The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Eating My Words on Wonder Woman

eat words

Oh, look at all these words. Oh… yum… gulp… so delicious… so meaty. So good… so good to eat… so scrumptious… I’ve never eaten words as good as this before. This is delicious. Scrumpf… glomp… chew… oh so good… so satisfying… filling…can’t get enough…

So in 2012, I wrote a blog about how we’d never see a Wonder Woman movie, or at least a good one. Let’s take a look at some of the points I made and why I was wrong.

“…to make Wonder Woman translate to today’s audiences, you would have to alter her so radically that she wouldn’t resemble Wonder Woman anymore. … Someone’s going to leave unhappy — either the fanboys or the casuals.” 

Well, what I didn’t count on was that the movie was going to make someone else happy — women. Not just geek women or romcom women or intellectual women. Just… women. They kept the character… mm, I hate to say it but “generic” enough so that everyone could project on to her. One tweet said “Is this why men watch superhero movies? Because I feel like taking on an army after seeing Wonder Woman.”

And why wouldn’t you be excited? How nice would it be to not be afraid of men? Someone who didn’t have to hold her keys in her fist walking through the parking lot, who doesn’t have some bald man staring at her on the subway, who can sit in a bar without some drunk stranger telling her to “smile more”. Wonder Woman doesn’t let anyone shut her down or interrupt her.

This is the flaw in DC movies — they try too hard to please everyone and rely too much on focus groups. Hence the movies are bland and messy and deviate too much from source characters (e.g. Suicide Squad, Man of Steel, Superman v. Batman). As a result, the movies have no flavor. They’re bland. As colorless as… as… well, as a DC movie (come on guys, you gotta do color correction!) Wonder Woman is not an exception. It’s as gray as a warfare first-person shooter. But it did the best it could. And one hopes that the Justice League, which has some characters who aren’t so grimdark (Aquaman, Flash), will pick up that slack too.

But my point is, they didn’t radically change Wonder Woman. In fact, they didn’t make much of her at all. Didn’t take any risks. Didn’t add any flavor. They didn’t change a McDonald’s hamburger recipe. She was built for a
task, she goes out to fulfill that task. No dead cancer mother or
alcoholism or past life as a criminal. She doesn’t have any flaws (being naive doesn’t count) that make her broken. In fact, her role is to nurture the broken — the Irish guy with PTSD and the Blackfoot exiled from his tribe. If Captain America is the father-figure of the Avengers, Wonder Woman is the mama lion of the Justice League.

“Wonder Woman is intrinsically bonded to its creators predilections towards bondage and female dominance. Wonder Woman is frequently shown either tying up criminals or being tied up.”

I had trouble separating the comic book from the character. For one thing, I think I wrote this around peak “but the comics were better” fanboyism. This was when The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man came out. Everyone else (I’m looking at you DC and Sony) screwed it up because they deviated too much from the source material. Batman couldn’t live up to The Dark Knight, and Spider-Man was receiving a too-soon reboot. Marvel planted its flag with The Avengers, but it still failed the Bechdel Test.

See up to this point, comic book movies always keeping women as sidekicks — Captain America: The Winter Soldier had Black Widow, Guardians of the Galaxy has Gamora, Thor has Jane, Iron Man has Pepper Potts. And being sidekicks, these women had little definition. Black Widow is “the spy”. Gamora is the “warrior-princess”. Pepper Potts is the sassy secretary. These are not characters, they’re archetypes. When you make a main character that character has to be “broken” in some way. And if you make a woman broken, you get flak saying “how dare you represent all women as [this condition]”.

Wonder Woman fights no criminals, pursues no bad guys. The movie is about World War I and takes a few pages from Apocalypse Now, traveling from the bureaucratic offices to the front lines. But where that storyline became darker and darker, Wonder Woman gives hope. Hope that, with courage and friends, you can take on anyone.

The concept of binding or being bound within the film is removed completely. There are no games and no rope play. Wonder Woman herself is never bound (in the comics, that’s her one weakness, so it’s surprising that doesn’t make it in). Moulston might not approve of the film, but he’s not here. And the world’s moved past that kind of Wonder Woman. Yes, it does stray from her original spirit, but it changes her character for the better.

“How would you even start the story?”

They did it the best way — simply. They left only the basics. Not too many characters get shoved into foreground because once Diana leaves the island, we never see them again. We stay on Wonder Woman the whole time. Even when we have to deviate with some backstory narration, it takes the form of her bedtime story.

“The problem is there’s a stigma around Amazons.”

wonder woman movie supporting cast
The right way
woman bodybuilder muscles
The wrong way

I worried that characters would become “entitled, bitchy woman with more masculinity than femininity who can’t form social relationships”. The concept is that this secret island holds Zeus’s ripping cool army just in case he ever needs it again. This avoids turning into a land of man-haters (because they’ve worked with men in the past). It also helps that the set and costume design comes from women. They knew how to make feminine warriors without being booblicious.

As far as Diana’s concerned, there’s a little of the “born sexy yesterday” trope. But her character’s development is more about the transition from classic-style honor-fighting to modern warfare. But she still likes babies and ice cream. She doesn’t have the mind of a child so she can hold a conversation without sounding like Sally from Third Rock From the Sun (not that I don’t hold respect for that character, but she was played for laughs). I saw a bit of Bones in her, but not in a disdainful way.

