Recent years have seen an increase in public attention to identity and representation in video games, including journalists and bloggers holding the digital game industry accountable for the discrimination routinely endured by female gamers, queer gamers, and gamers of color. Video game developers are responding to these critiques, but scholarly discussion of representation in games has lagged far behind. Gaming Representation examines portrayals of race, gender, and sexuality in a range of games, from casuals like Diner Dash, to indies like Journey and The Binding of Isaac, to mainstream games from the Grand Theft Auto, BioShock, Spec Ops, The Last of Us, and Max Payne franchises. Arguing that representation and identity function as systems in games that share a stronger connection to code and platforms than it may first appear, the contributors to this volume push gaming scholarship to new levels of inquiry, theorizing, and imagination.
About the Author
Jennifer Malkowski is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Smith College. Her research areas include digital media; documentary; race, gender, and sexuality in media; and death and dying. She is the author of Dying in Full Detail: Mortality and Digital Documentary.
TreaAndrea M. Russworm is Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where she teaches classes on digital media, race, and popular culture. She is coeditor of From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry and author of Blackness is Burning: Civil Rights, Popular Culture, and the Problem of Recognition.
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"I TURNED OUT TO BE SUCH A DAMSEL iN DISTRESS"
Noir Games and the Unrealized Femme Fatale
ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEDIA HISTORY, A CHARACTER TYPE CALLED THE femme fatale accomplished a minor miracle: she infused the products of a deeply misogynistic industry, US cinema in the 1940s, with a spark of interest for its female consumers while simultaneously adding strong appeal for its male consumers. A statement like this one requires a long list of qualifiers, as bold proclamations come less easily to academics than to the denizens of films noir. But the basic story here holds. Hollywood in the immediate pre-noir years created dynamic female characters only rarely, and these were often ghettoized into genres like the aptly titled "woman's picture." Women (and viewers of any other gender) going to the movies hoping to see such characters were typically greeted, instead, by the bland female love interest. She was there in a dual role as visual spectacle for the male viewer and to support or motivate the male protagonist while making as little other narrative impact as possible, it seemed. Enter, then, the femme fatale, who both amplified visual spectacle with her intense sexuality and took control of film narratives in new ways and on her own behalf. Avoiding the domesticity to which so many on-screen women were constrained, she had smarts, sex appeal, ambition, and — most importantly — power of her own in a man's world of crime and violence. Though she could never win in the end, thanks to the Motion Picture Production Code, the femme fatale's temporary empowerment in films noir made an indelible mark on the medium.
It's hard to imagine a media industry that needs what the femme fatale character provided to cinema more than the contemporary video game industry. With, sadly, just as much misogyny seeming to course through its veins as 1940s Hollywood, this industry is under much greater pressure to reform its relationship with women on multiple fronts. It is tenaciously courting female customers, but its representation of women within its products — again, with notable exceptions — tends to range from neglectful to insulting. It is apparently courting female employees, but overwhelmingly remains a boys' club. And a highly vocal minority of its most devoted male customers has made game culture feel hostile and unsafe for many women. From getting groped at conventions to being aggressively disrespected in multiplayer environments to receiving death and rape threats via social media, women wanting to get involved in game culture have a long list of disincentives to do so. Obviously, creating games that feature femmes fatales will not dismantle this formidable web of gender trouble in the video game industry. But many who are working to alleviate these problems do advocate for increasing the number of nuanced, powerful, and playable female characters in games as one core strategy.
The noir femme fatale offers an especially promising template here, in that it strikes a bargain between industry and feminist priorities: sexualized enough to give a presumed hetero-male audience its presumed desire for women in games, the femme fatale also exudes the strength and complexity of character that many players (hetero male and otherwise) probably care about more. By design, the femme fatale neither alienates men nor demeans and bores women. She is an erotic object but also an active subject — in fact, one of the most active female character types in film that could be translated into the action-based medium of video games. And with today's game industry unencumbered by the production code, the moralizing narrative constraints that held back classic femmes fatales would not be a problem; the femme fatale could win in contemporary games the way she never could in film noir's classic cycle. Continuing a long, successful tradition of games remediating elements from cinema, noir video games could create memorable femmes fatales that would help sell games profitably and snag some good PR for an industry increasingly vulnerable to accusations of sexism and gendered exclusions.
