Mar 4, 2014

Undermining Character Agency

This post contains spoilers for the Batman: Arkham Origins video game.

It's surprisingly easy, even in a male-dominated story, to depict women fairly. That is to say, you don't have to have a female protagonist, or a lot of female characters, in order to write women well. I dare say, if a writer thinks that the presence of female characters is, itself, enough to count as treating women well, they obviously haven't seen Sucker Punch.

I feel a lot is made of the "strong female character" archetype. The Buffy. The Zoe Washburn. The Sarah Connor. But there's more than one way to be strong, and more than one way to write great women. Sometimes strength, and agency, can come from small moments.

There's one such small moment in Arkham Origins.

The previous game, Arkham City, was criticized for its sexism, particularly with regard to the treatment of Catwoman. Arkham Origins, at least, doesn't have characters on every corner casually implying they'd like to rape someone.

Here be spoilers:

One of the early investigations Batman conducts in the game is a very nicely put together sequence of events surrounding the disappearance of the crime boss Black Mask. So far, it's been my favourite section of the game, showing not only how Batman is a great detective, but also how he has to contend with (and battle) a corrupt police force and still has to build up the intelligence network he has access to in the previous games.

In particular, Batman has to break into the Gotham Police Department so he can hack into the National Criminal Database. We always think of Batman having instant access to/knowledge of any criminal file he needs, so the fact that Batman needed to do some extra legwork here was a very nice touch.

While in the GCPD, Batman meets Barbara Gordon, the girl who will one day become Oracle, who he comes to rely on for her computer hacking skills. She comments that, in order to gain remote access to the GCPD network, he'll have to get into their telecommunications hub. She tells him he can get into them through an old sewer line.

In just one short cutscene, Barbara Gordon has gone from a bystander cameo to someone who has given Batman valuable information that will be essential, not only to solving his current case, but to his continued work fighting crime in Gotham. See? Easy.

Unfortunately, that empowerment is just as easily taken away.

Moments after he leaves the room, Batman contacts Alfred to tell him that he needs to get the the GCPD's telecommunications hub, and Alfred advises him that he'll need to use an old sewer line to gain access. Literally the exact same information Barbara gave him in the previous scene. She may as well have said nothing. But for a side mission she later provides, to track down weapons that have been stolen from the GCPD, Barbara may as well not have appeared.

Female empowerment. So easy to include in a writer's work, and so easy to completely undermine.

Even from a non-feminist angle, this represents poor writing. If you have one character provide valuable information or assistance, don't then reveal that the protagonist didn't need it, after all.

Can any of you think of other cases where a character's importance is undermined by the writer?


  1. I think people also read into things what they want to. I was expecting Bats to say something about Barbara giving the same information and was a little irked when he didn't, but you can also read it in two other ways. 1. Batman is a bastard, especially in this game, and wouldn't acknowledge that Babs was useful. He barely acknowledges that he needs Alfred's help until later. 2. Alfred tells Bats how to get to the cable, not that there is one. Alfred is listening in and provides the additional information of how to access the place Barbara mentioned.
    I agree it wasn't the best writing.
    As for Arkham Asylum being sexist... Definitely on the eye of the beholder. It's a prison full of the worst scum in the DC universe, are they supposed to suggest an evening out with drinks and dancing? They are constantly saying they are planning to do unspecified things to Bruce Wayne and pulverise the Batman, but I'm not hearing complaints...

    1. I don't think Batman has to acknowledge Barbara's (or Alfred's) usefulness. There's a lot of communication going on, and as much as Babs is trying to make herself useful to Batman, the more important message is (could have been?) the writer(s) showing her intellect and resourcefulness to the audience.

      As for Arkham City and the fact it's populated with criminals, I've seen that argument made in defence of the rape implications, and I don't buy it. There isn't a single, black & white way of depicting criminal scum. It's not like a character can only ever be either refined and civilised, or a sodomising monster.

      Even so, there's no need to get into a debate on the statistical likelihood of a given prison inmate also being a rapist. This is fiction, and everything is within the power of the writer. Falling back on implied rape as a way of showing that the inmates don't like Catwoman is laziness, at best. A writer can as easy choose to write dialogue where an inmate suggests finding out what Catwoman is trying to steal, and stealing it first, or following her to see if she knows a way out of the prison.

