Sexy or Sexualized No. 6

You’ll need to click each one to see the full picture.

Even after all the hoopla, the new Lara turned out to be rather well done. It took some time for the marketing photos to come out, but when they did she looked like a real action hero. Seeing the old next to the new is a really big contrast. Now the only question is: sexy or sexualized? Or both?

Sexism: The Male Experience

Let’s talk about the second side of the same coin, take just a brief moment here to sort at least two sides of the often binary debate on sexism. Do men experience sexism?

Yes. This isn’t news. But we don’t experience it in the way we think we do. The truth is many men have no idea what sexism looks like, we just feel it. Think about how men react when the topic of sexualization of women crops up. There’s always that pack of guys who comes in and says “us too!” They use the images of muscled men in games to prove it.

CVS_ZangiefThe thing is, that’s not sexism. That’s not even sexualization. BUT …men do experience sexism! So, uh …what does it actually look like?

Anytime someone has called a boy a “girl” as an insult. Anytime a male has been accused of being feminine. Anytime a man’s sexuality is called into question when he’s emotional. These are some examples of sexism against men. Men and women have very different experiences of sexism, don’t they?

Sexism against men is about calling our masculinity into question and it usually means showing in some way that the man is acting like a woman. These register as insults because of an understanding in our culture that to be a woman is a bad thing. In a way, I think this sexism is also seen when we encourage men by appealing to their masculinity.

There’s this line in Gears of War 3 where one of the men praises Marcus, the main character, saying “Damn it, Marcus! You’ve got some hangers on ya’!” after Marcus does something very daring and bold in a gun fight. The “hangers” are a reference to his balls. When men do manly things, one way we’re given kudos for our show of strength is by being told we’ve got large balls. It works the other way too: men who don’t make shows of strength are told they don’t have any balls and since women literally don’t have any balls, everyone’s shocked when they encounter a strong woman. It really is funny how we’re often blind to these obvious things.

A lot of the time when men experience sexism, we experience it as a loss of masculinity or a challenge to it. While women definitely do this to men, men overwhelmingly do this to ourselves. Just visit any locker room, playground, or barracks. I dare you to find even a joke that’s not about dicks and power.

The language of sexism is funny like that, full of ironies and subtleties that we’re barely aware of. The symbolism of male genitalia in general is quite amazing for it’s sheer variety! My penis can be used to describe anything that’s awesome and powerful. Anything. The vagina is used to describe everything stupid and weak. That’s why “cunt” is such a bad word and why “suck it” is a statement of power. Test these ideas on your vocabulary. Think of the words for powerful and the words for weakness. Go ahead, try it.

Power. It’s not just having control over ourselves, but control over others. Everything is about power and sex, which is where all the talk of genitalia comes from.  Just think of the ways that we make bodies into objects and symbols of power, and how that language pervades our vocabulary.

Attention to the meaning of the central male slang term for sexual intercourse — “fuck” — is instructive. To fuck a woman is to have sex with her. To fuck someone in another context …means to hurt or cheat a person. And then hurled as a simple insult (“fuck you”) the intent is denigration and the remark is often a prelude to violence or the threat of violence. Sex in patriarchy is fucking. That we live in a world in which people continue to use the same word for sex and violence, and then resist the notion that sex is routinely violent and claim to be outraged when sex becomes overtly violent, is testament to the power of patriarchy. – Robert Jensen

When someone says that women are sexualized in games, and men respond that we are also sexualized, this is that twisted construct we’re grappling with right here, perfectly summed up in this quote. All the power fantasies in games are, in the eyes of these men, sexual fantasies for women. And it’s easy enough to see how these men arrive there: this is how men are supposed to dream of being perceived by the opposite sex, and anything dealing with the opposite sex has to be about sex. All portrayals of power fantasies are necessarily sexual fantasies in the eyes of these men. If you’re interested in a more thorough discussion of that, try this.

It starts to feel like our brains are being warped by our use of language. Funny how that works. Men definitely experience sexism, but many of us have no idea what it looks like because we’ve drilled that bad is good and good is bad (that not crying is good, crying is bad, therefore man good, woman bad). We like to think we’re smart enough to sort these differences out, but we’re probably creatures of habit far more than we are creatures of intelligence. It helps to be aware of what’s going on in the words we speak, but we can’t always understand on our own.

Probably some of you are surprised that the experience of sexism for men and women is so different. Definitely for those who believed it would look the same as it does for women. But that’s why it’s important to understand the entire conversation about sexism. That’s why it’s not some objective concept removed from gender constructions and assignments in society. In a culture dominated by men, how these things work for us won’t be the same way they work for women.

