Batman: Arkham City is Sexist?


(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

Yesterday my Twitter feed blew up, as it so regularly does, with accusations of misogyny aimed at an entertainment product. This time, however, it wasn’t something obvious like Fat Princess or Metroid: Other M, but a less likely product. The newest game to promote sexism among the unwashed gamer public is none other than Rocksteady Games’ Batman: Arkham City. Not even the world’s greatest detective is able to escape the trap of sexual scrutiny.

Two articles in particular have stoked the fires of this latest controversy — one from Film Crit Hulk and a followup piece by game/film columnist (and really nice guy) Moviebob. In the piece that started it all, the caps-loving Film Hulk accuses Arkham City of “blatant sexism” revolving around the treatment of Catwoman and several other female characters in the game, and argues that the writers should be “ashamed of themselves.” Interestingly, his problem isn’t centered on Catwoman’s revealing clothes or sexually provocative nature (both ripe fruits that anybody looking to make sexism accusations could easily pick) but more in the way that male characters talk about the women. Much of the issue revolves around a single world — bitch.

Bitch is a word I think we’re all familiar with. It’s been immortalized in films (“Get away from her, you bitch,” “Welcome to Prime Time, bitch.”) and it’s a commonly used curse word in entertainment thanks to its middling place in the arbitrary hierarchy of swear words. Bitch, for whatever contrived reason, is considered nowhere near as harsh a word as sh*t, f*ck or c*nt, and so it often makes its way into network television shows without censorship, along with words like bastard or piss (and just a note, if any of the words are censored in this piece, I didn’t do it! Nope, that was me! – Ed.). With that in mind, it’s almost unsurprising that Arkham City features heavy use of the word in order to make its characters sound gritty and tough. It’s a T-rated game, and “bitch” is an allowable word.

Catwoman is called a “bitch” primarily by Two-Face, and I can’t say I find its use sexist on the part of the writers. After all, Two-Face is a thoroughly unpleasant individual, a villain and a psychopath who used the word with spite against a character he clearly dislikes. Hulk argues that these words need context in order to be acceptable, and the context works for me just fine. Yes, it’s a gendered insult, designed to offend women specifically, but would you expect any less from a malicious piece of work like Two-Face? It puts me in mind of another gendered insult, used in season four of Dexter. That moment when Arthur Mitchell (beautifully portrayed by Jon Lithgow) said to his wife, “Shut up c*nt.” It was an absolutely horrific thing to say but it worked superbly in context. It set Mitchell up as a vile individual instantaneously, somehow making him more villainous despite having physically done worse in prior episodes. While Two-Face calling Catwoman a bitch isn’t quite as impacting and certainly not as harsh, I think it works in a similar, if subdued, way.

Same goes for the other characters — including the “good” guy NPCs who utter the phrase in the game. Even the security guards who use the word “bitch” are doing so not to promote sexism but to simply sound gritty. Is it a lame way of sounding gritty? Absolutely! It’s a cynical method of making characters sound streetwise in a T-rated game, but I wouldn’t call it misogyny. I don’t think many people even consider the weight of the word when used against a female, equating it with “bastard” for males. You can certainly argue that bitch is more offensive to females than bastard is to males, but I don’t think a lot of people consider that. At the very best, you could argue insensitivity or ignorance, but when we consider that bitch is socially considered a very mild curse word, I can’t demonize anybody for thinking it’s okay to use. It HAS been okay to use gender-specific insults for both women and men in entertainment for years. When the rules suddenly change and we all go unisex, you can’t expect everybody to be quick on the uptake.

Moviebob argued further, stating that if Rocksteady wanted Arkham City’s inmates to sound nasty and villainous they shouldn’t have stopped at bitch, they should have included racial and homophobic slurs in their dialog as well. The problem with this, however, is exemplified by this very controversy — people ignore context. Had Rocksteady included racial and homophobic slurs in NPC dialog, it would have been accused of homophobia and racism as well of sexism. In fact, the sexism would have been completely ignored and we’d all be complaining about something else entirely. Whatever these characters would say, the writers would catch heat from somewhere, and I know I’d rather get in trouble for making a character say “bitch” than “nigger” or “queer.” I’m sorry to those who consider “bitch” on the same level as those words, but historically and culturally … it is not. Maybe it will be one day, but right now it is not. It’s not a word that many exclusively associate with misogyny, so I think it’s unfair to accuse those who use it in their fiction of embracing bad attitudes toward women.

