I love you video games, so why do you keep doing this?

Sexy, sexy sexism in the <i>Hitman: Absolution</i> trailer.

 

Gamers get really, really angry when you characterise them as mouth-breathing adolescent boys who’ve never kissed a real-life girl. And rightly so: according to Jane McGonigal, one in four gamers is over 50, and 40 per cent are women. Three of the big games of last winter – Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution – were written by women

And then along comes something like this. I don't mind the Hitman games, although they've come in for a lot of flak in the past for their high levels of violence (remember, only 5 per cent of games get an 18 rating). But it now seems that 12 years after the start of the franchise, it's not just Agent 47 who's looking tired.

The new trailer for Hitman: Absolution, released this week, could be used as a teaching aid if anyone were to give a class on "Boring, Lazy, Stereotypes about Women in Video Games" (it would be a very long class).  

The plot of the trailer, such as it is, runs like this. Hitman is hiding out in a motel. The world's least successfully disguised troupe of assassins come for him and he vanquishes them with his chiselled, yet emotionally repressed, combat moves.

First, there's the whole nun thing. Is this Grand Theft Auto: Ann Summers? Surely the whole point of being a troupe of deadly assassins is that you blend in with your surroundings? You wouldn't catch Ezio Auditore prancing round medieval Italy in a gimp suit. Do these women specialise in contract killings on hen nights?

Then there's the shot selection. Chapter 2 in my mythical games class on this trailer would be headed "The Male Gaze". I could have storyboarded this trailer just from the words "sexy nuns". So, first shot: Nuns. Second shot: Suggestion that these AREN'T REAL NUNS, GUYS. (Done by showing a close-up of a very, very high heeled boot. Because, you know, assassins never worry about practicality over style.) Third shot: taking off the nun robes. Fourth shot: what I am going to christen Walking Bottom. There it is, at 42 seconds, the absolutely cast-iron signifier of a game developer working one-handed. 

If I had a pound for every game I've seen where the female characters walks in, and the camera follows her gently wobbling buttocks into shot, rather than her face, I'd have at least 23 quid. Maybe 24.

From then on, it's all squeaky pleather and violent shooting, as the Hitman despatches the flock of faux-nuns. Did you know it was possible to die in a sexy way? These ladies try their hardest. 

By the end of the trailer, I was feeling utterly depressed that once again the games industry was perpetuating the idea that men are doers, and women are for looking pretty. The only thing that cheered me up was imagining how this trailer would look with the genders reversed. Seriously, try to imagine it. Then you'll realise how ridiculous this sort of thing is.

Walking Bottom: Please stop doing this shot, videogame developers.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot