That’s an episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, the spinoff of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women web series, dealing with the phenomenon of the generic female sex worker NPCs who are so ubiquitous in the background of open-world video games. It’s thirty minutes, which is a huge time commitment on the Internet, but if you like these sorts of games, it’s well worth it.
Let me start off by making it clear: I love open-world games. I love Grand Theft Auto. I love Assassin’s Creed. I love Red Dead Redemption. I love Sleeping Dogs. I’m one of the few GTA fans who was around for the original Grand Theft Auto game in the 90s, and I own every GTA game released for console from GTA3 onward. I own every Assassin’s Creed game released for console. I replay Red Dead Redemption in the same way that people regularly reread their favourite book. In fact I’m in the middle of an RDR replay right now, which I started after I finished replaying GTA5 last week; I started GTA5 right after I’d finished replaying Sleeping Dogs. The games in this video can be divided, fairly evenly, into games I own and love, and games I haven’t played.
(The exception is Just Cause II, which I own and have played but abandoned about halfway through because I just didn’t enjoy it. It was too much of a shooter and not enough of an action-adventure game for me.)
And yet I can still acknowledge that every criticism Sarkeesian makes in the video—of the games I’ve played specifically and of the culture of M-rated open-world games in general—is valid and deplorable.
I came across the video in Kotaku’s short article linking to it, and then I skimmed through the first few dozen comments. The level of discourse was a lot higher than I’ve seen in other online posts confronting misogyny in video games, and there were plenty of commenters who recognised the truth of what Sarkeesian is saying. But of course, there were also plenty who tried to refute her argument, either by being the guy who thinks he’s “living proof that any supposed correlation between ‘long-term exposure to hypersexualized images’ and ‘higher tolerance of sexual harassment of women’ is complete bullshit” because he watches “loads of porn. I mean, crazy amounts”, but doesn’t think of himself as a misogynist; or by dismissing Sarkeesian’s legitimacy as a critic of video games (apparently because she funded Tropes vs. Women in Video Games through Kickstarter? I couldn’t really follow the logic.); or by attempting to argue that the misogyny in these games is actually A-OK.
I’m going to assume that it’s pretty self evident what the problems are with the first two of those—the dude with too much porn and too little self-awareness, and the guys who would find a way to dismiss anyone who criticised the boobs in their video games—and instead address the last, the guys who acknowledge the misogyny on display here but who have arguments to legitimise it. I’m mostly going to concentrate on Red Dead Redemption, for three reasons:
(1) It’s the game I’m seeing these commenters cite most often with their arguments;
(2) It’s one of my favourite games of all time; definitely my favourite console game;
(3) It actually is really progressive as far as these things go. It has multiple strong female characters, one for every act of the game. Apart from the single instance of the Dastardly trophy (discussed in the video), the player’s interactions with the prostituted women are always either polite or heroic, and the player is not allowed to avail himself of their services. And again apart from the Dastardly trophy, every instance of violence against women in the game is depicted as making its perpetrator a horrible human being. I ask myself with every narrative game I play, “Just how bad is the misogyny here?”, because I want to know if this is a game that I can discuss with or recommend to the women with whom I discuss games, and with Red Dead Redemption I come closer to saying, “Not that bad at all,” than I do with pretty much any other open-world game besides Assassin’s Creed: Liberation. But it’s the very fact that Red Dead is actually one of the least offensively misogynistic games of its genre but is still such low-hanging fruit for a feminist critique that shows just how pervasive a problem this is.
(And yes, I do have to consciously ask myself about the misogyny, because I’m a straight male, and I’m aware that just being a straight male gives me the male privilege of ignoring that misogyny if I don’t make the effort to look for it. Having male privilege doesn’t make us, as men, bad people; it just makes us men. It’s only if we use that male privilege to pretend our blindness to misogyny means that the misogyny isn’t there that we make ourselves bad people.)
(Also, it should come at no surprise at this point when I warn that there will probably be spoilers for Red Dead Redemption ahead.)
The counterarguments seem to fall into two general categories: relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s just realism or historical accuracy; or relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s counterbalanced by the presence of three well-developed female characters.
The first argument is easy to refute: it’s just flat out not true. Even if the situation were simply that Red Dead Redemption depicts women as passive and irrelevant while it’s the men who actively drive events (which of isn’t what’s being criticised, but the commenter would like to pretend that it is), it still wouldn’t be accurate. You only assume it’s accurate precisely because you’ve been exposed to so much media that pretends it is. Women have always been active in our public life; women have always been present in fields we think of as traditionally belonging to men. Anyone who tells you that all the women characters being relegated to passive, supporting roles and kept away from the real action is legitimate storytelling because history isn’t qualified to tell you anything about history.