Surprisingly, then, while studios have been making noir games since the 1980s, very few of these include playable femmes fatales. Even in non-player character (NPC) roles, the femme fatale is often missing from these games, or relegated to small roles in specific missions. Keeping in mind this puzzling absence as I analyze the two most prominent efforts to create playable femmes fatales, in Max Payne 2 (2003, Remedy Entertainment) and Heavy Rain (2010, Quantic Dream), I argue that video games have yet to unlock this character's considerable representational and ludic potential. Further, when the femme fatale does emerge as a playable character, her power is subverted — either gradually throughout the game or acutely at the end — through an exposure of her underlying and essential feminine weakness. This resolution of the femme fatale's narrative directly mirrors the bleakest variety of her fate in film noir's classic cycle. Neo-noir films began vigorously challenging this regressive 1940s convention decades ago. But video games seem, thus far, content to replicate it, despite their eagerness to update other aspects of classic film noir by adding the sex, violence, and adult themes that the midcentury films had to minimize.
But why do games ignore the femme fatale or include her in disempowered forms? One could surmise that because the femme fatale's power is generally social rather than physical — in other words, she deceives an enemy more often than she shoots him — her character would be difficult to adapt to the medium, as violence-based actions are so central to video games. As I illustrate later, though, this is a red herring in the case of the missing femme fatale. The more convincing explanation comes back to game culture rather than game mechanics: to the perceived threat of women's incursion into the contemporary gaming world.
The Appeal of the Filmic Femme Fatale
Film noir's femme fatale emerges in the classic period as a study in contrasts: her overt sexuality prompts erotic links to others in the narrative, but her fierce independence propels her toward autonomy; she is highly feminine in appearance, but often exercises her agency in masculinized ways (e.g., deftly wielding a gun); and, as previously noted, she is simultaneously an object to be looked at and an active subject. Aligning with these tensions, the femme fatale's primary trait, beyond even her sexuality, is her status as an enigma, as Mary Ann Doane explains: "Her most striking characteristic, perhaps, is the fact that she never really is what she seems to be. She harbors a threat which is not entirely legible, predictable, or manageable. In thus transforming the threat of the woman into a secret, something which must be aggressively revealed, unmasked, discovered, the figure is fully compatible with the epistemological drive of the narrative." Thus, woman in these noir stories is "an epistemological trouble" — a walking, talking question mark put in the path of the investigator-protagonist and located within a narrative whose central thrust is about uncovering truths from a morass of mystery and deception. This figure of woman as simultaneously powerful and unknowable could not, in the classic noir era, be permitted to triumph — not only because of the blunt prescriptions of the production code, but because of her more penetrating threat to the midcentury patriarchal order. And so "the femme fatale propelled the action, but her narrative options were numbered: she either died, reformed, or turned out not to be a femme fatale at all." To that list, add that her story could also end with imprisonment and that her "reformation" was often signified by romantic coupling with the protagonist. In film after film, then, this cathartic cycle repeats: the deadly woman emerges forcefully, poses a seductive threat to one or more men in the film, and has her power contained in the last reel. As Janey Place articulates in her formative essay on the subject, the societal threat posed by the figure of the aggressive, independent, and sexual woman is in film noir "allowed sensuous expression" but then destroyed, "and by its limited expression, ending in defeat, that unacceptable element is controlled."
