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Posted by Ebony Aster


You wouldn’t know it from the amount of time I spend thinking, talking, and writing about horror cinema, but I’m actually not a huge horror fan. I’ll spend hours falling through a TV Tropes or Wikipedia rabbit hole reading plot summary after plot summary, but what I’m looking for are spoilers and someone else to do the work. I want reassurances that the vampires have been staked and the aliens have been nuked from orbit. I’m rarely interested in going through the psychological labor it requires to actually…you know, sit through a horror movie myself. Not because I think horror films are bad, or somehow unworthy of my time; but because I am mentally weak. I am more than half convinced that if I watch too many scary movies, I will be more susceptible to demonic possession. I saw The Ring. I know how Samara works.  She ain’t slick!


NEVERTHELESS, there are some horror films I love and will rewatch over and over again (if “love” is the right word for the overwhelming dread that insinuates itself into my brain until I exorcise it with old episodes of What’s Happening). The boundaries and expectations of certain genre films — Westerns, romantic comedies, and yes, horror — can be very comforting in their predictability. We know, roughly, what the characters will say and want and do (and all too often, what they will look like). The pleasure of consuming these texts relies as much, if not more, on finding our expectations met as delighting in their subversion.

One of the compelling ways in which this “visceral” delight manifests itself is in the horror genre’s ever-evolving evocation of unsettling bodies. Modern horror films offer up a host of creepy, terrifying, gross figures, but one of the most fascinating is the character of “the hag.”

Baba Yaga [non-John Wick version], Meg Mucklebones, Miss Havisham

The hag, or the crone, is that beckoning, frightening, wizened figure of fear that hobbles through so many cautionary folktales across cultures. She lurks along dark pathways to terrorize children and grab wary travelers from out-of-the-way forest clearings. She lives alone, away from the safety and order of the village — or shuts herself up in a decaying abode that wise neighbors skirt in wariness. She may be called “Grandmother” or “Old Mother,” but if she ever had any children, they are long gone. Part of the revulsion lies in the way she makes her own way in the world. How does she survive: without a man, without children, without family? Surely, she must be up to something nefarious.

And yet, the fear of the crone is not of a scary old woman who will inappropriately insert herself into a domestic space where she does not belong — rather, the fear is that she will pull the unwary person out.

It is with this understanding of the role of the crone in horror that we can explore an interesting phenomenon in films like [REC], Mama, or even horror-adjacent films like Crimson Peak or Legend. Each of these films features, to a greater or lesser narrative extent, the spectre of a sick, decaying, monstrous woman — and in each case, said figure is portrayed by a cisgender man.

Javier Botet made up as Enola in Crimson Peak

The physical manifestation of feminine decay that these films delight in is dependent upon a certain physical form (e.g. lankiness to the point of emaciation, spindly limbs) that filmmakers are choosing to find among cisgender men – and we should be mindful that some of the actors who are drafted to play these parts may or may not exhibit “infirmity” themselves (actor Javier Botet is responsible for [REC]’s beleaguered Tristana Medeiros, a Crimson Peak ghost and the titular Mama from Andrés Muschietti‘s 2008 film; he has Marfan syndrome). There is a certain model of feminine decay that’s been ramping up in horror films over the last 20 or so years, and it is increasingly embodied not via CGI, but instead via cis male bodies, transformed by latex and costume.

Actors like Botet or the ubiquitous Doug Jones, (or Robert Picardo, if we include his turn as “Meg Mucklebones” in Ridley Scott’s Legend) offer visually arresting models of threatening, supernatural feminine decay characterized by extreme pallidness of skin, wrinkles and rotten teeth, and dank clumps of hair.

Doug Jones as Edith’s mother in Crimson Peak

In many ways, the horror of these figures is of women who have somehow failed out of an approved [white] femininity — or aged out of fecundity. These figures exist within a nexus in which their gender has become a liability; and in its very exaggeration, it ceases to be viable and fixed. Our insistence upon a dual understanding of sex and gender means that if they are not truly women, then they must be…what, exactly? Surely it’s no accident that cisgender male actors are called upon, time and again, to portray this monstrous femininity. Witness the shrunken or sagging breasts; the angular features; the irresistible physical strength. These are not, and cannot be, nurturing mothers or seductive objections of sexual fascination — and therefore, they have no cultural use except as a figure of revulsion.  What is left for a woman who has no point, other than to frighten and terrorize?

