Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Misunderstanding Feminism's Critique of The Witcher 3



Erik Kain's recent article on the issue of sexism in The Witcher 3 has prompted me to write a piece in response. The reason for this is not that Kain's arguments are particularly interesting or novel, but because they highlight some of the most common misunderstandings that prevent many intelligent people from grasping the feminist arguments advanced by critics such as Anita Sarkeesian. I'm going to elaborate on three of these misunderstandings in this blog post in order to bring some clarity to the situation.


Misunderstanding 1. Confusing the portrayal of sexism as dark and gritty with its thoughtful criticism. 

Kain uses his defense of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series and its representation of rape as an example of how the sexism in The Witcher 3 might be justified. He writes:

Some critics at the time argued that author George R.R. Martin included rape to titillate, not to show how dark and gritty Westeros was. They responded to the argument that this was a genuine attempt to show how bad things were for women in Medieval times by saying “Well it’s fantasy so that’s just sexist.”

This idea, that violence towards women in fantasy fiction works as a criticism of "how bad things were for women in Medieval times," gets raised a lot, but shows a misunderstanding of what most feminist writers mean by "critique." One point made repeatedly by feminists is that no matter how disturbing the portrayal of sexual violence against women in a work of fiction might be, it does not count as critique unless it goes to significant lengths to examine thoughtfully the systemic causes and cultural prejudices behind it. Lacking this level of development, the appearance of sexual violence ends up being a matter of exploitation, a means to stimulate and excite the player emotionally at the expense of a woman's dignity.

So if The Witcher 3's depiction of prostitutes, rape, and misogyny is more than just the usual forms of exploitation, it's up to the defenders of the game like Kain to show us where and how the game thoughtfully critiques sexism (beyond something like, "oh isn't it just awful!"). Kain doesn't provide such an account in his article.


Misunderstanding 2. Thinking that feminists want to counter sexism in fiction by forbidding its representation outright.

Kain makes this broad point in defense of The Witcher 3's inclusion of sexism in its universe:

Fiction is supposed to highlight real world issues. Rape is a real world issue. Sexism is something women actually confront in their jobs, at home. Why is it off limits to actually address that with fantasy fiction? 

This argument gets brought up a lot as a counter to Sarkeesian and others. It suggests that feminist critics are arguing for the wholesale elimination of the representation of sexism from all fiction, regardless of its context.

This is simply a misinformed view of the situation. No serious feminist critic is pushing for sexism, or any other topic for that matter, to be off limits for fiction. That would just be censorship.

Rather, what most feminist critics are focused on is how sexism is included in our fiction uncritically, unreflectively, for the sole purpose of entertainment (see point 1). Rape, physical abuse, sexual slavery, and other forms of misogyny are frequently put into fictional fantasy worlds to give it "color," to make it intense, stimulating, and/or exciting, without taking the time to responsibly explore the subject matter.

Fictional sexism might be reflective of real world sexism, but without contextualizing that in some way that interrogates the situation thoughtfully, simply putting it in the fiction contributes nothing positive, but has the effect of perpetuating it without any check.

Misunderstanding 3. Failing to see how one's own unconscious biases prevents one from understanding the debate on sexism. 

This one is more of a challenge than a misunderstanding. It is one of the harder points to grasp too, so I'll take it slow.

First, Kain argues against having something like gender equality in The Witcher 3 by stating the following:

There is fantasy out there where gender roles are much less traditionally defined. Lots of fantasy has tough warrior women who don’t need to be rescued by the knight in shining armor. It’s a genre that has a little bit of something for everyone. But much of it—the good stuff anyways—is believable.

What Kain goes on to argue from this paragraph is that putting gender equality in The Witcher 3 would undermine the realism of its medieval setting, and along with that, his ability to enjoy it. That's just how it was back then, he claims, and censoring that for the sake of some small group's "political agenda" would be silly.

At the same time, it must be noted, he has no problem with the inclusion of sorcerers and monsters (which certainly did not exist in any period of history) and does not see them as detracting from the game's realism.