“The first thing you’d have to do is totally revamp the costume.” 

They did, but not very much. For one thing, you don’t see the costume until her iconic charge out of the trench. Until then, it’s cloaks and robes. After the big reveal, you can see they kept the color scheme, but made it grayed out metal.

There’s no explanation for WHY she’s wearing it, and that bothers me. In the plot, she stole some armor from the Themyscira vaults, but it has no context, nor explanation why it looks different from everyone else’s. But this movie’s made me pay more attention to the beauty of the outfits than all movies I’ve seen in the past thirty-six years (I’m 36) combined. They even manage to have a costume montage in the middle. But its more about where she can store her sword, not what’s tantalizing.

Still the best dressing montage there is.

“The biggest problem with Wonder Woman is that her weapons and tools just don’t make sense. … First, [the lasso of truth is] not a very exciting power. Second, it becomes a deus ex machina.”

There is actually surprisingly little of Wonder Woman wielding her signature weapon. She uses the sword, shield, and bracelets more. The few times she does use it is either for interrogation (and he is barely tied up) or as a whip. The plot doesn’t demand that she use it either. At the time, I was thinking of plots like The Winter Soldier or Iron Man 3 that are full of deception and intrigue. But more to the point, she IS the weapon. She’s personified defense and offense, not strategy or intelligence (in the spy sense) or moral relativism or power through any means other than selflessness. Also, no silly invisible plane.

“[G]olden bracelets that can stop bullets. … The only things they could block are tiny cocktail swords. … [Y]our wrist bones would shatter as soon as a bullet hit.”

The bracelets are glossed over in the plot. I believe in the comics they’re formed of the shield of Aegis, which is like DC-adamantium. But she does use them and somehow has the reflexes to stop an incoming bullet. Is that explained? No. Her powers are kept ambiguous, which is a disadvantage because it makes her overpowered. They don’t even explain why she doesn’t age. I wouldn’t be surprised if some audience members thought her “god killer” power was the bracelets instead of within herself.

“[F]our words: aim for the legs. The well-exposed legs.”

This still stands, but it’s a problem among many movies. It happens several times to Captain America and no one bats an eye, so I guess we’re all agreeing to ignore it? Rule of cool?

“Steve Trevor and Wonder Woman had the screwed-up relationship of “I Dream of Jeannie”. Wonder Woman’s got all this power and ability, yet she feels incomplete without him.”

In this movie, Wonder Woman absolutely does not NEED Steve Trevor. Well, she does NEED him, in the sense that he’s her liaison into the world of men. But if she got a map to the front or some notes on how British government works, she’d be fine on her own. This is probably the biggest deviation from the comics, but also the most welcome. And it would have been the easiest pit to fall into.

Diana does not have a romance with Steve and Steve doesn’t treat Diana as anything but a peer. A fellow soldier and a means to an end. They both want to end the war. Steve doesn’t necessarily believe in this Ares nonsense, but he’s seen her take on a boat full of Nazis, so he’s got the proof and the pudding.

“Etta Candy? Who is she supposed to be? Comic relief? Is she like the Theodore of this triumvirate?”

Etta Candy is a pleasant cameo, but little more. She’s really the only other woman in the cast who’s not a Themysciran action figure. And they give her dignity. She’s not food-obsessed or man-obsessed. They did her right by not giving her a stereotype or archetype. She doesn’t have a “thing”, unless you count being delightfully British.

“[T]he biggest problem with the supporting characters is that Wonder Woman has no memorable villains.”

I think this still stands. I could see the Ares thing a mile a way and General Thunderbolt is just another Red Skull/Bane/Popeye pastiche taking Super Serum (don’t you know you never get high off your own stash?) The same thing happens in the first Thor, the first Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and the first Spider-Man. But it does avoid the “designated girl fight” and doesn’t go on too long. Dr. Poison was the most interesting (I imagined her like Dr. Tenenbaum from Bioshock) and it’s a shame she got such an uninteresting ending. But we got thrown cars and explosions, so how much can you complain about it?

Final thoughts: Yes, thumbs-up. I am bullish on Wonder Woman stock. I really hope this gets directors and producers to realize that yes, women-led movies, both in front and behind the camera, can make money. And even better, they make good art.

Thoughts on the New Ghostbusters

ghostbusters 2016

DISCLAIMER: I am not a misogynist and I am not racist. I love Ghostbusters. My mom still has my proton pack and Ecto-1. I was looking forward to the new movie – everyone in the cast has proven themselves over and over again. I don’t believe the movie’s existence is/will ruin my childhood. I don’t believe “reboot syndrome” is anything new in Hollywood. 

I saw the trailer and was disappointed in what I saw. But I also knew that trailers lie. They’re advertisements and don’t feature the complete product. (The Ghostbusters II trailer had an unfinished effect where there should be ghost, but there’s nothing.) In other words, I went into this movie with a clear head and hopeful expectations.

GOOD: The characters

Just like I thought, the characters are likeable, funny, and dynamic. And they’re not pastiches of the old. Even though they fit into the archetypes of “face”, “heart”, “brains”, Kristen Wiig’s not “the Venkman”, Leslie Jones is not “the black one Winston”. True, I miss Bill Murray’s unpredictability and Harold Ramis’s dry delivery. But they are their own people with their own problems and quirks.

