula in Earthbound, I'm told, is vital to the game's plot and the villain would not have been defeated if it wasn't for her. Zelenin from Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is the only female main character, yet she is as deep and complex as all the other characters in the game. Even her more sensible examples of Smurfettes are rife with problems. She lists Wendy O. Koopa as being limited to only being the Token Girl of the Koopalings because of her design, ignoring the fact that ALL of the Koopalings are only defined by their design having no personality or characteristics other than their ascetic design, and even then other critics have pointed out that Wendy is the most graceful, intelligent, and one of the most magically proficient of the Koopalings going ONLY by her appearances in the games. Wonder Pink's stereotyped and shallow characterization might have been problematic if it wasn't for the fact that EVERYTHING in The Wonderful 101 is a shallow stereotype of the tropes and cliches of American movie serials and Japanese Super Sentai series. Yes, Wonder Pink is a shallow stereotype, so is Wonder Red, Wonder Blue, and Wonder Green.

The ONLY Female Toad? Anita, can you at least TRIED to pretend to have done your research?
And then comes poor little Toadette. The adorable Toad from the Mushroom Kingdom that Anita calls "the only woman among the Mushroom people." And that "her introduction to the Mario-spin off games emphasize the fact that all the other Toads in the entire species are male." That's right, Toadette is the ONLY female Toad, in all of the Mushroom Kingdom.... Except she ISN'T. She is certainly the most well known and popular female Toad, but she isn't the ONLY girl Toad in the Mario universe. Here is a short list of all the female Toads in the Mario Universe: Jolene, Raini, The Traveling Sisters Three, Toad Waitress, Chanterelle, the Rose Town Innkeeper, Mrs. Shroomlock, Tayce T., Toce T., Vanna T., Zess T., Toadiko, Toadia, and even Princess Peach's Grandmother. And lastly Toadette, and this is just a short list I compiled by looking through the Super Mario Wiki, there are several other female toads throughout the Mario universe, namely in the Mario RPG series. How can someone claim to have done research into the topics she is talking about, miss such a HUGE mistake like Toadette being the ONLY FEMALE TOAD.

There are several other small nonsensical points she makes in her video, such as talking about the Adam and Eve story for some reason, and complaining about Mass Effect using the male Shepard in all of their promotional material, forgetting or ignoring the fact that the generic "John Shepard" was created for promotional material and for gamers who didn't want to go through the process of character creation, and that it wasn't until Mass Effect 3 where they had a default "Jane Shepard" and where used her in promotional material as well, but largely these are irrelevant tangents, neither aiding nor even expanding her initial topic. But what I want to make clear in this closing is not just that she doesn't do sufficient research on her topic that is the problem, nor that she ignores the game's context and tone to make her point even when in it's proper context and with recognition of the game's tone her complaints ring hollow, nor that all of her arguments have easy to destroy counter arguments, it's the fact that she contradicts herself FREQUENTLY!

She complains about gender signifiers like makeup and earrings, while wearing makeup and earrings herself. She lists several characters who "Don't use gender signifiers to identify them as female" ignoring the more subtle gender signifiers such as facial features and even overt signifiers like the presence of breasts that she routinely makes a deal about portraying. And most baffling of all she has frequently said, in her Tedx talks and in various interviews that the gaming culture at large are AND I QUOTE: "trying to maintain the status quo of video games as a male dominated space and all of the privileges and entitlements that come with an unquestioned boys club." BUT at the start of her Ms. Male Character video she not only said that: "Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, has stated in numerous interviews that the game was designed to appeal to women" but also that Midway created Ms. Pacman "in an effort to continue appealing to female gamers." (I added the emphasis.) So Ms. Sarkeesian, which is it? Are we trying to keep women out of gaming, or are we trying to appeal to female gamers?

In closing, FINALLY, Anita Sarkeesian's video makes no sense on the basis that she never made her complaints clear. Sure she complained about female characters having bows or a heart motif to their design and or weapondry, but never explained why that is a problem. Some girls like the color pink, some girls like being girly, if such people exist in real life what's wrong with portraying characters like that in fictional media like video games, especially games that target younger demographics like the Sonic games, Ice Climbers, and even Pacman and Ms. Pacman? It might be a problem if this was the only representation of female characters but it is not. And so what if the female character originates from a male template. Sometimes the female variate becomes far more popular than the male variate. More people love Ms. Pacman than Pacman, Toadette is far more interesting a character than Toad, and people where genuinely excited to see Dixie Kong return in Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. Just because a female character has female icons to identify their gender, or, as inspiration, was made off of the template of an existing male hero, doesn't invalidate a female character's popularity or influence. And lastly, please stop using Thomas Was Alone as an example of female characters. Don't get me wrong it's a great game and the story is charming, but the characterization and story in that game exists SOLELY in the narration. Change or remove that narration and you wouldn't be praising that game as much as you are now.

Sorry for the long post, Until next time.

-Crescent, "Putting on lipstick, makeup, and accessories to mark a character as female is sexist."


  1. Don't forget the pink in the shirt she is wearing.

    1. It's not as bad as the pink hoodie she wore in her Legos video. If she wore that, the density of the irony would be enough to collapse into a singularity.