In case there was any doubt that games have a problem with women…

I’ve made a conscious effort to keep the Experiment positive so far, but there are some harder parts of representation that I can’t always ignore.

Today, Games.on.net posted this announcement. In a bold, stirring statement, editor-in-chief Tim Colwill drew a line in the sand for readers of his site: 

So, here’s another change for you: if you really think feminism, or women, are destroying games, or that LGBT people and LGBT relationships have no place in games, or that games in any way belong to you or are “under attack” from political correctness or “social justice warriors”: please leave this website. I don’t want your clicks, I don’t want your hits, I don’t want your traffic. Leave now and please don’t come back.

That kind of unwavering declaration is a wonderful thing, and I’d be delighted to see more high-profile sites taking a similar stance. The problem isn’t with the statement, but the circumstances that made it so necessary. 

Anita Sarkeesian leapt into the limelight in 2012 when she sought crowd-funding for her web series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games. As the name implies, the series takes a close (and often unflattering) look at the way the games industry represents female characters, and the way those patterns of thinking recur. Focusing on tropes like the ‘Damsel in Distress’, ‘Ms. Male Character’ and ‘Women as Background Decoration’, Sarkeesian cites the numerous instances where games treat female characters as objects to be observed, sought, or fought for. Her criticism is, I feel, the gentle admonition of a good friend; she clearly loves gaming, but quite reasonably wants it to be better in the ways it thinks of women. 

Since her Kickstarter garnered attention, though, there’s been a cruel and antagonistic subset of gamers who took offence to her criticism. That howl of irrational upset has cast a pall over Tropes vs Women, but this week, the abuse reached a critical point. Polygon reported that Sarkeesian had been driven out of her home following “very scary threats” made against her and her family (you can see a sample of those threats directed at Sarkeesian’s @femfreq Twitter account here, but with strong trigger warnings). This, coupled with the similar treatment of game developer Zoe Quinn, marks a low point in the gaming world. 

In all of these odious displays of human depravity, the detail I find most frustrating is the way Sarkeesian and Quinn’s abusers couch their misogyny in nebulous allegations of corruption, as though that’s grounds enough to drive a woman and her family from her home with grotesque (and specific) death threats.

All of them can get fucked.
All of them can get fucked.

Let’s be very clear about the kind of people who are abusing Anita Sarkeesian (and Zoe Quinn and Wil Wheaton, and Phil Fish, and Tim Schafer, and anyone else who dared to suggest that Sarkeesian might have a point). They aren’t “trolls”; they’re wretched, cruel and morally poisoned, but they’re also people, and that makes their actions so much worse. They aren’t the basement-dwelling neckbeard that persists as a stereotype of gamers — these people are ordinary people, the kind who have mugs that say “You Don’t Have To Be Crazy To Work Here”, who are coming third in their office tipping competition, who catch the train and shop at the same kind of supermarket you do. They’re not in a special class, not a breed apart about whom we can cluck our tongues and thank god we aren’t like that. They are normal people, and that makes their actions so much worse. They choose to do this, with their adult brains and their adult fingers and their adult keyboards, to berate a woman and threaten her with unspeakable violence for pointing out that games don’t often treat women very well. They chose this, and that makes their actions so much worse. These regressive, reactionary, angry, scared and pathetic purveyors of cruelty are to gaming what the Birther movement was to the Obama presidency: an irrational response that pretends to Know The Truth. They don’t believe that Anita Sarkeesian is truly corrupt; all of this is an attempt to legitimise their hate, and undermine Sarkeesian as a critic. All of this, because she’s right; because she touched a nerve, and they’re scared, and rather than learn from that response, or demonstrate a shred of self-awareness, they attack the source of that fear, threaten her safety, threaten her parents, threaten everything she loves so that maybe she’ll stop telling them what they don’t want to hear. 

I take some comfort in the thousands of supportive responses for Sarkeesian and her work, like the Games.on.net statement. Leigh Alexander’s piece for Gamasutra is a deeply observed piece that considers the roots of this anger, while firmly and calmly rebuking its entire basis. Australian games writer and academic Dan Golding also wrote a great article that you can find on his Tumblr, and those seeking a bit of context would be well-served by checking out Polygon’s article, “An awful week to care about video games“. In some ways, these conversations are necessary to help gaming evolve, but it’d be nice if no one had to be too scared to go home while we work this stuff out.

