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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Design, Cosplay, Agency, and "Strong female characters"

"I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way." - Jessica Rabbit

Not long ago in my post about heavier characters I mentioned that characters are created; they inherently lack agency because an artist or writer decides what they do. I was sitting in on a panel regarding women in gaming, and one of the topics which came up was about how "Cosplay is not consent." I agree with the statement, and I really liked a point made during the panel; that there is a difference between an artist creating a scantily clad character, and a cosplayer choosing to dress up as them. It got me thinking about "strong female characters" in games, and how adding "strong" to their description seems to excuse strange (read: skimpy) clothing choices.

The former, as I pointed out in my own post, can't really express agency because they are created by by someone else. It doesn't mean much to have Mai Shiranu saying in game "I choose to wear this!" because her words are scripted by a writer.

I look to the Jessica Rabbit quote...she is not bad, she's drawn that way. An artist or writer (which in the gaming industry is often male, though this is changing) is choosing how this person acts or reacts, so claiming "They're strong and have agency" is sort of a hollow decree. Frankly "strong" should be replaced with "believable" or "human". I can come up with a female character who prances around in a string-bikini all day and then fill out fictional background details about how badass she is and claim in some description that she's "strong" but that does not mean a ton when I parade her around in her underwear in my art. I can even write stories or games in which she is doing "strong" things, but it doesn't mean that I, the writer, a male, have not also objectified her. It's a fine line to walk; sometimes it might make sense for a character to show skin because they are comfortable with their body and want to show it off, other times it's blatant exploitation of my role as creator.

I'm sure everyone who has ever seen this picture has thought, "Wow, she is badass and a positive role model." While plenty of cosplayers have surely thought, "I wonder if I can get away with not wearing the heels for all four days of PAX..."
In short, just because I say that my character is "strong" and all sorts of traits, does not necessarily make them so. I can make Ivy from Soul Caliber, make her tough, talented, and assertive, but also strutting around in the "World's Most Inconvenient Outfit" ™ (three years running) and claim that it's not exploitative...but I'd be lying. In the end, I am choosing to show her that way, I chose to give her giant breasts and an impossible getup.

This isn't to say that you can NEVER have these things...you can, just, lets be reasonable about it and not delude ourselves into thinking that drawing characters like this is anything but fan-service and eye candy. Lets not have this be the norm that all female gamers are expected to appreciate and acquiesce to.

The whole ordeal with "Quiet" in the new MGS game highlights the issue. Hideo Kojima is allowed to include a character that is "erotic" or sexy for the purposes of encouraging cosplay and figures. There is also nothing wrong with people calling him out on it and some people being bothered by having the main (only?) female soldier (if I understand correct) being sexualized; while the vast majority of the male cast is not.

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