Kate McKinnon plays the hell out of her character, who is essentially a mad scientist. But she’s not just playing Spock. She’s a little unstable, a little off. It’s hard to get a bead on her, if she’s insane, if she’s a pervert, what sort of romance she desires. The one thing I don’t like is that I don’t know what motivates her. She’s one hundred percent “the crazy one”.

BAD: CG Effects

I think one of the mistakes people make is comparing it to the original Ghostbusters. To do that is to be colored by the eyes of nostalgia. EVERYTHING looks real when you’re a kid. Hoggle looks like a real troll. Falcor looked like a real dog-dragon. The Jurassic Park dinosaurs looked like real dinosaurs.When I was a kid I was scared to death of the slugs in Night of the Creeps — the little pieces of rubber pulled on a string.

So instead, compare it to today. It’d be short-sighted to expect this movie to use practical effects. (It’s short-sighted to expect ANY movie to use practical effects — it’s a gift when one does.) The thing about CG is that you can make things look absolutely awesome, but it takes hard work. And the pendulum swings just as far the other way — if you don’t put in the effort, the effects look like absolute crap (see any SyFy or Asylum movie).

Ghostbusters gets a B-. They don’t look like they’re there. I mean, I know they’re ghosts and they’re not supposed to be there, but they ARE supposed to be there, even though they’re not, but… you know what I mean.

Just too cartoony. Cheap-looking and just what you’d expect from Sony (see The Amazing Spider-Man 2). Not just the effects, but the design. There’s a few good moments, like the Lady Gertrude ghost. But the others look like they came from The Real Ghostbusters.


GOOD: The humor

Another mistake people are doing is comparing the comedy to the original. First, comedy is uniquely a product of multiple factors — the actors, the writers, the time and culture, human sensibilities. And again, nostalgia goggles make things funnier than they used to be.

Now I’m the last person who should be asked about comedy. The only thing I laugh at are my kids screwing up. Like the other day they made iPhones out of legos. Lots of apps, but when I asked how you call someone they said “huh?”

The bottom right icon is “all the other apps and games in the world”

But looking at it objectively, today’s comedy is being delivered by people like Amy Schumer, Seth MacFarlane, Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen. Mostly weed and blue sex humor. This is a far cry from the Bass-o-matics and lounge singer sketches of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and the rest of the SCTV-to-SNL pipeline. It was a different time. And all humor is relative.

Ghostbusters utilizes that Judd Apatow line-o-rama style of humor. The director sets up a scene and lets the actors go. Now I must say that this kind of funny is not my style. I loved The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, but I think that was because of the subject matter. I had no love for Superbad or Knocked Up. But the scripted lines I LOL’d. Like when the tour guide says “At the time of its construction, it was one of the most elegant homes in existence featuring every luxury including a face bidet and an anti-Irish security fence.” And the scenes with between Liam Hemsworth and the girls are fantastic.

BAD: The Script

It’s not a bad script per se, but you can see where producers set down the tape for the plot to hit the marks. What it needed was one more go around with a script doctor and one less with the marketing team. Someone who could punch up the lines, fill in the backstory, switch up some of the headscratchers (like how are they defeating ghosts in the climax, and Kristen Wiig’s OOC moment when she releases a ghost just to show it off).

The original Ghostbusters had those little touches that gave context and weight. They weren’t just two prisoner ghosts who burst out of the pink slime. They were the Scoleri Brothers. Ray and Winston discussing the ramifications of their business in the car is a great quiet moment that makes the character’s actions matter. Louis’s explanation about “shuvs and zuuls being roasted in the depths of the slor.” And it took me years to finally get “picking up or dropping off?”

I think this is a symptom of the improv-style approach to comedy that they took. You are only as good as what the actors spew during filming. The fat may be trimmed in the editing room, but is there any meat left after? Without that investment at the script level, there’s no thoughtful events or comedy. I can tell that the lines that made me LOL were scripted, not improvised. Again, I blame Sony for this. The Amazing Spider-Man did the same thing.

Fun fact: In the original, the Ecto-2 was a personal helicopter. I’m not sure which one I’d rather have.
GOOD: The New Stuff

We’ve got new characters with new histories. One of them keeps licking her proton wand. We’ve got new weapons – a ghost-punching fist, a ghost-shredder, dual proton pistols, ghost grenades.

We’ve got new ghosts. Although I complained about the effects, I liked their design — they look scary and ethereal. We’ve got new sets. A new motorcycle. New locations. I like my ghostbusters fresh and innovative.

In his defense, Dan Aykroyd’s still got it.

BAD: The Old Stuff

Did we really need a cameo from everyone in the previous movie? It gets distracting after a while — it keeps reminding you that “hey, remember how good the original was?” If you are constantly comparing yourself to the old, no one’s ever going to accept the new. And that scene with Justin Timberlake went on forever. They’re just standing there while he graffittis the wall. And all the time you KNOW what it’s going to be. Did we really need the origin story of the logo? Is that something that was missing?

And the story is way too similar to the old movies. There’s four ghostbusters, one’s a black everyman, one’s the inventor, one’s the true believer, one’s the leader. There’s a mayor who wants to keep things quiet and ignore the problem. There’s a secretary who doesn’t do his/her job. There’s a giant monster-ghost wrecking the city that’s supposed to look cute. There’s a whole bunch of ghosts unleashed at the end. There’s another villain with little tie to the characters’ stories/internal goals.

