Despite being worlds apart in intention and style, I found myself hitting a similar halting point in both the gritty new Tomb Raider game and the wacky horror schlockfest Lollipop Chainsaw. Two strong and independent female game protagonists are talked down to as just girls. This is immediately after they complete intense action sequences where they defeat overpowered enemies hungry for their blood. Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) is told her survival so far is, "Pretty good, for a girl." Juliet Starling (Lollipop Chainsaw) receives phone calls from her parents reminding her that it's her 18th birthday, she's Daddly's little girl, and she needs to be careful to get home on time for the party. The games present an interesting take on gender roles in gaming. The two heroes mostly get by on their own, using their strength, intelligence, and creativity to escape life or death peril and rescue their companions along the way. Yet, both games choose to remind you over and over again that your hero is a young woman. Lara Croft has enemies shouting "she's just a girl" for much of the game. Juliet Starling has characters constantly comment on her body and asks the gamer not to stare up her skirt.
Lollipop Chainsaw proves to be the more problematic text for that very reason. The game winks at the audience about video game and horror tropes relating to the objectification of women but still constantly does all those things. It's not cute when Juliet yells, "Hey perv! Don't look up my skirt." It points out the big problem in the character design.
Her cheerleading skirt is incredibly short. She takes a step in any direction and it bounces up, showing off her underwear. The cutscenes all feature at least one shot from underneath the skirt. The quick-time events where you can't control the camera also all show off what's under the skirt. You can't make a game where the character admonishes a negative trope and is then forced to demonstrate it again and again and again.
Then there's the little matter of every unlockable costume having less fabric than the cheerleading uniform you start out in. This isn't an accident.
This isn't even getting into the characters in the game being so superficial. Juliet regains health by eating lollipops. In the beginning of the game, she jokes about not getting fat from apparently subsisting solely on candy. Other character focus entirely on her hair, her uniform, her body, her makeup, and what she plans on wearing to her party.
Meanwhile, she's waist deep in a zombie outbreak and wielding a giant custom-built chainsaw with training from a master sensei. She knows elaborate magic that allows her to preserve her boyfriend's life as just a head when he's attacked by zombies. She can race using a chainsaw as a vehicle, shoot down aircraft with a large capacity gun, and knock out zombies three times her size with a flying kick.
It's a maddening disconnect between the substance of Juliet's actions and the superficial dialogue and panty shot-obsessed gameplay of Lollipop Chainsaw. Her older and younger sister appear in the game, as well, and are allowed to be covered up. They can fight without anyone complimenting them solely on their appearance.
For some odd reason, developer Grasshopper Manufacture thought building a superficial and constantly objectified female hero in a tongue-in-cheek horror game would present some kid of strong and profitable message. The only message in the game is that a young woman's worth is still decided on her appearance, not her abilities, and no one is strong enough to escape that reality.
Compare that to the new Tomb Raider. Lara Croft is constantly dismissed as "just a girl" by her enemies and even some of her companions. She's green to in-field archaeology, having just graduated from University. She fights hard for the chance to test out her theory on the location of a lost civilization and accidentally puts the entire crew in danger.
No one sits around commenting on her appearance; they dismiss outright based on her gender and her age. Lara Croft says nothing back to these character because she doesn't have to. She proves her worth with every arrow, every bullet, every life she saves, and every amazing discovery she makes along the way.
You're not even two hours into the game before she proves herself more skilled as an archaeologist than her mentor who fought against testing her theories. You're not even an hour into the game before she proves herself as the strongest member of her crew. She's captured like everyone else, but she's actually capable of freeing herself from the enemy. She improvises a bow and arrow and uses it to hunt down a meal and stave off bands of hungry wolves. Sure, she comments on the cold, the rain, and the struggles of the environment, but everyone in the game regardless of gender is effected by that.
Tomb Raider references the negative stereotypes of gender discrimination and quietly rebukes them all in turn. Lara Croft is the hero that you want to be like: strong, confident, clever, and compassionate. When she saves the day, her accolades are a reflection of her abilities and not her appearance.
It's part of what's so revolutionary about the new entry in the Tomb Raider series that's been around since 1996. Back then, Lara Croft was an exaggerated character--giant breasts, tiny waist--who played like any other hero: unquestioned. Now, Lara Croft is a much more realistic woman, fighting for survival and respect as the hero she proves herself to be again and again.
In an industry where developers still have to fight to have the female protagonist on the cover of the game, it's great to have strong female protagonists anchoring big game titles. However, if the female character is going to be overly-sexualized or treated as just a little girl, it can be just as damaging as refusing to develop female characters at all. Lollipop Chainsaw and Tomb Raider at least tried to confront these issues head on. Even if the former is less than successful, popular games can at least help create a dialogue about how female characters are written and presented in video games.
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