The Madonna, the Mother, and the Whore isn’t just a construct; it’s the explicit reality of the vox pop.
I have a very young daughter: every day I find myself spending more and more time thinking about how her life will turn out. The gap between the girl who hides under the stairs when we play hide and seek, calling out to me to make sure I know she’s hiding, and the woman she’ll become seems immense, but it grows shorter with every passing hour. And, regardless of what she wants to do when she grows up, the industry scares the hell out me.
Don’t kid yourself – women have it tough, regardless of whether you’re talking about journalism, design, or the broader industry. Assassin’s Creed was a game ripe for criticism; the design was repetitive, the mechanics were too simple, and the narrative was atrocious. And despite all those very obvious flaws, what did the Intarwebs focus on?
In a game characterised by impeccable graphics and monumental design flaws, a frightening proportion of discussion on the Internet was focused on why a “hot chick” couldn’t design a game and why Ubisoft was trying to manipulate the public into buying the game based on a pretty face. In a veritable treasure trove of critical material, the talk focused on the sex.
Depressingly frequently we, as men, seem to want it all ways; we want women to be knowledgeable and “one of the guys”, but at the same time we claim to appreciate “a woman’s perspective” when it comes to games. We don’t want them to call attention to their femininity, as that would be manipulative marketing, but “we’d hit it” and we won’t watch, read, or listen if “she’s fugly”. We like hearing about the things they enjoyed, but we don’t want to hear about all that non-core crap like Peggle and The Sims. Somehow, we want our women to be nurturing and supportive of our interests, to be overtly sexy, and, as impossible as it is, to be pure and virginal.
With these kind of schizophrenic demands, is it any wonder women have a hard time getting traction? Pop quiz – how many prominent women game designers, media celebrities, and critical thinkers can you name or do you regularly read? Now, how many men can you mention? Jade Raymond, Leigh Alexander, Morgan Webb, and Olivia Munn are the exceptions, not the norm. And, stunningly, they all somewhat impossibly manage to balance being one of the guys, explicitly selling their sexuality, and doing it in such a way as to not be seen as cheap.
It’s not a balance that I’d want to try and achieve; the market shows pretty clearly that it’s extremely difficult given how few successful women designers, writers, and critical thinkers have achieved success. Judge me on my sexual marketability and I think I’d curl under the stairs and cry! In an industry with negligible entry costs and a focus on communication and interpretive writing, women still form the very noticeable minority. That’s just not right.
There’s three very real problems with this. Firstly, it’s distracting; by focusing on their sex and sexuality over their message, we do ourselves a significant disservice. Regardless of how insightful their opinions are, we inevitably end up being drowned in the morass of pointless discussion about their genitalia and whether they’re “qualified” to be talking in the first place.
Secondly, it’s divisive; by constantly forcing debate and design back onto familiar ground, we actively discourage women from discovering the fun of games. It’s the modern equivalent of the “no girls allowed” clubhouse.
Finally, it’s exclusionary; setting the bar so high for no good reason not only prevents critical thinkers from getting a chance in the first place, it actually reduces the breadth of variability in the games we play. By discouraging half the population from even getting a foothold, we sacrifice untold creativity and new experiences.
Tracey Lien recently nailed it – engaging with women isn’t about setting elaborate traps or talking down to them. It’s about engaging with them as people, something we seemingly find hard to deal with. To be fair, it’s not like this problem is isolated to games – as Bill Harris recently pointed out, all it takes is a walk down the girl’s isle at Toys ‘R Us to see the difference in marketing strategy. Here’s a hint – it’s big and it’s pink.
But, that it’s common doesn’t excuse it. In an industry increasingly characterised by an ageing community, it’s stunning that marketing is still focused on encouraging sexualism as a differentiator between the sexes and being condescending to their emerging audience as a way of attracting them. In a market where the average age is increasing, marketers continue to believe that overt, simplistic, and above all, explicit sex sells. EA’s approach to marketing Dante’s Inferno is almost the archetype – rather than re-visit what’s already been extensively written about, I suggest you’re best off reading Brinstar’s account of the many flaws behind their campaign. While her points are good, there’s an even scarier subtext; despite what common sense would imply, apparently no-one even thought to question whether this was a good idea or not. And, fundamentally, this encapsulates the biggest issue on the creative side; they’re so divorced from reality, the problem’s no longer even visible.
But, here’s the catch: while we as an audience, peanut gallery, and industry carry a great deal of the blame, we’re not the only ones. We’ve created a very nasty feedback loop, one where the simplest path to success for aspiring women is to hyper-sexualise themselves, thereby perpetuating the system. By creating a well-trodden path, they reinforce what are fundamentally destructive behaviours – instead of it being about their ideas, it’s about their sexual magnetism. It’s not enough to simply be a woman with an equal voice; history has fairly convincingly shown that the only real path to industry recognition and success for a woman is to market their sexuality.
What’s the answer? I don’t have a clue – it’s all well and good to say that we’re all to blame, but coming up with a solution? That’s a lot harder.
The audience needs to step back and stop focusing on gender as a point for debate. Marketers need to acknowledge that our markets are becoming increasingly cynical, aware, and sensitive to manipulation. Writers need to stop dwelling on gender as a focus unless it’s directly relevant. And, we all need to stop reinforcing bad male behaviours by avoiding the easy path whenever possible.
A pipe dream? Sure.
But I can still dream.