Maybe I’ll start a community project to get men to tell their stories about their personal experiences with sexism. Maybe. At the very least, I hope this gives everyone something to think about and consider.

Sexy or Sexualized No. 3


Remember: the question isn’t whether you personally find these character sexy or not. The question is: what is sexualization and what does it look like?

The more I go over these photos (I’ve started somewhat of a collection), the more easily I can see what sexualization looks like. It seems tangled up in our quest to want to be be attractive for one another and it questions what it means when we self-determine what shape our sexuality takes …and when that sexuality is being assumed and imposed.

Sexy or Sexist? Both …and It’s Awesome

Going over some pictures of scantily clad and/or suggestive popular images in geekdom with my wife, I asked: can’t any of these characters be both? This then raised the question: is it sexism if the author is aware that they’re using it?

The question seems, at first brush, obvious. Of course it’s still sexist. But that’s not exactly what I meant by it. I’m asking if sexism in games is always problematic. And I think that depends entirely on the abilities of the designer. Not all sexism in games is bad or equal, and we miss something about the piece as expression when we dismiss it offhand. When critiquing things like sexism in games, the real question is why it’s being used. Most of the time is completely arbitrary or reflexive, which damages it’s value and leaves it open to critique. There’s a few examples out there of sexism in media that’s used well.

One example is the Ghost in the Shell anime series. The incomparable Motoko Kusangi of Section 9, better known as The Major is the typical femme fatale, but with a purpose. The series takes place in the year 2030 (?). In short, cyborgs are common and The Major is a full-bodied cyborg in all but appearance. In the series, she dresses very provocatively, sleeps with women, and leads like a man according to her peers. The remarks her colleagues make are always insinuating that on the inside, she’s truly a man and that she should switch over to a male body so she can have more authority. There’s a classic scene in the first episode of season 2 where they’re all waiting on the command to raid a hostage situation. There, she suggests they go “drown our sorrows in a nudy bar” if things don’t go as planned. The Major is an unrepentant sexist and so are her creators.

The way the show plays around the issues of sexism is quite charming to me. It’s clear the authors are very aware of sexism and it’s wider social implications, and they question it hard throughout the series all the while entertaining us with sexualized bodies, misogyny, and the objectification of women (literally: the play on man vs machine gives it a special subtlety). The series allows space for them to express their sexuality as authors while also calling it into question, creating a space to discuss the problems with sexism without defending it. I think this is what makes its use as a narrative device interesting. They open it to discussion in a non-controversial way. It just shows that sexism isn’t the controversy at all. The controversy is how people react to it being pointed out. In the gaming community, that reaction is usually defensive because we don’t want to be judged. The act of denial is often an admission that something is indeed wrong with what we just saw, and a way to distance ourselves from it. Sometimes that means denying it happened at all and others it means pretending the act wasn’t so bad.


Yep …that’s The Major ripping open a multi-ped robot with her bare hands. Seeing the bare rippling muscles of a woman’s body almost never happens anywhere.

The authors of GiTS don’t make excuses for sexism and they don’t deny it. For them, sexism is just another messed up part of our world that Motoko and her team have to navigate. They critique it without waving banners. They introduce it without making viewers feel bad. They assume the viewer is a sexist and welcomes them to the discussion in a fun way.

This might be part of what rubs gamers the wrong way about sexism in games. The designers’ denial and defense of it erase any possibility of discussion. We also lose an opportunity to make the game interesting. It puts catharsis out of reach and I think gamers secretly want that. To be rid of those feelings of guilt, anger and shame about it. GiTS shows us that you can be sexist, have sexism in your media, and still have a sane, fun, interesting discussion about something you love.

Now this is my subjective opinion on the matter. I have to mention that not everyone has been a fan of the portrayal of women in the series and have taken the main character, Motoko, to task for her blatant sexism and self-objectification. But I’d counter argue that these things are central to the story and the philosophy. We’re left with questions, not answers.

With that in mind, why don’t games seem to get this right? I think the regional differences count for something. The west is pretty different at storytelling from the east, specifically America and Japan. Totally different, could not be more different. Ideas of sexuality, while rigid in Japanese culture, are still extremely liberal compared to it’s American counterpart. I think there’s no country in the world more prudish than Americans when it comes to discussing sex and sexuality. Oh we’ll publish tits and ass everywhere, but it’s always with a wink and a nod – not a discussion and an exploration – and always passed off as merely adding “realism” and being completely message neutral.

