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The Soapbox: Yes, Virginia, sexism still exists

Eliot Lefebvre

About two years ago (two decades in internet years), I wrote a piece about sexism as it pertains to MMOs. I didn't write anything about it for a long while afterward because I would just be reiterating points that were stated in the first article, something I'm not fond of doing. But when I wrote another article praising a game for mostly getting equality right, well...

I'm not fond of rehashing old points. But I'm also not fond of the idea that people have evolved from saying "it's not sexist" to "oh, there's no sexism here in the first place."

As I said two years ago, there's a lot that MMOs get right that gaming in general still gets wrong. But there's also a lot that MMOs get wrong still. So I want to look at the issue, look at some of the common attempts to pretend it's not really an issue, and possibly provide some links of relevant interest. There are a lot of those.

Guess how many backless gowns there are for male characters wearing heavy armor.  It's a nice round number.Make it about 20% sexier

When I played through TERA in a Choose My Adventure series, it was impossible not to discuss the Castanic women. I received no shortage of comments insisting that no, the male Castanics are just as underdressed. It's not sexist. You're just uncomfortable with women in skimpy clothing.

Upon reading these, I rolled my eyes so far that I disconnected my retinas. Because this is ridiculous.

Take a good look at a male Castanic in heavy armor. Yes, he's wearing less clothing than he ought to, logically, but look at how he's portrayed. Strong back, broad shoulders, rippling muscles, a personification of power and self-confidence. Compare that to the Castanic women, perpetually sway-backed in nine-inch heels with all the muscle tone of an underwear model. Instead of wearing revealing clothing that emphasizes her strength and confidence, she's wearing clothes meant to emphasize her sexual characteristics. There's more to sexist outfits and posing than simply counting up the total surface area of skin shown.

More to the point, Castanic men can find outfits that are modest and covering if they want to. Castanic women cannot. And that's the central problem -- not the existence of skimpy armor but the complete lack of any alternatives.

If you want to play a female character who for some reason is all curves and soft edges with a perpetual pair of heels and a bustier, fine. But in too many of these games, that's mandatory. You can't choose instead to play a character wearing sensible shoes and reasonable armor. No matter what you do, you are stuck in a set of lingerie masquerading as combat gear.

Imagine the alternative. Imagine a game where male characters could never get away from being presented as pure sex objects. This is the real point of things like The Hawkeye Initiative; they point out the absurdity by swapping characters. It looks ridiculous when you do it to a man, but it looks just as ridiculous when you do it to a woman. We're just more accustomed to seeing it.

Yes, The Secret World has issues with some of its cash shop outfits, but it's very easy to dress your female character however you want.  Props are deserved.Passive sexism and why it matters

"Right, but it's not like women are limited in these games," comes the rejoinder. "You can still be whatever you want to be. You just look sexy doing it, and that's part of femininity!"

Fine. Let's start judging everything you do in your day-to-day life on the basis of your singing in addition to everything else. You don't get to just be attractive; you have to be attractive and sing well. Killing monsters? You should be killing and singing. No matter how tired you are or how inconvenient it would be, at all times you need to be singing. And if for whatever reason you don't fit a very narrow range of attributes for a good singing voice, then you are automatically less worthwhile than someone who does.

Does that sound fun? Do you want to be spending all of your time singing no matter what else is going on, even if you don't feel like singing? Does any part of that sound even remotely fair if you consider that another half of the population can sing or not as it wants without any sort of judgment?

The thing is, when passive sexism becomes commonplace -- which it has -- we collectively stop questioning these sorts of things. It becomes completely normal for these sorts of depictions to be seen as welcome and expected. You expect supposedly empowered women to be portrayed as nothing more than sexual characteristics for pages at a time, you expect women's attire to be based around the concept of sexiness, and it's so pervasive that you literally don't notice it's out of the ordinary unless you train yourself to do so.

People notice part of the message without getting the whole story. They see that World of Warcraft has several female lore characters without noticing that almost every single one is meant as a romantic foil for a male character. They notice that men get skimpy outfits without noticing that both male and female skimpy outfits are playing to ideas of a male power fantasy. They think that sex appeal is intimately tied to a woman's self-image, that there's no way for a woman to make herself worthy if she doesn't look hot in the middle of it all.

Until you start seeing it. At which point you can't stop seeing it.

I'd like to pretend that WildStar didn't make a race of wasp-waisted high-heeled robots, but here we are.The rallying cry of easy ignorance

It's much easier, of course, to not bother noticing. To just quietly shuffle the idea of sexism in games off into a closet and assume that MMOs are fine. Or, to be as miserably stagnant as possible, to assume that the only people who have a problem with this sort of thing are ugly women and men desperate for female attention.

(Yes, the claim is always that only ugly women care about this. Yes, that speaks volumes.)

Pretending the problem isn't there, or never bothering to notice the problem, is a lot easier. It's a lot more comfortable, too, because for a lot of the people taking part in a sexist environment, it's not a conscious effort. You like looking at women, or you're just used to the way that men look at you, or you're otherwise so accustomed to the way things are that it's much easier to just deal and coast.

Just like when you drop an egg in the middle of the kitchen floor, you just leave it there because obviously cleaning it up is much more work than ignoring it. And then in a month when you're stepping around a pile of disgusting former egg and decontaminating everything in your kitchen, well, it was easier to leave it sitting there before, better not to rock the boat now.

But this is a problem. It exists, it's there, and it doesn't go away if we all collectively turn away and pretend that it's not a big deal. There are games that do a good job with occasional missteps, there are games that are simmering hotbeds of misogyny and sexism, but none of that gets brought to light unless we stand up and point it out.

It means examining the things you think are innocent. It means being a bit harder on yourself. It means even being hard on things you like because sometimes games we enjoy allow men to be whatever and women to be sexy whatever. And we need to call people out on that, bring attention to it, and say that this isn't all right. This is immature and ridiculous.

We need to encourage games that allow everyone, men and women, to be as sexy or as dangerous or as frumpy or as silly as they like. We need to be aware of the male gaze and how it permeates everything from clothing to posing to even acceptable behavior. Most of all, we need to create an environment wherein these issues can be discussed without anyone claiming, "Oh, no, this isn't an issue!"

Because it is. And the longer you ignore it, the messier it gets when you try to clean it up.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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