Sexism: Point Taken

This should be my last post on the sexism topic for a while, as the items below essentially obsoleted a 1500-word post on the subject I had scheduled to go up.

Item 1: The Comic

False Equivalence from

Although I would still argue the finer points of what physical features are power fantasies to whom… well, point taken.

Item 2: The Paradigm-Shifting Article

Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women. An excerpt from the thesis bit:

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood.  They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters.  The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.

So the feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.”  They should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.”  Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.”  “Weak” meaning “flawed.”

Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws.  Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout.  Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless.  And no, “Always goes for douchebags instead of the Nice Guy” (the flaw of Megan Fox’s character in Transformers) is not a real flaw.  Men think women have that flaw, but most women avoid “Nice Guys” because they just aren’t that nice.  So that doesn’t count.

This article, much like the two videos I posted previously, came from such an unexpected direction that it shifted the entire way I looked at the issue itself. Even the nagging objection I had in the back of my mind – “Is attractiveness in these female characters harmful, then?” – is addressed towards the latter end of the article.

Item 3: The Pithy Video

Why Men and Women Can’t be Friends.

While the previous two items changed the scope of the debate for me, this video summarizes the problems I have with the article Nerds and Male Privilege, the one that made me /facepalm so hard I developed an epidural hematoma and set me to writing a 1500-word post. At one point in the aforementioned article, “Dr. Nerdlove” writes: “Y’see, nobody’s saying that women don’t receive different treatment from guys… I’m saying that being treated differently is the problem.” While the examples of sexism he goes on to use are legitimately bad (assuming a woman is a quota hire or got to where she is by sexual favors, etc), there is an implicit underpinning to the article that if nerds just treated women equally, all this would go away.

Except… it can’t. The harassment and stereotypes can and should be diminished, absolutely. But as the video succinctly demonstrates, there will always be a difference, even under gender equality.

A Few Unresolved Issues

First, there is the question of whether characters like Samus, Chell, FemShep, etc, are actually strong female characters if they could be replaced by male characters without a loss in narrative integrity. The Rule 63 Dilemma, if you will. I’m inclined to say that any non-fanservice female is a win by default, but I can acknowledge how that may amount to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Second, I am beginning to question whether a call should go out for more weak male characters (see Item 2). While some would point to, say, Batman as an example of a flawed male character with depth, my point is that male protagonists inevitably succeed at “being a man.” Chiseled men kicking ass may be a male power fantasy (see Item 1), but I consider it just as pernicious a fantasy as Objectified female sex objects. When I was out of work for 14 months, I felt a crippling sense of shame for not “being a man,” because men provide, men aren’t weak, men aren’t emotional, and so on. While there is obviously a power difference between being conditioned to be aggressive versus demure/passive/accommodating, it is still harmful conditioning.

Third, while the debate on Syl’s blog has wound down, one of the main issues we have “agreed to disagree” on was why Tifa/Sylvanas were drawn sexy. Syl asked “Why?” I asked “Why not?” They both are written as strong characters, so it should not matter in the scheme of things to also dial up the visually appealing meter while we’re there. Syl asked: “what’s the message there exactly and why will their male equivalents not come with equal, sexual innuendo?” My counter-question would be, if I were still permitted to post there, “What would you like to see, innuendo-wise, from males?” From my (limited) understanding on the subject, what women find visually appealing or sexual varies wildly from woman to woman. In contrast, pretty much all men are visually attracted to boobs and butts. If the Batman from Item 1 is only appealing to 20% of the female audience, is that a win or a loss considering the traditional Batman model is 100% appealing to men for power fantasy purposes (and presumably X% of women)?

I understand that it’s more fair if the audience breakdown for games is 50/50 to draw as visually appealing characters as possible without alienating one side (i.e. women) with panty shots or barely-there clothing. I suppose the question is: what’s the impact when one gender is more predisposed to visuals than the other? Is equal still fair? Or can we agree with the article in Item 2 insofar that the problem isn’t the sexiness of female characters at all, but rather when the whole depth of their character concept is visual sexiness?

In closing, I want to mention again the importance of tailoring one’s argument away from Goal-oriented methods towards more Results-oriented ones. The articles and arguments that shifted my attitude on this subject were NOT the confrontational ones that attempted to guilt me into accepting their conclusions wholesale. Even though the comic in Item 1 began that way, the unique perspective of what a woman actually found attractive in comparison to the standard fantasy male was intriguing; not to mention the idea that Batman’s chiseled abs were drawn for men. That, along with the notion that sexy poses were actually demeaning and patronizing to men too, were game-changers. How could you argue against that? There is no defense. Appealing to self-interest may not be as noble, but at some point the question arises as to whether you’d rather be noble, or actually accomplish what you set out to change.

Posted on December 19, 2011, in Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. For the record Azuriel, I did not “forbid” you to post further comments or shut down the comment section. what I said was that I am ending my discussion with you, from my side. I’ve also thanked you for bringing up an argument. but at some point, when I feel a discussion is running in circles, I have no wish or energy to keep playing verbal ping-pong. it’s not my “job” to dispel or explain or counter-argument every new question, idea or doubt you throw at me. I am just 1 person and a debate needs to be in some way fruitful for myself too, not just the other one.

    I’m happy to debate on my personal blog, but not to the point of personal exhaustion. my articles are MY views and are either there to entertain or provoke thought.
    I’m not a teacher there though and I still struggle to articulate myself correctly in these discussions and mind all the complexities. it’s not easy for anybody; I was brought up in a inherently sexist environment, I still consider myself a learner. besides that, I’m not a native speaker of English.

    Few of your “what about the menz” arguments were too “been there, done that” for me. I have been reading critical feminist and gender related literature and blogs for some years now. this is not to be dismissive of your questions by the way – simply to explain why I felt our argument to be unbalanced.
    However, I’m very impressed by the fact that you kept thinking and writing about it, and also with the outcome in this third post. you sometimes come across as a little aggressive or sarcastic in your posts, but here I got the feeling you were looking for balanced views and most of all, trying to wear the other person’s shoes. which is the key to understanding other realities.

    As for our basic question of ‘why’ and ‘why not?’…for me, it’s not about that women shouldn’t be sexy or cannot be both smart and sexy (although that is a popular combo), the point is really that they shouldn’t HAVE TO be.


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    • If nothing else, I want you to know that beneath the potentially aggressive or sarcastic posts is an earnest desire to challenge my own assumptions about the world in the best way I know how, e.g. debating/arguing. Of course, there are more appropriate times and places for that sort of thing, and I apologize if I came on a little too strong on your blog.

      On the bright side, the debate compelled me to look around for the items I found in the above post, which has manifestly changed my outlook on the issue itself. I still disagree with you on many points, of course, but thank you for your perspective.

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