The Problem With E3, Booth Babes, and Gaming’s Gender Bias

by Steve Bowler on June 14, 2012 · 16 comments

in general

Is that it’s not the problem.

It’s the symptom.

In the past two weeks, no less than four gender bias issues have rocked gaming news. Things got kicked off with Hitman: Absolution’s trailer. Then E3 got rolling, and fortunately, we as an industry finally took umbrage with the Booth Babes on display. Closely following that was the “protect Lara Croft” and her “almost raped” trailer moment, and we’ll close out two weeks of scandal with the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Kickstarter project, which (ironically?) proved its need to exist when a mouth-breathing campaign of ur-trolls decided they were going to use the “bitch get in the kitchen” primitive form of trolling to try and convince its creator (or themselves I guess?) that this kind of project was unwelcome.

It’s easy to see with a couple of weeks like this, that gaming has a problem. I don’t blame my associates or fellow professionals, journalists, developers, et al from being outraged by it. In fact, I’m outraged by it myself. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately, I’m not sure) it’s not gaming’s problem.  It’s a much larger issue, and it has everything to do with how we are treating women as a culture, as a society at large.

Treating women badly, unfairly, or as a sex object isn’t just an issue with gaming: Comic books are having a helluva time lately figuring out how to portray and treat their female characters. Movies have notoriously had a failing grade at featuring at least one strong female protagonist as the leading character above the title for a film for the past, well, since movies got started.

The problem, is that we as an American culture are treating women as, at best, the weaker sex, and at worst, nothing more than sex objects.

But not you! Surely, not you! You’re not the problem! I’m sure you’re not, honest, but you know who is? I am. I’ll admit it: I’m not helping. We don’t realize it, but we’ve allowed ourselves to become so saturated with everyone else’s messages that we don’t realize that when we want to insult someone for being a wuss we call them a “pussy.” Just last week, I realized, to my own horror, I was telling my wife that someone was being “such a pussy” (I don’t even remember about what). I only realized what I had done when her eyes betrayed how shocked she was at my brazen stupidity. I’ve even jokingly said “Oh so and so has sand in his va-jay-jay” as another round-about way of calling them a whiner. Point is, I’ve marginalized women and not even realized it. I bet you don’t even realize you’re marginalizing women in your day-to-day life. You don’t even have to be a guy to do it.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Watch “Killing Us Softly” for the first ten minutes, and tell me that you don’t recognize the sexualization of women in the ads portrayed. This documentary was from 10 years ago, and it’s only gotten worse since. Maybe you can find a screening of Miss Representation, a documentary which highlights “The media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself.”

I’ve lamented about my own anecdotal evidence, publicly, about how my daughter is being under served by the sexist discrimination of her damn Pokemon, and even how LEGO can’t seem to properly serve their female fanbase.

But the issues don’t just stop with the media, advertising, and marketing of products.

Consider the words and actions of our nation’s leaders (or hopeful leaders) within the past year:

I had to edit this article, because just today, while I was doing final edits on this piece to go live, the following happened:

There are even more (politicized) examples than this. Google “War on Women” and you’ll get a lot of recent results. More than I have time (or the stomach) to discuss here.

We haven’t even begun to delve into the fact that women make only 78 cents for every dollar that men make in the workforce, working the same jobs. That number has only improved by a half cent per year since 1963. At this rate, women won’t enjoy equal pay until the year 2056. The rate of improvement can best be described as glacial.

So what’s the point?

The point is, we are not going to fix gaming. At least, not by focusing on just gaming. This seriously shitty gender bias has been around for 4000 years. We are certainly not going to solve it overnight. We’re not going to fix it by banning Booth Babes (but I agree that we could at least start there).

I like to call issues like these “Generational Problems,” because you are lucky if you can fix them in a single Generation (roughly 25-35 years). Typically you’re lucky if you can even improve them by a degree or margin every Generation. My Grandparents lived in an era with attitudes like these about women. I’m not saying these were specifically their attitudes, but that was the nature of America at the time: a woman’s place was in the kitchen. My parents grew up in that era; were raised by the people who thought that was an acceptable attitude to have about women: that you could treat them like that about something as trivial as coffee. My Mom at least was able to escape the kitchen, and work in a corporate environment for awhile. For a time, she was a single parent and I was an only child, so that’s all I knew: Mom was the breadwinner in the family. But, while my parents taught me to treat women better than what’s pictured in the video, I was raised in an era that began to sexualize women in new and interesting ways (The 80′s, thanks for asking Link can be NSFW at times) while claiming it was empowerment. So, I’m trying to do better by my daughters and raise them in an environment that lets them know they can be anything they want. To not take “you’re a girl” for an acceptable denial. I want them to know they have more to offer this world than just reproductive organs and some curves and a pretty face. I want my daughters to know that they have value and are worthy of respect.

So how do we fix the current gender inequality and bias? Well, “we” don’t. It won’t happen this generation. Racial equality in America started with the Civil War in 1861. Raise your hand if you think racism is over.

