Wait…What Did He Say?

Recently, I experienced something that left a bad taste in my mouth…and no, I am not talking about that moment when you realize the milk in the fridge has gone sour only after you added it to your first cup of coffee in the morning. I was really hesitant to write about it, for a number of reasons that I will get into later.

Andromeda, classic Greek Damsel in Distress.

Andromeda, classic Greek Damsel in Distress.

How it went down like this. I was at a place where I was meeting up with a couple new friends. There was one man in the group that I didn’t know but was introduced to. At some point the subject of some feminist critiques of games came up, and this person happens to be involved with the company that develops that particular game. I am not talking a small indie company, I am talking a AAA game with a host of transmedia products as well.

I am not naming the person, because I do not want this to degrade to finger pointing I want this to focus on the issue of what happened.

So this man, for the sake of the post let’s call him B, was talking about how ridiculous the critique was because the issue that was brought up is only a tiny part of this particular franchise. It was only one story line in many, according to B. Not being one who keeps my mouth shut easily, I pointed out that while it might be one part of whole you could not deny that this particular trope does show up in the game in question. You should acknowledge it, really think about why you chose to put it in and then be mindful of it in the future. The critique in question was never saying it was a horrible game and you shouldn’t play it, it was simply talking about how common a certain trope was, but that we are so used to it we hardly ever notice.

B responded with the all too sadly typical line of “But it is a classic story line, it has been around forever.” (Thus my the use of the Greek myth picture with this post.) While he might have been correct that the storyline with the trope might have been around forever…does that mean you should keep using it? Personally I don’t think so, I think it is a bit of an easy out. It is an easy out answer that denies responsibility for a choice. It says “Don’t look at ME! I didn’t make it up, someone else did and I am just doing what has always been done.”

You know, in the military if there is one thing that I have learned to perk my ears up at is any time someone says: “But that is the way it has always been.” That is a cop-out, weak, and lazy argument that indicates to me that you really don’t have much to stand on. It usually means something needs to change.

So the conversation continued and at some point B said something about how he expected there would be plenty of panels on it at cons this summer. His voice indicated that he kind of wanted to be rolling his eyes at the very idea. This is when I pointed out that, in fact, I am working with someone to do a panel on women in the military (or uniform like the police), how we are represented in video games and other media.

Nothing wrong with how we are depicted. Right. Nothing at all. (sarcasm)

Nothing wrong with how we are depicted. Right. Nothing at all. (sarcasm)

He looked surprised, asked something along the lines “and how is that?” in a tone that made it clear he didn’t think there was anything wrong. He asked me for examples.

I started to list them off (foolishly thinking that it would be listened to or matter since I had already gotten  the indication that he really thought women as a whole were being a bunch of whiners and needed to shut up because we don’t understand how the world works.) I finally settled on a recent movie that I knew most people in the group would have seen because that makes discussing it easiest. He said something like “there were so many things wrong with that movie and that is what you want to focus on?” Someone else in the conversation brought up examples of how men in uniforms are dressed in actual tactical gear and women are in cat suits that offer no protection.

It didn’t matter to B as he made very clear with what happened next.

This is when I had it explained to me that I just didn’t understand that it is a matter of marketing, that the reason we are depicted the way we are is because it is what sells. B made it very clear that I couldn’t possibly understand because I don’t work in the industry. He also then told me that I needed to understand that I was focusing on one detail and that women in the military don’t make up enough of the market to matter, that it alienates people to even talk about it.

That’s right, he told me that because women in the military are not a large enough demographic how we feel about how we are depicted in games, movies and comics does not matter. We do not matter. This from the mouth of someone who works in the industry, who isn’t some 80-year-old dinosaur (I am pretty sure he is younger than me. I am in my 30s.)

I wanted to rage, I wanted to say “Are you fucking kidding me?” but I looked at him blankly while my brain ran through responses. I pointed out that just because it was one example it was a part of an issue with the overall whole of how women are portrayed, to which his response pretty much the same. Not enough of the market to matter and that it was basically pointless to focus on women in the service because we don’t matter.