If you’re trying to appeal to the old fans, the solution is not to give them the same thing over again, just with a shiny updated polish. They want a new story, new developments, new obstacles, new goals, new evolutions. Someone must have thought of an original idea in the twenty-seven year gap.

CONCLUSION

I left the theater feeling pumped and wanting to put on my proton pack. But even my inner fanboy can’t overcome my critic. At a macro and micro level, the movie does not succeed. It takes too long to get going. And then it’s terribly predictable and uninspired. One of the reviewers called it “disposable” and that sounds accurate. But despite this fumble, I want to see more stories from this universe. I want to see what these characters can do if they break away from their anchor to 1984.

I wish I could say it’s a new classic, but it’s not. I give it a 100% should rent (or Netflix) and a 50% see in theater. And that’s for the Ghostbusters fan. Adjust accordingly based on interest in the franchise.

Princess Peach in Punch-Out? Preposterous!

boxing princess peach punch-out

I just saw on Punch-Out!! – Did You Know Gaming? (relevant section) that Princess Peach was planned to be in Wii Punch-Out. That fired all kinds of neurons in my brain, since it’s been thinking about women and stories and video games.

It can’t be denied that there a lot of video games out there that are unkind towards women. There are lots of games with good women too — well-rounded characters that exist beyond a simple goal to be obtained. Princess Peach is not one of them.

She has a presence in nearly every Mario game, but when she’s not a simple option for Mario Kart or placeholder, she’s simpering in a castle. Rosalina has more personality than her. She wasn’t even in the first New Super Mario Bros, and games where she has been playable and fleshed-out… have their flaws.

But if she was in Punch-Out, what would that mean? Is it feminist? Anti-feminist? I almost regret it not being included because the analysts would have a field day with that one, all for some silly in-game bonus. The equivalent of Marvel’s post-credits scenes.

Now on one hand, we’re clearly dealing with a man punching a woman. And there’s no doubt that, traditionally and visually, this is an unfair fight. A well-trained boxer versus a twiggy-armed princess. No count. One punch would cause a concussion.



On the other hand, this isn’t real life. This is a video game. Besides Princess Peach, you’re also fighting a flamenco dancer, a literal “turban-head” from India who wears Bengal tiger pants, a Russian who is LITERALLY chugging a bottle of vodka in his corner, and an obese island king who may or may not be totally human. Like Insane Clown Posse, you would have to be a moron to take this seriously. It’s cartoon violence.

But it’s still violence. And none of these characters are women. This is Nintendo. Not Mortal Kombat, not Tekken, not even Street Fighter. Any fighting females are doing it with parasols and frying pans against turtles and mushrooms*. You would NEVER see Princess Toadstool strapping on a set of boxing gloves. It’s not her identity. Which is probably another reason the feature was cut.

I’m hoping the real version would have had less cleavage than this.  Not practical.  Ask Ronda Rousey.

But when I think of the weirdness and novelty of competing with Princess Peach, I feel a small pang of regret for what could have been. When I think of what kind of girlish squeals she’d make (see Mario Power Tennis) or her twiggy arms power-punching, I can’t help but smile. And that’s right — I said “competing”. It’s not just a Grand Theft Auto-style beatdown. You’re on equal footing in a sports arena. In fact, moreso, because she would be a bonus character. A challenge.

The idea/theme of Punch-Out is that these characters are stronger than you. You’re a little guy taking on giant Turks and ‘roided out Dwayne “The Rock” Johnsons. And you beat them. That’s the charm of Punch-Out. But that charm is not present with Princess Peach. It is with Donkey Kong, which is why he fits.

So my big question is — is this okay? It’s a fair fight. You’re competing, not striking out of anger. For some reason, we have a thing in our culture where girls fight girls, boys fight boys. But god help you if a boy fights a girl, even if circumstances demand it. It’s kind of unfortunate because when it is provoked, it leads to some fascinating results.

There is truth to the fact that, by law of averages (for very wide definitions of average) men have more upper body strength.  Which by some odd corollary translates to “all women are weaker”. In honorable fighting situations, that makes sense. But sometimes, it’s against moral code for any manly heroes to fight someone weaker.  So it’s up to the woman to take out her equal, toe to toe.  While warriors on both sides to sit back and watch the “catfight”.

But this is a video game. And in nearly every video game, it’s you against the world. Everyone else, whether by virtue of strength, magic, or number, is stronger than you. And it’s your job to rise from underdog to champion. The human can think beyond logic, so programmers give all video game opponents an unfair advantage. If Princess Peach is one of those opponents, does that not make it fair? Does that not make gender an irrelevant issue?

I wonder Sarkeesian would say about that.

*Some exceptions, like Samus Aran and Super Smash Brothers, may apply. But Samus is wearing a genderless, identity-less power suit, and the other is the digital equivalent of smashing toys together.

When Is a Blow Job Not a Blow Job?

the shining bear costume

My wife was in the car with some girls, going out to the bars.  In the middle of the trip, they said they weren’t going to drive her home because they’d be too drunk to drive.  And the driver wouldn’t drive her back to her car (despite being only four minutes away from it).  She begrudgingly told them she needed to take a sober cab home.  One of the girls said (jokingly I assume) that if you give the cabbie a blow job, you ride for free.

These girls were about ten years older than my wife, so I’m trying to determine if they are symptoms of an earlier generation.  Of those party girls-turned-cougars.  Taking advantage of their sex, controlling it, being liberated, instead of oppressed like their mothers assumably were.