What we can do this generation is to treat our wives and our sisters and friends better. Stop using gender based insults to debase our friends or enemies (women: you’re not exempt here), even as a joke. Start treating our daughters like we treat our sons. If that makes you uncomfortable, consider how you’re treating your son, and ask why your daughters should be treated any differently. Start rejecting media, advertising, and products that objectify women or try and put them in a box. The best I feel we can realistically hope for is to raise our children to treat women better than we as a society treat women now.

The first step in any recovery is to recognize that you have a problem. We’ve done that, at least. Where we go from here, as an industry, as a society, is up to us.



QD June 16, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Ok, given the origin of the vulgar slang “pussy” is indeed from “pussy” as in slang for cat, and given the antiquated “pussyfooter,” which derives from the latter slang, and which means a coward, I’m fairly certain that the “pussy= coward” slang does not derive from the vulgar slang, but rather from the completely innocent meaning. I could be wrong. But if I’m not, feeling guilty for using it in that way is equivalent to feeling guilty for calling a dog with a litter a “bitch.”

literally insane radically queer cybertransfeminist troll June 18, 2012 at 8:07 am


lol, dictionary argument. ur a shithead. today’s usage suggests an association to the usage for vagina, get it? etymological arguments dont real


hurray, you figured it out! patriarchy, huh?

> Raise your hand if you think racism is over.

not my area of expertise (seeing as i am white in Euroland) but as far as i know, a great many shitheads do believe racism to be “over”. just like sexism! no need for feminism any longer! what a bunch of crap.

> Stop using gender based insults to debase our friends or enemies (women: you’re not exempt here),

In principle this is correct, but assuming that i correctly read the implication that you’re a [cis] man, it is problematic for you to be the one to “demand” this from women. (Demanding it from other men might be problematic in corner cases, but generally is fine.)

QD June 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I mean, words have meaning, and have history, and sometimes they have a sexist connotation, and sometimes people just read into them a sexist connotation because of homonyms. The point of this small part of the article was that the word was sexist because it was implying femininity to be an insult; if the word is in origin an insult without any gender connotation, and evolved in paralel to gendered slang, then there is no inherent sexism, there is only sexism if you the individual choose to use it in that way.

Compare the adjective niggardly which has nothing to do with that other *actually* offensive word.

literally insane radically queer cybertransfeminist troll June 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm


Clayton June 20, 2012 at 12:59 am

Steve – thanks for posting. I think we [here meaning dudes who are concerned about this] can go a step farther: we should probably be actively speaking up our disapproval when people do say things we believe to be wrong. (This is hard. I’m partially writing this to admonish myself).

QD – The argument you’re making is called the Etymological Fallacy (

In short: it doesn’t really matter what words once meant. When you communicate, you do so at a certain time in a cultural context. That nearly everyone has agreed that the word is a symbol for both female genitalia and an insult implying cowardice makes it a sexist insult.

QD June 20, 2012 at 4:14 am

Thank you for explaining in full. That makes sense.

My question is: if words have gained a new association because of a false assumed history, can’t we ourselves change that context by acknowledging and being open about the actual history? Which wouldn’t justify using words that would remain offensive when addressing the public, whose context would be slow to change, but would definitely justify using those words in your own personal lives, among people who are living in the same context you’ve reestablished?

Or is that just too much effort for a word?

(I’m not asking rhetorically)

Alex June 20, 2012 at 10:22 am

“That nearly everyone has agreed that the word is a symbol for both female
genitalia and an insult implying cowardice makes it a sexist insult.”

You forgot to mention that the word is also short for “pussy cat”. If someone is called a “pussy” (in order to suggest cowardice), the natural reading is to assume that they’re being compared to a kitten. The notion that the speaker might be making reference to the female genitalia just doesn’t make sense.

The Etymological Fallacy involves the false assumption that the meaning of a word can be inferred from its etymology. In this case, however, it is reasonable to think that the meaning of the word “pussy” (coward) remains in line with its etymological roots.

Steve June 20, 2012 at 10:46 am

No one calls someone a “cat” as an insult. Come on, people. You’re having a debate over the etymology of a word, when the INTENT is what’s at stake here. It was my intent to say a guy was acting like a woman, combining the vulgar with the cowardly meaning of the word, as men do, all over the planet.

Can we move on, and at least address the real issue, which is using the word in that way is disrespectful?

I don’t understand why people are trying to defend the use of the word in the way it was used. You are completely missing the point. It was insulting to women. I was there. I said it. I know what I meant, and I did not mean to say someone was acting like a cat or that they were merely weak. The intent was to say they were weak like a woman, which is unacceptable, no matter how you debate the origination of the word.

QD June 20, 2012 at 4:28 pm

That there’s a discussion here is simply because (it seems to me) the original context of the word has survived enough that your intent (“How womanly he was being!”) Isn’t necessarily the case when using that word (“stop pussyfooting around!”) I’m sorry I pointed it out; as you note it was a minor which misses the larger issue of your article, recognition that the well-covered problem of E3′s embarrassingly sexist floor and trailers is a societal one that will be changed with time, only with small, conscious actions which continually reaffirm in our children’s eyes that sexism is indeed, even in its smallest most insignificant expressions, wrong.

