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Ms. Pac-Man: Post Feminist Icon

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Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009
Boa and heavy rouge complete the burlesque effect.

While it parodies the very thing that we do here at PopMatters.com, I kind of love Mark and Ari’s Ms. Pac-Man: Feminist Hero video:


The video pokes fun at “serious” readings of popular culture, and I can respect that.  We cultural critics do have a tendency to occasionally go overboard in assigning significance to our readings of seemingly superficial signs in media.  The parody here very cleverly sends up those moments. 


At the same time, I also kind of love the video because it really does contain interesting observations about Ms. Pac-Man’s relationship to feminist ideals.  The video makes me laugh, but it is also insightful at times.


If we are to treat Mark and Ari’s “thesis” in a semi-serious way, though, I must observe that what Mark and Ari may be observing in the presentation of Ms. Pac-Man is less the representation of feminist heroism as it may be a representation of the complexities of acknowledging gender in a Post feminist culture. 


In “Post feminism and Popular Culture,” Angela McRobbie discusses such complexities when she defines the concept of a “double entanglement” present in a Post feminist culture.  She describes such an entanglement as “the co-existence of neo-conservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life . . . with processes of liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations.”  In essence, McRobbie suggests that competing ideologies surrounding gender (traditional senses of what women should be as wives, mothers, and generally in relation to men alongside liberal values of female empowerment regarding freely making choices about marriage and sexuality) have become entangled with one another despite the seemingly contradictory values that traditionalists and progressives hold concerning the roles and behaviors of women.


McRobbie exemplifies this idea by describing a late 90s television spot for Citreon cars, in which Claudia Schiffer disrobes as she leaves the house to go for a drive in her car.  McRobbie reads this moment as an example of such an entanglement, saying, “This advert appears to suggest that yes, this is a self-consciously ‘sexist ad,’ feminist critiques of it are deliberately evoked. Feminism is ‘taken into account,’ but only to be shown to be no longer necessary. Why? Because there is no exploitation here, there is nothing remotely naıve about this striptease. She seems to be doing it out of choice, and for her own enjoyment.”  While the ad is suggestive of the idea that women are still reducible to something to be looked at for their sexual appeal (a more traditionalist position), nevertheless, this role is adopted as an example of the freedom and empowerment of choosing to be so (the progressive position).  McRobbie suggests that such power is clearly communicated in the ad because of the audience’s knowledge of Schiffer’s success, “the advert works on the basis of its audience knowing Claudia to be one of the world’s most famous and highly paid supermodels.”  Schiffer can afford to be an object because she is powerful enough to reduce herself in this way, to choose how to exploit herself.


Such a curious “double entanglement” of ideology similarly exists in the representation of Ms. Pac-Man.  While Ms. Pac-Man could be considered a feminist icon as a figure able to take on the world (or in this case the maze) all on her own, a maze rightly pointed out by Mark and Ari as being a more difficult puzzle to solve than her male counterpart’s slower maze with its stable fruits (Ms. Pac-Man has to work that much harder for her bonuses), nevertheless, these emblems of Ms. Pac-Man’s greater drive and need to prove herself are entangled by the imagery surrounding her.


Ms. Pac-Man’s bow, of course, marks her gender and is a simple enough way of distinguishing her from her male counterpart as female.  However, the Marilyn Monroe inspired beauty mark and lip gloss both suggest that Ms. Pac-Man is interested in maintaining an appearance that makes her more desirable as an object for others.  The dominant function of make-up is to enhance elements of appearance that are perceived to make women more attractive and the mole is an image evocative of a woman whose success stemmed from her ability to manipulate her status as object into a commodity.


Frankly, the image of Ms. Pac-Man on the side and front of the arcade machine is even more provocative of Ms. Pac-Man’s status as object as she resembles something akin to a pin-up.  Her leggy pose is reminiscent of that form.  That Ms. Pac-Man is “curvy” (quite literally, she is one big curve after all) is reminiscent of the pin-up period’s tendency to prefer a fleshier body type.  The boa and heavy rouge complete this more burlesque effect.


In an article that I read a number of years ago on female gamers, one psychologist suggested that one of the major reasons for Ms. Pac-Man’s appeal was that one of the reasons that female gamers were not attracted to video games is that they often need to be given “permission” to play with the boys.  By feminizing Pac-Man with a bow and a feminine identity (the “Ms.” marker), she further suggested that a female identity to inhabit while playing Pac-Man gives such “permission” (one might wonder about this same phenomena in comic books in which feminized versions of Batman and Superman are assumedly intended to capture the attention of female readers that otherwise might feel excluded from stories that are seemingly intended for boys). 


Various representations inspired by Ms. Pac-Man might suggest a more specific embrace of stereotypically female identity, though.  These representations also emphasize that female empowerment might not be suggested by Ms. Pac-Man’s imagery or what appeals to female gamers, but instead, the elements of Ms. Pac-Man that are emblems of sexual objectification.  These elements of her identity continue to represent the “double entanglement” of the Ms. Pac-Man image as the images throughout this essay suggest.  From retro shoes to lingerie inspired by Ms. Pac-Man to even a possibly suggestive “tramp stamp” featuring the consumption of a cherry, these images suggest an embrace of Ms. Pac-Man by the game’s audience as one doubly entangled by objectification and empowerment at the same time.


While the title “Ms.” is evocative of the feminist movement of the 1970s, Ms. Pac-Man’s pin-up inspired representations seem in some way more a product of a pre-feminist culture than they are evocative of the politics of Gloria Steinem.  Like Suicide Girls and Pussycat Dolls, Ms. Pac-Man’s image seems one predicated on recoginizing objectification as a viable choice assuming that the ability to pursue pursue power (in this case, perhaps, power pellets) by any means chosen by women has already been won.  Game over.

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