As I said, maybe “bitch” will be considered a taboo word one day, never to be used in a videogame. Various homophobic and racial slurs are already off-limits in all but the most gritty of R-rated productions, gender-specific insults are coming under increased fire, and we also have commercials attempting to make “retard” an unacceptable term forever. I have to wonder, though, exactly what hardcore lunatics like Two-Face will sound like when it gets to the point where they can’t use any potentially offensive language in their dialog. In this possible future, will Harvey Dent be restricted to calling Catwoman things like “silly sausage” and “poo head”? Yes, the word “bitch” is overused in Arkham City but I think that’s a symptom of having so many other words off-limits than the writers willfully choosing the word out of some dire sexist glee. It’s a T-rated game in a society that holds certain words sacred and arbitrarily decides that some swears are worse than others. Options were incredibly limited, I’d say, and if you want one character to call a female character a bad word, “bitch” is about as good as it gets without sounding incredibly ineffectual. I think it would have made the game even sillier than it already is if everybody kept calling Catwoman an “asshole” or a “douchebag.” Mind you, is douchebag still okay? It is for now, I suppose. For now.

There were other arguments against the game such as Batman enjoying mandhandling Harley Quinn (he enjoys the physical discomfort of any criminal because he hates them) or various gang members sharing masturbatory fantasies about the female characters (they’re male prisoners, for Christ’s sake) but I feel those ones are stretches used to artificially bolster the original argument. I played Arkham Asylum to its conclusion and didn’t see anything that I found morally reprehensible.

I fully accept that, as a male, I enjoy a certain undeserved privilege that may render me insensitive to the true impact of these words. That said, my own wife was quite angry at the controversy surrounding this, stating it cheapens what she herself has been trying to achieve with her growing feminist activities when people cry foul over things that should not be cried foul about. Since I usually defer to her superior social knowledge in most discussions, I have a feeling she’s right.

There are definitely interesting gender issues in videogames, and in the past I’ve been pretty blind to them. I’m trying to be less so and I have been finding the realm of sexual politics more intriguing of late. Nevertheless, this one is a controversy-in-a-can, I feel. I do not think Batman: Arkham City is sexist and I do not think the writers have anything to be ashamed of. They did what they could with limited tools and I think most people — male and female — will enjoy the game without feeling alienated or upset. That doesn’t mean those in the minority don’t have a right to be offended, they absolutely do, but I’d ask them to consider what they’re being offended about, and if maybe they’re reaching a little with this one.

The Bat is back — check out our huge text and video walkthrough for Batman: Arkham City.

Join the Conversation   

* required field

By submitting a comment here you grant GameFront a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin's discretion.

15 Comments on Batman: Arkham City is Sexist?

LTenhet

On October 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm

I’M THE BATMAN

If it’s alright in Comics it’s alright in this!

Tobbii Karlsson

On October 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Great article as always. I agree that the use of the word in proper context, like this, should certainly not be considered sexism. That’s just grasping for things to be offended by.

pigmy wurm

On October 20, 2011 at 2:11 pm

One thing I don’t here people say is that their is a difference between a game that is sexist and a game that has sexist people in it. Now I haven’t played Arkham City so I can’t pass judgement on it myself but it seems to me that if the sexism is dished out primarily by the games villains it’s not exactly something the game is advocating. And I would suspect many thugs and convicts to be fairly sexist, especially the type you find in Gotham.

Jesse

On October 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm

If you look at the context, it is anything but sexist. Most of the men who are making the “” comments are hardened criminals. I think it would be incredibly odd for them to call Catwoman “young lady” or as Jim said, “poo head.” These men were locked up in prison after prison for horrific crimes. Honestly, I feel as if I’d rather see an M-rated Batman game that really focuses in on the horror and brutality of Batman’s rogues gallery. That will never happen of course, but would “” be more accepted if it was accompanied by more “mature (I use this in an extremely loose way, violence/language does not equal maturity)” context? Maybe, maybe not.

Great article Jim!

Cccc

On October 20, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Bleeping out c*nt but not the n word? Odd editing, and it detracts from the entire point of the piece – arbitrary rules indeed! American censorship is at work right here in this article about censorship.

G.A.R.B.A.G.E

On October 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm

“If you’re havin’ girl problems i feel bad for you son
I got 99 problems but a ain’t one” ?

Talk about a whole marketing ad campaign that’s sexist. And poor Catwoman can’t even play as a female character in BF3.

Warp

On October 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Oh look, someone is trying to play the raceist/sexist card to get attention

Honestly… if your going to attention whore… atleast come up with something better then ”Oh pfft this is so sexist/racist”everyone can spot it a mile away not to mention to tear you a new one for spouting out stupidity.

Derek K.

On October 21, 2011 at 8:24 am

Batman Arkham City is the perfect game (11/10) so can clearly not be sexist.

I think Jim hit it on the head. is one of the worst T rated words to use. So if you’re beingedgy, you’ll use that. Sh!t is fine on FX now though.

The bigger argument is why is the toughest T word. But you can’t put that in BAC.

