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.