Soooo, Feminist Frequency (link to official web site here) put up their latest video yesterday (link here), on women as background decoration, and totally failed to make good use of the material they showed. They also managed to alienate and objectify an entire group of women by using the phrase “prostituted women” over and over again in the course of the video and only using the preferred and neutral term “sex worker” in reference to male workers. This is not okay. Absolutely, categorically not okay. And while I mostly want to provide a brief overview of the points that could be made about the games shown in a better, more understanding discussion of sex worker representation in games, I will also get a bit into why the video’s language and handling are such a problem.
Now, to get this out of the way, and because this actually makes the problems with the video so much worse and so much more disappointing (plus harder to talk about): the types of discussions that the Feminist Frequency video series is meant to have are extremely important. The creator of the project, who also writes or co-write the episodes and stars in the them, has faced ridiculous amounts of harassment and threats, including rape threats, from the time she had the idea and tried to get funding for it (via crowdfunding). These things matter. Poor narrative treatment of women in games and poor treatment (at best) of women who game and women who try to talk about problems with the gaming community and game content are extremely important subjects for the geeky and feminism minded communities.
However, all of this does not mean that the creators of these critiques and dialogues get free passes when they mess up, especially when those mess ups consist of othering and alienating an entire group of women in a discussion meant to be about the poor treatment of women in games and how to improve it. Objectifying (some) women in a video about the objectification of (allegedly all) women in gaming hurts your argument and your cause and also hurts the people that you are supposed to care about and help. It also doesn’t place you much above the same type of angry, entitled, misogynistic men who hate you and try to flood discussions about your videos with their bile, or above the types of women (and also men) who like to objectify and deny the agency of real life women who are sex workers and who like to promote laws, policies, and ideas that actively harm them. And yet you used the same type of language they did. And won’t respond to the many sex workers who are trying the best and nicest they can to bring this problem to you and who want to have a helpful, educational dialogue with you.
If this is the kind of analysis I can get as a geeky, game loving girl who also supports and listens to sex workers and the sex workers rights movement, then I can go elsewhere, because if your analysis can’t manage to discuss the objectification of women without objectifying women in the process, then your analysis is junk.
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Now, on the actual games and gaming examples themselves and Houston do we ever have a problem.
One among my many observations when watching the Tropes versus Women video (besides the fact that I wanted her to stop saying “prostituted women” already) was that so much of the narrative set up, character design and function, and how and why your player character can act with sex working NPCs seems like someone’s worst nightmare of what sex work is like. This is something I noticed earlier in the year while researching, reading, and prepping for my presentation on Catwoman and sex work for Comics Arts Conference – Wondercon.
The worst story I found that dealt with Catwoman’s history as a sex worker (there are good or neutral ones too, but this is the relevant one) is the one which is actually almost entirely out of continuity (link here to a full explanation of Catwoman’s origin story and its continuity) and which was basically a four part horror story of someone’s worst ideas and imaginings about what sex work is like. Catwoman did have a pimp in the very first story where her origins were mentioned but he was not horrifically violent, or her boyfriend, or anything but a nuisance of a manager she grew tired of and left behind. She was also an active agent, working her job and defending the co-worker she had taken under her wing and then leaving when she came up with a new job and used the last of her money to purchase the gear for it.
In this story, which was meant to flesh out the tale in that first story, Catwoman is the sad, pitiable version of the Sexy Lamp problem (a female character can be replaced with a sexy lamp and it doesn’t affect the story) in comics and other narratives. Except for when the author tries to insert scenes from Batman: Year One (the first story giving her sex work history), the Catwoman of Her Sister’s Keeper, aka Catwoman 1989 (link here to digital comic with cover and description), is an inert object that terrible things happen to and who finally redeems herself by rescuing a better, more pure woman (her sister, created just for the story, and who is a nun) from the evil, abusive, pasty-faced pimp/boyfriend. Never does she read like an actual person, no less the Catwoman introduced in Batman: Year One or the one subsequently developed in the comics by ignoring Her Sister’s Keeper. She is a sad object, not someone dealing with difficult circumstances as best she can and whose inner thoughts and fortitude we have shared with us (because there are people in sad and tragic circumstances. The difference is that they are ‘people.’). Catwoman starts the story by getting raped, she goes back to and has an abusive pimp who is also her boyfriend, her friend and co-worker Holly also gets raped by the end of the story, and the one “good” woman in the story is put in danger because of Catwoman and has to be saved from the evil pimp by Catwoman before he can defile or kill the “good” woman. Also, her first Catwoman suit isn’t something she chooses and purchases on her own. It’s a repugnant clothing item that her pimp/boyfriend forces on her to wear for a client and that she later adopts as her costume.