    2. Okay... Well along with the expressions of desire, Selina gets to listen to expressions of concern ("Catwoman needs to watch out, some of these guys ain't seen a woman in months, y'know?"), appreciation (generally regarding her humiliation of Two Face), indications that she hasn't long to live, and (oh yes indeed) a statement of two that the inmate is annoyed since Selina got the loot and he didn't. In fights, the trash talk does tend to be (let's be kind and say) suggestive, but it's trash talk. The object of the exercise is to humiliate and reduce the confidence of your opponent, and these are a bunch of men facing a woman. The vast majority of women, and society as a whole, would classify sexual violence as one of the most horrible things that can happen to them. Is it lazy writing, or are you simply suggesting that the writers should have avoided the subject because it's not PC?

      People see what they want to see. I grew up in the North East and then the South East, and there were simply very, very few coloured people (of any sort) around at the time. As a result I'm not exactly colour blind, but I don't see it as an issue and I tend to forget about skin colour unless it's jammed down my throat. So then I got into writing and every so often it hits me that I don't have many coloured characters. (This is partially because I like to model them so I know what they look like and I don't have many good non-Caucasian textures, but not entirely.) When I notice, it annoys me that I haven't put in a black guy or an Indian woman, or whatever, and a bit later it annoys me that I'm looking around to find someone I can colour-swap because my main worry is that someone's going to complain I'm a bigot. That's wrong. I shouldn't be worrying over how someone is going to perceive me through my writing. I shouldn't have to make cosmetic changes to satisfy people's beliefs of a prejudiced world.

      Turn this around (and around). Arkham City is supposedly the only prison in the area. It's clearly mixed sex since Harley, Selina, and Ivy are there. So why haven't the inmates seen a woman in months? Are women too bright to be in there? (That's an anti-male slur.) Are woman too honest? Are the women of Gotham chained to the sink and so don't commit crime?! Is it only the super-criminal females who get locked up in there? (That would be a plot hole.) Well, no, the answer is probably that sticking with male prisoners reduces the modelling, art, and animation requirements, but I'm sure someone could make a case for it being sexist or something if they want to.

      (PS. Sorry about the double post earlier. Teach me to use a tablet.)

    3. This is getting away from the initial topic of undermining character importance, but how I see it is this:

      Rape is over-used as a way to evoke a sense of danger for women. It's the new "dead parents" for creating drama. Female characters, whether protagonists or supporting characters, are frequently reduced to being sexually violated for the purposes of giving male characters a reason to get angry, or as the "reason" a female character can later become strong and fight back.

      I don't believe rape should be utterly avoided as a topic, but due to the prevalence of rape culture, it's an issue which should be used carefully. Like all decisions they make, a writer should stop and consider why they're including it. Do they want to show how evil a villain is? Okay, but are there other ways to do that? Ones which don't add narrative questions such as how the character copes following the attack? Few stories I've seen that feature rape as a way of showing a villain's mean streak actually take the time to deal with the emotional and psychological damage it causes. It's most often brushed off the same way you'd expect Batman to shrug off a tough fight.

      Heck, Nightwing was once shot in the leg, and there was an entire issue dedicated to him simply trying to survive, and he spent a couple of later issues on crutches. And that's one bullet. I don't think any rape victim in any comic has ever received that amount of attention to the story of how they coped with the experience.

      And that's why it's important to question the inclusion of rape in a story. It's used too often as a throwaway event.

      As for representing different skin colours, I have the same problem. Ireland's not exactly an ethnic melting pot, so I have to check myself to make sure I include different ethnicities in my work. However, I see it as my responsibility to acknowledge and own my decisions. If I wrote a book with a typical straight white male protagonist, then regardless of my environment, that's my choice. While an author shouldn't feel under particular pressure to change such details if they don't want to, I do believe they should be aware of possible implications that can be read into their work.

    4. Good answer. (BTW, there's a famous, and much mentioned, Batman comic where the entire episode is devoted to Batman trying to get a good night's rest. Which is probably more attention to a night's sleep than any victim of any crime has received in a comic.)

      That said, I suspect you're wrong and there have been comics dealing with the recovery of someone from such traumatic circumstances. Maybe even in a mainstream book. One of the Gotham titles seems likely given some of the dark turns those have taken over the years.

      I have to say I didn't return to the undermining thing because you're right, an author can undermine their characters, but I don't think I agree with your example (even if I agree that it wasn't well written). I think it's about how the reader perceives the narrative as much, or more, than it is about how the writer wrote it.

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