Monday, March 30, 2009

More than Pac-Man with a Bow: Super Smashing GENDER CONSTRUCTS

Now, I will be the first to admit that constructs are hard to take on. Between their immunity to critical hits and invulnerability to effects that require a fortitude save, they are tough hombres to smash. But I must prevail! How else can we hope to resurrect that one Wayans Brother?


All right. Got that out of my system. Now... where were we again? Right.

In each case, these characters have inherited signs from a more limited period of gaming technology, these vestiges are not so easily swept aside. Now codified into icon, they are projected through generations of gaming systems and gamers alike, becoming more elaborate through history and momentum.

These exaggerations of sign, from Peach's hyper-victimhood, Samus' dual role as able warrior and sexy space hooker, and Zelda/Sheik's gender and form ambiguity are all on full display in a game such as Super Smash Brother's Brawl, which combines gaming characters from a vast array of franchises to duke it out.

The results are as-expected. Peach still swings about frying pans and dishes out slaps. She cowers behind her retainer, floats about on a parasol, ever-reaching towards new heights of inspired uselessness. Samus is the same heavily-armored space mercenary, at least until she delivers her final smash and her suit literally falls off her body. And Zelda/Sheik are dual roles of the same characters, toggling between a slow, heavily defensive sprite to an agile finesse-fighter at the flip of a button. As a further point of gender-bending, here Sheik is referred to exclusively as a woman, and whose reconceptialized art is more feminine, while still retaining most of the masculine characteristics.

Sisters are super smashing it for themselves.

Though not every game can highlight the disparate signs of a handful of franchises as well as Super Smash, elsewhere the brawl rages on - where once game designers had to struggle to convey even the most basic information through their characters, today's characters must fight to be rid of the parasitic signs of earlier ages.

We've seen nearly three decades of damsels-in-distress and sexpot adventurers, figures either exemplified by their static weakness or their zealous enthusiasm to be fetishized while in the line of duty. These preconceived notions of what femaleness is, and does, don't only interfere with the creation of fully-formed characters. In defining playable, capable gaming experiences as implicitly male, and passive, captive and inert experiences as female, they perpetuate a false dichotomy within which gender discourse is bound to be skewed, misunderstood, or relegated to the sidelines.

Film historian Jan Oxenberg spoke of the experience of being "starved for images of ourselves on the screen". Despite modest successes, the stale tropes of an earlier age continue to deplete the cultural stock that video games, as a medium, draw from. In order to flourish, we will need new images: New generations of female characters drawing from new negotiations of sex and gender., communicated through new signs.

Only then will autonomous female characters become the norm. Otherwise, they are doomed to remain shadow imitators, relegated to the background: Just Pac-Man with a bow.

(Did you see what I did there I totally just used my title again.)

- Rook


  1. Fantastic series brendan. I'm bookmarking this for the day when i finally get to live out my dream of teaching a fem theory course on gender representation and the ontology of difference - or really any fem theory course that involves use of the terms "false dichotomy" and "discourse" (which i guess is all of them). Also this whole series just makes me miss reading Butler.

  2. You know, when you're teaching that class (and I think it's a 'when' over an 'if' at this point) I will expect an invitation to come in and give a talk dressed as Big Brother.

    "How do you do?" I will say. "I represent patriarchy."

    But on the so srs, I'm just trying to keep the tools in the toolbox sharp. I may be accepting an invite I've received to a Canadian Studies/Women's Studies PhD, and up until this point my only contribution to the discourse has been singing that new Beyonce song in the shower.

    You know, the one about how if you like a lady you should marry her. It's like, Come on, people! This is what you do to ladies.

  3. wait, what? doing a second phd?? Leave some for the rest of us! Or do you mean switching programs? Where is this new one? Also maybe think about doing soci/women's studies instead, faculty tend to be cross-listed like crazy between these two.

  4. Someday I will have done all PhDs. And then I will be like Leonardo daVinci, except useless.

    No, Colleen's applying to speech language pathology masters programs all over this land men call Canadon, and I've tossed out apps to switch programs to where we 'ud need to go.

    My needs in a program are surprisingly few: I just need access to the fustering old tomes located in any good library's basement, my trusty pocketguide translator "Shub-Niggurath to English" and, of course, plenty of salt.

    Also, if it's dark, a desk lamp would be nice.

  5. *suddenly feels very useless for having no phds, hangs head and cries alone in the corner*

    Anyways man on a serious note, this has been a great experience to read. We need more people who challenge the modern culture, especially video games (and mainstream comics) which are such a boys club.