In case there was any doubt that games have a problem with women…

Spy? Yep. Serial killer? Sure. Space Wizard? Easy! Woman….? Maybe.

I still struggle with simple definitions for the Ladyist Experiment, but better representation is one of the fundaments of the project. For the most part, I’ve focused on amazing creators like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Neko Case, whose voices are extremely powerful and important, but it’s not fair to expect that women do all the heavy-lifting to overturn the systemic bias against them and their stories in popular culture. After all, if a writer can imagine himself in the shoes of an international spy, or a serial killer, or a space wizard, or any number of fantastical creations, can it really be that hard to write from the perspective of a female character? (To answer my own rhetorical question: no, it can’t be). While new(ish) media like comics and video games have a problematic history with representing women, here’s a few instances of male creators who are challenging that status quo.

(This isn’t a list to say “congratulations, have a cookie”. Most of the creators on here aren’t writing about women to be Good Dudes, so far as I can tell; instead, they write about people, and that definition rightly includes women.)

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Jamie McKelvie (L) and Kieron Gillen (R)

It’s hard to know where to start with Gillen and McKelvie. A long-standing collaborative pair, Kieron’s thoughtful and empathetic writing is a perfect match for Jamie’s gorgeous, precisely crafted art. Since the first run of their series creator-owned series, Phonogram, Kieron and Jamie have made beautiful comics full of complicated, complex characters unconfined by the Straight White Male stereotypes common in the medium. Their work on Young Avengers, in particular, felt vital and progressive without a trace of pretence or calculation: in a world of shape-shifting part-alien boys and resurrected Norse Gods, why can’t the cast be full of amazing women like Kate Bishop and Miss America Chavez? That these Marvel-owned heroes also were all over the sexuality spectrum was another wonderful detail I’m sure we’d all like to see more often.

Tell me you don’t want to read this.

If you’ve been following this experiment for a while, you might recognise Jamie’s distinctive art style; in fact, you’ve seen his stuff since the very beginning. His redesign of Carol Danvers’ costume, for Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run on Captain Marvel, was a huge part in that title’s success (as well as Kelly Sue’s phenomenal writing, of course!). Stripped of the male-gazey costume she wore as Ms. Marvel, Carol now took off in a military-inspired flight suit that reflected not only her history as an Air Force fighter pilot of some regard, but also made for a costume that is both practical and fucking awesome. You can still see the impact of his design in Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr’s re-working of Batgirl, which looks similarly excellent.

Hell. Yes.

Not content to leave it there, Kieron and Jamie’s new creator-owned series (which has delayed Phonogram Vol.3, HARRUMPH), is three issues in, and bursting at the seams with stunningly beautiful, mysterious and powerful women. Seventeen year old Laura is our POV character for The Wicked and the Divine, a grounded viewpoint from which to watch the spectacle of reincarnated gods as pop stars. Lucifer (but she prefers ‘Luci’) is a sexually-charged demon in every sense, all sharp teeth and David Bowie suits; Amaterasu is a Shinto deity reincarnated as a teenage Florence Welch; and then there’s Sakhmet, a languorous deity equal parts cat and Rihanna. Let’s not forget about The Morrigan, either:

It’s a strange, thrilling book that’s holding onto a lot of its mysteries (and there are several of them). I’m reading each issue as soon as I can get my hands on it, and you should do the same.

Neil Druckmann

As the writer and co-director of The Last of Us and its DLC, Left Behind, Neil Druckmann didn’t just make one of the greatest games in living memory (Australian audiences, including yours truly, voted the 2013 game #2 in Good Game’s Top 100); he also pushed the limits of what it meant to be a character in a game. I’m not talking about Joel: though Troy Baker’s performance is nothing less than excellent, and his arc is beautifully executed, we’ve seen the Haunted By Tragedy Man with His Gravelly Voice before. What we haven’t seen nearly so often is the suite of deep, well-realised characters that make the world feel real even in the face of shrieking fungus-faced monsters of nightmare. Tess is Joel’s partner in crime, running a smuggling operation from inside the quarantine zone. There’s a hint of some deeper connection between them, too, but Tess is just as emotionally damaged as Joel, so their relationship is more pragmatic than romantic. We don’t get any backstory for Tess, so everything about her comes down to the steely jaw and weary resolve of Annie Wersching’s performance, which crams a huge amount of pathos into every sigh. The animation carries that grit through perfectly, as well it should given the elaborate performance capture rigs the actors wore.

