[16 August 2010]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
It’s clear that representations of women in games tend to lean towards the exaggerated—much ink has been spilled on the topic. An emphasis on the hourglass figure hyper-feminizes women’s bodies to an almost hysterical degree in many games, leading to charges of sexism and misogyny from critics of such representation.
Amongst these criticisms, comparisons to comic book representations of women also arise, and rightfully so. Characters like Wonder Woman and Power Girl are cartoonishly large-chested, narrow-waisted, and big-hipped. Of course, similar observations might be made about the hyper-masculine qualities of male superheroes.
If most female heroes and villains possess an hourglass figure, most male characters possess the inverted triangle of the idealized masculine figure: broad shoulders, big chest, narrow waist and hips. One look at Superman indicates that he is indeed a super man; he has an almost Platonically ideal masculine form, much as Wonder Woman appears as a woman of true wonder to which few actual women could possibly measure up. The biological qualities that differentiate males from females become hyper-exaggerated in order to specifically capture the extraordinary qualities of “supers”—these are not your average men and women.
In some ways, this makes sense for comic books. Their subjects are men and women far beyond the likes of mere mortals. Characters who represent an almost mythological form, gods among men, should appear as truly uber creatures. Super heroes (especially those of the DC stables) are often archetypes as much as they are realistic characters.
The other aspect of the medium that helps contribute to the idealized bodies on display is related to an advantage of both the comic book and video game mediums: the ability to build bodies from scratch. Unlike film or theater, comics and games do not have to rely on actual bodies to represent ideal forms of men and women. Though some film has often sought out or created the bodies necessary to generate images of heroes that are hyper-masculine (Tobey Maguire’s ripped torso in Spider-Man or the nearly nude Spartans of 300—both films derived from comic book properties to begin with—come to mind), in general the medium has to deal with the genetic “imperfections” if you will, of actors and actresses.
As a result, it may be seen as somewhat sensible that comics and games lean more towards mythic and especially fantastic stories as opposed to realistic ones. After all, if you can create images of men and women from scratch, why not focus on characters in extraordinary circumstances rather than ordinary ones, and create the bodies to match?
While Stan Lee may have wanted to introduce the concept of a more normal superhero than a “superman” with characters like Peter Parker, the contemporary version of a perfectly sculpted Spider-Man is a body more akin to an Adonis than to a regular ol’ high school student. In that sense, the bodies of video game heroes and heroines may more rightly be compared to the idealized forms of the godlike superheroes of comic books than they are to heroes of media more often associated with less mythological narrative. However, this acknowledgement that games may be more interested in idealized figures rather than realistic ones does not entirely erase the problem of how femininity and masculinity are mythologized in gaming.
Hyper-femininity places an emphasis on female bodies in a very sexualized way. To be uber-feminine is to emphasize parts of the body associated with eroticism, like breasts, hips, and thighs. Masculine characteristics that tend to be emphasized may suggest different concerns, though, and some consideration of what aspects of the male body are emphasized by games and what that suggests about our conception of masculinity might be in order.
Ryu in Street Fighter IV
To say that many male characters are brawny in video games is an understatement. Often enough, characters like Marcus Fenix of Gears of War and War of Darksiders can be described as “bulky”. These are mountains of men that, much like Superman or Frank Miller’s vision of the Batman, demonstrate that the masculine is all about strength, ridiculous levels of strength. Both of the aforementioned characters go well beyond even the most steroid-infused fantasies of bodybuilding success. These guys make Schwarzenegger look like a girly man.
Busting out the inverted triangle of the male figure, such characters are not uncommon in gaming. Variations do occur and there are smaller versions of these mountains of muscle. Nevertheless, few male gaming characters lack some degree of unnatural muscularity. While the Prince of Persia is lithe and agile, he still follows the inverted triangle pattern of the ideal male body, and he is certainly cut like a bodybuilder preparing for competition (or an infomercial).
People like to talk about the changing dimensions of Lara Croft’s chest over the course of years, but have you noticed the upper arm development of Ryu over just four Street Fighter games?
Certainly, there are male characters in games that lack a perfect physique. Indeed, critics of female representation likewise point out the few “normal” bodies of female characters, using the examples of Jade from Beyond Good & Evil and Faith from Mirror’s Edge as exceptions to the rule. Similarly, though, for every Mario (an accident of 8-bit pixel character design anyway) and Niko Bellic (who gets my vote for “shlubbiest” male video game character of all time) there are hundreds more male characters that resemble the hyper-masculine ideal rather than the “plumber with a gut” archetype. Even grotesque creatures like Street Fighter II‘s Blanka and the underfed Dhalsim both clearly hit the gym on a regular basis.
Samus Aran of Metroid
If You Ain’t Got It, Armor It
Of course, there are plenty of male characters whose physique we actually see less of, such as Halo‘s Master Chief. I don’t know how ideal his actual body type might be, but in a lesson seemingly learned from Tim Burton when casting Michael Keaton in the original Batman, if you ain’t got it it, armor it. Women have the Wonderbra and Booty Pop if they need to fake the hyper-feminine form. In video games, men have the wonder of sculpted personal armor.