While the power of every femme fatale is undermined by her ultimate failure to secure the independence, money, or "great whatsit" she is seeking, there is one special ending scenario in noir through which women's power is most insidiously and effectively snuffed out. Appearing in films like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Lewis Milestone) and Pursued (1947, Raoul Walsh), this outcome was made iconic in one of the most beloved films noir of all time: Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder). By the time this climactic scene begins, femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson has murdered a woman to marry her husband (most likely), convinced protagonist Walter Neff to murder that husband so that she can profit from his life insurance, and seduced a new male pawn whom she may maneuver into murdering Walter. When Walter arrives at her home to confront and kill her, Phyllis acts first and shoots him in the shoulder. Wounded, he approaches, goading her to finish him off. In this moment, the ultimate neutralization of the femme fatale's threat is born, as Phyllis's wrist goes limp and she allows Walter to take her gun. Leaning in close, she tearfully explains, "I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else ... until a minute ago, when I couldn't fire that second shot." This is no final act of deception. Phyllis means it, and she begs Walter to hold her. He obliges for a moment and then sticks a gun into her midsection and fires twice, killing her.
For the femme fatale to be killed is no surprise and would not necessarily even contain her captivating power in the minds and memories of viewers. In most films noir, as Place asserts, "it is her strength and sensual visual texture that is inevitably printed on our memory, not her ultimate destruction." But in Double Indemnity, the badass femme fatale's legacy is forever marred not by her death but by her textual reduction to a faltering, lovesick dupe just before it. Abandoning so many key traits of the femme fatale, Phyllis now becomes honest, transparent, sentimental; her emotions govern her actions, and she reorients her decisions and ambitions to revolve around a man (who, by contrast, keeps his composure). A woman who has been previously characterized in the film as decisive, manipulative, and a master of her own and others' emotions now has those layers peeled back to reveal, underneath, her essential and feminine weakness. The implication that Double Indemnity introduces — which would be seized on by other films and eventually by games noir — is that the femme fatale can't win not because of favored noir forces like fate or luck or karma or even the production code but because women, by nature, just aren't cut out for this kind of thing.
At this juncture, it seems appropriate to return to a broad question. Given all the complications and caveats of her empowerment, why is the femme fatale a character feminists might want to see adapted into video games? Her original incarnation in 1940s and 1950s films has not been wholly embraced by feminist film scholars, who have pointed out that her character associates female sexuality with danger and death, is far from a progressive role model, and is "not the subject of feminism but a symptom of male fears about feminism." Indeed, the figure of the femme fatale emerges and reemerges in US cinema during periods when "male fears about feminism" rise as women make sharp gains in social and/or economic power: initially in the 1940s as women joined the workforce during wartime and then again with the character's resurgence in the 1980s, in the wake of second-wave feminism and with the escalating "threat" of the career woman.
At the same time, though, there is a reason that feminist film scholars, despite their misgivings about the femme fatale, are fixated on her (as evidenced by the abundance of research on this character). As much as her inevitable defeat may cathartically soothe antifeminist fears, her embodiment and actions throughout the rest of the film may even more cathartically satisfy feminist frustrations — both with the general state of gender equality and with their treatment by the film industry, in particular. Describing these pleasures, Place notes that noir provides "one of the few periods of film in which women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality." Thus, the femme fatale represents something of a compromise between competing audience desires — and the game industry is certainly in need of these — though one I believe slants favorably in the feminist direction. In the classic noir era, providing visual pleasure and being defeated in the end allowed the femme fatale to get away with a tremendous transgression: having true power.
Further, the femme fatale is not frozen in her midcentury form; she can be updated for our current cultural moment. Game designers need not do all this work themselves, as neo-noir filmmakers have been evolving the classic character since the 1970s. During this period, femmes fatales generally have gotten smarter, stronger, richer, more ambitious (especially in relation to their careers), and more independent — even as neo-noir's male protagonist has evolved to be less competent and confident. Some neo femmes fatales have used sex for pleasure as well as power, and many have embraced queer sexualities. Most importantly, the neo femme fatale — freed from the production code — can "avoid textual suppression, to win on her own terms," as Kate Stables writes; "this seems to utterly subvert the classic noir procedure with the fatale in which the power of the strong sexual woman is first displayed, then destroyed, in order to demonstrate the necessity of its control." While the neo-noir evolution of the femme fatale is not wholly driven by feminist goals, many of the changes have made the character more promising in this regard and could be readily implemented in a ludic femme fatale.