Or is it society telling them that this is acceptable behavior.  The Snooki’s and sex tapes saying ‘just give the boys sex, they’ll do anything you want’.

I’m having trouble resolving that statement: “if you give the cabbie a blow job, you can ride for free”.  Is that empowering to women, or exploitive?  Is this the stripper and porn star using their assets to make money and exploit men, or are they being exploited, treated as sex robots and objects.

On one hand, using your natural abilities to get what you want, that seems to be empowering.  If you have breasts and a mouth, you have something that 50% of the population doesn’t.  And that 50% of the population tends to have the faculty, the control in the world.  Like they say in My Big Fat Greek Wedding “the husband is the head in the family, but the wife is the neck”.  Women can do that while other men can’t.  A man tries to offer the cabbie a blow job, he’ll get punched (assumably, unless he’s really lucky).

OR is the woman simply selling out, taking advantage of the tendency of men to exploit women?  She’s taking an intimate act and making it cheap. Prostituting herself for favors.  Is that the mindset of these women?  That’s it’s okay to use sex to get what you want?  That’s okay to act like an object if it’s gets you the upper hand?

Well, I’ll tell you this.  I would not want my daughters to make a joke like that and think that it’s funny.  It’s misogynistic to thing that way.  It may gain something in the short term, but in the long term, how does it affect your mental state?  Your self-esteem?  Is this all you are?  A mouth?

Hot Girls You Don’t Know About: Emily Ratajkowski (the girl in the Blurred Lines video)

emily ratajkowski

Emily Ratajkowski is the girl in the Blurred Lines video. I still haven’t learned how to pronounce her last name.

She really doesn’t need any kind of signal boost.  She’s a model, she’s flirty, she’s willing to take off her top. The only reason I’m bringing her up is to put a name to the face.

She’s little more than eye candy, and it doesn’t look like she has ambition to be more. Underwear ads all over the Internet, and not much else besides that.

But I keep thinking about her in the video. She’s the only one worth noticing. The blonde one looks like a ghost, and the third seems plain to me. But Emily has those red lips, brown eyes, straight hair.

Emily is 21 with Polish-Israeli ethnicity and born in England, but raised in California (but plenty of childhood in Europe). Modeling since 14, appeared in various photos where she shows off her perfect midriff and ass.

You see? Do I really need to bring up her know-zone? I hesitated even making a blog post about it, but she’s been on my mind lately. I really only like talking about girls with some kind of talent, and she certainly needs no more promotion than a controversial music video where she’s flaunting her T and A.



And it looks like she has no intention of being more than the sum of her body parts. Especially with commercials like that. I mean come on, spending her childhood in Europe? Father’s a painter? She’s a model? Size 2 with C-cup breasts? How much more perfect a life does she need than more webspace dedicated to her?

But there’s something about her moves in the video that are charming. Subtle, but playful. Stepping around, the stripper thrusting, looking into the camera with her fingers in her mouth. (Well, maybe it’s not that subtle). At least if there’s something to be gained from this obnoxious, misogynist song, it’s a few nice gifs.

Tropes vs. Anita Part Deux

anita sarkessian women video games

Oh look, Anita Sarkeesian made a new video. That only took her, what, two months and twenty-one days? And she’s got 12 videos to make? Fantastic. At this rate, she’ll be done by November 2015. Good investment for all those kickstarter contributors.



I feel like I should offer a critique like I did before, but I actually have fewer bones to pick with this one. The same issues I had with the last video remain. Like cherry-picking data — she’s starting with her point and then finding just the evidence that proves it. She doesn’t consider the medium as a whole. If you only use movies like “A Serbian Tale” and “The Human Centipede”, of course you’re going to have a skewed view of patterns in the medium.

If I wanted to, I could make a great case about the representation of fathers vs. mothers in the same medium. We’re vilified as being incompetent, evil, or unnecessary. Any movie about fatherhood is either “Daddy Day Care” or “Taken“. But I won’t because I’m already playing on the easiest level.

Then there’s the failure to take into consideration the culture of origin for the games, i.e., Japan vs. America. Japan is not great with its feminism in the first place. They value style over substance. They don’t make many original stories or take creative risks. “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down”. Just look at the Final Fantasy or Godzilla.

Then there’s knowing the audience. A dark and gritty game centered on violence/combat as the chief mechanic is going to cater to males. Nuff said. Video game companies do not make these with women in mind. Women simply are not the market for those games. I’m not saying women don’t like those games. But their dark and gritty tends more towards Jacqueline Carey, Mira Grant, The Hunger Games, or various animes.

And that’s what she’s focusing on today. Instead of looking at any game from 2001-2013 that’s sexist, she focuses on those “dark and gritty” games like The Darkness, Castlevania, and Shadows of the Damned. The damsel in distress has become the damsel stuffed in the refrigerator.

She did sum up the problem nicely. You give the protagonist a revenge motivation at the start or a savior motivation to work towards. It’s a common way to heighten dramatic tension when the “damsel in distress” has been done to death. You simply up the stakes. Not only is she kidnapped, but she’s dead. Not only is she dead, but her soul is trapped in limbo. Not only is her soul trapped in limbo, but it’s become fused to a demon. Not only is she fused to a demon, but the only way to kill the demon is to kill her.