There are many genders in Japanese storytelling. Who are men and who are women isn’t always clear in the stories, deliberately. Trans-sexuality and asexuality are common for the characters. In America, we tell stories almost exclusively one way: men are badasses and women are sexualized. One way or another, our game characters can be reduced to these two categories with rare exception. Degrees of sexuality go unexplored most of the time and heterosexuality is emphasized almost every time. Still, japanese games can often be far worse than sexist – they’re no angels. They don’t always get these topics right, but I credit them for being unafraid to explore them. That exploration leaves room for works of art like Ghost in the Shell, famed as much for it’s philosophical framework as for it’s highly sexualized and sexy women.

Could you imagine if Blizzard wrote Motoko? I laugh and cry to think of it! But to be fair many western developers would struggle with her. In all likelihood, she would never be conceived of to begin with.

The first female badass I ever encountered in movies was Ripley from Alien. In my mind she’s an archetype that’s rarely used …and that’s just insane! Ripley is sexy, smart, brave, and AWESOME. Would love to see game developers borrow from her. When I think of standout, incredible women in media, Ripley is easily my number one pick.

I’ve had a lull the past couple years in mainstream gaming, so I’m afraid I don’t know of more recent heroines who fit the bill. But maybe you do.

Who are some game characters (in recent years) you feel are sexy and sexualized and awesome?

Scree Tags: #sexyavatars #gamertalk #sexualization

Male Power Fantasies in Gaming

This is another relevant throwback article I wrote a couple years ago. It’s always funny to read my old self. I’ve learned so much since then, but there’s still some good information here so it’s worth reposting. In fact, I’ve updated the whole thing. There’s also a link to the original article if you want to have fun watching me change. EDIT: Some pictures didn’t properly display. Also, it appears some edits didn’t get properly transferred over. My mistake. I’ve recovered them.

My purpose here is not to show how males are exploited or are victims of something. The broader culture is structured to reward males for their conformity to sexism such that even while their presentation is problematic, men are the clear beneficiaries. In this article, I want to  examine those presentations and respond to some of the most vile defenses of them. I’m targeting men, but I think any reader can gleen an idea or two from what follows.

Something We Have to Know About Ourselves to Understand Our Fantasies

I’m not going to explain “Not All Men …“. We’re all intelligent creatures, yeah? This is directed to whom it applies. All men can learn to question their interest in fantasies, especially the power and the sexual ones, which are often intertwined in the imagery of games. Receive this only as an opportunity for personal introspection, not an attack on your person.

wow_alexstrasza_by_gooloo0_o-d32edoqSo who is this picture really painted for? Why is it painted in this way? I have my own theory. It goes like this: the artist, especially if male, is painting for a male audience. His goal is to idolize sex itself. The woman is simply a necessary element to demonstrate his heterosexuality. If he could do it without painting a woman, he would but most male artists are never this clever and creative. They opt for the woman. She’s an obvious marker of heterosexuality to other men, so the art will read easily with a male audience. Next, the sex. Sexualized images of women focus on the big two, tits and ass, to help men fixate to get it up. If her back has to be contorted and her breasts immeasurably large, then the more sexual the picture is. When it comes to sex education, men learn that their erection is the most important component. The harder, the better. To get it on rock we must fixate our minds on something that turns up the intensity. We learn to do this so we don’t embarrass ourselves when the moment comes. When the moment comes, we want to prove our manhood — be as hard and erect as humanly possible. You just can’t get there pre-sex without fixation.

Back to the art work: so the focus on those two essential parts of a woman’s body aren’t really about the woman. They’re about demonstrating manhood, proving to peers that you too know the secrets to a good hard on. That’s what all winking, nodding and loud approvals are about. It’s got nothing to do with the woman. She’s invisible. The painting is of breasts and buttocks. This is objectification incarnate, a literal object in human form. She’s been completely reduced out of humanity in the name of erections and manhood.

avengers-posing-like-womenAs me and my closest friends got older, we had some very revealing conversations about our actual sexual tastes. Chief among them was that it wasn’t boobs and bottoms that did it for us. One friend couldn’t resist long hair — he later learned he liked it on men as much as women. Another liked high pitched voices. Boobs and bottoms were nice in the moment, but they were not essential to the physical attraction. I suspect this is true for most men, that our tastes vary and that any given picture of a sexualized woman isn’t actually our thing — but we can never publicly say so for fear of the relentless shaming. It’s much easier to just go along to get along.