Yes this is actually me. During training after being pepper sprayed.

Yes this is actually me. During training after being pepper sprayed.

So instead of any of the responses that came to my mind, I shifted subjects. Afterwards the thing that upset me most was that I shifted the subject instead of calling him on the fact that he was repeating the exact kind of stuff that alienates women, that telling me I need to get over it because it is what sells? Not. Okay. I consider myself a strong feminist woman, but there I was changing the subject and moving away from the topic because I didn’t know this individual…I didn’t know how much worse B might respond. I knew how popular he seems to be with people. I knew he does work in the industry and while I don’t, people I deeply care about do and I didn’t want them to be alienated or punished for something I did. I knew he was connected. I? Am not “IN” the industry.

The rest of the day I found myself rather uncomfortable around this person and I will probably always associate him and that conversation with that franchise from now on. That day I found myself grateful that years of being in theatre as well as working in an environment where the ability to mask what you are really feeling is a valuable skill. I found myself wondering if I had misunderstood what he said and he didn’t mean it the way I took it. I looked at all the people who I thought I knew and wondered if they were such good friends with him, such fans of his, did they feel the same way since none of them spoke up? I wonder if he even realizes how he sounded? How what he was saying comes across?

You know? I have been pepper sprayed, had firearms training, I have been in  60 foot seas, seen first hand cities destroyed by natural disasters, faced down someone trying to assault me physically…yet faced with this situation I backed down. Even today as I write this, well after this encounter?  I am angry at myself that even though I pushed the topic with B, there came a point when he told me that as a military woman my opinion of how I am represented in gaming, didn’t matter, I shut down. I changed the subject.

I wish I hadn’t.


ETA: Thank you for all the great comments, so far the hateful comments have been really limited. All this discussion is great. If you would like another forum to talk to me I am on twitter: @oceanbound

31 thoughts on “Wait…What Did He Say?

  1. His claim that we’re too small of a demographic to matter is infuriating. Perhaps the average gamer is male, but the market would grow and they would sell more units overall if they didn’t alienate women. We make up more than half of the population. Why would you want to exclude that from your target audience? Even if the video game market was all men (which it isn’t), unrealistic depictions of women to men still hurts women.

    • Thanks for your comment, you are spot on. In this case he was also specifically telling me that military women are not even a big enough part of the women demographic to have our opinions on how we are represented matter. But you really hit it on the head when you said…”unrealistic depictions of women to men…still hurts women.”

    • That’s the same argument that happens in comics, and I agree with you on both fronts. It indicates an industry that has found its comfort zone and is too lazy/cheap/scared to try to expand its market. They fall back on the excuse that good-faith efforts to do so alienate the existing base and risk shrinking their market rather than growing it, but that fails to recognize that every move a business makes carries risk with it.

    • Agreed. The fact that B thinks 50.8% of the population is too small a demographic leads me to believe that he doesn’t actually know much about marketing. As a 28 year-old hetero male, I AM their target demographic and also find this crap frustrating. I prefer my media to have diverse, well-written characters with different voices, backgrounds, motivations, etc. I certainly don’t want to minimize the harm that these stereotypes cause real life women, but from a purely superficial and shallow place they’re not good for the medium or industry either. Throwing a Damsel in Distress into your game without any kind of self-awareness is totally uninspired, offensive, and boring. At this point, I’d much rather play as Zelda than be Link for the 15th time.

      • It is really refreshing to hear this from someone in the target demographic. And man playing Zelda would be awesome…as long as they didn’t make her emotions her magical powers, or makeup. Thanks for commenting!

  2. How large a percentage of the group do women have to be before we’re not too small to matter? I’m just curious… ’cause last count had us at a pretty solidly growing percentage of purchasers of computer-related-things, and if the producers of games want to grow their market share, they’re gonna have to start selling to the people who don’t buy them yet…

    like… you know… women.

  3. Ignorance is a Powerful repellent. I’d say worse than pepper spray, but I’ve never been pepper sprayed. Point is, you can’t wash it off and it doesn’t just go away. It is however completely treatable.

    As someone who’s been on Both side of the veil (in regard to this topic), I can tell you a couple things about B based on the conversation you described. Forgive the obvious, but they’re part of the point.

    1) His initial response to the critique showed he didn’t get the point of the critique.
    – Displayed [point of] ignorance [and confidence]

    2) After you brought the topic into proper focus and context, he deferred
    – You provided perspective via clear communication that, because unfamiliar and uncomfortable, he countered by pushing back into crown mentality. Ignorance maintained, Confidence jostled.

    3) His initial comment about panels showed he still didn’t get it.
    – At this point you’re mentally assigning reasons Why he’s not getting it. You’ve probably inserted more intelligence into his position than actually exists. In your mind, he’s now smarter than he actually is.

    4) “there were so many things wrong with that movie and that is what you want to focus on?”
    – Same point of ignorance displayed, Again. The point is, despite the insight you’d provided to this point, he hadn’t moved past point of ignorance he was in before you met him. You’d been essentially conversing with yourself while he talked out of his ass. You’ve also now brought back into focus a perspective he doesn’t understand and is now uncomfortable with. Here comes the defense. a.k.a More talking out of his ass, but with a puffed out chest.

    5) He Explained that You didn’t understand
    – Now that you’ve decided B is an antagonist, his ignorant and defensive flailings can be categorized as antagonistic. Every word out of his mouth, at this point, should piss you off because you’ve given them weight. Everything he’s saying at this point is a demonstration of his intimidation. He’s trying to take you down because you scare him. The actual point of the conversation has now been safely buried, and you as a threat neutralized.

    The point of that examination is to say that I don’t think that B is the antagonist as much he is in ignorant denial, which is still repelling. I read B as having No Idea how he sounded or how what he said came across.

    If you think he’s worth the effort of a second attempt, here’s an alternate way of breaking through B’s ignorance:

    Hey B. Lets say, at some point in your life, you wet your bed. It happened. It’s history. What if it was brought up regularly in group setting for a laugh at your expense? What if was next to every printed instance of your name, even if only in a tiny font? How would you fell having something thats not relevant to who are, being paraded around constantly, to your determent?

    I think that trope is irrelevant and offensive and you just contributed to it. I’m not attacking you for doing so because you clearly didn’t understand what it meant because it didn’t apply to you directly. My question is, do you understand why that critique was made?

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful thorough response, you make some great points. I am not sure if I will see him again or if I do have the opportunity to talk to him about it.

  4. I’m not much of a gamer. At all. I’m also no longer in the military. But this still pisses me off. It shouldn’t matter how much (or how little) women/military women make up their target audience; alienating any particular demographic can’t help their sales (I would think). My brain is still reeling from what he said and his justification – “that’s the way it’s always been” is a statement that always irritated me. It’s not a reason, it’s an excuse. His comments make me want to scream. I think that Amy said it best – unrealistic depictions of women to men still hurts women.

  5. I’d have sort of got where he was coming from if he’d said, “Hey, don’t talk politics or principles to me, I’m a cash-first person, and presenting women in this way is profitable.”

    It’s the fact that B apparently wants to be cash-first, but not acknowledge that that’s what he’s being, that frustrates me (as a reader).

  6. I get the argument of sex sells, but i would just prefer to see as much flesh as i can. i prefer games and movies with buff men and sexy women half naked. The man you spoke with is an idiot and it sounds to me like he was intentionally baiting you. You know what they say, never argue with an idiot; he will bring you down to his level and win from experience. Its best you didn’t waste your time.

  7. Perhaps poor words, but the concept is clear. People don’t buy into the fact that women are front line fighters. It kinda goes with the Private Jenette Vasquezterritory of actually carrying a 130 pound load, knowing someone who has, or reading about it (as gamers like to do). Or maybe you watched a man lift a 60lbs shell into a rack and then watched _two_ women struggle to do the same. Laura Croft is fitted with light weight kit. Frankly, I laughed out loud when Private Jenette Vasquez hoisted her smart gun in Aliens. Years of service later did not dispel that laugh. And I laugh now at the idea of women being in front line combat units.

    Yes, women can be good cops, They do well in the MP…witness a convoy escort from the LA Guard where the female sergeant commanding the section got the silver star for defending her convoy and attacking a hostile position with her Humvee’s and MK 19 launchers. Awesome. But you’ll never hump a heavier load then me, and the tradeoffs that let you accompany me will hinder and endanger the unit.

    It doesn’t sell because in our hearts we know it isn’t true. The suspension of disbelief is just too much.

    • I can lift sixty pounds pretty easily. I’ve had all my issued gear on my back, same as every other Marine, and never struggled. Thank you for providing an example of one of the women who’s done something more heroic than 99 percent of the rest of us (including you and me) regardless of what we can lift, so I don’t have to. That people find a way to laugh at a woman like that once she’s portrayed by an actress is kind of the point.

    • Once when I didn’t eat since breakfast and didn’t sleep at all the night before*, I was walking while holding 40kg of shit (not actual shit, but I love buying stuffs that are shitty; I was 49kg then) since a few hours and I paused because I reaaaally needed fucking glucose and my place was still very far away. Two men asked, erm, insisted to help me (by holding the thing for me, not giving me one of their 12 pretzels (where I lived you get to buy pretzels in bulk) despite my saying I was hungry, which was confusing as hell) and the first one wasn’t able to hold 40kg, so they separated the pack in two charges. Conclusion: from this anecdotal data, I can say even fed, waked up, healthy men shouldn’t buy shitty “heavy” things. Also, WTF? 60 pounds = 27.2155422 kilograms ; that’s how much I weighed at 8. If you have trouble to lift that, it’s a problem of coordination and the thing being too large for your arms, not too heavy even if you’re skinny and did not eat nor sleep.
      *Now things are better, thanks.

  8. You are lucky he continued to converse with you. Perhaps, he even took a little of what you had to say to heart.

    Working for many years as a military technical adviser for movies, I once got into a discussion with William Goldman, a writer whom I respect very much, about a line in The General’s Daughter. The John Travolta character tells the James Woods character that he could arrest him anywhere, anytime, for any reason. In a civil conversation, I told Goldman that no the CID could not arrest you anytime or anywhere. They had to follow the Constitution and the UCMJ. His reply was, “Who cares.” After that, he refused to speak to me. My point in this little story is that Hollywood, and its offspring the gaming industry, creates whatever story they feel sells the most tickets, or games, regardless of reality. And, these groups vociferously defend their position.

    On another note, I have worked as the adviser on several military games and found the young, and almost to a person male, producers to be more interested in getting the physical action of the weapons correct than in getting correct scenarios and character behavior. When put to account about how a character or characters were acting in a particular portion of the game, their usual response was exactly as you stated above, “That’s how the games are always done.”

    At least the check cashed.

    • I do not hold out any hope that anything I said was absorbed at all by B.

      There were a NUMBER of issues with how The General’s Daughter addressed women in the service that bothered me. (I am a O6’s daughter so add that layer on there too.) but annnnnyway that is a conversation for another time.

      The “that is how it has always been” response drives me insane. The thing is, if that is all you have to go to? You don’t have more support than that? You are probably wrong.

      Thanks for responding. I have had a chance to be a liason to movies/TV shows as well, and your insight is super appreciated.

  9. Pingback: A wrinkle in linkspam (7 June 2013) | Geek Feminism Blog

  10. I feel you! I’ve had those same instances where I just freeze or change the subject and then I get so angry at myself. I was never a person who liked to rock the boat, but I think I’ve gotten better at it.

