Women as Background Decoration (Part 2)

August 25, 2014

This is the second episode exploring the Women as Background Decoration trope in video games. In this installment we expand our discussion to examine how sexualized female bodies often occupy a dual role as both sexual playthings and the perpetual victims of male violence.

The Women as Background Decoration trope which is the subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players. Sometimes they’re created to be glorified furniture but they are frequently programmed as minimally interactive sex objects to be used and abused.

In part 1 we discussed the concept of Sexual Objectification and looked at a specific subset of non-essential female characters which I classify as Non-Playable Sex Objects.

Press Image for Media Use: https://www.flickr.com/photos/anitasarkeesian/15034097635/

LINKS AND RESOURCES

ABOUT THE SERIES
The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects. This video series is created by Anita Sarkeesian and the project was funded by 6968 awesome backers on Kickstarter.com

GAMES REFERENCED IN THIS EPISODE

Assassin’s Creed 2 (2009)
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (2010)
Bioshock (2007)
Bioshock 2 (2010)
Dead Island (2011)
Dishonored (2012)
Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
Fable 2 (2008)
Far Cry 3 (2012)
God of War 3 (2008)
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
Hitman: Absolution (2012)
Hitman: Blood Money (2006)
Kane & Lynch (2007)
L.A. Noire (2011)
Mafia II: Joe’s Adventures (2010)
Metro: Last Light (2013)
No More Heroes (2008)
Papo & Yo (2012)
Prototype (2009)
Red Dead Redemption (2010)
Saints Row (2006)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)
The Darkness II (2012)
The Witcher (2007)
The Witcher 2 (2011)
Thief (2014)
Watch Dogs (2014)

Transcript

CLIP: Dragon Age: Origins
“Grab a whore and have a good time”

Welcome to the second part of our mini-series examining the Women as Background Decoration trope in video games. I need to stress that this video comes with a content warning and is not recommended for children. The game footage I’ll be showcasing will be particularly graphic and include scenes of extreme violence against women.

I define the Women as Background Decoration trope as: The subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players.

In our last video we discussed the concept of Sexual Objectification and looked at a specific subset of non-essential female characters which I classify as Non-Playable Sex Objects.

In this episode we will expand our discussion of the Women as Background Decoration trope to examine how sexualized female bodies often occupy a dual role as both sexual playthings and the perpetual victims of male violence.

CLIP: Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
“Are you here for the whore?”
“Aiutatemi!”
“I have your money. Let her go.”
“No, take it up with Cesare.”

CLIP: Bioshock 1
“Well if it isn’t long lost Andrew Ryan. Mmmm come here tiger. I thought you had forgotten about poor Jasmine but I’m so glad you didn’t. I’m sorry Mr. Ryan, I didn’t know. I didn’t know Fontaine had something to do with it… ah, wh-what are you doing? No, no don’t please, I loved you, don’t, don’t please, no!”

The marketing blitz surrounding the release of the 2006 game Hitman: Blood Money featured several advertisements depicting the murdered bodies of sexualized women with captions like “Beautifully executed”. Even in death these lingerie-clad women are posed provocatively in a way designed to sexually arouse straight male viewers.

If we compare the Hitman ads featuring female victims to those featuring assassinated men, we immediately notice that male characters are not displayed in sexualized clothing or positions. Maimed female bodies on the other hand are often fetishized and sexually objectified.

The 1940’s pulp-novel-inspired LA Noire used similar images in some promotional materials displaying the sexualized dead bodies of murdered women as a selling point for the game.

This Drop Dead Gorgeous trope, as it’s called, is commonly used in other forms of mass media, especially in fashion advertising. It is the collusion of violence done to women’s bodies and the fact that it is often sexualized. The idea being that a dead woman is still inherently beautiful, even if her body has been maimed, her life stolen from her, something arousing still remains available for male consumption.

CLIP: Dragon Age: Origins
“Well that’s one less elf breeder in the world.”
“A shame though, nice body on that one.”
“She’s still warm, how picky are you anyway?”

Developers regularly utilize the brutalization of women’s bodies, and especially the bodies of female prostitutes, as an indicator of just how harsh, cruel and unforgiving their game worlds are.
In some of the most pernicious examples, dead or mutilated female bodies are used to decorate virtual game environments as a way to invoke a sexually charged creepy mood or edgy atmosphere.