Speaking to the obscene strength represented by the muscularity of other, less clothed avatars and also implying a protective quality of masculinity (that might also be represented by the brick-wall-like bodies of characters like Marcus Fenix), body armor is generally sculpted into shapes resembling masculine perfection. Indeed, this is part of the reason that Samus Aran is easily mistaken for a man before the big reveal at the end of the original Metroid. Her body armor looks more like a masculine body than a feminine one.
John Marston in Red Dead Revolver
Chicks Dig Scars
Old Snake, the Prince of Persia (in his Warrior Within or 2008 reboot iterations), and Marcus Fenix are all men who wear wounds on their bodies. Being able to display the evidence of physical punishment is a critical trait in the manliest of game characters.
Scarring in a male character is not an imperfection, it is an ideal. Facial scarring (or the loss of an eye) is particularly ideal as it speaks in the most obvious way possible to the personality of the man behind the scar. Scars suggest that a man has been through something, something difficult. It suggests experience and maturity. Even more importantly, it is physical evidence of toughness and the particularly important masculine quality of endurance. Not only has he been there and suffered (as this permanent wound suggests), this guy survived it.
The scarring on the face of John Marston in Red Dead Redemption is excessive even by video game standards, but Rockstar clearly wanted to portray the kind of toughness required of a man who has to protect his family at any cost. Men in video games are often masculine because they have been beaten into the shape that they need to be.
Old Snake in Metal Gear Solid IV
Forget Male Pattern Baldness
Aging (as characters like Old Snake or the new images of Max Payne suggest) is acceptable in male characters. Indeed, as scarring and wounding shows, some wear and tear on the body emphasizes traits that make a man more potentially desirable and useful. Even wrinkles and lines suggest that you have done something, been somewhere. However, aging that happens naturally, that isn’t the result of having the fortitude to bear up under the weight of physical abuse (or having been caused by “weathering”, well, that’s for wimps).
There are no baldies amongst truly masculine game characters. Certainly, you can shave your head (a la Kratos of God of War, but that’s a choice. George Costanza will not be appearing as a video game protagonist any time in the foreseeable future. Bumpers and the like are left to minor characters, the fifth business of video games, not men of action.
Zangief in Street Fighter Alpha II
How About the Package?
While female characters’ bodies are generally expressed through overtly erotic characteristics, the male game character’s sexualization, while physical, is less often, so…ahem…pointed.
A general discomfort with making the penis an overt symbol of desirability or potency is common to most modern Western media. However, with some of that discomfort possibly fading (thanks, perhaps in part, to films like Sex and the City, Watchmen, and even Bruno), hyper-exaggeration of the most primary of male biological difference may start to become more common. Certainly, Batman in his recent turn in Arkham Asylum appears to have an extra tool beneath the standard utility belt, for example.
More historically, there is the unsightly bulge of that most manly (and somewhat bestial) of the Street Fighter stable, Zangief. Much like emphasizing the “mega thighs” of Chun Li, fan artists of the series have often focused on the unusually well endowed aspects of the wrestler when caricaturing him.
That the penis is still used as something more of a joke in Lost & The Damned, though, may prove that overt representations of male potency may remain less deliberate in gaming for a while yet. Still, the suggestion of the over-sized phallus is one that is classic to mythologies, and if video games persist in presenting the archetypal over the mundane, it is an image that may…ahem…re-emerge.
Men of Myth
If male characters in video games are meant to be more archetypal, more idealized visions of gods and other forms of ubermensch, then they (like their female counterparts) need to be more than the typical man. The stories written on the bodies of male video game characters set incredibly high standards for men, impossibly and perfectly strong and protective, capable of being abused beyond limit, well-aged but not aging, and potentially potent (in every sense of the word) as well. Unlike female mythologies of the body in games though, male mythologies have some advantages for real men in exaggerating the most masculine of qualities.
The qualities being emphasized—strength, resilience, endurance, experience, maturity, and the like—are all viewed as generally positive and desirable ones to pursue. Hyper-feminine aspects of the female video game character are ones that are frequently viewed negatively, seen as potentially threatening (to both men and women), and represented by physical characteristics more inherent than earned. Oh, there is also the issue that almost all of the most obvious feminine traits tend to be ones traditionally eroticized, as well. Certainly, games have at times explored the sorts of things that make women feminine in more interesting ways (Hideo Kojima’s presentation of motherhood as thing both desirable and earned in Metal Gear Solid 3 for instance—at least as I read it), but for now, it seems, perhaps, the positive qualities of hyper-masculinity outweigh those of hyper-femininity.
That is, until male gamers realize that they all need to seriously hit the weights if they want to live up to gaming’s vision of the masculine ideal.