    Oh! And the whole reason I wanted to comment was to let you know that you look like a total badass in the picture that you’re getting pepper sprayed in!! <3 it so much!

    • Hah! Thanks! I was an in agony bad ass when that picture was taken. :)

      And I think the best we can do sometimes is just learn from a situation and try to be better the next time something like it happens again.

      Cheers and thanks for commenting!

  11. I know how that feels to have let something go when you wanted to rage, only to feel later like you should have raged. But we all need to remember that while it’s important to speak out and be activists when we can, it’s not any of our jobs as individuals to take on every battle, especially alone. Sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to let something crappy slide because we’re not likely to get anywhere and it’s bloody exhausting.

    Hopefully at least one of the other people there was thinking, “Damn, I should have had her back. I should’ve said something.” Because they should have. You did the hard work of the initial complaint and then nobody joined in. That’s an awful place to be.

    I think you did great and thank you for your service in this incident and in your military career.

    • It is interesting you say that because one person did speak up a little, but when I spoke with him just recently about what happened…he said that he wished his significant other had been there because she would have had more to help me out and been able to back me up. He didn’t feel well armed to help. That being said? His telling me that he felt uncomfortable with what was being said by B, and that he wished there had been more backing me did mean a lot.

      Thank you for commenting, you make a great point that we can’t be the one battling all the time, especially alone. I am horrible at remembering that :)

  12. I believe the whole damsel in distress trope is misused and abused; instead of showing interpersonal relationship development it’s used to show gratuitous violence against the said damsel (but we’ve all seen those 2 videos so I won’t divulge on that) … it would be great if we got to play both the damsel (capable of saving herself) and the hero (one that acts because he cares about that particular woman) [roles totally interchangable depending on the developer’s whims]. And instead of the “mercifull killing” the developers could show how the two of them would look for a way to make things work out; for example if the “damsel” was turned into a vampiress (just to mention castlevania) it would be epic if the damsel-vampires and the “shining knight” would search for a cure or a way that would allow them to have a normal life

  13. Bah, why must you take the high road? Tell us who this guy is, so we can boycott his products (in case some of us already buy them) and show him how much we matter to his bottom line. ;)

    • Well, I wanted to focus on what happened not on the individual. I also am hoping to have a chance to address it with him directly at some point. Some have suggested I write to him as well as his company (their reasoning being that the company should know they have someone saying these things and potentially damaging the brand)…I haven’t decided yet.

      Maybe I will luck out and he will attend my panel (assuming it gets picked up) and learn something? :D

  14. You backed down because growing up in a capitalist society, not just one that has capitalism but that structures everything and visualizes everything through the logic of capitalism, has left you with no argument to make after someone asserts, factually, that doing it their way makes more money. If he, and the rest of the industry, can demonstrate factually that they have tried it other ways and those experiments didn’t produce equal or higher revenues, then *if the only thing that matters is making money* and if money is power, they have to do it that way. Or else someone else will do it their way, make more money, and use that money to buy them up and fire them all, replacing them with people who will do it that way.

    Can you, as someone who grew up in the media and cultural and educational environment that you did, actually convince yourself to think and to say that there are things that are more important than making money? That there are somethings that, even if they would make more money, are just plain wrong? That financiers ought to not finance those things for conscience’s sake and fear for their reputation, that joint industry-wide trade groups ought to successfully ostracize people who do them? If so, you can at least imagine a solution to the problem. But if the only argument we’re allowed to make is, “I think you’d make more money if you were less evil” and if they can demonstrate that your hypothesis is wrong, you lose.

    • Actually, being “raised in a capitalist” society has nothing to do with why I didn’t pursue the subject. I had plenty of arguments after his assertion of marketing but knew that at that point there was little chance of me getting through to him, and because I did not know the social structure specifically where he fits in to a group of friends I didn’t want to potentially create difficulty for people I care about.

      I could care less about the argument about what makes money. I wonder if you are intending to talk about B, since he was the one making the marketing argument.

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