Now why is this so? Why is it "the good stuff" if it breaks realism with magic and monsters but not the good stuff if it does that by changing the gender dynamics? What is behind this arbitrary preference for one flawed version of realism over another?

The reason, I would offer, is that Kain's preference is not really motivated by a desire for "realism" and beliveability but, like a lot of male gamers, by his unconscious wish to have his ego gratified. The sexism of The Witcher 3 flatters the male ego by repeatedly asserting its freedom to objectify women. Objectifying women gives men power over them and hence helps fulfill a typical male power fantasy. In other words, Kain tries to pass off his desire to indulge in a male-centered fantasy world in which women are objectified as a matter of realism when it is anything but.

If you don't believe this, consider for a moment how Kain and others who use the realism argument to justify misogyny in The Witcher 3 completely overlook how the game's so-called realistic depiction of medieval sexism is largely inaccurate. Women did not wear anything like the skimpy costumes and underwear portrayed in The Witcher 3 during that period, nor did not speak or behave in the ways represented in the game. No one, including Kain, however, seems to bothered by this lack of historical realism regarding the representation of gender in the game.

Kain therefore merely picks and chooses the bits of "reality" that most flatter his own sense of self-worth and accommodate his fantasies while ignoring the inconsistencies that come from this cobbling together. At the same time, he actively resists anyone that tries to point this out. Believability is only code for pleasure in his argument. Kain accepts what fulfills his fantasy (consciously and unconsciously) as reality and rejects what doesn't as unrealistic.

The psychological principle operating here is akin to the one used by con-artists. People are less likely to question things that please or flatter them, so hiding deceptions and lies within compliments is an effective way to create belief in them. Kain, like many male gamers, accepts the things that flatter and please his sense of self without much interrogation.

Conversely, male gamers like Kain will fight adamantly to convince themselves and others that they are not being conned. Games like The Witcher 3 appeal to sexist attitudes and fantasies that are gratifying to male egos. Because they flatter the male ego, male gamers are motivated to defend it. They don't do this consciously, but unconsciously they recognize that this certain thing (game) makes them feel good and because of this they see anything that would force them to see it for the flattery it is as a threat. If the fantasy were exposed, they would be deprived of the pleasure that believing in the fantasy (which is, by definition, a lie) gives them. So they attempt to argue that the fantasy (lie) is realistic (true).

Inevitability, because this line of argument is inherently irrational, it will fall apart when anyone looks at it carefully. This is the case with Erik Kain's defense of The Witcher 3, which, at its core, tries to convince us that a world populated by dragons, elves, and unicorns is more "realistic" than one in which women are not subject to ritual scorn and humiliation.




20 comments:

  1. To quote your own words, "So if The Witcher 3's depiction of prostitutes, rape, and misogyny is more than just the usual forms of exploitation, it's up to the defenders of the game like Kain to show us where and how the game thoughtfully critiques sexism (beyond something like, "oh isn't it just awful!")."

    I honestly wonder if you played the game. The whole point of the "Bloody Baron" mission was that a terrible man abused his wife and daughter. The result? He lost them both, and his unborn daughter. The witcher repeatedly tells him his actions were terrible, the outcome inevitable. Is that glorifying violence against women?

    Is the mission where the witch essentially saves you from the Wild Hunt portraying women as subservient?

    I would put it another way:show me a *single* instance in Witcher 3 where women are treated horribly, *and* the Witcher (essentially the narrator) is left no choice but to approve of said behavior. Only then would your argument hold any water. Until then, I'll continue to enjoy a game that portrays women (or men) not as perfect beings, but rather entities with their own agency, struggling, one and all, in a rough world.

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    1. Dude, you just don't get it do you. This is the "oh isn't that just awful" critique of VAW. It does nothing to explain the actions of the perpetrator (ie. Patriarchy, machismo, the exploitation and devaluation of women's labour). Try harder, maybe take a basic course in women and gender studies instead of spending all your time playing computer games.

