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August 13, 2005

Game Girls

Shakes here...

Lance Mannion is a sexist. At least, he thinks he is, or suspects that he might be, because he doesn't like that, in one of his son’s video games, Batman beats up a girl. Batman does not hit girls, he says, but of course what he really means is that Batman didn’t used to hit girls. Because, in fact, he does hit girls nowadays. And that’s the problem, as Mannion sees it.

…I don’t think that showing the villainess being as kick-ass tough as the hero teaches boys and girls that women can be forceful and independent and that they have the strength to take care of themselves. I think it just teaches kids that it’s ok to hit girls.

He’s right. On both counts.

Kick-ass femme fatales are undoubtedly less a teaching tool than a reflection of game makers trying to expand their market beyond teenage boys, and, perhaps (less cynically) also the result of increasing numbers of women game designers, who, like the rest of us, want to have the chance to play the bad guy once in awhile, too. But just because showing the villainess being as kick-ass tough as the hero isn’t teaching kids that women can be forceful and independent and in possession of the strength to take care of themselves, doesn’t mean it’s entirely devoid of purpose, either. And maybe hitting girls—in video games—isn’t a bad thing.

Women my age were the first girls to grow up with video games—I am, like, totally of the Atari generation, and back then, people in games were a rarity, and women even rarer. Off the top of my head, I can think of Pitfall Harry, the Dig-Dug dude, and the only girl out of the whole lot was the non-human Ms. PacMan, with her lame-ass bow. One of my earliest experiences with sexism was at a roller skating rink, where I overheard a guy suggest to his friend that they play Ms. PacMan because PacMan was occupied. His friend retorted, “No way. I’m not being a girl.” I remember feeling really shitty about being a girl, at the same moment I realized why there was never a wait at the Ms. PacMan machine.

It probably doesn’t matter much to girls who don’t like video games, but I was a girl who did (and still do). Examples of girls in video games, and other “boyish” things I liked—sci-fi and fantasy books and films, for example—were so rare, that I can remember every one of them. It was lucky I was the only girl who loved Star Wars in my elementary school class; there was only one role for a girl, anyway. And I can’t even begin to explain the joy of Eowyn telling the Witch King, “I am no man,” as she delivers his death blow. Empowered with such heroism because she was a girl—my god, it was revolutionary.

But even though Leia and Eowyn were both great heroines, it seemed to me as though girls who were smart and tough were always segregated away from other women. Images of women who are smart and tough and the only female in a group of men are, in fact, so common, that it serves to teach smart and tough little girls that girliness is bad. Only silly girls hang out together in their giggling little gaggles; smart girls hang out with boys—a sentiment reinforced over and over as I played girl-less video games and watched films and read books with a token girl. A second girl only meant a rivalry, never a friendship.

The problem wasn’t with what these female characters taught me—they taught me, just as Mannion described, that women can be forceful and independent and that they have the strength to take care of themselves. The problem was with their lonely circumstances. There should have been other girls, even if they were playing baddies (a villain being decidedly different than a petty rival). Good girls, bad girls, smart girls, funny girls, conniving girls, heroic girls. But there was only one kind of a girl for a girl like me, who happened to prefer Star Wars to Facts of Life, and looking for heroines in video games back then was utterly futile. While they’re still not as common as they ought to be (and generally could stand to have breast reductions), the presence of all sorts of girls in the world of video games is affirming to girls who like them. And the truth is, girls who like the kinds of video games where people get their butts whupped don’t have a problem with girls taking it on the chin, too. Girls are going to have to both deliver and be on the receiving end of ass-kickings if they’re going to be in the fun games, after all.

When my nephew stayed the night recently, and he and Mr. Shakes were fighting each other at a Tekken-like (but newer, and cooler) game, the name of which escapes me at the moment, they were playing all the different characters available—men and women. When my nephew commented, “This girl is really good!” and Mr. Shakes replied, “Yeah, actually the girls tend to be better than the guys in this game,” I remembered those guys in the roller rink all those years ago, and thought about how much different it is to be a girl playing video games these days.

Mannion, by the way, isn’t a sexist. He’s just of the opposite sex—and the father of boys. He’s probably never considered that seeing a girl fighting Batman is actually pretty cool for girls who got left out altogether for so very, very long. Or that the difference between the old Batman was that he was on TV, and he was never going to be played by a girl. When he’s in a video game, though, he just might be.