Unflattering? Yep. But the payoff is worth every ping-pong ball.

The Last of Us is full of characters like Tess: Marlene, leader of resistance group the Fireflies; Sarah, Joel’s daughter; and Maria, who’s heading up an attempt to get a hydroelectric dam back online. But there’s one character who stands alone, even in such stellar company.

Yep.

Technically, Ellie’s the secondary protagonist, or deuteragonist, of The Last of Us, but I don’t think I’m alone in suggesting that her story overshadows Joel’s. Even as the two of them grow together across the course of the main game, Ellie remains the most compelling thing about the story. Druckmann and the rest of Naughty Dog went to great lengths to make Ellie a detailed and identifiable character, and I think it’s safe to say that Ashley Johnson’s performance exceeded even their expectations. The end result was a character that’s still a rarity: a teenage girl who is both capable and vulnerable, one who is hardened by trauma but still has a childish sense of curiosity. She’ll read bad puns from a joke book in one scene, then shoot a hunter in another, and it all feels like part of her character. You can’t help but care for her; not in a patronising way, but on a human level, an empathetic level, that is rare in any medium, but especially so in gaming.

The Left Behind DLC is even better, making Ellie the protagonist and sole playable character. Split across two timelines, one part of the story jumps back to Ellie at 13, before her path crosses Joel’s. In this prequel, Ellie and her friend Riley explore an dilapidated shopping mall, throwing bricks at car windows and messing around like teenagers would, apocalypse or no. The other timeline expands part of the main game’s story, filling in a gap in which Joel is critically injured and unconscious. Also set in a shopping centre, the contemporary timeline is woven through the flashback sequence, each emphasising the other and adding even more layers to Ellie. It’s a beautiful addition to the main game, and features some of Ashley Johnson’s finest moments.

Like Kieron Gillen, Neil Druckmann clearly cares deeply about his characters, and writes them with an incredible empathy. In such a powerful role at developer Naughty Dog, it’s exciting to see that Neil thinks so deeply about his characters, and directs with that same considered approach. He’s currently at work on a screenplay for a film adaptation of The Last of Us, which has me breathless with anticipation.

Matt Fraction

Husband of Kelly Sue DeConnick (isn’t it nice to refer to a guy in terms of who he’s married to for once?), Matt Fraction is a prolific comic writer. He’s written about a million books for Marvel, including Invincible Iron ManImmortal Iron Fist and other, non-metal-derived titles. His breakout hit, Hawkeye, reinvigorated a pretty dull Avenger (the one Jeremy Renner was supposed to be in The Avengers) by grounding him in an ordinary world of rent, landlords, purple Cons and you-can-take-the-boy-out-of-the-hero stories. Like Kieron and Jamie’s run on Young Avengers, the series also includes Kate Bishop, the teenager who adopted Clint Barton’s codename when…you know what, you don’t need to know that. Kate’s a major character in Hawkeye, an equal to Clint in every way. She’s not quite his ward (she’s better off than he is), and they’re definitely not a couple, but they’re close enough for her to call him on his bullshit, and save his butt with a few trick-shots and well-timed getaway vehicles. When Kate finally leaves, though, she doesn’t drop out out of the story: instead, her adventures in LA continue, with Hawkeye alternating between Kate and Clint with (roughly) each issue. Her West Coast adventures are drawn by the inimitable Annie Wu, whose style is distinct from lead artist David Aja, lending Kate’s story a feel of its own.

It’s not Hawkeye that merits Matt’s inclusion here, though. Like Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Matt has a number of creator-owned comics going at the same time, and his strongest work to date is the marvellous Sex Criminals. Don’t let the title put you off: it’s far funnier, sweeter, and more deeply considered than you might assume. Lead characters Suzie and Jon are on any register of offenders — instead, the couple find that they both have the ability to freeze time…when they orgasm. Together they hatch a plan to rob the bank that employs Jon, and to whom Suzie’s library is deeply in debt. So…Sex Criminals. It’s at once weirder and less crass than you thought.

