Last Sunday, Rockstar Games teased the reveal of their next game. In the days that followed it quickly turned out to be a sequel to their megahit Red Dead Redemption. Yesterday (Thursday the 20th) they released a trailer. Apart from a lot of enthusiastic reactions, we also noticed a few sceptical comments. This is regarding representation of women, both in this game and in Rockstar Games in general.
There was the teaser image, then there were the silhouettes against the setting sun and then the fully illustrated characters. No women. The trailer came and although it didn’t show much to go by, it far from confirmed female lead roles. Of course I love the looks of the game. Man, I’m wildly enthusiastic and stoked for next year. It looks so pretty and inviting. Even if it was just half a minute of imagery, the trailer wets the appetite for exploration, trekking, hunting and adventure. But yeah, the lack of women bugs me. Am I allowed to?
“It’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media, while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”
With those words Anita Sarkeesian kicked off her well known video series of critical feminist analysis of sexist tropes in videogames. Ever since, she has been repeating this line in most of her video items and her organisation Feminist Frequency even sells a pin with the quote “Be Critical of the Media You Love” alongside stickers and t-shirts.
It’s the line I keep repeating the most to people I discuss her videos with, to defend the work she does. Her criticism of videogames is not meant to discredit, demonise or maliciously burn down the entire existence of games, their fans and creators. Her criticisms are often taken as jab into people’s comfort zones or a harsh reality check that partly dismantles a sense of nostalgia and escapism. But that doesn’t make it wrong, illegitimate or mean-spirited.
This extends of course to the entire tendency of feminism and progressiveness in games and the criticisms and think pieces regarding it. But that seems a hard nut to crack for many people with a strong emotional investment in games. This appears to be connected to a knee-jerk reactionary stance regarding gender equality and representation in general.
“It has always been this way and I’m doing fine so we don’t need to change anything.”
I had to think of this when the first reactions to the teaser images (and later the trailer) started to trickle in. Of course we were wild with anticipation and excitement but there was room for criticism too. Or let’s say cautiousness, because we can’t of course reach a full verdict yet.
And of course the first predictable response to this criticism came to.
“It’s supposed to be like that”
“But it’s historically accurate.”
“Yeah it sucks but there were no women in the frontier.”
“Rockstar pays homage to old Western movies and they just didn’t have women.”
All derivative bullshit of course. The image we have today of cowboys, frontiersmen and outlaws is based on old movies, wild west shows and other popular media. The handsome white and heroic cowboy is a Hollywood myth. Cowboys were an extremely diverse group of people. A lot of Mexicans were cowboys, freed black people from the south found their employ as cattle herder and native Americans too were known to become cowboys. Women were a minority group but cowgirls definitely existed. And curiously, because of the male majority the life of a cowboy was also known to be a career choice for many gay men in the American territories.
The Mary Sue already published a neat list of female outlaws in the West, so I won’t bother to repeat it here. But it reaffirms the notion that absence of women in Wild West fiction is not grounded in reality. Interestingly, a series of books by German author Karl May that I used to read as a kid, featured quite a range of queer characters in a Western setting. Including a woman posing as a man to hide her identity, a cross dressing and possibly transsexual man working as undercover agent and a noticeable amount of references and implications that suggest a latent homosexuality of the author.
Rockstar is forging a game that might or might not be headlined by cisgender, heterosexual white men. It’s going to be a fantastic game if their reputation and the first imagery of it are any indication. People, including me, are going to love it. But we also need to keep telling Rockstar we are not going to accept reactionary policies favouring the status quo. They will have to listen exactly because we love this game. We are not non-gamers standing from the sidelines hollering into the void. We don’t want to end games, stop people from enjoying them and condemn anyone who makes them. Why would we? We ARE gamers and we WANT games. We just want them even better than they already are. We don’t settle, we want the best because we know it’s possible and even necessary. It’s 2016 and Rockstar is not getting away with so easily.
Now, bring on that game! I want to hunt some elk and build a campfire on the prairie.