Mafia 2: Joe’s Adventure includes a gun battle which takes place over the dead body of an exotic dancer who moments earlier was performing a routine for the player.

A grisly example can be found in Bioshock 2 where mutilated eroticized female bodies are seen scattered throughout The Pink Pearl bordello area in Siren Alley.

Again we can compare the way the murdered male bodies are displayed and notice the distinct lack of sexualization in their presentation. The male corpses may be designed to evoke a sense of horror or disgust, but it’s not coupled with elements of sexual titillation in the same way that female bodies are.

While playing, gamers are routinely forced to witness graphic scenes of violence against female NPCs as these acts are committed in real time by other game characters.

The opening sequence in Prototype for instance depicts the execution of a nameless crying woman, her dress ripped suggestively to reveal her garter belt.

A similar technique is used to set the mood in The Darkness 2.

CLIP: The Darkness 2
“Hiya Jackie, remember us from the Candy Club? Well, do you?”
“Sure he does.”

The opening scene features two women flirting with the player in first person before they are both slaughtered in front of you.
During one mission in Far Cry 3 the players watch from the sidelines as a pimp beats up a female prostitute of color in a shanty town.

CLIP: Far Cry 3
“Where’s my fucking money bitch?”
“I don’t feel good”
“I’ve got your medicine”
“Please don’t”
“[unclear] little shit”
“My money, what’s this huh? You worthless whore, your fucking pathetic. You’re lucky I don’t kill you.”

The women who fulfill this trope in gaming universes are sometimes designed to occupy minor narrative roles but more often than not they’re just hollow shells, empty representations with little to no personality or individuality to speak of.
Red Dead Redemption includes multiple depictions of assaulted female prostitutes. In the stranger side-mission “Eva in Peril” the protagonist happens upon a Mexican prostitute being beaten.

CLIP: Red Dead Redemption
“Si, tu eres puta”
“Hey amigo, give it a rest. Enough.”
“Excuse me, gringo.”
“Stop hitting the girl.”
“There you happy now?”

The player can choose to “buy her” from her abuser for 200 dollars to stop the attack, though she is later murdered by her assailant anyway.

CLIP: Red Dead Redemption
“You like her? You can have her. Yeah, she’s pretty clean and pretty dirty also. She’s yours for 200 American dollars.”
“Mario, you are evil.”
“No, Eva. I’m just a cow herd who can no longer afford the cattle.”

Rape and sexual assault are also frequently used as a sort of narrative currency to try and raise the emotional stakes and heighten the dramatic tension for gamers.

CLIP: Metro Last Light
“Come on mama, come on! Spread them legs!”
“Oh please! Don’t! Noooo!”
“Korova, what, you think you’re too good for us?!”
“No! Please! Please, help!”
“Quiet! Shut the fuck up!”

CLIP: Bioshock 2
“I’ve got plans for you!”
“Unhand me at once”
“This is going to be fun.”
“Help!”

Scripted events are typically not part of the game’s main storyline, but are instead designed to seem like random chance encounters. They are meant to make the game world appear more alive or unpredictable and therefore more believable.

In Grand Theft Auto 5 one such chance encounter features a scene evocative of sexual assault in which a young woman is being attacked and held down by two men on the side of the road.

CLIP: Grand Theft Auto V
“Get off of me you old pervert”
“Walk away. Don’t make this your problem.”

The player can rescue her by killing her assailants or simply watch the scene play out in front of them.

These vignettes are not major plot points, instead violence against women is essentially used as a set piece to establish or punctuate the seedy atmosphere of crime-and-chaos-ridden fictional universes.

CLIP: Far Cry 3
“D’you like that? That feel good? Fuck.”

It’s meant to paint the gaming environment with a harsh brush, but it ends up doing so on the backs of women’s bodies, casually sacrificing female characters in the name of setting a ruthless narrative tone.

It’s worth noting that there are striking tonal and thematic similarities between female victims used as background decoration and other tropes we’ve discussed in previous episodes.

The second installment in the Assassin’s Creed series, for instance, features a sequence called “damsels in distress” in which the player must hunt down a man who has murdered a female prostitute.

CLIP: Assassin’s Creed 2
“Come. Join us Ezio! Have a drink, meet the ladies.”
“Murderer! Butcher! He sliced Lucia and stole her money!”
“So Messer Ezio, let’s see just how talented you are. After him.”