Women are only tangentially necessary to prove male heterosexuality, a checkbox on the list of Masculinity. The less like people they are, the better because it’s not about demonstrating our love of women, but our solidarity with other men. Remember: men don’t get points with other men by being loving. We get the respect of other men by being emotionless, hard, tough, and, most of all, heterosexual. Sexualization of women in games is primarily about homosociality among men. Masculinity is a performance men do for other men and in which women are only a prop.


By making fantasy depictions of women normative, sexism remains part of our daily mode of operation. This mostly goes unexamined and unquestioned, and that’s key to the perpetuation of it. It’s not just a few sexists in an otherwise non-sexist society, which would be easier to fix. It’s institutions that reproduce it. So remember this when you hear the following arguments:

  • There’s no such thing as sexism. The argument goes that since no man in the vicinity has qualified the alleged sexism (only they can be trusted to identify it), sexism is a myth. Men and women act the way they were born to act, that this lopsided relationship between them is natural. Cries of sexism are just women acting emotional, as is their natural condition or some variation thereof.
  • Sexism without sexists. This argument accepts that sexism actually exists, but no one anyone knows is sexist. Your friend isn’t sexist, you aren’t sexist, you haven’t seen sexism in the work place, it’s not happening in your games, and on and on. The supporting arguments for this are that sexism is ONLY when your grandpa tells your grandma to get in the kitchen (but even that kind of sexism is ok because it’s natural), that sammich jokes are funny, and that chivalry is Good for Women. There are no sexists. This ultimately has the same implications as the first argument.

It’s supposed to feel like things are just normal. That’s what structural problems feel like: Normal. That’s what makes them difficult problems to address. Normality means acceptance, even if what’s happening is wrong or negatively impacting certain groups. Normality means status quo, “that’s the way it is”. It means those who benefit from normalcy are blind to it (the privileged).

Our Complexity Reduced to XY

In fantasy art, men have motives, problems, goals and dreams, and a strong sense of justice. We bring the law because heroes are the law — they cannot be corrected and they are the solution to every problem. We’re complex, complicated, multi-dimensional characters dealing with fate. We’re capable and competent, trustworthy and loyal. We epitomize everything that’s worth redeeming about mankind and that’s an important message of the fiction: men represent the reason everything is worth redeeming and we are there to correct things. And people.

On the other end though, our heroes are shallow, ever the revenge driven patriarch out to protect us from ourselves. Socialization teaches us that these are innate features of male biology, the emotional under-development and drive to violence. And as they say, when you’re a hammer everything is a nail. Male violence is always justified as natural and righteous.

In the end our complexity is reduced to biological rage that’s channeled into the role of lawbringer and protector. So much of the “development” of male heroes is in explaining why their violence is righteous. In the end, our complexity is reduced to a chromosome which we are slaves to, the opposite to that in-control hero we project in our fantasies.

The Art of Heroism and Absence of Heroinism

Superman Male Power FantasyAesthetically, what’s attractive about the superman is his confidence and power. His posture and physique exude it. This is what men are supposed to aspire to: strength which grants confidence that commands respect. The fantasy images aren’t for women (again, women aren’t even important to the artist), but for men. It’s rare to encounter images that are created to celebrate female heroism.

The art of the male and female hero is about inspiring power in men. Male hero figures are all about strength. It’s a fantasy about power. The female figures are also about power …sexual power for men (imagery that inspires erections, which is a symbol of our potency). Sexualization is actually about sexualizing male power. Again, the woman is merely a prop in this process. She’s not important.

Heroes are natural born leaders. That’s why most of them are men. Our place as men is at the front, to dominate because that’s what heroes do (“it is natural for men to lead”). Media messaging for men tells us that we must aspire to these things, because they define true manhood. Every man is taught to pursue true manhood. We cannot fall short of these expectations or else we risk being ostracized, shamed and having our man card revoked.

Remember those words “be a man”. What do they mean? These images are attempting to draw that out for us.

Of Women and Redemption

Through it all, the messaging in our fantasy tells us that men, as in males, must be redeemable, no matter what.

Masculinity is power, and power is attractive. The women in these games want these heroes because they’re strong, powerful figures. Or at least that’s the narrative. The sexual aspects are subtle, but present. The images of men are rarely sexualized in the same way that women are, but rather their power is sexualized. It’s a kind of balance to maintain the humanity of the character. Too much focus on raw power, and you’re the bad guy; too little and you’re as useful as the female characters.

