As backlashes go, the so-called MRA (Male Rights Advocates) movement is one of the more peculiar. And one of the more transparent.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun has always been a site that has campaigned against what we see as inequality, misrepresentation, or outright misogyny in the games industry. The reason we do this is because we think it’s sad, and we want our chosen hobby to be an inclusive one, not an exclusive one. We don’t like injustice. There’s not really more to it than that.
Of course, this means we are accused of all manner of conspiratorial agenda. But then we are on almost anything we post. Write a positive review and we’ve been bought, write a negative review and we’re “biased” by something or other. Talk about one game and we’re ignoring another game. Write about one topic and we’re ignoring another topic. People approach, well, almost everything in life with their own agendum, and when what they encounter doesn’t reflect it, they perceive this as an attack against them. It’s a silly way of going through life, certainly, but a very common one. As a site that hosts opinions, we naturally encounter this a great deal. A lot of what we see is undisguised, unashamed hatred of women. Nasty, stupid remarks, claims that games are “for guys”, and open fear that their titillation is being taken away from them. Then there are those who have a far more insidious campaign.
What’s interesting about the nature of the MRAs is that they take this behaviour, and whether consciously or not, subvert it. So when they encounter an article describing a negative treatment or depiction of women, they adopt the agenda-driven irrational response: because you have written this you don’t care about men’s issues. Not because they believe that, but rather because it proves the fastest route to diverting attention away from, and derailing discussion of, sexism or misogyny. The real goal, of course, is to prevent the discussion of such matters.
And that makes it fairly sickening. The rhetoric used involves explaining that male suicide rates are five times those of female, that men are twice as likely to get murdered, and that therefore gaming has something something men as heroes. It’s about exploiting the awful deaths of men to distract from an entirely unrelated discussion about women. I’ve yet to see a single coherent link between the horrible statistics, and the campaigning every time a post about matters affecting women appears.
There’s a lot of specific language used in this discussion, every time it arises. The first is to dismiss any argument about the representation of woman as “women being shown as attractive”. This is an attempt to sound as though they are fully in support of women, while demeaning those arguing, to suggest that they are in some way intimidated by female sexuality, and simultaneously in denial of the acceptable normality of a pleasurable female form being something to be appreciated. These straw men put the person arguing against exploitation on the back foot, feeling forced to defend themselves against things they obviously haven’t thought or said, and the discussion is effectively derailed. Gaming promotions overtly alienating to female gamers, and offensive to most gamers, end up buried under the tedious breaking down of the deliberate nonsense thrown on top of it all. And of course the real idiocy of the opening argument gets lost – no one is sensibly complaining about women being shown as attractive. Half-Life’s Alyx is celebrated, Beyond Good & Evil’s Jade is adored, and so on and so on – attractive depictions of interesting women are loved in games, and of course no one is sensibly decrying their inclusion.
A second is to claim that those arguing are proponents of “feminism”. In quotes. In much the same way as the previous Labour government successfully recoded the words “asylum seeker” to be heard as “illegal immigrant”, and how the current Conservative government has recoded “on disability benefits” to mean “scrounging from the state”, the goal of these people is to see “feminism” take back on its connotations of those arguing for inequality against men. They mostly seem to manage to stop themselves short of saying, “angry dykes”, but it and all the other pejoratives are there, implied as heavily as can be. Quotesfeminismquotes is spat, a phrase used to dismiss the vast spread of opinions and discussions, from many decades, as if it’s one mind, one orchestrated campaign against men. It’s such a stupid, lazy and transparently ridiculous parody of a rich and fascinating body of work, and of course at the same time, a convenient way of dismissing the causes that inspire feminism.
Another, and perhaps the most insidious, is the claim that in discussing matters of misogyny and sexism against women, we are deliberately refusing to discuss matters affecting men.
This is by far the most moronic argument, and yet the one that is made the most frequently. Because of course it’s the one that allows them to bring in their statistics. That done, the person who wrote about, say, the depiction of women as sex objects in a game has now become someone who doesn’t care that men kill themselves and get murdered. It’s so preposterous, and so demoralisingly tiresome. But remarkably, it’s not an argument that’s only implied, but rather frequently explicitly stated. It’s described as “taking sides”, as “polarising”, as “tipping the balance against men”. It’s a fallacy so obvious that I end up wondering whether being driven to point it out is only part of the attempt to derail. Explaining to someone why stopping a girl from falling in a river doesn’t mean you don’t care when boys fall in rivers is too painful. Let alone explaining that preventing a girl from falling in a river is not an attack on boys, nor a cause of more boys falling into rivers.