Sex Criminals1_cover

What makes this comic so brilliant is not just its sense of humour (which it has in spades, thanks to Matt and artist Chip Zdarsky’s unique mix of high- and low-brow wit), but the humanity of Suzie and Jon. The first issue is all about Suzie, and her sexual awakening as a teenager. It’s just as awkward as you’d imagine, except even worse given that times stops whenever she orgasms. It’s an absurd premise, but Fraction uses it to dig into something real. All the questions Suzie grapples with are the kind we all go through as teenagers: is this normal? What’s my body doing? What if I’m weird and no one else is like this? With that complex foundation, Matt and Chip’s bizarre sense of humour only highlights the strangeness of being a teenager. I’d tell you more, but you really have to read it. If you’ve got a tablet or smartphone, buy the first issue from Comixology; it’s 99c, so you’ve got no excuse. When you’re done, come back here, and we’ll talk about brimping.

OK, there’s a pattern here: white, often bespectacled guys who create cool things about ladies. Well, I’m about to jump on that bandwagon, and make an announcement.

cropped-ladyistexperimentlogo.jpg
The Podcast.

It’s been a long time in development, and it’s finally almost here: the Ladyist podcast will be hitting iTunes, Podbean and your podcast machines very soon. Each week, it’ll feature another wonderful, intelligent, articulate and charming woman talking about a favourite Ladyist-friendly stuff. It’ll include musicians, characters, writers, artists, poets, movies, games, TV shows, and just about anything else that is about a woman. I’m really excited to release it, and, more importantly, excited to interview any lady who wants to be involved. If that’s you, send me an e-mail via theladyistexperiment@gmail.com, or visit the Ladyist Facebook page and send me a message with your ideas!

Spy? Yep. Serial killer? Sure. Space Wizard? Easy! Woman….? Maybe.

Experiment #9: ’20 Feet From Stardom’ steps out of the shadows, and Jesca Hoop flips the script

(Because of course, the still from a trailer about black women who have been back-up singers on some of the greatest music of all time needs to be Mick Jagger)

Back-up singers are such a fixture of modern music that most of us don’t even notice they’re there, dressed in black and hidden in a corner of the stage. They’re cast as background players to the main act, but the stories of people like Merry Clayton and Darlene Love are fascinating in their own right. 20 Feet From Stardom puts these women front and centre, highlighting the gender and racial politics inherent in putting these (mostly black) women in second place to (mostly white) male performers.

You may not recognise their names, but you know their voices: Merry Clayton blew Mick Jagger out of the water on ‘Gimme Shelter’, and did it at 3am with curlers in her hair, no less; most of the songs credited to the Crystals were actually sung by the amazing Darlene Love, who was exploited over and over by producers like Phil Spector. Their interviews are critical viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in rock, pop and soul from the last 50-odd years. Lots of films can claim to be life-changing, but 20 Feet From Stardom will change the way you listen to music. It’s available now on DVD, and is currently streaming on Netflix if by some chance you have access to that.

Tom Waits described Jesca Hoop‘s music like “going swimming in a lake at night”, and who am I to argue with Tom? An American-born musician and songwriter, Jesca’s particular take on folk draws deeply on the lyrical, very English variety that Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span made famous, with a more modern, idiosyncratic bent. When reinterpreting her own songs for the album Undress, Jesca brought in an unconventional range of back-up singers: Guy Garvey from Elbow, Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) and Willy Mason were just some of the immensely talented artists asked to take part in this record. Granted, Undress feels more like a respectful collaboration amongst equals than the uneven power dynamics you’ll see in 20 Feet From Stardom, but it’s comforting nonetheless to see so many male musicians content to play second fiddle to Jesca’s curious muse. In a way, it’s a microcosm of everything I wanted from the Ladyist Experiment: an alternate vision of the world where I can only hear voices that sound like my own when they’re used as decoration by more prominent artists. Undress also happens to be a persistently charming album, and one that has become a firm favourite for me since Jen’s recommendation introduced us. It takes a few listens before it really opens us, but rewards that patience in spades.

Experiment #9: ’20 Feet From Stardom’ steps out of the shadows, and Jesca Hoop flips the script