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    2. If I'm remembering this right, The Baron goes on to explain that his behavior derived from jealousy; his wife had loved another and, out of anger, The Baron had this lover killed. The Wife had never forgave him.

      While it doesn't explicitly bring up the idea of toxic masculinity, it's definitely implied: The Baron, who the game portrays as overtly "traditionally" masculine (i.e fighting, drinking, sleeping around) and who is a man of great power physically and politically, cannot control the person whom he holds dearest: his wife. This leads to fits of rage and abuse that is frowned upon by our protagonist. The game paints his toxic behavior as pathetic, destructive, and childish. It is a critique, albeit, not an obvious one, just as misogynistic undertones in popular media are not too obvious at first glance either.

      Witcher 3 has its flaws, don't get me wrong, but so does every other piece of media. There are socially toxic undertones in everything but instead of exclusively pointing out what media does wrong, we should also point out what media does right and The Baron questline in the witcher is damn near perfect, in my opinion of course :)

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  3. Apparently my reply is too long for blogger's liking so I'm going to have to split it. (Apologies for the deleted one.)

    Part 1

    Misunderstanding 1)

    "They responded to the argument that this was a genuine attempt to show how bad things were for women in Medieval times..." -> "This idea, that violence towards women in fantasy fiction works as a criticism of "how bad things were for women in Medieval times,"..."

    Showing something doesn't have to be either titillation or criticism. I would argue that it's a legitimate choice for a writer (or other content creator) to just show something and let the readers/consumers draw their own conclusions, especially in material aimed at adults. Coming to realise 'that's terrible' on your own can actually be a more powerful experience than having the story flag what you're supposed to think.


    Misunderstanding 2)

    "No serious feminist critic is pushing for sexism, or any other topic for that matter, to be off limits for fiction. That would just be censorship.

    Rather, what most feminist critics are focused on is how sexism is included in our fiction uncritically, unreflectively, for the sole purpose of entertainment (see point 1)."

    Technically it wouldn't be censorship, unless you try enforcing it, but the line of reasoning is, shall we say, censorship-adjacent. And as a line of reasoning saying 'you can't just depict, you must X' is still censorship-adjacent. Sorry to burst your cognitive dissonance bubble, but it is.

    Let's take North Korea:
    "You can't make fun of the Dear Leader." is censorship.
    "You can't make fun of the Dear Leader uncritically, for the sole purpose of entertainment. You must responsibly explore the subject of humor about the Dear Leader and his importance to the nation." is still censorship, although it leaves a slightly bigger 'free' area.

    Again (see point 1) you seem terrified of letting adults see something and make up their own minds. To my mind, if you go in thinking people can't tell right from wrong on their own, you've already lost the battle.


    Misunderstanding 3)

    "Failing to see how one's own unconscious biases prevents one from understanding the debate on sexism."

    People making this sort of argument almost never seem to examine how their own unconscious biases influence their side. (Quite a few of yours seem to be showing in the motives you attribute to Kain in this section.)

    "Now why is this so? Why is it "the good stuff" if it breaks realism with magic and monsters but not the good stuff if it does that by changing the gender dynamics? What is behind this arbitrary preference for one flawed version of realism over another?"

    From this I'm guessing you've never written fantasy or sci-fi. Maybe that's doing you disservice, but I can't see you arguing this if you have. (As an aside: nothing in the text of Kain's article indicates that altered gender dynamics can't be part of "the good stuff", it just has to be handled realistically.)

    Let's tackle how suspension of disbelief works. If you'll forgive me putting this bluntly your 'flattery/con-artist' hypothesis is nonsense. A personal counter example: reading stories in 'medieval style' fantasy settings where gay couples are accepted or even celebrated by the public at large may flatter me as a gay man, but they still require me to suspend my disbelief.

    The key here is actually what people know, or think, something is/was really like. That's also key to why dragons, elves, and unicorns (or in sci-fi FTL drives, aliens, and super weapons) are easy: we have no preconceived notion of what they 'really' are.