Robin

On October 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Your response to HULK’s articles has some glaring omissions. HULK compares Arkham City’s juvenile portrayal of women to the challenging and controversial “Straw Dogs.” This doesn’t seem at all like “reaching” for something to be offended about. HULK specifically does not protest the use of the word but what it is used for, in this case for objectifying entertainment. To say that this is to make the game “gritty” is not enough. The villains call Batman nothing worse than a “freak” and this adds to our immersion rather than detracts from it. Batman the Animated Series introduced the Batman world at its best, in part because it portrays diverse female characters as much more than objects of male fantasy. On another note, rated T games are approved for ages 13 and up, at which point (and far beyond) our ideas of normal gendered behavior are in crucial development. To say that arguments over Batman Arkham City “cheapens” the real struggles over feminism is to ignore who deeply video games are becoming part of our lived environment.

Ashleigh

On October 29, 2011 at 4:36 am

This is a brilliantly written article, though there is one part I’d dispute. You say that you “don’t think many people even consider the weight of the word when used against a female”, and I’m not disputing that a lot of people DON’T consider the weight of it.

However, a lot of people do. About 50% of the population.

It’s pretty hard to appreciate how hurtful a word can be without it being used to degrade you based solely on your sex, and it’s pretty hard to appreciate an otherwise-excellent video game when fairly hurtful, gendered words seem to be bandied out specifically.

Was this intentional misogyny? Of course not, and I’m not saying anything new by saying that. The idea that some writer at Rocksteady thought “Hey, I know a great way to oppress women…” is absurd. That being said, it’s not also not likely that Bob Chipman or the FilmCriticHulk just decided “Wow, this would be really easy to get offended about” either.

It just seems baffling to me that, when confronted with accusations of sexism leveled at a game they like, that they feel are undeserved, people feel the need to respond with ACTUAL sexism. People don’t want to be upset. They didn’t choose to be upset. Rocksteady upset them. Maybe if everyone wasn’t so intent on dismissing others’ emotions out of hand, gamers, as a community, could learn something from this.

Have you learnt anything from this? I certainly haven’t. I’ve been too busy getting angry at people who think it’s appropriate to call those offended at the word “” “attention whores”.

As odious as sweeping, groundless statements are, it seems likely that this sort of problem could be avoided by more females in both the gaming industry, and community. That, in turn, could definitely aided by gamers at least PRETENDING their feelings and opinions, are valid, and worth paying attention to, rather than chauvinistically passing them of as petty grabs for attention.

wbm

On November 9, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Video games generally aren’t on my radar, but sexual politics generally are. Your description makes it sound like a great majority of the ‘bad’ male characters use the word ‘’ against women characters.

If accurate, it says to me that the ‘creative’ minds behind the game aren’t as creative as they think they are, or that the vid game-loving public hold them up to be.

Smart writing involves variety of dialogue, even for sexist lunkhead characters.

In our culture of body image issues, I would even argue that calling a woman ugly or saying she (insert insult of her wardrobe here) are much more cruel than simply/repetitively/stupidly calling her a , which a woman can easily spin into an empowering concept. “Yep, I’m the who just handed your ass to you.”

Real World

On November 12, 2011 at 6:08 am

I love how bent out of shape people get over things like this but lets look at some facts before we judge this game.

1. is used a lot, but you know what is used more bastard, on about 1 to 3 ratio in the dialog. In fact is the only “bad name” Catwoman is called while Batman suffers a number of profane terms. So that argument is null as both heroes were verbally abused throughout.

2. It’s a prison…if you don’t think such terms are thrown around like this constantly I challenge you to take a walk in any prison in the country and not have the word and much worse pop up in less than 5 minutes. It is realistic to say the least.

3. Catwoman has always been the femme fatal. Her character since the start of her comic run has had a strong sexual nature. She uses that to her advantage. In many some of the most prominent batman story arcs she is/was a prostitute for much of the story. Catwoman has always used her sex appeal to further her agenda. Her character has never had inhibitions about sex, theft, or physical danger… she is a daredevil in virtually every sense of the word. So to imply that her seductive nature in the game somehow does her character wrong is a farce.

Randomuser

On November 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm

censoring swear words, how (in the article) pathetic, nothing less or more or insulting, just pathetic.

likefuccumready

On November 26, 2011 at 12:18 am

sweet article Jim
honestly, the things that some people think are sexist, it’s just embarassing! Some people are just addicted to attention and think that if they find something that they can complain about. But it had to be about a woman; i mean come on, if it everyone was calling Batman an over-eccentric eco-tistic butt-munching c&*t-fu@#$ng then no-one would have bothered anything and noone would have cared. Its just pathetic (thank you Randomuser :P

R.J.

On March 6, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Definitely agree that calling the game sexist is overreacting. This sounds remarkably like people throwing a fit because Django Unchained used the N-word so much. They completely missed the context there, too. Dicaprio’s character owned other human beings, so I’m pretty sure calling them by politically correct terms wasn’t a factor in his mind. If the act of slave owning can be accepted as part of the period when that movie took place, I’m pretty sure the use of common derogatory terms from the period can too. That is exactly what I see with Two-Face when he talks to Catwoman. The man is a murderer and clearly a villain, I don’t expect him to somehow make an exception to make sure his words aren’t offensive to others.