No, the Internet, YOU shut up

Anita Sarkeesian's call for more female protagonists in videogames attracted the standard level of vitriol. Here is why that's an important issue.

When I read the awful responses to Anita Sarkeesian's tweet about wanting more games with female protagonists, my heart didn't sink. It barely dipped. I'm used to the kneejerk responses from a vocal minority when you talk about women in games.

At first, I thought about responding to the points raised by the many angry gentlefolk of Twitter, thusly:

No.

Tell that to Samus Aran, GLaDOS, Chun Li, FemShep, Lara Croft . . . or Kiki Wolfkill, Siobhan Reddy, Rhianna Pratchett, Margaret Robertson . . .

Hey, could you force another human being out of your body? Don't knock it until you've tried it, buster.

No, no, sir, I insist - YOU shut up.

Yeah, maybe if you actually read the latest ESA report, you'd know that in the US women make up 47 per cent of gamers. 

Clearly you do, Patq911, if that is in fact your real name.

Are you working on a game? You seem to be Mr Opinion, and yet I somehow doubt that you are secretly Jonathan Blow.

 . . . and then I got to this one. And I thought, as fun as shooting sexist fish in a Twitter barrel is, it's probably worth laying this argument out. 

Why do games need to have female protagonists? Because women exist. Women have lives. Their experiences of life can be shaped by the things that only happen to women - pregnancy, childbirth - and by the things which happen to women more than men - being the only one of your gender in a room, rape, harassment, objectification, people being a prick to you on the internet, that sort of thing. 

We have expectations about how women behave, what being a woman in a given situation means. A great storyteller (male or female) can use that to tell more interesting stories. Tropes are not inherently bad; they are shorthand, which means they can be used lazily, or they can be used creatively, subversively, interestingly.

Let's take a couple of examples. Anita Sarkeesian has talked about the "damsel in distress" trope, and it's one that comes up a lot in games because of the format of quests and objectives. You can use that trope in a boring, unthinking way, where some slab-of-meat guy pounds across an identikit wasteland to rescue a one-dimensional princess, or you can do something with it.

Because tropes are shorthand, they rely on a sense of expectation built up by their many previous uses. That's gold dust for a creator who wants to surprise her audience. Joss Whedon's original pitch for Buffy The Vampire Slayer was to show people "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie"; except in his show, the little blonde girl and the monster would go in the dark alley, and only the little blonde girl would come out. (Incidentally, for all dudes who worry that what feminist game critics want is Joyless Dungaree Simulator, Buffy manages to be funny and sexy, as well as feminist.)

Or, to move on to videogames, how about one of the most critically acclaimed indie games of recent years, Braid? That gets its emotional punch entirely from the fact you assume that you're a gallant questing leprechaun rescuing a lovely lady, when - spoiler alert - it turns out that knight "abducting" her is actually saving her from you.

You don't even have to subvert totally the trope to make it interesting; you can also approach it knowingly. When I interviewed Ken Levine before the release of BioShock Infinite, I asked him why the "Little Sisters" of the first BioShock were female. Would the dynamic have been the same if you'd had to rescue Little Brothers?

He answered, honestly, that he'd drawn on memories of a girl he had known in real life who had died young. Replaying the game now, I can see the fact that Levine drew on personal experience makes the game richer, more affecting - no wonder I felt the desire to protect the Little Sisters so keenly. If a trope speaks to you on a personal level, and you are confident that you can make it feel fresh again, then of course you should use it. 

There is also the bonus that the depiction of Little Sisters gives Dads an adorable way to take their daughters to conventions in cosplay:

 

I'd make the same case about Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite: on the surface level, it looks as though she is "the princess in the tower", the most archetypal form of the damsel in distress. But as the game develops, not only is she bloody useful - where is she finding all that sniper ammo and cash? - but by the end, you realise that far from saving her, she is there to save you from yourself.

In the end, the argument is the same one I was making last week about the need not to "ban" rape jokes, but to ask for better rape jokes. If the only people talking about rape are male comedians relying on the premise that it's funny simply because it's a taboo, that gets tired pretty quickly. Similarly, in games, calling for more female protagonists - and more interesting female protagonists - isn't censorship, it's expansion. It's about telling more stories.

The Angry Gamer Army need to know that women aren't coming to take games away from them. First person military shooters are still incredibly popular, and companies will continue to make them. If you want men with implausible facial hair to shout about being Oscar Mike while men of whatever the current acceptable ethnicity for baddies is throw flashbangs at you, the games industry will still provide. 

But look at your record collection. I grew up listening to Radiohead, Oasis, The Beatles, Bon Jovi and more terrible Europop than I care to admit, but I also listened to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Elastica and Madonna. The latter group offered more than just a set of songs I could sing along to without feeling slightly self-conscious about the pronouns. Yes, you could read books only by male writers and never be short of a paperback, but why would you deny yourself the unique perspective on the world brought by Jane Austen, JK Rowling or Hilary Mantel?

In Portal and its sequel, GlaDOS could just have easily have been male - but the player would have missed out on the richness of her backstory as Caroline, and her relationship with Cave. We'd also have missed out on Ellen McLain's incredible performance. In those games, you barely notice that the protagonist, as well as the nemesis, is female - but Chell is a girl, because, you know, some people are girls. Maybe as many as a fifth of people, I hear.

Games are exciting because they are a relatively young medium, and no one knows exactly where they will go next. But can we all agree that the silent tortured beefcake protagonist has been pretty well explored now, and it's much harder to make a game exciting if it has one? Can we agree too, that more variety generally in protagonists and secondary characters would make games better, not worse - that Daisy Fitzroy's race and Jester's disability add more depth to those characters than yet another white, straight able-bodied man?

Games need more female protagonists not because of a quota system, or "political correctness", or because feminists want to stop you having any fun. Games need more female protagonists because that will mean we get better games. 

A Little Sister in BioShock.

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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism