A Chat About Male Empowerment Fantasies in Gaming
The game industry has gotten a lot more progressive. This might be an unpopular opinion, to both "sides" of the ongoing sexism in games debate, but it's an undeniable fact. Less than a decade ago, it was perfectly acceptable to advertise games with women's cleavage. use women as background items to be murdered or banged, and other things. I mean, come on. We got The Guy Game, Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, God of War, the heinous ad campaign of Hitman: Blood Money, and Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, and those were things that got released with barely any criticism.
Now, we have developers actively trying to create diverse female leads, franchises changing course to be more inclusive, and a steady trickle of awesome women breaking into the industry (despite assholes trying to scare them away.) And this is a great thing. I genuinely feel that. But, as a question, in this medium, is there a place for male empowerment fantasies anymore? Or is the very concept of that an archaic notion that should be left in the past? As always, I have the Chicken Soup for your Inquisitive Soul.
What Makes Something "Male Empowerment"?
What is male empowerment, anyway? Is it murdering legions of evil, 'Murica-hating commies? Is it seducing whole tribes of imposing yet alluring and magically Caucasian Amazonian women? Is it to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of their women? Well, uh, I don't know if anyone can agree on that. Like, it seems like "male empowerment" can mean anything from "killing enemies and fucking their wives" to "losing everything and struggling along until ultimately triumphing over the odds." It's such a loosely defined term, I feel.
Still, I do have a general idea of what I think constitutes a "male empowerment fantasy." The protagonist is a conventionally attractive, strong, probably white male. He's not held down by any lady (he's straight, obviously,) whether she's been murdered, kidnapped, or is simply a trophy partner who is also conventionally attractive. Any other woman is there to bang, kill, be killed, or some fucking weird combination of the three. Most likely, he either has or gains the capability to do cool things, like drive cars fast, or shoot a lot of people, or both. Basically, he's a strong, independent white man who don't need no woman!
Seriously, though, if you parse this character type with a lot of video game releases, you start noticing a pattern. There are so, so many protagonists that fit this mold, and so what happens is this: when we do get a good, complex, white male lead, like a Joel in Last of Us, a Michael in Grand Theft Auto V, or an Alan Wake in, well, Alan Wake, he automatically gets lumped in with all the Aiden Pierces, the Kratos, the Max Paynes, the Master Chiefs... phew, there's a lot of them, huh? I don't know if this is entirely fair, but I understand it. With all these white dudes, it's kind of hard not to feel as if they're running together. Not to knock the quality of these games (I love the hell out of both the God of War and Max Payne franchises,) but it's definitely an issue to be aware of.
Altogether, though, I do think there's a difference between a generic white guy and an interesting white guy, despite them both, in fact, being white guys. Looking forward to the "reverse racism" babies in the comments!
Bayonetta is intended as a female empowerment fantasy, but lord, we know how split opinions are on that one. Some people say that Bayonetta uses her sexuality as a weapon, and it's liberating and freeing, so on, so forth. Some people feel the excessive male gaze and pandering undercuts that, Both sides have valid points, I feel, and trying to "win" that argument is a fucking moronic prospect. Anybody who thinks they're "right" isn't, plain and simple. Moving on. Some people think that's liberating, and that's cool. But what about other female characters? Which other ones could be considering "empowerment"? Lara Croft? Nilin? Ellie? Clementine? Samus Aran? Faith? Lightning? The Villager? The Boss from Saints Row?
To be fair and honest, it's really hard to say. Speaking as a white guy whose interests are taken into consideration with virtually every major release, it's hard for me to be the judge of what's female empowerment and what's not. And before anyone links me with that moronic video of the guy listing off female characters in video games, let me clarify something: whatever female empowerment is, I don't think it looks like a lot of games with playable female characters. Like yeah, in the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, games that I actually sort of like, you play as female protagonists, but they're... kind of there... to pander to the predominantly male fanbase. You can't really deny that. I mean, you can. But you'd be objectively wrong. Yep.
Anyway, where were we? Ah, yeah, female empowerment. Does it exist? I'd say "probably," but again, I'm not sure what that looks like, because there's not enough out there for there to be a pattern. There's enough sausage-fests on the market to notice trends between them, but when you look at every release to come out each year, especially in past years, the same can't be said of ladies. If a woman wants a female lead to identify with, well, they'd damn well better like one of the ones available, or they're kind of left out in the cold. That's not cool.
It'd be cool to see more diverse female leads so there could start being a noticeable "female empowerment" series of tropes that we could discuss, and not just a, "well, hope you like these characters" atmosphere.
Is Male Empowerment Bad For Society?