This makes it seem like the violence is for her own good, which is a common rationalization for violence against women. And sometimes it’s the only way to “win”. It’s strange that even in this time of advanced games, mechanics and player choice, there are still games that don’t allow you to move forward unless you pull a trigger. When you look at each individual instance, each game, it’s not as meaningful. But multiple games together you see the common threads.

Side note: I love how when she’s talking about Bionic Commando she first: totally spoils it (thanks for the warning Anita — thank god you didn’t mention Bioshock: Infinite), and second: fake laughs when she says that your departed wife is the central AI in your bionic arm. Lady, if that’s what makes you lose your shit, you haven’t begun to scratch the surface of real geek culture.

My main issue is that I don’t really see a way around it. Female disempowerment goes hand in hand with dark and gritty. It doesn’t necessarily have to, like in “Sin City” or Spawn. But for every Angela, there’s a Wanda Blake. For every Miho, there’s a Nancy.

The other thing is this is not so much violence or victimization of women, but lazy writing. These are all games where the only way to express anything is with a gun. And the only way to express love through a gun would be a mercy killing. I don’t believe it causes violence against women, as Sarkeesian seems to imply, but treating a symptom doesn’t cure the disease. No one goes out and beats women because they saw it in a video game. The same reason no one goes and shoots up a school because of a video game. (for more, see this)

If you play nothing but games like Infamous, Grand Theft Auto, Gears of War, and Dante’s Inferno, will you get desensitized to it? Yes. But if you are victimizing women, there was something wrong in the first place. Video games like these are part escapist fantasy and part effects of the issue, not the causes.

By the way, it was about 6:25 when she first mentioned God of War. Although it wasn’t in the sense I thought she would. Come on, you missed the multiple gratuitous sex scenes and Pandora’s sacrifice? Anita, you’re dropping the ball.

Anita Sarkeesian and the Adventures in Video Land

anita sarkeesian video games

I feel like I gotta get this off my chest, because it’s been on my mind lately. (Don’t you love blog posts about stuff that happened weeks ago?)

First some backstory you already know. Anita Sarkeesian has done a lot of YouTube videos, most notably stuff relating to feminism. I respected her views — I learned a lot about the Bechdel test, on how it’s best applied (as in not per movie, but on a less-than-scientific global/informal level). She made sound points. She seemed intelligent.

She made a Kickstarter to do a series about women and/in video games. For some reason, this drew down the thunder of the Internet gods, a pantheon of good and evil alike. Some gnashed their teeth, some jumped to her defense. Both sides went to battle. The result brought her campaign to front-page notoriety. In the end, she made her goal quite quickly.

Eight months later…

The first video comes out: “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games-Damsel in Distress“. The Internet watches with hungry eyes, eager to see what she’s done in the aftermath of the hoopla. And those eyes are even more hungry because she’s going to talk about video games, a subject near and dear to many of our hearts.

I wonder why she chose to single out video games for her topic. It’s a medium that’s got a long sordid history of misogyny, true. But it’s getting better. And movies, TV, literature, web comics, comic books, RPGs can be just as bad.

First, a prologue. If I’m going to discuss this, I’ve got to make sure I criticize the right things: the content. I’m not going to talk about her appearance, her legitimacy as a video gamer based on a photo. The point of feminism is allowing females to do whatever they want to do(1). If they want to wear big hoopy earrings, who cares. And I won’t talk about contradictions in her thesis. It does concern me, but she has the right to change her mind. And I’m only concerned about the information presented in this single video.

(1) Patrick Rothfuss, a declared feminist and world’s nicest guy, has an excellent post where even he has trouble defining what feminism is.

Second, I don’t want to have to talk about this, but it bugs me: the Kickstarter. Sarkeesian needed $6,000 to make these videos. She got $159,000 — almost 400% more than what she needed. And during the time between the end of her Kickstarter and the beginning of March, there was very little word.

Some people think she took the money and ran. Some people thought she could do whatever she wanted with the money. Some people thought she didn’t need a Kickstarter for doing what she’s been doing for free all this time. Some people said that there’s nothing wrong with getting paid for your work.

I fall somewhere in the middle. A contribution is just that. If you give money to a homeless guy, you have no say in what he does with the money. You hope that he uses it to get back on his feet, or get something to eat. But it’s just as likely he spends it on crack. I like to think Sarkeesian is more professional than that.

I think when you contribute to a Kickstarter — one with a particular goal — that money should be used just towards that goal (plus or minus expenses). It’s a bit of a contract: I give you money with the expectation of seeing the final product you produce. Not to feed your family or fund your lecturing tours (I’m not saying that Sarkeesian is doing this).

But I wonder what she did during those eight months, because this video doesn’t seem very different from her others. I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t made her goal — could she have made the videos anyway?

I wish Kickstarter would set a cap on funds you receive, some kind of max cut-off. Because I think getting over-funded tends to backfire, and creates controversy where there is none (case in point). I think if she was more transparent with her plans — more updates, a video schedule, topics — it would go further towards legitimizing this project (not that she isn’t legitimate already). In fact, I wasn’t going to make this post until her second video, but it’s been so long…

Okay, now to the video proper. As one should do in any criticism, let’s start with the good points. I like how she explains the roots of the trope in video games. I knew about Greek myths and the monkey-kidnapping trope and Popeye leading to Donkey Kong and princesses in peril, but I never put it all together. Especially with how Donkey Kong served as the granddaddy for protagonist-antagonist driven video games.