    To be continued...

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    1. Part 2

      Misunderstanding 3 continued)

      Of course it takes some suspension of disbelieve to get there. 'It's another world', or 'Magic is real', or 'It's the 24th century.' But once that suspension is in place the trappings of fantasy or sci-fi are easy to accept. The only preconceived notion someone may have a sense for what the genre means, which actually makes suspending disbelief easier for works that fit the pattern.

      The trouble starts when people have some previous idea of what something ought to be like. Case in point: people had a preconceived notion of Vulcans in Star Trek and as a result initially hated Enterprise for having the 'wrong' Vulcans.

      When it comes to things like 'what life was like in (vagugely) medieval times' we do all have a general idea to begin with. Arguably much of that is wrong (I recommend Terry Jones' Medieval Lives to people quite often as a start to correcting some of these misconceptions), but that puts us firmly into the 'difficult' part of the spectrum. More so because we're combining a mental image with a real one: 'what was life like for women in the middle ages? Worse than it is now.'

      While the details in people's images of the middle ages are usually wrong in a number of ways that main 'worse than it is now' picture isn't entirely wrong anyway. Medieval women were more active and independent than most people think now, but their lives were generally far less independent than women's lives now (unless you're talking about the nobility, maybe) and there was a lot of sexism/misogyny.

      "Women did not wear anything like the skimpy costumes and underwear portrayed in The Witcher 3 during that period, nor did not speak or behave in the ways represented in the game."

      Someone can have an image of women being subject to sexism in the middle ages without being an expert on medieval dress, indeed I suspect that's true for most of the general population. Therefore costume errors don't harm the suspension of disbelieve as badly or as often (unless they show obviously modern garments). The same goes for speech and behaviour (though I would note that we don't really know a lot about how people in the middle ages spoke or behaved, we know what was written about that, often by clerics, which is a formalised and idealised portrayal, as a rule).

      So what's this to do with realism? Realism, as seen by the consumer, is a measure of how often and how abruptly disbelieve has to be suspended. As noted above accepting dragons, elves, and such is usually just a single act 'it's a different world with magic and mythical creatures'. What's more accepting that usually happens before we even start playing/watching/reading thanks to box-art/covers.

      Accepting 'normal' women in such a world behaving in unexpected ways takes a new act every time and only really happens while playing/watching/reading, unless there's a handy category to put them in 'it's a different world with Amazons'. Instead of the single big jump up front there are now lot's of little moments where people go 'would she really say that?', 'would that be allowed?', 'wouldn't they refuse to obey a woman?', and so on.

      That doesn't last the whole story of course, after some time in such a story it becomes established that 'this is a world where gender expectations are X'. But getting there is a very different challenge compared to having the box art tell people 'there are dragons in this world'.

      To be continued...

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    2. Part 3

      *Conclusion*

      Adults can watch/play/read/see something and form their own judgement. Making content that invites them to do so, without pushing/dictating a certain view is not wrong.

      The 'realism' defense is not irrational as you claim, though it is (as all arguments are) based on a certain point of view: that of the consumer of a story asked to suspend their disbelief. From that point of view it is valid and your 'then surely you could accept X' reasoning is naive.

      Would I like to see more writers/dev/studios tackle the challenge of creating very different worlds in terms of gender dynamics, acceptance of sexuality and gender identity? Absolutely.

      Are we ever going to get there by arguing 'if you can have dragons then...'? No, because they're fundamentally different writing challenges that require completely different ways of managing the suspension of the disbelief.

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  6. Omg what is happening to the world? Why are people so hyper sensitive? Oh wait its females were talking about here no big surprise there....and about the race issue, my fantasy world is all white also ive been to all black neighborhoods and no one wants to fantasize about it, unless it involves droping a nuke on them.

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    1. Get back under the table, troll!!!