And while part of that is a necessary sentiment to have, that is regardless kind of bs.

We see right now the comics industry desperately struggling to engage a female audience, and desperately tripping over itself as it deals with the fact that it is so insanely intrenched in insular sexism that it often has no idea that it is expressing it. But regardless, we have a blockbuster right now featuring a female superhero who, in her first appearance, and in all advertising for said blockbuster, was a sex object, but in the movie, thanks to the employ of a feminist director, is actually treated by the script and audience as a person.

In the videogame world, we have PAX, where booth babes have been simply banned.

There are simple, practical steps any industry can take to improve its relationship with women *regardless of whether the consumers or society in which it exists has taken greater steps to eliminate sexism.* The defeatist attitude of this piece is the exact opposite of what the industry needs to adopt right now.

Steve June 20, 2012 at 4:46 pm

QT: if you think my article is defeatist, or that the sentiment of improving society’s problems lies in changing how children perceive the world around them = kinda b.s., then you may have missed the entire point.

QD June 21, 2012 at 6:41 am

I mean clearly you portray an inevitable victory, but it seems like you don’t think the industry in itself can do much to change unless and until the wider cultural context changes.

If I’m completely misreading the piece, I do apologize. I also apologize for taking such an antagonistic tone; we all want the same thing here, we’re all on the same side, and the only disagreements are on nuance of the situation.

Steve Bowler June 21, 2012 at 11:18 pm

“…but it seems like you don’t think the industry in itself can do much to change unless and until the wider cultural context changes.”

That is exactly my point, yes. The industry has proven it is unwilling to change, because most people are actually unwilling to change. People are saying now that E3 has been the same for a decade. Two decades, even. The only way to change the industry it is to change the market and culture surrounding it. PAX already bans booth babes. There are a handful of women-friendly comics, and yet women are still being objectified on TV, in movies, in ads next to bus stops, in comics, billboards, magazines, at work, you name it. Treating the symptoms will never cure the problem, and the only way to cure the problem is to stop it (or stop as much of it as you can) before it spreads to the next generation, because you’ll almost never convince a sexist or a racist or a misogynist to stop being who they are.

protogonos July 13, 2012 at 2:21 am

First off, let me say that I acknowledge that gender equality in the workplace is a huge issue causing a lot of friction, disappointment and pain for all involved.

Men, like any group of humans who have a certain power for too long, have grown corrupted by that power. As men we do have more physical strength, and as it is, society gives us a certain leeway in doing things the easy way sometimes, however, the kind of gender “neutrality” currently being pushed is not what it says it is.

I have seen my fair share of pig-faced wannabe-superstar nerdy game designers pushing for a raunchy sex scene in their game while happily commenting “Yeah, that will get those gamers’ juices flowing, yehaw!”, and yet I have also seem my fair share of women who have no clue what they are doing, have no technical skills, and no managerial or leadership ability and yet rise to upper management positions within months – it’s always the position right underneath some sickly whoring CEO or director etc., and it’s those same companies that claim they are gender neutral, based on the fact that top management has an entire harem of unskilled female assistant-whatevers working right “beneath them”.

So how do we fix this situation?

- If we are guys: we expose that kind of female for what she is, not fearing to be labeled sexist, and we go out of our ways to promote any girls who do have skills and abilities, even if it means we are promoting them above ourselves.

- If we are girls, we also expose the kind of gender-neutrality that involves staying at work in the Directors office late at night,…and instead learn skills, work hard in our job, do not accept being treated like candy even if that gets us somewhere, and fight for rightful position with just weapons: knowledge and hard work.

Sadly, not many people are prepared to step up for fear of being called sexist, or slandering, or loosing good job offers, etc. so I agree – I don’t think we will resolve this situation anytime soon – at least not in the workplace.

IAgreeWithQD November 9, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Sir… scaredy-cat ~~ pussy-cat ~~ pussy. Since when is it weak to be a vagina? Most men love vagina. Stick to blogging about games…

Xoli November 9, 2012 at 5:57 pm

First I caught a bit about your blog post about your daughter’s homework on FB via HuffPost. Then I went to your blog to find this piece. And now I’m actually going to consider watching what’s going on with the gaming industry again: now that a guy actually said something about the problem. My ex has done the game-dev thing, and based on that experience/experience with other developers after that I didn’t see a place in it for me, nor did I care to partake in gaming or development. Now I’ll watch. Now that this is part of the discourse and it’s more than “women whining” I’ll learn again and participate. Thank you for this post. In a huge way. My heart needed to know that there is still some hope for humanity.

Ben Russell November 10, 2012 at 9:34 am

Thank you for tackling this subject. We aren’t going to progress as a culture without taking a long look as our flaws and working to overcome them. I saw the link on HuffPo about your daughter’s homework assignment. I love how she responded! You must be super proud of her.

As a gamer with a young daughter myself, this article really caught my eye. Thanks for doing the leg work here. I was also reminded of some of the shows over at Extra Credits ( that discuss this as well. Specifically, check Season 2 ep. 7, and Season 1 ep 19.

Also, wish I could like this post on FB, but I just linked it instead. Keep up the excellent writing.

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