BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider and exploitation
The video game industry has a history of being attacked for its portrayals of women. This is not without warrant: female characters in games are much of the time unrealized and poorly written, and their body proportions are often frighteningly exaggerated. Brights spots like Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 and Faith from Mirror’s Edge notwithstanding, things are bleak. But few seem to realize how much bleaker they are about to be. The Western video game industry is beginning to normalize a new kind of exploitation, which originated within Japan’s otaku community—a group of social outcasts—in the ’90s and ’00s. This is “moe”, a male protection fantasy. (The term has been applied in rare and recent cases to female-targeted entertainment as well, but this is a separate topic.) The West has consumed moe for years through imported, otaku-targeted anime, manga and video games; but we have not regurgitated it into our own culture. The video game industry is set to break that trend next month.
Moe is a type of exploitation based on generating protective, nurturing instincts in men. This is done by placing young girls or young-looking women in situations where they act like children: innocent; cutesy; vulnerable; helpless; “adorable”. Often this is achieved simply through ditziness or physical clumsiness, but it is not uncommon for moe to use violence, injuries and disabilities as well. These are, inevitably, idealized and fetishistic. Serious injuries, blindness, paralysis of the legs, psychological trauma and more are exploited to generate extreme protective feelings in separation from the realistic consequences of such conditions. However, moe should not be thought of as a damsel in distress scenario. Moe characters can develop, mature and become self-reliant in a story, as long as the male viewer feels like a father or older brother in the process. From this vantage, a female character’s every achievement remains condescendingly “adorable”.
Further, despite claims to the contrary by its fans, moe is almost inseparable from the male gaze, which turns the young-looking and -acting female characters involved into unwitting sex objects. Thus, the male viewer is not only a protective father or brother but also a dominator. This “protector/dominator” dynamic fuels moe: the male viewer feels protective instincts and yet finds gratification in the sickly, predatorial voyeurism that gives rise to those instincts. In the versions of moe that rely on disability, fear or injury, the protector/dominator viewer projects himself into the roles of assailant and protector simultaneously. The female characters involved become impossible blends of youth, vulnerability, innocence and vague sexuality. Perhaps the most disturbing part of moe is that it is no longer an isolated, foreign issue: two Western video games that prominently feature it, BioShock Infinite and the latest Tomb Raider, are set to be released in March.
In BioShock, the player is followed around by Elizabeth, a twenty-year-old woman with reality-warping powers and little maturity. She is physically delicate and has an oversized head with “enormous" eyes—staples of moe character design. When she first meets the protagonist, she attacks him with books in an adorable attempt to defend herself. In segments after they start traveling together, she spins and dances like a young girl; and she roams the environment while “examin[ing] mundane objects with child-like fascination”. She is interested in Paris. She is confused and scared by violence, death and racism. Her innocence bounces off of the world-weariness of Booker, the hyper-masculine protagonist to whom she clings. Early in the game, he helps her pick out a necklace. Non-final footage from 2011 shows Elizabeth wandering through a souvenir shop, occasionally bringing objects to Booker’s attention. For instance, she innocently believes that one trinket is made of gold; and she plays with an Abraham Lincoln mask while reciting the first lines of the Gettysburg Address. A writer for IGN aptly summarized Elizabeth as “short and innocent, child-like and damaged”. In other words, she is an icon of moe.
Elizabeth’s daughter-esque traits are combined with controversially large breasts and an anachronistically low neckline. Further, she is extremely vulnerable. Elizabeth had a “nightmarish childhood" as a scientific test subject. One of her fingers has been cut off and the stump capped with a piece of metal—a conveniently non-disfiguring disability. Throughout the game, she is chased by mobs and by a giant monster called Songbird, the latter of which reduces her to tears at least once. In the aforementioned clip from 2011, a man hits on her in the street; and she whispers to Booker to scare him away. However, the developers assure us that Elizabeth is not a traditional damsel in distress: she matures and gains power as the game progresses. These facts, which are supposed to dispel charges of sexism, only make Elizabeth more moe. On top of her child-like appearance and personality, her subjection to male gaze and her vulnerability, she even grows up under the player’s supervision. A damsel in distress scenario could hardly hope to achieve this level of exploitation.
BioShock's use of moe, though, is almost tame compared to that of the new Tomb Raider. At first glance, the 21-year-old Lara Croft in this version is the least objectified in the series. Indeed, the developers tell us that they hoped to make her a real person, rather than sex object with “unlockable bikinis”. However, this new Lara looks and acts young, inexperienced and vulnerable. Her more realistic waistline was an attempt by the team to put “a little bit of that baby fat” on her; and her eyes and facial expressions are designed to “[make] you want to care for her”. Players are not meant to “project themselves into the character”, as they would with a normal game protagonist. Instead, the player feels like Lara’s “helper”, who “go[es] on this adventure with her and tr[ies] to protect her”. And there is much protecting to do. The game subjects Lara to a roller coaster ride of physical and psychological abuse, which “build[s] her up and just when she gets confident, […] break[s] her down again”. The “beauty and vulnerability” that she shows in reaction to these events, we are told, is “sexy in its own way”.
In one brief section, Lara crashes through a roof, gets swept through rapids, falls into a downed plane, falls through that plane’s windshield, parachutes down a waterfall and then slams into a tree. After hitting the tree, she falls through its branches and lands face-first on the forest floor. Impossibly gratuitous scenes like this occur regularly. Needless to say, Lara spends most of the game covered in dirt, blood and raw skin. It seems almost unnecessary to mention the ominous, all-male group of cultists who variously paw at and attack her during the game. Throughout her trials, Lara gasps and cries and holds her injuries in pain; and the protector/dominator dynamic reaches stomach-turning heights (or depths). However, as with Elizabeth, Lara develops into a powerful and self-reliant character by the end. When Lara first kills a human, she sobs and screams; but she goes on to kill frequently and ultraviolently. Under the player’s guidance, she grows into a confident protagonist—and a battered, abused quasi-daughter.
Bizarrely, neither Tomb Raider's nor BioShock's developers appear to understand what they have done. The video game industry's press is similarly ignorant. No one seems to realize that these are moe characters, that they are in fact sick, exploitative otaku fantasies. It says unpleasant things about our culture that moe can appear in big-budget entertainment without notice. Has it been normalized? Whatever the case, we can expect a ripple effect: blockbuster video games like these are influential. If the female characters in these games prove to be popular—as will undoubtedly be the case—, then an even more rapid spread of moe in the West is likely. It could become a normal type of female characterization in video games, and possibly in other forms of entertainment. Those who play Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite should be conscious of what they are seeing: a new breed of mainstream exploitation in the West.
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