But perhaps most peculiar of all is the disproportionate nature of the response. Because, oddly enough, no one’s been arguing that the depiction of women in games is causing anyone to commit suicide. That wasn’t ever what the argument was about. It was always about the tastelessness of using women as sex objects to sell games, and the sadness that women can’t find themselves sensibly portrayed in the games they play. It’s alienating, and being alienated from a broad swathe of culture sucks. There’s no need for it, it could improve, so we and others campaign for it to do so. We certainly don’t think we’re saving women’s lives! (I quite understand that the pressure for women to appear a certain way, as depicted throughout all media and advertising, can put an enormous and serious pressure on women, and gaming I’m sure is playing a part in that.)
I’m genuinely fascinated by the arguments made by these advocates. Whether or not they’re made simply to further a misogynistic goal of stifling all debate that might reduce the inherent male privilege, they’re still made, and it would be very interesting to learn if there were any truth behind their claims that the depiction of men in games is harmful to men. The privilege matter does rather rear its head here. Women are most frequently portrayed as helpless and in need of male rescue, or as sex objects, tits on legs for the titillation of the male player. Men, meanwhile, are invariably portrayed as strong, capable and heroic, independent and sexually powerful. At first glance, you can perhaps see why one sex might have more to be concerned about than the other. Oh boo hoo, you got portrayed as being strong and successful again. But the argument loosely made by the MRA is that this depiction causes men to feel insecure, falling short of this ideal. Men who are not strong and successful, who aren’t sexually dominating, who aren’t heroic, are argued to be left feeling of less worth by this depiction.
It doesn’t sit true with me. But I haven’t seen any evidence supporting these claims, and I’d be fascinated to. I know that anecdotally I’ve never felt threatened by the stupid beefcake men so many games want me to be. I certainly do feel unrepresented as a person by gaming, but then so do I by film, TV and advertising. There are very few fat hairy men in anything other than roles as losers and loser friends of the star. Although I’d say this is as nothing when compared to the roles given to fat, possibly hairy, women in film and TV. When “Ugly Betty” starred the very attractive America Ferrera with a brace on, you know you’ve got a media incapable of coping with even showing an overweight or less attractive woman, while similar men at least get their supporting positions.
I’ve liked games where the male star isn’t a steroid-infused pile of guns, although more often when a sole man is depicted, it’s in the first-person, and thus really could look like anything you want. Anything but a woman, that is. And it’s because of overwhelming disparity like this that I find the proposed argument so very thin and difficult to engage with. I am going to try, I am going to research, and I plan to speak to experts who could tell me more. I’m very happy to be proven wrong, because if there’s something I can be doing in my rather trivial position is a games critic to prevent the suicides of young men, I will leap on it.
However, I think were there even to be some truth behind the claims, it would more likely be coincidental to these people’s goals, rather than a confirmation of them. The clear aim is the derailment of any discussion of women and gaming, rather than a pragmatic approach to encouraging the contemporaneous discussion of men and gaming. Merely discussion the issues relevant to women is received as an affront to their so-called cause, which is of course so utterly illogical as to all-too-easily demonstrate their genuine motivations. It’s the protection of a very beneficial privilege, one that’s immediately threatened when the male dominance of gaming is challenged.
Yes, of course men experience certain inequality. But I somehow doubt that videogames have much to do with the bias against fathers in divorce cases, nor the lack of understanding of the severity and frequency of male rape. And I’m pretty damned sure than my posting pointing out that a game or advertising campaign is dripping in misogyny isn’t really doing any further harm to anything else.
(PS. The post that kicked things off this time was this one, my mocking the more ridiculous and ugly misogynists who’ve mimicked the language of the MRA-types, crying “MISANDRY!” on the day they learned the word as if gaming has turned against them, while demanding that games aren’t for women and something about sandwiches. Quite why so many people have volunteered themselves to be the targets of this mockery has bemused me – you’d perhaps assume they’d consider such wretches to be antithetical to their cause, rather than, er, themselves.)