A Response to Ars Technica on the Portrayal of Women in Media

Ben Kuchera reported today on Ars Technica that the Women’s Rights Committee of the European Parliament has issued a report in which they make the assertion that women aren’t portrayed very well in electronic media, including video games. They’re asking for this trend in stereotyped portrayals to change. I think that’s awesome and well overdue. I wish our government here in the United States would ask for something like that instead of alternately ignoring the industry and screaming about it being terribly dangerous in some nebulous and unclear way.

Kuchera goes on in his article to discuss this statement about the portrayals of women in video games. He claims that it’s an unfair statement to make and that the Parliament is incredibly vague about what they’re asking to change. I’m sure they are vague (you’d be hard pressed to find a government document of this nature that isn’t vague), but they aren’t wrong. He states that the videogame industry is getting better in their portrayal of women, and I would agree with that, although I don’t think I think they’ve made as much progress as he does.

Where I really take issue with him is his claim that videogames are no worse than movies in this area. He says “The truth remains that, in a movie rental establishment and a video game store, it’s just as easy to find games that treat women well as films, and that should be applauded.” This is simply untrue. There are games that “treat women well” (or at least portray them realistically and respectfully), but they are not so easy to find.

If you walk into a video store, it’s pretty easy to find a movie that portrays women pretty well. They’re the movies that are marketed to women. The romantic comedies, the sisterhood-type bonding movies, and the heartfelt family dramas all have many, many titles with realistically shaped actresses, realistically flawed characters and competent women who aren’t always ordering their lives around a man. There is a good smattering of such characters in just about every other genre of film as well. I’m not saying film is perfect, because they absolutely have a long way to go in their portrayal of women, but good women characters and female-friendly stories are not unheard-of there. They’re just not nearly as common as they should be.

If you walk into a videogame store, you’re going to have a harder time finding a game with the same qualities in gender portrayal. First, you have to find a game with female characters, which is not always as easy as it sounds. Then, you have to find one where they are both realistically shaped and clothed. This is extremely difficult, especially if the box art is most of what you have to go on. Finally, you need a character with depth. This is very hard. Even if her whole story revolves around the men in the game, she must stand alone as a person and be believable or she’s little more than cardboard. It’s a rare find in a videogame. Alyx Vance is one in a million. Portal is downright unique.

So I’m thrilled about the report from the EU. I’m glad that Kuchera wrote his article bringing attention to it. I have to say, though, we haven’t come nearly as far as he’d like to think. The EU is very right in the seriousness of the issue. This is a big issue. It’s bigger than we usually want to admit and it’s something that should be talked about and that we should be working to change.

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