Animated female figures in video games and movies are still being objectified, to appease the male gaze. How long will women just cringe and bear it, as if time stands still?
In November 2017, Warner Brothers came out with a movie based on DC’s comic book series Justice League. The costumes for the women were even more sexualised than those in the movie Wonder Woman, which came out earlier in March of that year. This was attributed to the fact that Justice League had a male director and Wonder Woman was directed by a woman.
Wonder Woman is wearing ridiculous metal breast armour and a mini skirt to combat, just like in the bad old days. “Female superheroes still have to dress like prostitutes to get published,” says an article published in the Canadian daily Dose, an online lifestyle magazine. This is really problematic, for despite the negative connotations attached to prostitutes and their clothing, female superheroes are still being drawn and costumed to appease the male gaze, and not to look battle-ready.
The sexism, and objectification of women on these platforms is scary, to say the least. With video games and comic books being such popular mediums, that show little or no sign of fading, the popularisation of such worldviews propagated by such futuristic literature becomes a concern.
Research by online daily comic news blog Comics Beat has proven that the percentage of boys and girls among fans is nearly equal and therefore designing media to please just one half of that audience base seems biased at best.
Let’s take a step back and explore the genesis of these comic book series with female protagonists. Two psychologists, William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston believed that comic books had extreme educational potential and they wanted to harness the same. They believed that women were stronger than men physically and mentally and they intended to portray these ideals on their appointment as educational consultants in DC Comics.
And this was how Wonder Woman was born in 1941.
However, this took a pornographic turn, as it turns out both William and Elizabeth were part of a polyamorous sex cult. They showed Wonder Woman being tied up and tying others up in every comic, despite wanting to portray her as winning battles with love and not violence. William Marston actually said that “Women enjoy submission” and since it is an inherent nature in all human beings, “Children love it.”
In a particular Superman comic, a different approach was employed. In one comic, Lois Lane while reporting a case gets spanked by a Superman robot. Not wanting to show Clark Kent’s character in a bad light, the writers had a robot spank the female lead, who is otherwise written as quite a strong character.
Clearly, there is a market requirement to cater to the male demand whether it fits the narrative of the story or not, while still attempting to keep the content politically correct. Female characters have largely not seen much progress in comics, compared to the animation in films, where female leads have seen quite the shift in characterisation.
This tendency is observed not only in comics but in video games as well, wherein a culture of violence towards women is cultivated most casually. Video games are designed around kidnapping and raping of women, where assaulting a woman is a level that needs to be crossed in order to win the game.
In the famed Grand Theft Auto games, men can have sex with a woman and then kill her. The women are almost always a source of seduction or distraction — scantily clothed and a mere accessory to a larger game, or a hurdle leading to a prize. At the end of every level in Road Rash, the 90s bike racing video game, they displayed animated images of half-naked women posing around bikers. Objectified and exaggerated physical features are common in most video games, some seeming to suggest paedophilia.
Video game addiction has emerged as a growing concern in the 21st century. Dr Rajesh Sagar, psychiatrist and professor at AIIMS, sees this not as an isolated problem, but as a part of a much bigger picture. “Obviously something of this nature cannot be diagnosed immediately, since the patients come in seeking counsel for symptoms of depression, anxiety, hyperactivity and such. Only on further questioning can we determine what the root cause of these symptoms are.”
According to him, many young kids with problems of inferiority complex, unpleasant family situations, victims of bullying, find themselves immersed in video games. “They find a gratification in the violence, and sometimes the lines between real and virtual begin to blur,” Dr Sagar explained.
Moving on to the world of video games, one of the first examples was seen in LambdaMoo. As one of the oldest online communities, LambdaMoo had come out with its very own MUD (Multi-User Dungeon/Multi-User Domain) a game that simulated real life, allowing multiple players to be online and interact at the same time. Personalities could be created in this domain, and the players would have the freedom to navigate their personas as they wished. Players have used the tools provided by the game to sexually violate other players in the course of the game.
One of the perpetrators used a tool to take control of other players’ movements and forced their virtual characters to have sex with his own character.
Having temporary control of their movements in the domain, he even went on to have these characters commit perverse acts on themselves.
Julian Dibbell, an American author and technology journalist, wrote in his book A Rape in Cyberspace about how victims of online rape wrote to him about how traumatic the experience had been for them — to watch their virtual personas get violated and feeling completely helpless to stop it.
Srinjoy Das, 19, says “Video games can affect the minds of those who are already prone to having psychopathic tendencies. It almost becomes like a virtual reality for them to live out their twisted fantasies. For others,” he continues, “it is just a means for doing things with no real implications.” As for the representation of women, he says that there certainly is a trend of unfair portrayal, “because as they’d have you believe – sex sells.”
Video games have been dominating the minds of young boys and girls since the past few years, and the numbers are growing in magnitude. Victims of bullying are able to assert their power in these online domains, and wish to hurt their bullies/peers in those ways. According to Dr Sagar, violent tendencies are not uncommon in children addicted to video games. Most of these children are aged 14-16 years, and tend to even neglect food and sleep when they play.
“One of the biggest problems with these games,” he says, “is that hurting someone else is rewarded. The more you beat someone, the more points you get. And that kind of gratification is counter-productive to any kind of character building for these children.” Most doctors recommend physical activity and playing actual games in fields and playgrounds to wean youngsters off their screens. In closing, the doctor reveals that he prefers to not call this obsession an addiction — “the term is too harsh to describe children’s behaviour.”
Let’s hear what consumers themselves have to say. Shivansh Dhasmana, a 21-year-old Delhiite, who has been playing video games since he was 12, confirms that some games are “needlessly violent and become popular because of their brutality and realistic execution.”
Dhasmana plays for 3-4 hours every day, and admits that video games can potentially affect the minds of youngsters negatively. “Playing video games makes me more competitive in my everyday life, but children tend to imitate what they see on-screen in their day-to-day realities, and that is very risky.”
Whether these fallacies will play themselves out, or whether they will continue to feed vicarious desires, is the million-dollar question. For now, not enough parents are worrying about it.