Kratos Male Power FantasyLet’s look at Kratos from God of War. There’s a moment in the game where he lays Aphrodite, tames the goddess in her own sanctuary. Aphrodite is the prop and the scene focuses instead on Kratos sexual prowess. It’s another opportunity to put his power on display. Was it his body she was attracted to as is the case with men and female imagery? No. In the end, Aphrodite is written up as a nymphomaniac, his superb physique significant only inasmuch as it eroticizes his strength. It’s the power he radiates that she lusts after, that makes him a real man. She’s been waiting for a real man for so long, she tells him. Kratos is a real man, his power absolute (this is why he can sleep with a goddess). Male sexuality is not about sex, but power. This is just another way we know that sexualization is about masculinity, disguised as femininity (enlarged breasts, hips, facial features, make-up, and weakness …Aphrodite is all these things and more).

But there’s a price for this mascuinlity. While Kratos’s entire story is built on his quest for power, at times we’re not sure if he’s the hero or a villain, but this contradiction still humanizes him. He’s a man who’s descended from the gods with the power to take even them to their end, even death himself. Over the course of the series, Kratos is a destroyer and in the end of the series his character is offered as a sympathetic figure. A fragile man reaching for godhood, a rejected god reaching for manhood. Yet he spends all of the first game destroying gods for personal satisfaction. He murders his wife and child in his blind lust for power and suddenly, a man who’s spent his entire career destroying others is presented as deserving our compassion.

These new, divine dimensions of character make him more worthy of redemption than before; men must be redeemable the game tells us. He’s come to see the blood on his hands as a curse …and he yet continues to bludgeon every god until the world is no more and nothing is left. Yet by the end of the series, Kratos is transformed from destroyer to redeemer. Men can act in this self-centered manner and we still have to forgive them because, as the narrative tells us, men are the solution. He emerges a god who grew into a better man. That should be a familiar tale for most of us.

The Darkness PicIn the end, we know Kratos’s whole story. He’s not just an abstract figure players don’t care about and he’s not just some power-hungry warrior with a great body. He’s complex, yet shallow. He’s perfected directing his anger to the point of a blade, but he’s just not there emotionally. In fact, when he encounters emotions we find him in the game lost on a black road amidst total darkness. His quest for power has reduced him to nothingness.

Having Our Cake

Game designers believe that we really identify with this sort of thing. They count on it. It’s not so much that they think this applies to all guys, but that they know all men are bound by the same oath of silence to never speak about it. Our task is simple: nod and approve of the cleavage and hips served up in our fantasy art or be ridiculed. Men are supposed to approve of the Kerrigans, Laras, Camys and Aphrodites. Kratos isn’t the only character to be built on male power fantasies.

The values our games espouse exist within a cultural context that reinforces positions of privilege for some and positions of inferiority for others. Every character is made for us, every image made to appeal to us, and we get a lot of variety. We don’t have to want it or ask for it.

Male power fantasies, as an idea, aren’t bad. There’s nothing wrong with being male and enjoying fantasies of these kinds. Modern fantasies come at the expense of everyone but men, though.  Sexualization of women is done for men and men are done for men. It’s all about us and that’s part of why it’s such a big topic in games and fantasy. By all means let’s have male power fantasies, but do we have to throw women under the bus in the name of them? Do we need to be the center of attention? Must everyone be defined as though we are the center of the universe?

Do people other than ourselves matter?

It helps to understand exactly what we’re talking about when we speak of power fantasies for men, and who it’s actually about. There’s no separating them from the harsh realities of traditional manhood which help construct them. It’s OK to chose differently and it’s OK to seek the approval of women, not just men. If we did that a bit more, perhaps we’d get our sexy fantasy art that’s about women instead of just power.

Original Article:

Scree Tags: #malepowerfantasy #sexualization

Sexy or Sexualized #1

Consider this the pilot to a potential series at XP Chronicles.

In the debate about sexualization, there usually is a sense that there are just two camps: the camp that says the picture is sexy and the one that says it’s sexualized. Neither camp leaves much room for nuance and complexity in the art. So the series name is really a misnomer: I’m not asking you to choose which one is the “good” picture and which one is the “bad”. I’m asking you to describe what you see in it. Has the subject been reduced or enhanced? Are they themselves the messenger of their message? Is the artist projecting? Did the artist achieve sexy or is it just porn?

It’s about dialogue. Let the talking being.

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If you like this feature and want to see more discussion around it, send me your own favorite erotic game or comic art and I’ll include it.


Scree Tags: #eroticart #sexism #sexualization