I share all of this not just because I still somewhat have my presentation in my head and because I loathe that story (which isn’t actually part of the post-Crisis, pre-New52 continuity), but because the examples I saw in the Tropes versus Women video reminded me so much of what I saw there, down to the overriding obsession with men when discussing or depicting sex workers.
Of course, that makes it extra interesting/awful (and should point out exactly how awful anti-sex-workers-rights people are) since exploitative, misogynistic video games and video game content and the rhetoric and tactics of anti-sex-workers-rights people, who are often women, thus seem to have a lot in common in how they talk about and treat sex work and sex workers.
This is a really big topic and I just wanted to get some thoughts down, but as an example of this, besides all of the objectifying and dehumanizing language usage of course, while watching the game play examples I noticed how often the topic of freebies or discounts came up in dialogue and interactions and that there was even a minigame where the player’s goal was to grope a stripper while getting a private dance without getting caught by the bouncer and the reward was the stripper meeting you outside in your car for sex afterwards.
All of that is grossly disrespectful and besides reinforcing the ideas real life men have about sex workers owing them sex (either for free, because they’re such “nice” guys or have large penises or what have you, or discounts for largely the same reasons), it, especially the minigame, reinforces the two separate but related ideas that sex workers either have no boundaries to violate or that they have boundaries but violating them is acceptable and violation is earned/deserved. Staying as polite as I can, you need to go away and stay away if you believe either of those things are true and only come back once you learn and accept otherwise. And this is not just something belong to misogynistic games and game play. Real life men believe, talk, and act like that and so do some feminists, and you are in trouble if your views are somehow matching up like that. Sex workers and anyone else doing anything sexy (this relates to thoughts I have about booth babes and sexy cosplayers that will hopefully be in a future blog post) do not deserve and are not asking for harassment and violence and they have boundaries that deserve and need to be respected as much as those of any other women. They, like other women, are also not perpetually sexually available to men, so a) get that stuff out of our games and gaming b) get that stuff out of discussions of the problems with games and with the culture at large and how it views and treats women.
Finally, because this was really supposed to be short and just touch on a few things, sex workers in the global south and in other areas and in other groups you view as “lesser” or more marginalized or less advantaged are not passive agents and objects you can do and say whatever you want with. They are not. Whether you’re playing a video game or talking about and promoting feminism, those sex workers are people and active agents in their own lives and the lives of people around them. They are not there for a bunch of pixels or a real life person to “save” or to speak for and over, so, please, stop making sex and sex industry rescue fantasies part of gaming and part of feminism and check out the current series on the garment industry and anti-trafficking NGOs by comics collective The Ladydrawers (part 1, part 2, part 3) and start with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (link here) to educate yourself on international sex worker collectives and activism.
Peace out and, please, behave yourselves in the comments.
Note: Credit where credit is due to Star Wars: The Old Republic (link to official game web site here) for giving me a sex worker related mission that didn’t play into sex related exploitation or sex industry rescue related exploitation. The original side mission (for Republic-side player characters) is given to you by a man who wants you to locate and rescue a woman and return her to him. You find the woman working as a dancer at a strip club and it turns out that she is there of her own free will and had actually escaped from the man. It is then your choice what to do about the situation and mission (because the game likes giving you decision making power and ethical and moral dilemmas), but the Light Side choice, which gives points to that side of your character scale and is especially desirable when playing on the Republic side, is to leave her be and not complete the original mission. If you decide to “rescue” the woman and return her to the man she escaped, you receive Dark Side points. The game and Star Wars in general still has a problem with showing almost all Twi’leks (a particular race in the Star Wars universe) as slaves and/or sex workers, but that side mission was really refreshing to see because you actually get to hear the sex worker’s perspective and she is an actual person with her own history, feelings, and desires. ‘And’ trying to play rescuer with someone who doesn’t want to be rescued and who would be harmed by rescue (because she would lose personal autonomy and safety and be returned to a controlling abuser) is discouraged by the shape the narrative takes and the rewards and punishments for the different ways in which you can complete the mission. Very refreshing to see and very different from the ways that interactions with sex workers play out in the games shown in the video.