Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sexism and Gender Politics in Arkham City

I can't see why ANYONE would think this was sexist.
Note: This blog entry contains major spoilers for the game and you should proceed at your own risk if you haven't played Arkham City.

    Film Crit Hulk wrote a couple of interesting articles on the sexism in Batman: Arkham City. I actually think people should check them out.

Article 1#
Article 2#

    I disagree with some of his conclusions but I think it's an important thing to address the objections he and others have raised.

    Likewise, the Game Overthinker has his own podcast on the subject.


    I think it's fascinating to address the changing role of women in both comics and video games. The fact we're talking about it as opposed to accepting it at face value makes me think definite progress is being made.

    Others might disagree but since it's my blog, I'll just say they're wrong.

    Let's face it, comic books and video games have never been the most progressive mediums when it comes to women. For the longest time, both have been defined as "boys' entertainment" and it definitely shows in their depiction of women.

    Gail Simone created the "Women in Refrigerators" webpage to talk about how female characters in comics were considered disposal compared to their male colleagues. For example: Barbara Gordon a.k.a Batgirl was shot and crippled by the Joker while Batman had his back broken by Bane. Batman was up and running again by the end of Knightfall but it took Barbara over a decade to start walking again.

    Video games started with Mario and Link saving the Princess. Samus Aran and Lara Croft are the two grand dames of video game heroines but both are sexualized beyond measure. Just look up Samus Aran's Zero Suit. I mean, seriously, would video game developers put Boba Fett in that outfit?

    It's no coincidence that the Final Fantasy games were hugely popular with women because of their comparatively tame sexualization (barring FFX-2) and strong roles for female characters. Lara Croft has recently being rebooted in hopes of re-imagining her as a strong female character instead of a joke. It might be a case of "too little, too late" given her name has become synonymous with fanservice but I wish them luck.

    Now, where what's the deal with sexism in Arkham City? Well, let's start with the female characters.

    Catwoman is actually one of the more interesting characters in the game. She's overtly sexualized but the game points out it's all an act. Catwoman has long been a character who uses her "feminine wiles" to manipulate men, though this has been called sexist in the past well before AA. Wasn't it Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl (ow, I hate remembering that movie) who pointed out that sort of passive-aggressive resistance went out a long time ago?

    However, the game does a nice job in establishing Catwoman is rather ambivalent about sex. She's obviously making use of her "distracting sexiness" to throw off her enemies. Hell, Catwoman steals kisses from enemies during takedowns. It adds an interesting layer to her relationship with Batman. Since before Julie Newmar, Batman has had a flirtatious relationship with Catwoman.

    Batman has never been particularly harsh to her and has even trusted his secret identity to her on occasion. In Earth-2's continuity, Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle actually married and had a child together. Arkham City is the first game where it's implied Batman may simply be the victim of Selena Kyle screwing with his head. After all, in this game we find out that Selena Kyle flirts with everyone and it's always insincere.

    Yes, she cares for Batman and has moral choices to make regarding helping him but it's obvious she's not desperately in love with Bruce. Selena Kyle is a woman fully in control of her sexuality, even as it's something she uses as a weapon.

    Catwoman also gets to kick ass during the game, occupying a "Lightning Bruiser" role. She can't take quite as much punishment as Batman but her ability to deal with huge numbers of thugs, especially when fully upgraded, is notable.

    The camera does ogle her a bit too much for my taste and Batman rescuing her from Two Face is something I think the game could have done without. However, Catwoman does get the opportunity to return the favor later in the game. That makes up for it, mostly.

    Next up is the behavior of the generic mooks in Batman: Arkham City. Seriously, the male characters in the game are surprisingly foul-mouthed when it comes to women. The word b*** is used to a ridiculous level, usually referring to Catwoman or Harley Quinn.

    The amount of sexist commentary from the thugs also goes into some uncomfortable areas. Specifically, some thugs speculate on Catwoman being bisexual and Harley Quinn being transgendered for their own lewd fantasies and/or because they can't imagine taking orders from a woman born female.

    Here, detractors have a valid point.

    Now, I'm aware that hardened cons are not the most politically correct people on the planet. In real life, sexual violence is going to happen in environments as rife with power/dominance issues as prisons. I don't have any objections to the fact that the thugs are people the game wants us to hate. When a female nurse is rescued in Wonder City, the implications of the thugs' intent is clear and there's an argument that it's no different from rescuing any of the political prisoners being threatened throughout Arkham City.

    Except, it is.

    The first issue is that I don't object to the use of harsh language by thugs, it's just that it's remarkably focused on the women of the game. Yes, thugs would call Catwoman a "b***" and probably would use a lot more harsh language. It's just they never call Batman a "b******" or an "a******" or use any other similarly harsh words towards male characters. We don't see any of the male thugs threatening male characters with rape either, because that's not as socially acceptable to depict in our society.

    Bluntly, it's permissible in a Teen game for Batman to swoop in and rescue a female character from the threat of imminent rape but not the same for him to do so with a male character.

    Here, I think the developers really dropped the ball. They were trying to push the envelope with Batman's edginess but I think they did it in a half-hearted way. The thugs are capable of threatening women with sexual violence and being sexist but they aren't able to do the same towards men. It's because of this I think the game could have definitely dialed it back a notch without sacrificing storytelling integrity.

    Which brings me to Talia.

    I think Batman: Arkham City did a reasonable job in depicting both Talia and the League of Shadows. You know, aside from giving the daughter of the Demon's Head an outfit showing her midriff.

Because I think the world's most dangerous terrorist needs to show her belly button.
    I'm sorry, that just seems rather out of place. Are we really to the point where we need Talia al Ghul of people to show more skin to be sexy? A girl who basically thrives on being sexy due to how dangerous she is?

