Feb 6, 2012

Women as a Minority in Fiction

Every story has a minority. I don't mean societal minorities like homosexuals or people with disabilities, I mean characters who, within the context of a given story, are in the minority. Women in a movie set during World War II, for example, an adult in a high-school drama, someone who has had to move to another country and adapt to a new culture.

For a long time, women have been a minority in fantasy and science fiction. While they have been the hero and the villain, a lot of the time their presence in a story is highlighted as something to make a story stand out, like we should be surprised that women can fill powerful and important roles in fiction. Still, in genres which have so often been dominated by male characters and male writers, it is important that our attention is drawn to strong examples of how women can play important roles in a story.

What I find more disappointing is when there a significant female character has been included in a more male-dominated story for no apparent reason. Where her presence not only does nothing to enhance or influence the narrative, but actually distracts from the core story, seemingly for no reason.

I recently finished the Batman: Arkham City video game. There will be some mild spoilers in the rest of this post.

This game drew a lot of attention for its portryal of Catwoman, a semi-optional playable character. I say semi-optional because on consoles, a code must be activated to access her parts of the game while on the PC, her sections come already installed. It's true that nine times out of ten when you overhear one of the inmates talk about a woman, it's about how they want to rape Catwoman or Harley Quinn, or see Catwoman and Poison Ivy "in action." The other one tenth of the time it's about how crazy Harley Quinn is and how she would never manage to run things without the Joker.

People have said that the inmates of the massive prison complex are meant to be horrible people who would speak like that. I think that's a lame excuse. When you take into account that they also talk about raping Nora Fries, a woman kept in cryogenic stasis who will quickly die if she is thawed, you have to wonder just what the game designers think the average violent prisoner is into if they think they'd view it as a practical use of their time to work out how to shut down a high-tech cryogenic stasis device then force themselves on a woman who is going to be ice-cold to the touch and so sick with a fatal disease that she would probably die within minutes.

This is a male-dominated game, no doubt. Most superheroes are pure male fantasy, and Batman is one of the biggest in this regard. He's got money, good looks, the cool gadgets. He is regarded as one of the best fighters there is, as well as being the world's greatest detective. Catwoman has been one of his most interesting opponents because she's become such a foil for him. She's been able to outmatch him, outsmart him and outrun him. While he's often been the only person who could catch her. Their on-again, off-again romance creates a great dynamic between them, especially when Catwoman's good nature wins out over her greed and she joins him in keeping the streets safe.

So what does it say about the character when her only involvement in this game is to offer side-missions where she has two stand-up brawls (after both of which she winds up captured by another villain) and a vault break-in, after which the player can choose to go and save Batman or leave him to die? Now, if you choose the latter option you get to see a brief alternate credits sequence after which the game rewinds and lets you make the choice again, but preventing you from just leaving Batman. When I reached this point I thought that, maybe, Catwoman would finally offer something worthwhile to the story. I was wrong.

When you go to save Batman, instead of getting to play through her attempts to fight or sneak past the guards and inmates, a simple cutscene immediately pops up showing her helping Batman out from under some rubble. The only thing Catwoman does which is important to the storyline, or shows her in any light other than a fairly incompetant thief with a habit of getting herself captured and tied up, is reduced to a barely-necessary cutscene where the player has zero involvement.

I felt this was a real disappointment in anotherwise great game and story. I could look past the lazy use of "bitch" and rape threats to make the inmates seem dangerous, and the fact that, no matter how much she's breaking the limbs of gangs of thugs, they still treat her like a weak little toy for them to break. But the Catwoman sections are really nothing more than a distraction to the main game. The only benefit they serve is that there's an opportunity to make the Riddler side-mission easier to complete because of a collection of Catwoman-only collectibles which contribute to that mission. This, however, is not referenced as part of the story, or even something the players are ever told. Aside from that one benefit, I think Batman: Arkham City would actually have been improved had Catwoman been largely left out of the game.

Have you ever seen similar occurences like this? Have you read a book or watched a movie and felt that a particular character in a minority role just took away from the overall experience, rather than added to it or served a real purpose? Is it sexist to think that a female character shouldn't have been included at all? Or is it more sexist to include that character for what appears to be little more than an excuse to have a hot chick wrap her legs around men's heads and crawl around in a glued-on costume?

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