During this sequence the killer will run and take a courtesan hostage.

CLIP: Assassin’s Creed 2
“Don’t come any closer or I’ll carve up another one.”

If the player gets too close the assailant will slit her throat and run to the next nameless courtesan, take her hostage, murder her,

CLIP: Assassin’s Creed 2
“It wasn’t my fault. She laughed at me! She made me do it.”

Then grab another, murder her, grab another and another until the player manages to shoot and kill the perpetrator from a sufficient distance.

The Witcher games include a variety of side missions involving the player character attempting to rescue or protect non-playable sex objects from assault or rape by thugs.

CLIP: The Witcher
“Will you help me? I fear the dogs and thugs, but I need to get home.”

CLIP: The Witcher
“Some men are troubling my girls. Take care of it and we’ll compensate you… generously.

In our first episode, I described the Damsel in Distress trope as playing into a form of objectification because traditionally damsel’ed characters become the central object or goal in a competition between men.

CLIP: Super Mario Galaxy 2
“MARIO!”

I explained that in the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team; they are actually the ball. Female characters that fall under the Background Decoration trope, however, usually don’t even rise to the level of importance necessary to be pawns in someone else’s game.

Instead these women are brought on stage for the express purpose of being victimized in front of the player, after which their battered bodies are whisked away, swept back behind the curtain, never to be heard from again.

Returning to Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, in most settlement areas players are treated to randomly triggered events in which female prostitutes are assaulted and murdered by johns amid a torrent of misogynistic slurs. Players are presented with the choice to either intervene and save the woman for a small cash reward or simply watch the attack play out in front of them as part of the entertainment.

CLIP: Red Dead Redemption
“Help! Someone.”
“Stickin’ whore! I’m gonna cut you a new hole! You think I’m a joke? Go on then laugh, bitch, LAUGH!”

If the player sticks around long enough or leaves and then re-enters the same location the scene will eventually repeat itself again, and again, very much like the animatronic vignettes in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.

CLIP: Red Dead Redemption
“Stickin’ whore! I’m gonna cut you a new hole! You think I’m a joke? Go on then laugh, bitch, LAUGH!”

The audience is meant to briefly gasp at these acts of brutality, before their attention is directed elsewhere, towards the next event or set of enemies to be dispatched.

Regardless of the player’s actions in these type of situations, the result always paints women in a regressive light, as they will end up as either “helpless damsels” or “dead victims”.

On a shallow surface level, these vignettes seem to contextualize violence against women in a negative light; however, these narratives are never really about the abused women in question. Instead depictions of female pain and victimhood are flippantly summoned to serve as sideshow attractions in storylines about other things altogether.

In Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs, scripted crime events randomly generate throughout the game’s open world environment, some of which graphically depict incidents of domestic violence.

CLIP: Watch Dogs
“So you think you can just leave me?”
“Jesus, you need to stop following me.”
“Come on babe, don’t be like that.”
“I’ve had it with you, you’re nuts!”
“That’s it, I’ve had it with your lip!”
“Don’t!”
“I’ll teach you!”

These scenes are programmed to repeat themselves randomly dozens of times during gameplay.

CLIP: Watch Dogs
“You think you’re leaving me? Huh?”
“Jesus, you need to stop following me.”
“I’m not done with you, not yet.”
“You need to get out of here right now.”
“I’ll fucking kill you goddamnit.”
“No, don’t!”

If the player reaches the victim within the 10-second intervention window, the woman can be rescued by killing her abuser. However, if the player doesn’t reach her in time, she is murdered and the perpetrator will flee, providing gamers the opportunity to hunt him down.
Tellingly, if the player gets too close to the assault before it occurs, the abuser will be scared off and the player will fail the mission…

CLIP: Watch Dogs
“Hey we need to talk”

…gaining no experience points and no boost to his “reputation” meter.

The only options available are to wait until the assault is in progress, then either take out the perpetrator during the assault, or take him down after the assault has happened.

CLIP: Watch Dogs
“Hey we need to talk”
“There’s nothing to talk about. We’re done, deal with it.”
“You’re so fucking wrong. I’m not done yet.”
“Get away.”

“I gotta stop him now.”

“I’ll scream.”
“Oh I’ll teach you. We’re not done, we are not done!”
“I’ll fucking kill you!”