I like her disclaimer that you can still like something while still being critical of it. No work is perfect. That’s something even I have trouble reconciling. However, I think if you’re going to present something in a critical light, you need to admit when things are both good and bad. Even Spoony admitted that the concert scene in FFX-2 was really good.

All right, that’s all I can think of. Now on to the negative.

1) THE TITLE: The first thing I see is that the actual title is “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”. First, why “versus”? Why is Sarkeesian pitting tropes against women? Tropes are simply story-telling elements that appear with enough frequency to be identified. They’re not inherently bad. A better title might be “Tropes AND Women” or “Tropes WITH Women” or “Tropes OF Women”. By using “vs.”, she’s creating conflict where there is none. It’s unnecessarily incendiary.

2) THE LAUNDRY LIST: My main complaint with the video, as a whole, is that this is just a laundry list. Most of the time, she’s iterating through the many video games that feature a damsel in distress, concentrating on the Mario and Zelda series. A series that comes from one company, one creator (Shigeru Miyamoto).

If she’s not doing that, she’s listing off games from the ’80’s and 90’s with the all the in-depthness of Wikipedia. I feel like she just went to TvTropes.com for her information. This makes me uncertain of her level of expertise in this medium, as well as her knowledge of the games she selected. Which leads into…

3) CHERRY-PICKING INFORMATION: The very first point she opens with is Star Fox Adventures. Sarkeesian complains that Nintendo took out a “strong female character” (her opinion) and replaced it with a boy.

No. They replaced it with Star Fox, a recognizable name, a recognizable license. Licensing is Nintendo’s bread-and-butter, and they change things all the time. Kirby’s Epic Yarn had Prince Fluff as the main character. Doki Doki Panic became Super Mario Bros. 2 for internationalization (more on that later).

Sarkeesian says that this “strong female character”‘s game, Dinosaur Planet (N64), never got released. No. It got changed, then released, as Star Fox Adventures, a launch game for the GameCube.

Sarkeesian implies that they changed the main character because she was a woman. Does she think the developers said “This game is great, but no one will play a game with a woman as the main character” or “We can get more sales, especially for a launch title, if we change the main character into someone recognizable.” I guess we’ll never know. (To close the history, the game scored moderately well, especially in Japan, but got criticized for not being a true Star Fox game. All subsequent sequels did not Star Fox Adventure‘s format.)(2).

(2) I never played Star Fox Adventures so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

Every other game she talks about are accompanied by fleeting screenshots, many of which I couldn’t recognize. There’s no discourse beyond “this game has a damsel in distress”. She makes a point of mentioning Dragon’s Lair with its “ditzy Princess Daphne” being ported to so many systems. Dude, just because it gets ported to every system doesn’t mean it’s a popular game. It means the company wants money. It also doesn’t mean it was a good game.

When she talks about Mario, she makes sure to specify the problems with the CORE SERIES. Well, duh, of course the core series isn’t going to deviate from a traditional formula. That’s why it’s called the core series. Star Trek 11 isn’t going to take place with the Klingons, where Kirk and Spock are bit characters. And furthermore, why don’t the Spin-Offs count? Many of those games are just as popular, if not more, than some of the core series games (Super Mario RPG, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Mario Party).

Sarkeesian calls Peach “accidentally playable” in Super Mario Bros. 2, because it was a conversion of Doki Doki Panic. So she calls that “not a good example” of averting the Damsel in Distress trope. Except that Doki Doki Panic originally featured two female characters, so that completely contradicts your point, Anita. And no, they could not just have easily had Bowser in that role, because the sprites wouldn’t have matched. Part of video game design is working with your limitations. Heck, the reason Mario has a mustache was because there wasn’t enough pixels to show a mouth.

When she talks about the Zelda series, there are some points I have to concede to (see my review of Skyward Sword) about Zelda’s history of portrayals. But she completely neglects Twilight Princess. Zelda may have been trapped in a tower for most of the plot, but she does demonstrate some instrumentality. When the forces of the Twilight Realm invade her hall, and she sees the awesome power of King Zant wipe her soldiers out, she surrenders her kingdom. That takes balls.

Sarkeesian also conveniently forgets to mention all the other female characters in the Zelda series: Malon, Ruto, Saria, Nabooru, Impa, Romani and Cremia, Anju, Medli, Midna, Telma, Agitha. I think the LoZ games have been very diverse in gender.

Last, she completely neglects any positive portrayals of females in video games, ones who aren’t damsels. She seems to be keeping to the SNES era and prior, so the examples are few and far between. But they are there, like Metroid, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter II, Chrono Trigger, Castlevania, Ms. Pac-Man. She says there’ll be more in part 2, but I don’t see why they can’t be mentioned now.

4) NO INVESTIGATION: All throughout this laundry list, Sarkeesian never mentions once WHY the “princess in peril” is so common in video games, especially early ones. Maybe because it’s so simple, she didn’t feel the need to mention it, but I will.

Video games are targeted at white male adolescents.

They always have been, they always will (to some degree). And especially during the ’80’s and ’90’s. They have the most disposable income. And any video game aimed directly at girls is ill-fated (e.g., Barbie games and Purple Moon). When it comes down to it, video games are a commerical venture, just like movies and books.

