Too Close to Home: Selling Sex with Video Games
This past month or so has been a weird one. I consider myself to be a reasonably thoughtful person, often engaging in quiet introspection and philosophy on various issues. The thing is, though, that I usually think about stuff in rather abstract terms. I ponder tendencies, ideas and processes in broad terms, usually only being concrete when it comes to issues relating to my area of expertise which, no surprise, is video games.
The reason I say that the last month has been weird is because I’ve been thinking a whole lot about a very specific issue. That issue is gender, and gender roles in society at large. It’s in no way unrelated to my favourite topic; the reason I even started down this path of thinking was because of a blog post that a games-journalist friend of mine wrote about a month back. The post was about so-called “booth babes”; pretty girls selling various gaming-related products to nerds by leveraging their prettiness in various sexual, skimpily-dressed ways. The main focus of the text itself as well as of the predictably heated discussion that followed was the phenomenon known as “objectification”; reducing something to an object.
The flame war in the comments field, on Twitter and elsewhere went as expected. There were the usual twists and turns, the allegations of everything from people being hypocrites and/or Nazis and/or whatever. Words like “mansplaining” arrived when and where they were expected to, and the whole thing looked pretty banal and glum for the longest time. Even though the original article was meant to illustrate the author’s nuanced and tempered approach to the concept of objectifying people, nuance and temperance was all but lost from the resulting debate, and it looked like we would once again not learn a goddamned thing. That’s to be expected when emotions run high, I suppose, but being both a stoic and an optimist, I hoped for the longest time that people would come to their senses. No such luck, sadly.
I eventually decided to jump into the fray. And though I’ll probably come across as a bit arrogant and pretentious for saying this, I’m proud to claim that my contribution to this whole debate seems to have gotten people thinking a little bit. It even seems to have ended the discussion, which I’m not really sure how to interpret. Maybe I managed to stump the combatants through sheer force of rhetoric; maybe everyone was just tired of not really making any headway. Either way, my participation started with a bit of thinking on my behalf – which I dare say is more than a lot of people did before starting to mash their keyboards. While verbal bullets were flying overhead, I was in my own trench, mostly keeping my head down, contemplating the meaning of the word “objectifying”. This word was one that the hard core, self-proclaimed feminist side of the argument seemed desperate to use at every turn. What got me really thinking about the semantics of it was that a girl I know wrote a post in one of the blog posts that had been written in response to the original one by my journalist friend. This girl was claiming her right to objectify herself voluntarily as an expression of sexual power (or something clever like that – I’m not that smart really). Another girl then entered that thread and made it clear to this first girl that she couldn’t do that. It wasn’t possible to objectify herself, that was only something a third (male – duh) party could do to her. She could “sexualize” herself, however, that was completely fine. And right around here I realized that the semantics needed exploring, because I no longer had any idea what was going on.
As it turns out, there really isn’t any difference between the meaning of “sexualisation” and “objectification” – or rather, not the difference that was claimed in the comments thread in question. “Sexualisation” is merely another word for the longer, more descriptive term “sexual objectification”. Learning this was very important to me, and to my later contribution to the debate, because it meant that the proto-term “objectification” was more general, stood above the more specific “sexualisation”, could indeed be done to oneself, and most importantly could also be applied to men.
Suddenly, everything fell into place. The strategy of the feminist side of this discussion, for reasons I’d rather not think too much about, was suddenly made clear. They were looking to hijack the term “objectifying”, which allowed them to wallow in a solitary state of victimhood, and in turn reduce the men to something less than themselves (thus objectifying them – us – tragicomically). Because if objectifying is hijacked, and in everyday parlance made to mean only “sexual objectification”, then it follows that men can never be victims on the same terms as women. Whenever the objectifying of men is discussed, it is at best acknowledged with a token nod, but because it is always viewed through this prism of sexual objectification as the only real method of reducing someone to something less than human, men will never be considered equal victims of this disgusting practice.
As I started to contribute to the discussion, I explained the above tendency to my fellow combatants in the on-going internet flame war. I proceeded to reclaim the word objectifying and showed how it is indeed done to men as well – not so much in the sexual sense, but more in the power trip sense. Men are supposed to be breadwinners, successful, alpha, rough and often even violent. And they must have loads and loads of things; cars, nice homes, nice clothes, watches and other accessories. And seeing as women are indeed also objectified, reduced to “things”, I thought that acknowledging these tendencies was just as important from a women’s perspective – because that’s what makes up the other half of the “rape culture” equation. Consent is optional. A real man doesn’t ask, after all. He takes.
