Pursuing the Plumber: Sex Role Reversals in ‘Leisure Suit Larry’

[13 August 2014]

By G. Christopher Williams

PopMatters Multimedia Editor

As a comedy (and not an especially sophisticated one at that), the Leisure Suit Larry series has always traded on stereotypes. The focus of most of the 1980s era point-and-and click adventure games is on Larry Laffer and his quest to get laid. In most instances, the games have a standard formula. Larry attempts to bed several women, all of whom are typically stereotypical gold diggers, before he finally finds his one “true love” (and since this is banal sex farce “true love,” of course, really simply means “good sex” or at the very least “decent sex”).

For Larry Laffer, the narrow definition of sex always contains a simplistic understanding that sex is a commodity. In Leisure Suit Larry 3: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals, Larry will, as usual, attempt to bed at least three women before meeting his dream girl, Passionate Patti. These sexual encounters will end in miserable failure, of course, but they will also be defined by the idea that sex for a loser like Larry will need to be purchased. In the case of this game, Larry initiates sexual encounters by giving a girl a credit card, another is given a deed to some land that he owns, and another is aided in figuring out how to market her exercise video by Larry’s economic advice that “sex sells.” Sex is always for sale in this context, but, also, of course, the boundaries of the point-and-click adventure make the idea of trading objects for sexual experience the only reasonable course of action within this genre. After all, the classic point-and-click adventure is always reduced to solving puzzles by figuring out how to use objects on other objects in order to progress in the game. That the objects of Larry’s affection must be cajoled by yet more objects is unsurprising to say the least (and also unsurprising in a narrative genre in which men and women are most often reduced to objects that represent an idea of what men and women are, rather than in attempting to create realistic imaginings of actual people).

Even Passionate Patti is no exception, who like in so many video games like Super Mario Bros. or Donkey Kong becomes (at least initially) the end goal and motivation for action (essentially the “princess” to be sought after) for both Larry and the player. To finally reach Patti and to finally achieve good sex, instead of yet another banal gag about interrupted sex, Larry needs to show proof of his divorce (which makes Patti admittedly a little different than his previous “conquests,” as this implies that she has some kind of moral center in regards to sexuality and monogamy) to this “more valuable” woman, but he also still needs to provide a gift to woo her.

The game separates Passionate Patti from her gold digging cohorts by changing the symbolic nature of the object that serves to “reel her in,” though. Patti will be wooed by picking island flowers, weaving them into a lei, and then gifting this handmade prize to her. Unlike the credit card, the land, and the marketing advice, the lei represents something more personal, more ephemeral than merely an object that represents wealth. It is an object that doesn’t represent economic stability, but instead the skill and personal expression of a man “in love.”

All of which is, once again, very stereotypical and traditional in terms of expressions of sexual love as a social and economic commodity (gold diggers and their desire for wealth in exchange for sex) and in terms of expressions of authentic desire as romantic love (appreciating a simple gift made through skill). The unusual quality of Leisure Suit Larry does not exist in any of this basic and traditional representation of the relations between the sexes, though. Instead, it exists in the subtitle of the game (Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals) and the unconventional (for video games) role reversal of the male as pursuer in favor of the female as the one necessary to complete the quest.

While the first three quarters of Leisure Suit Larry follows the traditional video game trope of the hero having to pursue a “princess” to another castle, the final quarter of the game shifts the player into the role of Patti, who has inadvertently chased Larry away after they have consummated their love for one another. Patti then has to pursue her own goal to conclude the game, making her essentially into Mario and Larry into Princess Peach.

Indeed, after Larry’s flight, Patti declares, “Suddenly everything seems so obvious, so simple. I must give up everything and find my man. I know my quest—to find Larry Laffer!” [emphasis mine]. The game casts Patti in the role of the one who must complete a quest, the central notion in many of Sierra’s point-and-click adventures of the period (see King’s Quest and Police Quest, both of which are alluded to in this final sequence of the game). Of course, given the boundaries of the narrative genre, Patti’s resolution of the game still becomes distinctly “feminine” in a traditional sense. If Larry’s puzzles involved figuring out how to procure gifts emblematic of wealth for his women throughout the game, Patti’s own inventory of objects is tied to her appearance. She possesses panties, a bra, and a dress, all of which will be used to complete her quest (her panties will be thrown on stage at a male strip show in order to procure needed information from one of the male strippers, her bra will be used as a slingshot to defeat a rampaging boar, and her dress will need to be torn in order to provide a safety harness as she ziplines across a gorge). In other words, she completes her quest in a stereotypically feminine way, by using her ability to dress (much like Cinderella) to her advantage to reach her “prince.”

Strangely as stereotypical as Leisure Suit Larry‘s sense of the sexes is and as crass as it is in its presentation, it is surprisingly one of the few games of its era that challenges the notion that games need to be motivated by the goal of saving the girl. Instead, it suggests that women need to be a part of the equation in relationships, too, and might even have goals of their own—even if those goals are as banal as “the pursuit of pulsating pectorals.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/184656-pursuing-the-plumber-sex-role-reversals-in-leisure-suit-larry/