I don’t normally respond to flash-in-the-pan videogame controversies for the same reason that I have no desire to become a primary school teacher, but I thought I’d add my tuppenceworth on the accusations of sexism in Batman: Arkham City.
Glib summary of the charge: female characters in the game are routinely referred to as ‘bitch’ in a way that makes the game – rather than the characters – sexist.
So, to get the stuff that’s already been dealt with by others out of the way first, I’ll say I generally agree with Jim Sterling that the use of the word is partly supported by character and context and is partly there because of bad writing and lazy attempts at grimdark-ness. Also, Bob Chipman’s disgust at the knee-jerk, ill-informed and predictable whining by gamers at the accusation is totally justified in my mind. Lastly, while I take The Hulk’s point about the tone of the game not being nuanced enough to justify the use of misogynistic language, I think his points were better made in the second post rather than the first.
But pretty much everyone has said that the problem is emphatically not Catwoman’s revealing one-piece. Catwoman is sexual. It’s a big part of her character. She behaves as if everything turns her on, but strangely, her upfront sexuality doesn’t ever seem to imply that she’s actively looking for a fuck. It’s all about desire rather than pleasure with Catwoman, so it makes sense that she would wear revealing outfits, because she is one of the few female characters whose sexuality could conceivably be a weapon*, if only a defensive one.
But, unfortunately, she’s also rather boring. Her double entendres in Arkham City, rather than letting the air out of Batman’s humourless angst, just seem sad. Rather than being titillated by her, we feel a bit sorry for her. The truth about Catwoman is that she talks about sex like a virgin, which is why it makes little sense to display her arse like it was the star of a porn film.
Then again, Catwoman, as the personification of unfulfilled lust, can be portrayed in a sexy way without it being out of character. This is why most analyses of Arkham City’s depiction of women let character design somewhat off the hook. This is a mistake, in my opinion, as all the other female characters are portrayed in exactly the same way, regardless of character.
Every woman in the game has the same walk, trailing the same up-the-arse camera angle behind her. If the game is not sexist, then why do the character models of the woman all look like they were designed as masturbation fodder for teenage boys? There is a difference between sexually attractive women and sex objects and that difference is the male gaze; there is no denying that the female characters of Arkham City were designed solely for the latter. It doesn’t matter that Talia al Ghul is a martial artist and member of an eternal life cult or that Poison Ivy is essentially a plant. No, what matters is ass n titties. To reel in horny gamers, T&A will take top priority – even if it makes Talia look less like a ninja assassin and more like a silicone bimbo or forces me to imagine a plant’s taint.
But the real political problem with the game is not necessarily just the tedious and lazy misogyny, but also the incessant ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Riddle me this: if Batman is the world’s greatest detective, then why doesn’t he know that torture is an extremely ineffective way to extract information from suspects? Batman shakes up badguys for a few seconds and the truth drops out of them like loose change. Now, as pointed out by many, Batman is emphatically not a realistic character and Arkham City, despite all the wrinkles and pock-marks, is not realism by any stretch of the imagination. But while the gadgets and the (nonsensical) asylum city plot are essentially harmless, the torture trope is not. That few people commented on this just goes to show how desensitised we’ve become to this nonsense. At least, even if it doesn’t go away, the sexism feels wrong.
* I know nothing of comics, but if this post by Laura Hudson is anything to go by, then I might not make this statement if I did.