No. Well, maybe. Then again, probably not. But still, there's a possibility that it could be...
This is a complicated question, and one that I don't have the definitive answer to. Just an opinion. And my opinion is that male empowerment fantasies don't have to be caustic to women... but often, they are. I'm not saying always. I'm not saying male empowerment fantasies are bad. I'm saying that a lot of them put women in very shitty positions, along with people who, well, aren't white or have penises and identify as "duder." Let's be honest for a second, guys. How many games try to tug at the ol' heartstrings by killing a woman/putting a woman in peril? How many games try to "establish character" by showing our rugged protagonist going to fucking town on a lady in bed? How many games establish villains as sinister British men or people with dark skin? Kind of a lot, right? Can you see how that could maybe not be for the best?
I'm not saying that video games are racist or sexist. Not even some of the ones that fall into those categories, sometimes. What I'm trying to say is this: there are an awful lot of male empowerment fantasies that focus on the brutalization and sexualization of women, on top of the vilification and marginalization of people of color. That's kind of shitty. I don't think that, in order to feel like a tough, strong, badass man, we need to necessarily fuck over everyone that isn't a white guy. And if that's your idea of empowerment, then you probably live in the South. Or Texas. Or you're a cop.
The point is, male empowerment fantasies don't have to have sexist or racist undertones but often, they reflect and can, by consequence, reinforce those values onto society. That's not to say that video games are going to make you rape women and murder minorities, because this is 2015 and my name isn't Jack Thompson (remember that guy? What a character!) But it can definitely, over time, make you a little more scared of those black guys at the gas station, or a little more condescending to that lady at your office. I'm not saying it will. I'm saying it can. And that's worth ruminating on.
Are There Positive Male Empowerment Fantasies?
Oh, yes, definitely. Lords of the Fallen? Women aren't treated like shit, you get to be a badass Viking, and you kill demons. Sniper Elite III? No women getting brutalized, you get to snipe Nazis, and be a stoic badass. I could go on, but those are just two examples of what I would say is "positive male empowerment." That is to say, games where men get to feel like badasses and the developers wisely strayed away from victimizing women or vilifying people of color. Those games totally exist, and they're awesome. Why? I mean, look, I'm a stock white college student, not an elite sniper or demon slayer. It feels good. It's... hm, what's the word? Ah, yes: empowering.
Male empowerment fantasies don't have to make women or minorities look shitty, and I feel like that's something developers should keep in mind. Like, imagine what Watch Dogs would have been like if Aiden's character was deeper than "I protect sister and pretty goth girl, I kill black people, pretty goth girl die, my pee-pee sad and angry now, Asian man betray me, make me sadder and angrier." Imagine a game where you just play a badass hacker, hacking shit with sub-par gunplay thrown in, and there's no weirdly racist undertones, no needless female victimization thrown in for shock value. I mean, it still would have probably been a generic Ubisoft game, but it would have one with a less bullshit story. And that? That's a start.
So, I think positive male empowerment fantasies can and do exist... I just think we could use a good deal more of them. A little more Sniper Elite, a little less Watch Dogs.
Is There A Place For Male Empowerment Fantasies?
This is where some of my readers might raise their dongers and stop reading. And that's okay! We don't have to agree. I just think, personally, that there's totally a place for male empowerment fantasies. As a guy, it feels good to take control of a badass dude and slice/shoot/blow up shit every now and again. It's rad! I love it! But there's a problem: there's too much of it, too much of it has a shitton of problems, and there's not enough stuff for the ladies (and other genders) out there.
Male empowerment fantasies are great, but only if they're not dominating the marketplace. Paraphrasing personal idol "Angry" Joe Vargas, nobody's ever going to take away male empowerment fantasies. But there needs to be a nurturing and support of an alternative, whether that be more clearly designed female empowerment fantasies, more artistic games, more... more of anything different, really. This whole "male as default, woman as tragic boner support, non-white people as sneering thuggish villains" thing is beat. Video games are so awesome, and such an incredible art form, and I feel like they have so, so much potential to do great things. Hell, they already have done great things. I mean, give me one movie that delivers as much intelligent, thought-provoking weirdness as a game made by Hideo Kojima or SWERY. Spoiler alert: you fucking can't.
But if we want video games to keep growing, to keep maturing, to keep being as radical and fucking great, we need diversity. Period. Let's keep the good male empowerment fantasies, let people criticize what they want to, and open the floodgates for more different, radical shit so that everybody can just have a good fucking time together. As a longtime lover of the medium, that's all I want.
And to still be able to shoot Nazis and feel like a righteous dude. Because that's how I roll.