It started with a simple wish I verbalized. On a favorite fan site of mine, a video game preview was posted. It was a game I was looking forward. One which was based on one of my fandoms. After seeing that neither of the two PCs were female, I made a comment lamenting about this and how the video game industry often glazes over the female population of gamers. In the source material from which the video game is drawn from, there are an abundance of interesting, multi-faceted female leads that play huge roles in the story. As such I was surprised and saddened that they game designers choose to have their two male PCs both be male. What came next was an even greater shock.
My comment was responded to by another poster saying I was “very unreasonable” for having that reaction. That I “can’t demand that all games with more than [one] protagonist has an equal amount of male and female characters” and that surely I “must see how unreasonable this is”. This was perhaps one of the biggest and most overt sexist comments I have ever been targeted by in my geek community. I was caught completely off-guard by it. Here I am, a geek trying to reach out and bond with my fellow fans (in a community that surely has similarly felt bullied and ostracized from the rest of the population) only to be told that my opinion was irrelevant, invalid and “unreasonable”. Talk about a slap in the face! I half expected to be told to go back to the kitchen.
At first, I felt stupid. I began to question myself - Was my opinion really that unreasonable? Then I paused and sat back, looking over my request in context to the game and the source material. No. I wasn’t being unreasonable. The fandom has a large portion of female fans and the canon has a large portion of lead female characters. My request was not without reason. It was rational and valid. And here someone was in my own community trying to make me invalidate my own opinion. My own perception. My own reality. I had just been gaslighted.
The term gaslighting was coined from the play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton in which the husband of the main character starts to subtly alter his wife’s environment in order to make her go crazy. Included in these tactics, he dims the gas lights in their home and when she mentions it, denies her perception to make her question herself and her reality. The term is now used as a psychological abuse tactic that the aggressor uses against another to make them question themselves. It makes the victim question themselves and their beliefs. To quote an article found here, “Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction—whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness—in the person they are dealing with. Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings aren’t rational or normal.” This tactic, while it can be found in any relationship, is frequently used by misogynists against women. It is something I never expected to encounter in my own community; a community that I had once thought to be liberal, forward thinking and embracing of people with all backgrounds.
This, of course, spurred an intense discussion among the online community and my friends about sexism in geek culture, specifically related to the video game and comic book industries. Something which was pointed out by a few people, was that females are much more willing to play male characters without complaint while it is not true of the flip side. As such, the industry choses to cater to male audience over female audiences and develops and markets games accordingly. The same can be found in literature. In a writer conference I attended, it was discussed that children’s writers tended to choose male protagonists because females are more willing to read stories with both male and female leads while males tend to read more stories with male protagonists. As a result, we frequently find fewer female characters represented.
In the video game and comic book industry, when we do see female characters we often see them portrayed as objectified and hyper-sexualized as love interests or trophies. Is it any wonder that a number of women don’t want to join in? Can you see how uncomfortable that makes ladies out there?
Granted we are seeing more and more examples of stronger and more developed female characters in the market. And that’s great, but I see potential for more.
A friend of mine countered me by asking if I felt that these industries are the cause of sexism in the population, and if so, isn’t that essentially the same as saying that violent video games cause violent behavior? No, it is not the industry’s responsibility. The industry is one that caters to fantasy, sure. However, I think we as individuals should strive to each act in a socially responsible manner. That starts with how we treat one another and continues with what we choose to support. For example, I do not buy video games which portray women in such ways. I vote with my wallet. I do not believe in censorship, but I will not support misogyny.
And so my fellow fanboys and fangirls, geeks and gamers, all I ask is to please be mindful. Please be aware of your behavior. Of what you say and do to others. Of what you are supporting. This goes both ways – males and females alike. Let’s not isolate one another by attempting to invalidate each other’s opinions and perceptions in such abusive an abusive manner. Many of us are considered outcasts and deviants enough already. Do we really need further segregation? Is sexism something we, as a community, want to continue to support? I urge each of you out there to be aware and behave in a socially conscious manner.
As one poster followed up, the ESA reports that 42% of the gamer population is made up of females. While the majority of gamers are still male, 42% is a rather large chunk. We are almost half of the population! Shouldn’t we deserve equal representation? I think so and I fail to see how asking for it is unreasonable.