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  7. "This idea, that violence towards women in fantasy fiction works as a criticism of "how bad things were for women in Medieval times," gets raised a lot, but shows a misunderstanding of what most feminist writers mean by "critique." One point made repeatedly by feminists is that no matter how disturbing the portrayal of sexual violence against women in a work of fiction might be, it does not count as critique unless it goes to significant lengths to examine thoughtfully the systemic causes and cultural prejudices behind it. Lacking this level of development, the appearance of sexual violence ends up being a matter of exploitation, a means to stimulate and excite the player emotionally at the expense of a woman's dignity. "

    It should be obvious, but feminists don't get to define what counts as "critique". What the Witcher 3 does ("oh it's just so awful!) definitely is a critique, if no other reason that someone think it is.

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  8. Despite what all the weird sexist comments in this section, I thought your article was really good and pretty reasonable. I can't believe so many gamers are petty enough to actually argue against us wanting better portrayal in video games.I'm not new to video games. I've been playing console games for 15 years. I deserve some respect and it blow me away every time some gamer is like, "No! NOOO! It's mine and you should be ashamed that you want better for yourself!" like just stop....

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  9. Thank you for writing this article. I've only just started playing the game and I've heard bits and pieces of this sexism controversy but never had enough context to understand it. It's clear from the very opening sequences of the game that there are at least misogynist undertones, but personally I was curious to learn more and see what people's analyses were.

    Can you guess what happens when you type "why the witcher 3 is sexist" into google? A huge majority of results are essentially shallow, defensive articles explaining that "The Witcher 3 is totally not sexist, guys." Fortunately, I actually found your article in the results, too. It's extremely disheartening that a topic like this is so dominated by reactionary defenses of misogyny, and that there are so few actual critiques.

    I think it's also important to remember that a game can be incredibly good and even well-written and still have serious problems. It's okay to like and even to praise problematic media as long as we're careful and we understand that it's problematic.

    It's clear that most of these commenters are the same kinds of apologists writing the articles I saw in my search results. I'm still interested in seeing how the rest of the game unfolds and developing my own opinions, but I wanted to express my appreciation for somebody taking the time to pick apart all these terrible defenses of The Witcher 3's treatment of women that are popping up everywhere.

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    1. Maybe you should revisit this after you finish playing the game. I just played it and all these problems don't actually exist once you've experienced everything. Geralt is a small player, a pawn in a world that in the end its fate is totally controller by the women of the world.

      The sorceresses here are all "beautiful" because they are essentially forced to as a part of the academy - almost a critique of how women are forced to wear makeup because of societal standards - sorceresses are forced to use magic to hide their hunchbacks in the same way.

      Almost all of the things that are made to be black and white are never black and white at all. Geralt does sleep with multiple women, but so too do all the women sleep with multiple men (Yen actually had multiple partners during her time with Geralt, although we don't see it specifically in Witcher 3.)

      I think the problem is so many people writing about this haven't actually experienced the game and are just an echo chamber.

      Geralt isn't a macho patriarchal murderous lunatic, he's a person stripped of his emotions by mutations, and yet in the end he's still a big softie and any time there is a choice he ALWAYS empowers women. See the Baron's quest line where you don't even have a choice to force his daughter to visit her father - he always leaves it up to her decision. He also always condemns the Baron's actions no matter what, and the most he can say to support his awful ways is "you deserve each other" (since his wife took up a pact with witches to force the death of her unborn child and essentially doom a dozen orphans to be eaten.)

      Another spot where this happens is towards the ends of the game - no spoilers, but the biggest decision in the game is one Geralt has no power over. All Geralt can do is be supportive of the women in the game so that they can make all the difference to save the world - he actually does nothing but offer kind words while they decide his fate.