Within the context of video games, one might counter: But hasn't what the femme fatale offers already been delivered outside of noir through often-maligned figures like Lara Croft and Bayonetta? It's true that these are female characters who are highly sexualized and highly powerful. While I don't necessarily find them disempowering or offensive, the difference between them and the femme fatale is that their sexualized portrayal runs counter to their narrative situations: the shortest shorts ever fabricated aren't what anyone would wear to raid tombs, for example, nor does it seem wise to brawl with supernatural foes completely naked. Thus, these inclusions of female sexuality in powerful, playable characters may feel like pandering excesses rather than satisfying dimensions of said characters. A well-designed femme fatale within a noir game would allow for a narratively justified expression of female sexuality, which gamers of any gender and sexual orientation may appreciate and enjoy, for a variety of reasons including and beyond titillation. Draining women's representations of all sexuality is, after all, not a feminist ideal. This truth may become more clear if a decline in egregious depictions of female sexuality (and here I am not referring to the likes of Lara Croft or even Bayonetta) ever gives feminists a break from having to constantly critique these.
But how to translate the filmic femme fatale into the medium of games, grounded as it is in player and machine actions? The two games I now examine attempt this translation, creating playable femmes fatales within noir environments. While each finds at least some success in aligning game mechanics with the femme fatale's core attributes, both fail the character at narrative and ideological levels in ways that mirror classic film noir at its most misogynistic.
The Too-Fatale Ludic Femme Fatale: Max Payne 2
Video games' first attempt to create a playable femme fatale arrives in one of its most self-referentially noir series, the popular third-person shooter Max Payne. The title character is our protagonist, a maverick cop (and, briefly, DEA agent) who in each of the first two games is drawn into investigating complicated criminal conspiracies. Max is initially motivated by the murder of his wife and daughter — a plot point that also leaves him free to pursue a volatile romance with the series' femme fatale, Mona Sax. Their intense relationship stems from a typical noir setup: "a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter meets a non-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted."
Excerpted from "Gaming Representation"
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Table of Contents
Foreword / Anna Everett
Introduction: "Identity, Representation, and Video Game Studies Beyond the Politics of the Image" / Jennifer Malkowski and TreaAndrea M. Russworm
Part 1: Gender / Bodies / Spaces
1. "I Turned Out to Be Such a Damsel in Distress": Noir Games and the Unrealized Femme Fatale / Jennifer Malkowski
2. No Time to Dream: Killing Time, Casual Games, and Gender / Braxton Soderman
3. "Aw Fuck, I Got a Bitch on My Team!": Women and the Exclusionary Cultures of the Computer Game Complex / Carly A. Kocurek and Jennifer deWinter
4. Attention Whores and Ugly Nerds: Gender and Cosplay at the Game Con / Nina Huntemann
5. Machinima Parodies: Appropriating Video Games to Criticize Gender Norms / Gabrielle Trépanier-Jobin
Part 2: Race / Identity / Nation
6. Dystopian Blackness and the Limits of Racial Empathy in The Walking Dead and The Last of Us / TreaAndrea M. Russworm
7. Journey into the Techno-Primitive Desert / Irene Chien
8. The Rubble and the Ruin: Race, Gender, and Sites of Inglorious Conflict in Spec Ops: The Line / Soraya Murray
9. Representing Race and Disability: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as a Whole Text / Rachael Hutchinson
10. Entering the Picture: Digital Portraiture and the Aesthetics of Video Game Representation / Lisa Patti
Part 3: Play / Queer / Games
11. Playing to Lose: The Queer Art of Failing at Video Games / Bonnie Ruberg
12. Romancing an Empire, Becoming Isaac: The Queer Possibilities of Jade Empire and The Binding of Isaac / Jordan Wood
13. A Game Chooses, a Player Obeys: BioShock, Posthumanism, and the Limits of Queerness / Edmond Y. Chang
Afterword: Racism, Sexism, and Gaming’s Cruel Optimism / Lisa Nakamura
What People are Saying About This
"...a new benchmark for the critical engagement of race, gender and sexuality in the study of video games and virtual representation."
"...an important contribution to scholarship in the field of game studies."