And besides, that’s not even how Red Dead Redemption presents its world. It’s not that women don’t get much say in the course of events; it’s that most of the women who appear onscreen are sex workers. I mean, the game allows the character to roam across the American southwest and the Mexican northwest, and about half the women he sees are prostitutes. Prostitutes who only ever appear in public wearing nothing more than their underwear. Are you really going to argue that that’s valid in the name of accuracy? The town of Armadillo is, in the game, the only urban settlement in the state of New Austin. Its population apparently consists of one general storekeep, one gunsmith, one doctor, one telegrapher, one marshal and two deputies, a staff of three or four at the train station, that weird dude who runs the cinema, a dozen or so pedestrians, a dozen or so customers at the saloon (as well as the saloon keeper and the piano player), and two or three dozen prostituted women. Does that really seem like an accurate portrayal of a frontier town’s economy to you? Even accounting for the ranchers in the surrounding counties, there must be one prostituted woman for every two men west of Hennigan’s Stead. This is no more “accurate” than is GTA5’s depiction of strippers as a demographic who really really want you to grope and fondle them in the champagne room, if only it wasn’t for that mean bouncer putting a stop to their fun, and who will happily take you home with them if you can manage to fondle them enough without the bouncer seeing.
As for the idea that the presence of a strong female character balances out the purely male-gaze prostituted women who are so visible in Red Dead Redemption and, indeed, in so many other open-world games. Red Dead does indeed have three really solid female characters with a lot of depth to them, and that’s (sadly) a lot for a game like this. In fact, let’s take a look at all the main characters in Red Dead Redemption to see just how overrepresented women are. I’ll even highlight them so it’s easier to see their prevalence in the game world:
(I’m defining a “major character” here as someone who either (1) is John Marston, (2) gives Marston a main-storyline mission, (3) is one of the major villains Marston has to hunt down in the climactic missions of each act of the game, or (4) doesn’t give Marston a mission per se, but who is a frequent companion of a mission-giver and accompanies or leads Marston on multiple missions, like Nastas the Indian or Captain Espinoza.)
CHARACTERS IN RED DEAD REDEMPTION
John Marston, male
Characters in the New Austin act
Bill Williamson, male (Williamson also appears in one mission in the Mexico act.)
Bonnie McFarlane, female (Bonnie also appears in two missions in the final act.)
Marshal Johnson, male
Nigel West-Dickens, male (West-Dickens also appears in one mission in the final act.)
Drew McFarlane, male (Drew also appears in one mission in the final act.)
Characters in the Mexico act
Landon Ricketts, male
Captain de Santa, male
Colonel Allende, male
Captain Espinoza, male
Abraham Reyes, male
Javier Escuella, male
Characters in the final act
Edgar Ross, male (Agent Ross also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)
Agent Fordham, male (Agent Fordham also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)
Dutch van der Linde, male
Professor MacDougal, male
Abigail Marston, female
Jack Marston, male
I mean, yeah, right? It’s ridiculous how overrepresented women are in Red Dead Redemption. It’s clear as day in that list. Twelve per cent of the characters in the game who speak, have personalities, interact with the player and move the game forward are women. That’s a ridiculously high proportion for a game with pretensions to “historical accuracy”.
(Seriously who can immerse themselves in a huge, deep game world like Red Dead Redemption but where only three out of twenty-five actual active human beings are female, and somehow come away with the idea that they’ve been playing a “historically accurate” rendition of how Western society works? I guess the same guy who can play a game in which you can lasso and hogtie a prostituted woman, then place her on the train tracks, and she continues to sassily flirt with you while you both wait for the train to come run her over, and still describe the game he’s been playing as “historically accurate”.)
Like I said, Red Dead Redemption does have more—and more fully developed—major female characters than its peers such as most of the Grand Theft Auto games and most of the Assassin’s Creed games and Sleeping Dogs. But that just highlights how low the standard is; it doesn’t make Red Dead some sort of bastion of egalitarian storytelling for giving John Marston literally one woman per act to interact with. Pointing to Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail as if they somehow insulate the game from being called out on the objectification of the sex worker NPCs does much more to confirm accusations of misogyny in video gaming than it does to refute it.
But let’s say that three strong female characters really was impressive. Let’s say Red Dead Redemption really did have a historically accurate, representative gender balance in its main narrative and cast of characters. That still doesn’t change that the bordellos in towns throughout the game are creepy, male-gazey bits of window dressing that encourage the players to treat these women as being there just for their own entertainment. Quite simply, the presence of the one element doesn’t erase the presence of the other.
(This works just as well in the opposite direction. A lot of the commenters seem to take Sarkeesian’s criticism of Red Dead Redemption’s sex worker NPCs as her somehow saying that the presence of Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail doesn’t count. Sarkeesian doesn’t ignore the major female characters or pretend they don’t exist; they simply aren’t relevant to a discussion of Red Dead being yet another instance of games that use sexualised images of women as objectified window dressing for the presumed straight male player.)
I started out by saying that I love open-world games in general, and I love Red Dead Redemption in particular. I’m reiterating that now. It’s important always to remember that finding some elements of a piece of media problematic doesn’t mean that other elements of it can’t be very satisfying and rewarding; it’s also important to remember that it is okay to like even the problematic elements. But that doesn’t mean the problematic elements aren’t problematic, and it doesn’t mean we can wave away or dismiss the very real issues they raise.
Read Dead Redemption would be just as compelling and immersive a game without its three towns full of women walking around wearing only corsets, bloomers and stockings. The gameplay experience would be just as satisfying. And yet someone still seems to think they need to be there. And not just in Red Dead, but over and over again, in GTA, in Assassin’s Creed, you name it. Why?