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Stereotyping Men in Videogames

Lisa Jonte Posted:
Columns Fair Game 0

As I’m sure you all remember, just last year, a person named Anita Sarkeesian held a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video series analyzing the portrayal of women in video games. Her ongoing webseries, Tropes vs Women, was to be the platform. Strangely, the whole undertaking caused a bit of a stir.

About a month after the start of the TvW Kickstarter campaign, (in probably the first ever, non-election-related feud via public funding) a dissenting group began an IndieGogo campaign called Tropes vs. Men. Their purpose, as I understand it, was twofold: First, to show Ms. Saekeesian that her request for $6,000 was over the top, and that the videos could be made for half that amount (which was their funding goal.) And secondly as, “An analysis of male roles and misandry present in modern video game media”

As of this writing, the Trope vs. Women project has posted its first two videos in the game series. Unfortunately, it seems that those who donated to the Tropes vs. Men project are bound for disappointment, as the campaign is now being lamented as at least being missing in action, if not actual fraud.

Whatever the case may be, and however the Tropes vs. Men series does (or does not) come together, I do believe it’s worth our time to look at some of the negative effects that traditional male stereotypes (in both gaming and pop culture in general) have on men.

Dude, try the decaf.

Freak the Physique:

Grr! Only monstrous muscle machines with biceps the size of yurts need apply! Otherwise, you get nothing but contempt, for you are weak!

Thanks to incredibly narrow definitions of physical “manliness”, it takes very little for your average guy to be labeled as “weak” by societal standards. In an effort to avoid seeming at all “girly” or “soft”, (as if those words were akin to ‘plutonium’, or ‘cancer’) game publishers have pushed the testosterone levels in their protagonists to alarming levels. Men are cartoonishly idealized in a dominance-aspiration fantasy gone mad, leaving little room for anyone who doesn’t conform. And while you may dismiss these depictions as “just part of a game”, they aren’t. Added to unrealistic, CGI depictions in movies and unrealistic Photoshopped images in advertising, these game-based steroid-infused “heroes” are yet another subconscious confirmation that to be considered “real men”, all men should want to be physical brutes.

Actualization Through Killing:

Kill or be killed, then kill some more, because Real Men kill things!

Look, a little gratuitous game carnage at the end of a stressful day can be a good thing. It’s a safe way to relieve tension and, in modest proportions, hurts no one. That said, carnage is often the only thing that videogame males get to be good at. Heaven forfend pop culture ever present us with a choice of philosophical heroes, strategic heroes, or trickster heroes, without also defaulting to a ‘Then He Kills Things’ mode of game advancement.

How about giving boys an average-build, male protagonist/avatar who averts war instead of waging it, as something to aspire to?

Real Marines being real.

The Only Manly Emotion is Anger:

Anger! Anger and revenge! Grr! Grief? Subvert it into anger! Love? Never heard of it! Fear? Only the weak feel fear! Happiness? Happiness is when I revel in my anger!

The problem is, that’s all crap. Human beings feel emotion, it’s hardwired into all of us before birth. Worse, it’s crap that been damaging boys (and the men they become) for generations, and video games are still perpetuating that crap today.

Because of the idealized, aspirational image of manly men who don’t feel or show emotion, real life men are less likely to seek out help for depression, anxiety, or mental health issues in general. They are less likely to even seek out medical help for physical ailments. Worse, they are more likely to suffer these things untreated and more likely to commit suicide.

Because “real men” aren’t supposed to ever feel hurt, afraid, or vulnerable, bullying among boys often goes unreported, or is minimized when it is reported. Men who have been sexually assaulted are often disbelieved or stigmatized.

Constant Vigilance!:

Must protect child-bearer and offspring! Because… HONOR!

More often than not in video games, movies and other entertainment ephemera, if your brooding, angry loner hero is out for revenge, it’s because his family was tragically/horrifically killed (usually by some Master of Evil who did it just to prove he could.) The family become little more than ciphers, as individual as poker chips, in the never ending battle for male-to-male supremacy, while the hero is reduced to the role of raging revenge machine.

Don't worry, I'll totally avenge the insult to my honor that was your brutal, pointless murder.

Forget the idea that the hero might just wad up in a fetal position, bereft and mourning in soul-searing agony. Forget the idea that he might have loved and respected his spouse. Forget the idea that he might have adored his children for the people they were becoming. Nothing so human or complex, he’s a man! And men are only allowed to be angry!

By stereotype logic, the fact that he “allowed” his family to be killed was weakness that must be avenged, not for their sake, but for his; to restore his honor. Because men, it is supposed, must be on guard at all times, never faltering, never allowing other men to gain the upper hand.

The upper hand in what, though, is never quite clear, but the pervasive societal message to men is the same: WIN. Winning is strength and strength is all. As the stereotype goes, there is no room for anything else. If you are not winning, you must be losing. If someone else is winning, you must be losing. And losing is weak.

What the hell kind of bleak, post-apocalyptic, dominance nightmare kind of crap is that? And why are we pushing it on our boys?

The truth is that we don’t have to settle for the stereotypes, we can have better. But in order to get it, we have to DEMAND it. Tell game companies that you want something different, something more. Reinforce that message by voting with your wallet. Our sons deserve more than the choice between being a winner or a weakling, because that’s no choice at all.

And now, a few responses to last column’s comment thread:

Simsalabim77 said:  “…if someone, especially a family member, shows concern for the way you enjoy your hobby, it's time to do a bit of self-reflection instead of dismissing them as non-gamers who just don't get it.”

That’s great, but I dismissed no one. Are you sure you actually read the article?

Maplestone said:  “I am prone to getting lost in fractal labyrinths of introspection on this topic.”

Five bucks says that even there, you can find a Starbucks.

Tymoris said:  Personally I don't even see why it would be an issue between members of any family.”

Then you must be very fortunate in your family. Not everyone else is so lucky.

Until next time, may your escort missions be few and your drops plentiful.

Image attribution:

Kratos from God of War, By English: Gunnery Sgt James Frank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Max Payne

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Lisa Jonte

Lisa Jonte / Writer, editor, artist, parent. Currently reviewing games and writing the column, Fair Game at MMORPG.com. One time (print and web) comics creator, and former editor of the webcomic enclave GirlAMatic.com; now a secretive and hermit-like prose writer, (and not so secretive nor hermit-like blogger.)