Companies create these works of entertainment to make money, not art. Art doesn’t make a profit. Sure some games are exploring new visual mediums, experimental styles, but to paraphrase John Scalzi “If you’re not a commercial [creator] to some extent, very few people will know whether your [creation] is any good or not.”

There are secondary reasons too. Most games in this era were made in Japan, where females have been extremely disenfranchised until recent years. Also, early video games had limited resources. Stories were written out in the accompanying manual.

Before Donkey Kong, games were like Defender, Space Invaders, and Asteroids. They didn’t even have characters. (Although Extra Credits had a nice analysis of the Missile Command “narrative”.) If you could push in a storyline, you automatically received kudos. And the best games never eschewed gameplay for story.

So what’s the simplest storyline to put in without a lot of hoopla? Damsel in distress. Same reason most games are combat-based and contain amnesia: it’s easy and exciting.

Sarkeesian’s statements imply that the purpose of these video games is to shut women down. They keep getting kidnapped, and that removes the power from them. When men are kidnapped or imprisoned, it’s a brief change in gameplay or storyline. That’s the insidious thing in that, no matter how powerful these women, they always get put in a place of disempowerment where the man needs to save them.

Video games only have three types of gameplay: growth, exploration, or puzzle-solving. Most games fall under growth: getting stronger, achieving a sense of power. When Anita talks about women becoming disempowered, she neglects to mention that most often, the men are stuck in the same way. Hero Protagonist’s love has been kidnapped or the bad guy has a doomsday device or attempts some form of conquest. In any case, the bad guy has all the power, and the good guy has none. Even the underlings are stronger than you, from the bulky Abobo to the untouchable Goomba.

Oh hai Jimmy Lee

Until the hero sets out, and slowly gains experience and abilities over the course of his journey, until he is at a point where he can face the big bad.

5) NO QUANTITATIVE DATA: “I’ve heard it said that in the game of patriarchy, women are not the other team. They are the ball.”

Who said that, Anita? Where is your source for that quote? Where are your sources for anything? Where are you getting your data from? What are you using for research? What is your criteria? (Fun note: this quote featured a clip from Mario Sports Mix, where Peach is a playable character. See “cherry-picking”.)

Like her famous videos about the Bechdel test, this analysis employs unscientific, unmeasurable data (she even admits this). If you don’t have numbers, can you call it an analysis? It’s more of an exploration, or an editorial.

She seemed to be focusing on old school games, even though she never explicitly said so. I didn’t see a game mentioned that was past 1992, except when it was convenient, like the Mario and Zelda series. She’s missing lots of post SNES-era games, even though she mentioned those would be in the next video (what’s the over-under on how soon she mentions God of War?). Culture changes over years. This is like saying movies are racist by examining Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (hope that’s the right amount of S‘s).

So pick a date range, Anita. And then tell me how many games had plot lines. How many games had a damsel in distress? How many featured a female playable character? How many games had no male protagonist? How many games had no protagonist at all?

6) WHAT IS YOUR POINT, ANITA?: The first thing she says is that this video series will explore the role of women in video games. It will offer critical analysis and so forth. All I learned at the end of the video was there was a lot of pre-1992 games that featured a kidnapped woman as the main objective/bad guy motivation. I feel like she’s standing in front of a video screen, doing the shame-shame finger at us. She’s indicating that the video game culture is wrong for works they did 30 years ago.

I think when Sarkeesian keeps saying “disempowerment”, she really means “agency”. The boys are the ones who get to do stuff. The boys get to beat people up or jump on Goombas. Girls hardly show any power in operation or opportunity for choice. Yes, that’s a problem. But refer to my point above — games are aimed at male adolescents. Know thy audience.

Also, games don’t need to feature a female to gain female audience, and vice versa. Look at IMDB’s Top 50 Titles as rated by women. Not one succeeds the Bechdel Test until number 17 (ironically, a movie from Japan). So really, the question is, even though a lot of games don’t let you be a woman, does anyone care?

CONCLUSION:

Maybe I’m not the right audience for this video. Maybe she’s aiming at an older crowd that’s not terribly savvy about video games. That might make her selection of criteria all the more devious — an attempt to misinform an ill-informed crowd — but I have no evidence of that.

And at the end of the video, I feel like I didn’t gain anything from it. It feels as vapid as Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. Chaffing and sardonic. Full of sound of fury, but at the end, signifying nothing. I would not want to show this video to my daughters, because it’s full of misleading data and trickiness.

Now, I don’t mind that she closed comments on her YouTube video. That’s fine. I would have done that too, if I’d gotten the hate she had. And YouTube has some of the worst scum the Internet has to offer (case in point). But to give no avenue for feedback? No forum or web page? I hope she’s receiving these responses in some form. Use all that money you got to hire a comment moderator. If she doesn’t offer an opportunity for discourse, I have a hard time accepting that Anita Sarkeesian is not just a rabble-rouser pushing an agenda, no better than Michael Moore or Ann Coulter.

So like it or not, Anita Sarkeesian, you have become a figurehead for feminism. You may have come into the Internet with the same amount of power as the rest of us, but that’s changed. That means people will be shaping their beliefs based on what you do, just as a writer shapes his craft by the other writers he/she admires. That means it’s time to step up to the plate.

Oh, and here’s an excellent video about female characters in games. One that has a thesis, and provides some solutions, instead of just shaming.