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  10. PART 2 (Continued from Part 1)
    Why, for so many game developers of fantasy games, does “realism” mean asking me to rehash the same sexist bullsh*t that women have been subjected to for centuries? I am a woman, I am a gamer, and my fantasy doesn’t involve being called a “cunt” because that reflects clever world building. It doesn’t involve not having to look at a person who isn’t white, either, but that’s another topic.
    As I zig-zag through Novigrad’s streets, which are full of writhing strumpets, and peep into buildings containing thin naked women with big, bouncy breasts, I don’t kid myself that I am seeing a thoughtful, realistic commentary on sexism. Why do you?
    We should applaud and support companies like Bethesda and BioWare for making games that allow women to play as full-fledged characters that don’t constantly need to prove they aren’t just another f*ck buddy. CD Projekt Red started on the right path but took too many wrong turns. I sincerely hope that the company will be able to sift through its messages and improve on Witcher for the next iteration in the series.

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    1. PART 1 (I am not sure what happened to my first post, so I am trying a repost here. Please read PART 2 second.)
      Witcher 3 is a complex game that contains some genuine feminist elements—the female blacksmith in Crow’s perch, for example, Cerys, who can become the queen of Skellige if the player so desires and, to some extent, the Bloody Baron plot (although I do feel there were far too many dialogue options wanting me to forgive the baron for beating his wife, and that we were supposed to feel a bit sorry for the baron in the end). However, for every glimmer of feminism in Witcher 3, the game manages to undermine its female characters in half a dozen ways.
      Let’s take the “powerful” female characters, such as Triss, Keira and Yennifer. They’ve got brains and badassness aplenty, and I genuinely like them. Yet they, like most of the other female characters, are incredibly well formed and unusually beautiful, with a high level of attention given to their breasts, and they’re all just dying to sleep with Geralt. Even with Ciri, not a sex mate for Geralt, a strange degree of detail is given to the white bra peeping out from under her shirt. By the way, I’m pretty sure they didn’t have bras “back then” (for those of you using the Swiss-cheese argument that the poor treatment of women in the game is based on the gender inequality of medieval or feudal times).
      But wait, you say. Geralt is hot. There are plenty of scenes that show his rippled abs and just beg us to picture him in the nude. True. In fact, that’s where the game had me going at first, thinking this was going to be a fun, sexy romp for men and women alike. But I searched high and I searched low. I thought I might find some cute men in Novigrad, or perhaps the occasional handsome merchant (apparently women are only allowed to sell herbs or be innkeepers). Maybe some burly guys in Clan An Craite would be to my taste? I even held out hope for the enigmatic Dandelion, who was described as being exceedingly good looking by some characters in the game (spoiler: he’s not). After 70+ hours of play time, I can assure you that Geralt is the only hot guy in the whole damn game. I can only recall one fairly attractive man—yet even he had a partially shaved head with ugly scars. There are paunchy men, bald men, men with disgusting facial hair, men that look like they have the title of town drunk.
      I am not against sexy games with sexy characters, but there should be balance. The game developers clearly spent a lot of time creating ordinary-looking men who run the gamut from plain looking to just plain ugly, yet almost all (with just a few notable exceptions) of the women in the game are fodder for a sex fantasy.
      Anyone who still contends that Witcher 3 is a feminist game clearly hasn’t gotten very far into the Hearts of Stone expansion, which features a beautiful, educated medic, Shani, who it at first appears is meant to mollify us women—we can be hot and go to college, isn’t that thoughtful of those game developers? And she doesn’t even have big breasts. Yet very quickly Shani’s hotness is discussed by her commander and several other men. Geralt does not exactly appear to be pleased by the conversation (although I did not explore all dialogue options). I expect him to put the men in their place, but his least perv-y dialogue option is to state that Shani is not his type. Soon after, Geralt is possessed by a ghost who leers at Shani and tries to grab her breasts. The ghost says that he can’t believe Geralt hasn’t “ploughed her” already. The ghost, while possessing Geralt, continues to make crude sexual advances on Shani. The dialogue options imply that she enjoys it. This is clearly designed as a sex fantasy for the male players.
      (Please read Part 2 as well.)

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    2. the game was created for men. like it or not men are a target market. Get over yourself

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