    Well, with that out of the way I'd like to say that the game mostly gets it right with Talia and her bodyguards. When we first meet one of the League of Shadow ninjas, she's seemingly dead and stuffed in one of the Penguin's display cases. However, it was after she'd killed eight of the Penguin's goons. Honestly, I thought that was probably underselling what one of the League could do but it's still pretty damn impressive.

    Later, we discover she actually faked her death and had entered into a trance of some kind which allowed her to survive a gunshot wound. While she's seemingly dead in her display case, she hears Batman's plans to go after the Demon's Head and breaks free. She then leads Batman on a rooftop to rooftop chase where only exceptional cunning lets Batman track her down.


    Ironically, the way Batman deals with the League's ninjas is less sexist than you'd think. Specifically, Batman fights them the same way he would any other thug just without the bone-snapping maneuvers. Normally, violence against women is a bad thing to depict in games but here Batman is obviously going to die if he doesn't fight back and it's a contest of near-equals.

    You could even argue the reason Batman doesn't break any of his opponent's bones is less because he's worried about hurting women than he doesn't want to unnecessarily **** off the League of Shadows when he's coming to them for a favor.

    There's also a hilarious subversion when Talia is being threatened by the Joker. For the entire time, we're meant to assume Talia is going to die unless we rescue her. Then, when Bruce Wayne is in a spot, Talia just causally spins around and seemingly kills the Joker. The entire time, Talia was playing possum and just testing Bruce to see how far he'd go for her. Had the game ended with her leaving Batman to face the Joker alone, annoyed he wouldn't kill him for her, I would have been pleased.

    Unfortunately, it ends with Talia being killed by the Joker from behind.

    This, honestly, just p***** me off. Talia is one of my favorite characters and I support Batman with her above all other options. The fact that the ending of the game then goes on to mourn the Joker of all people bothers me to no end.

    Yeah, I get it's Mark Hamill's last performance as the Clown Prince of Crime but Talia is lying dead just a few feet away. Don't you think Bruce Wayne would be carrying her body out? Don't give that he can just take her to a Lazarus Pit either. They mentioned that option for Ra's al Ghul but they didn't do that for Talia.

    So definite mixed marks for Talia and the League's depiction.

    Finally, Harley Quinn.

    Harley Quinn is always a difficult character to write in relation to the Joker. If you treat her situation seriously, she's an abused spouse with elements of Patty Hearst crossed one of Charles Manson's female followers.

    I.e. there's nothing particularly funny about it.

    If you treat it for laughs, you run the risk of laughing at some uncomfortable subtext. I love the DC comics stories about when Harley is away from the Joker and becoming her own woman. Words cannot express how p***** off I was by the ending of Gotham City Sirens, which undid all of her positive characterization.

    Really, I like the Harley Quinn in the Arkham Asylum video games because they nicely sidestep the issue. Here, Harley is just a bad person. No, seriously, it removes a lot of the sexism  to treat her as the Joker's number 1# henchwoman and nothing else. She's not remotely sympathetic and is a dangerous psychopath. It makes her villain instead of victim.

    Indeed, in the Joker's dying state, Harley plays the role of a major villainess. She kills people left and right and sends a Doctor to die horribly at the hands of her male followers. Some of them are plotting against her, thinking she'll be easy pickings when the Joker is dead but at least some of the criminals are rightfully afraid of her.

    Then we find out she's pregnant with the Joker's baby.

    Honestly, I'm not sure what to make of that. I can't say it's necessarily sexist or not, given pregnancy is part of the human experience. I think we'll have to wait until Arkham Asylum 3 to find out how that changes things. I actually like Harley's depiction in the AA games. She's tough, dangerous, and as mad as the Joker.

    I think Arkham City isn't nearly the sexist work that people give it credit for. It has a number of strong female characters who are more than just women for Batman to rescue or romantic interests. It even passes the Bechdel Test due to Catwoman and Ivy talking about plants and loot. I would have appreciated a chance for Catwoman and Harley to talk, let alone Catwoman and Talia. Still, I think the game had a surprisingly good grasp of some its female characters.

    Unfortunately, this just makes the areas it does slip up on all the more troublesome. The game just needed a little tweaking to be less troublesome in its gender politics.

    That's my .02 and you're welcome to disagree.


  1. I know very little about comic books and even less about video games. But sexism in either doesn't bother me. I see it as a bit cartoonish and just good fun, a little like the bad joke in the room. We're not supposed to laugh but we do anyway.

    This is double sided. Most superheros look sexy in uniform--especially the men. I think the idea is too pull it all up a notch . . . add to the fantasy.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Bobbie. They're most welcome. I like your insights into just about everything I write.

  3. I realize this is an old post, but I felt I had something to say.

    You're quite opinionated and very convinced that there's some 'right' way to do things - namely YOUR way.
    Not everyone sees things like this, though as you say, people are welcome to disagree.

    What I don't like, and will absolutely always object to is people trying to force their own views on others - which is sadly the case in many video games. People feel offended by something, and think that instead of avoiding it, the correct solution is to FORCE the developers of the game to change it - showing complete disregard for the views and choices of others who disagree with them.

    You make it sound like there have been far worse reviews of Arkham City in regards to sexism, which frankly makes me scared about the future of the world we live in.

    And on a side-note, Harley's pregancy test shown positive is one out of about two dozen scattered in a room. And the boxes in which the tests come are shown, showing the warning on the side that it sometimes gives a False Positive - which means that it could be just a fluke.

    1. Thank you for sharing your opinion. I appreciate commentary and am glad you stopped by to read my essay. As a note, I believe it would be better if it was done a certain way but I don't begrudge the authors their right to do so. I just think it was to the deterrent of the work.

      As a note, re: Harley's pregnancy, that was revealed later.


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