I love the gaming community. For the most part, the community’s voices are composed of smart, insightful people who have quick minds and sharp wit. Those voices house numerous opinions and diving into those diverse views always proves to be an interesting experience. Over the weekend, I took a plunge into a thread spanning nearly 1,000 comments discussing the Play Arts Kai figurine based on the Metal Gear Solid V character Quiet and the inclusion of squeezable breasts. I spent over an hour reading through comments, listening to arguments, and came away with a realization:
A lot of people seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how media works.
Here are a few quotes that are representative of that thread:
“This really isn't a big deal.”
“I don't think guys look at this doll and think of women only in that way.”
“If you're going to get mad surely there are things of more import to be bothered by.”
“It's a character, not a statement.”
Behind all of these quotes is the idea that the media we accept and surround ourselves with is insignificant, has no impact, and says nothing. These are attitudes that you will hear if you enter into almost any heated public discussion of media that has been brought into pop culture. And those statements ring false to me. Pieces of media are the vessels for stories, and stories are powerful things. The right story can completely alter a life. The right story can start wars. The right story at the right time can change the world and shape it for thousands of years. Books, movies, games, sculptures, paintings, works of art, tap into our emotions and communicate profound and important ideas. Media encompasses art of all forms. So, yes, when we talk about media we include the Quiet figurine in that discussion.
This isn’t me going out on a limb and being hyperbolic, either. Those ideas might seem grandiose and silly, but I’m not pulling them out of nowhere. Media and society have a long history of shaping each other. That’s why, when the United States went to war in the 1941, theaters were filled with propaganda cartoons and shorts (many examples can be found on YouTube with a quick Google search). In the short-term, that propaganda helped to dehumanize the enemy and reinforce national loyalty. In the long run, it shaped attitudes about the enemies of America during that war. Notice how Japanese and German soldiers have become acceptable fodder in video games made over half a century later? Even with movies, the only film to have a human portrayal of Japanese soldiers from that war that I can think of is Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima.
That’s a cultural cost, but I can already hear some of you tapping away to say something about how we don’t think of Germans or Japanese people as bad in the “real world.” That's true! But to say the messages in that media didn't affect people at the time is decidedly not true. The propaganda of the time made most of America surprisingly cool with rounding up Japanese-Americans and herding them into internment camps, civil liberties ignored. No one piece of propaganda was responsible for the passive public reaction, but the collective weight of a narrative reinforced through media messaging certainly played a major role.
With all of that in mind, we need to remember that it was not overly long ago that any of those things happened. It also wasn’t overly long ago that it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife, and, while it was frowned upon, reported incidents were frequently went unprosecuted. This is reflected in the media of the time. Even shows that were considered groundbreaking and progressive, displayed scenes of violence against women. Star Trek has a really uncomfortable scene in the original series where Dr. McCoy slaps a pregnant woman in the face because she doesn't want him to touch her. A scene like that wasn’t uncommon on television or in movies from the 60s. Women in the media at that time were frequently shown to be incompetent, bumbling, and incapable without a man around to fix their problems. Crummy portrayals of women reinforced the idea that women needed men to make their way in the world while also reinforcing the idea that men had a right to use their woman’s body as they saw fit. Many people accepted those attitudes as normal. "That's what marriage is," as the saying went.
Over time, society has changed and so has media. The first shelters for women who needed to escape domestic violence began appearing in the 70s. We have rules of thumb like the Bechdel test to give media creators an indication as to whether they have written decent female characters. It is no longer acceptable for male characters in our media to casually show violence toward female characters (obviously with the exception of male and female characters being on opposing sides of a conflict). The trope of the incompetent/bumbling female character who needs a man is becoming (slowly) a rarer sight, unlike the norm as it was in the past. And society as a whole is more ready to talk about women’s issues like domestic abuse (a discussion unheard of in the 60s), objectification, sex trafficking, etc. (and the fact that these are largely women’s issues is sadly telling).
Did the betterment of female representation in media happen by itself? Did it happen because people calmly accepted the status quo? No! It happened because people called out what they saw as harmful stereotypes and depictions in their media. It happened because those people thought about what kinds of things they were consuming and realized that those things had deep underlying problems.
By and large, most people acknowledge that depictions of women in games and Hollywood are still far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean people should shut up and accept how things are now if they could easily be made better. It is always tempting to throw your hands up and say that criticizing something won’t make a difference or change minds. It can be equally tempting to say that something is “just” a story or “just” an action figure. But here is the thing: We can’t just pretend that the things we buy, the stories we consume for entertainment, the games we play, are blank slates. Each of those things have intentional and unintentional messages that we need to think about. Thoughtlessly consuming media can lead to thoughtless acceptance of evil.
In the grand scheme of things, the Quiet action figure from Play Arts Kai is a small, small piece of a very large picture that portrays women as objects. By itself, in a vacuum, it is not inherently wrong, but in the context of a world that routinely boils women down to their genitals, busts, and butts it is something that perpetuates an old and troubling message about women.
This isn’t a judgement of Quiet as a character. The game isn’t out. Maybe there are good reasons for her to be wearing a bikini top in the desert (By the way, “it is hot in the desert” is not a reason to wear a bikini top. A person would be horribly burned by the sun without full clothing and would probably freeze to death come nightfall.), but I don’t know what those reasons might be yet. This is only a judgement on the figure which, though well-made and faithful to the character’s image, is cast in a vastly different light with the sexualization of its breasts by making the conscious choice to make them from soft, squishy material. If this was something the male figures had as well (squishy Snake butt!), that would be different. However, Quiet’s figure is uniquely singled out because her form is considered conventionally attractive to the male gaze. Is that something that is really okay? I don’t think so.
Will the squishy breasts on this figuring cause the collapse of society? No. But it does its part to maintain the flawed status quo, a status quo that is largely recognized as still unfairly holding half of the human population to different, unjust standards.
Does buying and appreciating the craftsmanship that went into the Quiet figure make you a bad person? No. People can enjoy pieces of media while also remaining critical of things that do have problematic undertones. All I am saying is that we all need to be aware of what we invite into our experience.
Think about the things you buy and the stories you consume. They’re important.
Feature originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 05/18/15