(This is another edition of , 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.
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