(On a side note, a new long-term study suggests that, as those of us who grew up with video games have known all along, there’s not a significant link between violent video games and aggression. Duh.)

(Crossposted at Shakespeare's Sister.)

August 13, 2005 | Permalink


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Damn. I just love this post so much.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 13, 2005 1:01:49 PM

Those of us whose childhoods crossed over from the Atari era into the Nintendo era will, of course, never forget the shocking conclusion to the classic Metroid: our hero Samus Aran is a woman!

Posted by: Christopher M | Aug 13, 2005 1:34:26 PM

Oh, well remembered! The ol' switcheroo, lol.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Aug 13, 2005 1:37:25 PM

Good thing he never watched the animated Batman series. Batman was an equal opportunity buttkicker, knocking all sorts of girls around. Poor Harley Quinn couldn't catch a break from either Batman or the Joker. Her abusive relationship with the Joker culminated with a beatdown during an episode of Justice League that was so brutal I almost feared for her life.

Posted by: ItAintEazy | Aug 13, 2005 1:55:52 PM

i always thought harley quinn was hot.

Posted by: almostinfamous | Aug 13, 2005 2:43:23 PM

Recent TV has done more to fill out the "Smart, tough girls not segregated from other women" category. Buffy, with which I'm happily familiar, provides an example. For the early seasons of the show, Buffy was loaning out her bonus tough-girl confidence to her nervous girl-genius friend Willow, which made for a sweet friendship dynamic.

I'm told that Xena (with which I'm unfamiliar) provides some sort of similar example, with a hot lesbian subtext included.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Aug 13, 2005 3:50:43 PM

Buffy and Xena were mentioned a lot on the comments thread at my place. I think there are a lot more good examples for young girls today in these related genres (comic books being another, which didn't make my post). One of my great disappointments on behalf of the younger generation, however, is that they don't have nearly the powerhouse heroine in Padme that they had in Leia. Leia would have been appalled by a woman who was so weak-willed as to die of a broken heart.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Aug 13, 2005 6:09:31 PM


I have seen the cartoon, and I like it a lot, not least for Mark Hamill's incredible voicing of the Joker. We've let our kids watch it too, on DVD. But I don't recall Batman ever beating up any of the female villainesses. In the episodes I've seen, he fights with them but he finds ways to fend off their attacks and defeat them without the kind of brutal beating he gives to (and gets from) the likes of Bane. Maybe I've missed those episodes.

In that series, though, he often had Batgirl along to take care of the bad girls. In the new cartoon series, which like Batman Begins, takes place at the beginning of his career, Barbara Gordon is still in grade school, so he's on his own. So far, though, I think the only villainess he's had to face has been Catwoman, and their fights have always been sublimated sex so it's a different concern.

Sis, I've come to the conclusion that a major agenda of the Star Wars prequels has been to utterly humiliate Natalie Portman and destroy her career. I don't know what Lucas has against her.

Posted by: Lance Mannion | Aug 13, 2005 7:15:36 PM

I've come to the conclusion that a major agenda of the Star Wars prequels has been to utterly humiliate Natalie Portman and destroy her career. I don't know what Lucas has against her

Mannion, LOL! You're not kidding.

It's a good thing she had a decent career before this trilogy (and throughout). Hayden Christiansen will have to hope lots and lots of people find Shattered Glass.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Aug 14, 2005 2:27:03 AM

Re: Harley Quinn

After one episode of Batman:The Animated Series, I remember coming up with the quip that the Joker doesn't have a sidekick in Harley -- he has a stalker. And then, the more I thought about it, the more apt a description that seemed...

Posted by: Lis Riba | Aug 14, 2005 10:39:07 AM


Well, there was that one episode "Almost Got 'Im" where Batman literally suckerpunches Poison Ivy in her kisser when she tried to unmask him, and the episode ended with Batman beating up Harley Quinn (I admit it was offscreen, but for the fact that Quinn was already defeated it would have been gratuitous to show it anyways.)

Then there was "Baby-doll" where Batman had to be necessarily brutal to Baby Dahl's assistant, and, yes, in the episode "Bane" there's a scene where Robin had to "take care" Rupert Thorne's assistant Candace.

I don't know what this adds to the discussion, except that Batman can and will hit girls, and I'm sticking to that assertion :^)

Posted by: ItAintEazy | Aug 14, 2005 1:19:44 PM

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