These gender roles are forced upon us, and we help in perpetrating them by buying in. Whether we’re women or men, we have plenty to lose from standing outside this bizarre rat race, because we may lose out in absolutely every sense of the word. Talk about losing one’s soul is very hollow-sounding when keeping it might mean dying poor, lonely and utterly rejected. And so we hop in with both feet, trying our hardest to be the absolute best pieces of meat we possibly can, lest we lose out on our chance to be happy. And at the centre of this charade is the same cynical consumption culture that hounds us in pretty much every other part of our lives. Whether you are trying to be a man’s man or a darling little princess, what’s important is that you gather as much money as you possibly can and then consume as much as possible – whether you do this by working a job you hate or by getting plastic surgery and marrying the biggest walking wallet that the sex object you’ve become can manage to snare. And in the end, none of us see each other, or even ourselves, as anything more than objects. In this context, where I’m told to not see myself as good enough, or to see anyone else as anything other than a means to my ends, does it really come as a surprise to anyone that barbaric practices such as rape are still commonplace? Or that women will shun men that would love them unconditionally to marry a violent drunk with a Bentley? Or that nobody is happy?
And the biggest victory of this crude, emergent consumption culture is that nobody is attacking it properly. Also, men are at a bit of a disadvantage here, in part because the feminists’ attempts at claiming all the victimhood for themselves have been so successful. Men are now told since birth that they are keeping women down, and that there aren’t “man-issues” of this nature, which serves to give the whole thing an air of legitimacy, and makes us less likely to question it. Because of this, and general meta-cognitive inability and various other stupidities, we go at each other instead of the real culprits; we’re complaining that it’s all about the patriarchy or some other aspect of human society – even though these are all secondary to the real problem. It’s like a global version of the LA riots, or the moronic English chavs who looted and vandalized properties belonging to working-class business owners thinking they were in fact sticking it to the man. Telling in the latter case was that what was generally stolen, and often used rather than resold, was not groceries, but the very luxury items we’ve all been conditioned to associate with being all we can – must – be.
I felt really good as I was expressing these thoughts, and what feedback I got was generally positive. It seemed like I’d managed to think outside the box and get people to take a step back. Maybe this would help further the discussion on this and other topics in the future. As for myself, I felt happy that I managed to approach this in a cool, calm and collected way. I felt proud that I didn’t let emotions get to me, and make me react in a knee-jerky way. Even though there’s plenty of stuff out there that gets my blood up, potentially impairing my ability to think rationally and find solutions, I felt that maybe, just maybe, I at least had this whole sexualisation thing figured out.
Then I saw this fucking woman:
And within seconds I was frothing at the mouth. I have never been quite so enraged by seeing a woman sexualised. I even wrote quite the mean post on her Facebook wall because of it, essentially saying that I would have much preferred if she would have tried competing on the same terms as every other pretty girl with big boobs, by submitting pictures to Playboy or whatever. I was even so mean as to imply that she wouldn’t hold a candle to any of the “normally” pretty girls; that the only reason anyone even noticed her was that she was dressing in computer-game related clothes (a phenomenon known as “cosplaying”).
The reason I was so pissed off was because the cosplaying was just a means to an end for her. This girl claimed to be a gamer, a geek or whatever, but it all came across as incredibly cynical when I saw the above picture. Because from a cosplaying point of view it absolutely sucks. What’s that outfit got to do with Pokémon in general and Pikachu in particular? I mean, there are plenty of sexualised female video game characters that she’s posed as, and that she could settle for impersonating. The fact that she would make a Pikachu costume that looked like that made me angry, and also made me realize something about myself.
I’m perfectly fine with so called booth babes as an expression of the insane consumption-focused culture we live in. It’s not that much worse than anything else, and again, it’s a symptom rather than a problem in itself. Another thing I kind of feel makes it more acceptable is the very fact that booth babes are just models hired by companies that want to sell product. They more often than not have no relationship to the very geek culture they are targeting and exploiting. What pisses me off royally about Jessica Nigri isn’t that she is selling games by being sexy; she is using games to sell her sexiness! Her self-sexualizing, drone-like behaviour is made all the more disgusting and cynical because she’s devised a strategy for pulling it off that lowers the whole thing another notch. She is disrespectful towards herself, towards her so-called fans and towards the culture that I so love and am invested in. This is a good-looking woman who carves out a niche for herself by objectifying her target audience even more than other such women with modelling dreams would – because she is her own agent and marketer; this is all her own idea. She realizes she wouldn’t be noticed otherwise, that her qualities as an object would be inadequate in any other context. And so she makes a costume that is only nominally similar to Pikachu, and proceeds to sell her body to a bunch of horny idiot teens that totally miss what is going on. The same teens will write about their masturbating in the comments threads of Jessica’s pictures. Meanwhile, my challenge to her was edited off her wall.
Obviously, I have emotion about this and it affects me. As the title of the post says, it’s all too close to home for my tastes. I mean, Jessica does indeed have some really good costumes that she’s done. Most of them are sexed-up more than necessary, but at least the Gears of War one is pretty authentic and pretty cool. So for all my indignation, I will concede that I’m probably only part-right on this one. Still, even though my biases are undeniable, I really would have preferred to not have to be the only one mentioning this. Because there are some really good cosplayers out there, decidedly better than Jessica in fact, who don’t get half as much attention as her and for all the wrong reasons. I guess on some level I’m just disappointed that gamers, my target audience, my… “kin”… would be so horribly, horribly blind to the very same bullshit that society at large is.
I had hoped we’d be better than that.