No game mechanics are provided to call an EMT, administer first aid or check in on the victim.

Meaning that these female characters exist to be assaulted in order to give the player something to do, a reason to chase down the bad guy, exact vigilante justice on him and gain the allotted experience points. After which the women are casually discarded, forgotten by the game and its characters.

Of course, there also exists scripted events involving male npcs, but those encounters are framed in distinctly different ways.

CLIP: Watch Dogs
“This is the place. If this guy is going to act, it’ll be nearby.”
“You’ve got some serious shit to sort out with the boys.”
“Aw man, someone’s playin’ you man!”
“You never fucking learn.”

When the victims are men, sexual objectification and sexual or domestic violence are almost never ingredients in the scenario. Even the countless male thugs and henchmen the player mows down in these games are depicted as active aggressors, not characterized as passive victims.

Plot devices that capitalize on female trauma for shock value function in much the same way as the hitting a child, or kicking the dog, tropes do.

CLIP: Fable 2
“No one defies Thag the impatient!”

CLIP: Red Dead Redemption
“There you happy now”

It’s casual cruelty implemented as an easy way to deliver a quick emotional punch to the player by presenting attacks on characters specifically designed to appear pitifully vulnerable.

These scenes serve no real purpose in the plot other than to let the audience know that the perpetrators are truly deplorable monsters.

CLIP: Thief
“Never speak of my mother like that again you whore!”

CLIP: The Witcher 2
“Think yourself a hero do you? Sail away and I’ll burn these sluts alive!”

CLIP: Saints Row
“Wanna check out the dental plan bitch?”

CLIP: Red Dead Redemption
“Don’t be so conventional! Look at that ass, magnificent. I’ll save her for later… or I’ll kill her and all her family, they’re probably rebels anyway.”

So in addition to helping paint a gritty picture for the rest of the game experience, this kind of sexualized violence against inessential female characters is exploited by developers as a sort of cheap one-note character development for the “bad guys”.

CLIP: Dragon Age: Origins
“Let go of me, stop, please!”
“It’s a party isn’t it? Grab a whore and have a good time. Savor the hunt boys.”

CLIP: Red Dead Redemption
“She was just a God dang whore, man. A God dang filthy whore.”

It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.

After all, if the random thugs or villains are so heartless and vile they attack helpless women, then the player can feel completely justified and even take pleasure in murdering them in ever more gruesome ways.

CLIP: Grand Theft Auto 5
“Where’s your respect?”
“Thank God. That was so awful. Did you hear what they were saying to me?”

These women and their bodies are sacrificed in the name of infusing “mature themes” into gaming stories. But there is nothing “mature” about flippantly evoking shades of female trauma. It ends up sensationalizing an issue which is painfully familiar to a large percentage of women on this planet while also normalizing and trivializing their experiences.

Sexual and domestic violence is at epidemic levels in the real world; one out of every five women in the United States will be raped in their lifetimes. One in four will be sexually assaulted. And women involved in prostitution are at a much higher risk of violence because they are seen as vessels to be used by others rather than as fully human.

So when games casually use sexualized violence as a ham-fisted form of character development for the “bad guys” it reinforces a popular misconception about gendered violence by framing it as something abnormal, as a cruelty only committed by the most transparently evil strangers. In reality, however, violence against women, and sexual violence in particular, is a common everyday occurrence often perpetrated by “normal men” known and trusted by those targeted.

The truth is that the vast majority of cases are committed by friends, colleagues, relatives, and intimate partners. The gendered violence epidemic is a deep-seated cultural problem present in the homes, communities and workplaces of many millions of women all over the world. It is not something that mostly happens in dark alleys at the hands of cartoon villains twisting nefarious-looking mustaches.

CLIP: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
“Who did this?”
“That monster, Malfatto!”
“Did you see him?”
“That way!”

I should also note that the problem cannot be solved by simply finding the bad evil men and killing them all – as these game narratives invariably imply again and again.

CLIP: No More Heroes 2
“This must be Karma. Travis Touchdown.”
“Spare me the mystic crap. I came here to fight.”
“Magnificent. I see the rumors were true.”

Over the past decade or so we have seen a dramatic rise in angry male anti-hero narratives in which the player character is ostensibly a “bad guy”. In some of these games violence against women is then used as character development for the protagonist.

CLIP: Kane & Lynch
“You wouldn’t!”
“That’s enough”
“Whoa, she’s all limp, I didn’t even hit her that hard.”
“Just makes our job easier.”

Grand Theft Auto 4 requires the player to kidnap a woman.

CLIP: Grand Theft Auto 4
“Stop this thing you slimebag”
“Stop being such a fucking bitch. Calm the fuck down or little birdies will be eating your brains off the dashboard tomorrow morning.”

During this mission the protagonist character insults her and beats her unconscious.

CLIP: Grand Theft Auto 4
“You’re fucking with the wrong girl assholes. I’m Gracie Ancellotti and I–”
“Shut up. Peace at last.”

Later the game instructs players to smack her in the face before taking a ransom photo.

CLIP: Grand Theft Auto 4
“Come on Gracie, I want you looking pretty for the photo.”

CLIP: God of War 3
“Lord Kratos, no, please, please leave me be. I beg of you. Show mercy.”
“Hold your tongue”

God of War 3 includes a segment where Kratos pushes a half-naked woman through a level.

CLIP: God of War 3
“Move!”
“Please don’t kill me.”

The protagonist then uses her body to jam open a gate to the next area as she whimpers in protest.

CLIP: God of War 3
“Lord Kratos, do not leave me.”

After she is crushed to death, the player can then return to her body and look at her mangled corpse, at which point a trophy will pop up. This achievement is called “I didn’t do it, but I wish I did”.

All of this is designed to convey that the protagonist is a ruthless, unfeeling, morally corrupt character who is capable of anything. Again, we see female bodies sacrificed as a way to justify the ever more gruesome and extreme violence the player must commit throughout the game.

Some games that capitalize on scenes of sexual violence do so gleefully while other titles may attempt to frame it as something inexorably tragic.

CLIP: Dishonored
“When she was ten her mother traded her for a bottle of wine. Few enter this line of work by choice”

CLIP: Dishonored
“They thought they would be working in a factory by the time they arrived its much too late.”

But simply presenting depictions of women being abused, despondent or suicidal does nothing to make them less sexually objectified and does nothing to challenge patterns of perpetual victimhood.

CLIP: Watch Dogs
“Final call. Sold.”

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.

But the game stories we’ve been discussing in this episode do not center or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.

The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitise violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.

Now, to be clear, I’m certainly not saying stories seriously examining the issues surrounding domestic or sexual violence are off limits for interactive media – however if game makers do attempt to address these themes, they need to approach the topic with the subtlety, gravity and respect that the subject deserves.

Though not about the abuse of women, the 2012 indie title Papo & Yo is an example of a game that respectfully deals with the very serious issue of alcoholism and domestic violence against children.

The game does so by telling its story from the point of view of a protagonist directly affected by the trauma of abuse, not someone on the outside coming to their rescue. It focuses on the journey of a figure who is struggling through a traumatic situation and attempting to deal with the repercussions of violence. It makes that struggle to cope and survive central to both the narrative and gameplay – not peripheral set dressing to a story about something else. And critically, the game employs powerful metaphoric imagery to make its point instead of relying solely on sensationalized or exploitative depictions of the abuse itself.

Papo & Yo is an intense and at times gut-wrenching game that doesn’t sugarcoat or glamorize violence. In this way it’s an honest and emotionally resonant experience for players.

We must remember that games don’t just entertain. Intentional or not, they always express a set of values, and present us with concepts of normalcy. So what do games that casually rely on depictions of female victimhood tell us about women vis-a-vis their place in society?

Well, the pattern of utilizing women as background decoration works to reinforce the myth that women are naturally fated to be objectified, vulnerable, and perpetually victimized by male violence. These games also tend to frame misogyny and sexual exploitation as an everlasting fact of life, as something inescapable and unchangeable.

This dominant narrative surrounding the inevitability of female objectification and victimhood is so powerful that it not only defines our concepts of reality but it even sets the parameters for how we think about entirely fictional worlds, even those taking place in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. It’s so normalized that when these elements are critiqued, the knee-jerk response I hear most often is that if these stories did not include the exploitation of women, then the game worlds would feel too “unrealistic” or “not historically accurate”.

What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable.

The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable.

When we see fictional universes challenging or even transcending systemic gender oppression, it subverts the dominant paradigm within our collective consciousness, and helps make a more just society feel possible, tangible and within reach.

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