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But this is far from being the only fascinating cultural expression implicit in the figure of these hags, crones, and harpies. They go further to indict our deep-seated unease with aging in general, a fear made all the more poignant when you consider that capitalism is ruthless with those citizens who are not productive in some way. A woman who is not “womanly” has little use in the psychosexual economy; an old woman who is a drain on resources has none in a capitalist one.

The way that the crone figures as a metaphor of a dying order also bears more investigation. The Spanish horror film [REC] caused a minor global sensation when it was released in 2007, and to date is considered to be one of the best examples of the “found footage” genre. [REC]’s success spawned three sequels, but it’s hard to beat the first film’s incredible evocation of creeping dread as a young reporter and her unseen cameraman move from filming a “behind the scenes” documentary about firemen to fighting for their lives in an old apartment building against some sort of “infection” that turns victims into ravening, mindless, undead killers. The horror is unleashed when the firemen and a feckless young cop enter the apartment of an old woman, Mrs. Izquierdo, to check on her after her neighbors hear screaming and fear she has hurt herself. They enter her apartment, she shambles forward and then attacks with bloodcurdling screams and berserk energy. Her ferocious attack is shocking and, at least initially, received with dark comedy: look at this pathetic, sick, fat old woman in her nightgown lurching at these robust men.

[REC] starts with an aggressively banal peek into a working civic infrastructure with all its tools deployed: the press (the reporter, Angela Vidal); social services (the firemen); law enforcement (the federal authorities and police who swoop in to contain the threat); and later the church. In fact, apart from Angela herself, all representatives of this civic authority are male — which makes the attack upon that authority by Mrs. Iziguerdo that much more striking. This rabid, nearly-nude old woman has no place in this current order. Tucked up in this ancient edifice, alone, she represents an old order brutally lashing out at the forces of a new order which seeks to help, then to subdue her. She is almost a cliche of a crazy old cat lady; but to be fair, the movie spares little sympathy for the other elderly members of the movie: the bickering and confused older couple who can’t quite remember what apartment they live in, the vain and effeminate older gay man who lives with his mother and is quick to express racist suspicions of the Asian family living in the building. These people are liabilities, and we are unsurprised that the film finds a way to dispense with them quickly.

When [REC] was remade as Quarantine for American audiences, the figure of poor, possessed Tristana Medeiros became simply The Infected Man (played by the absolutely wonderful Doug Jones, who is no stranger to these kinds of roles).

Tristana Medeiros becomes…

this.

There are physical expectations imposed on all bodies, masculine and feminine; and penalties levied upon people whose appearances are perceived as aberrations. In horror films, those penalties become literal and tangible. “Deviant” bodies are forcefully and physically expelled to ensure the safety (and sanity) of “normal” people. Horror vibrates with a hysteria over monstrous bodies who threaten the unspoken assumptions behind ageism, ableism, and misogyny. Filmmakers shower talented cis male actors like Javier Botet with work, but at the same time use these actors to underline a profound dis-ease with deviant bodies (the elderly, people with disabilities, the gender non-conforming, among others). In the end, the true terror of horror films might not be about the monsters they contain, but about what they reveal about the people who create and consume them.

 

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Posted by Carolyn Petit

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the demo I saw for Beyond Good & Evil 2 had reminded me of the open-world adventure of Breath of the Wild, or of The Witcher 3’s efforts to tell human stories in a vast landscape, or of how The Last Guardian’s mechanics emphasize cooperation between characters. I certainly didn’t expect the game I walked away thinking of most to be No Man’s Sky. But here we are.

For so many of us who loved the original Beyond Good & Evil, it’s the endearing humanity of its characters (even those, such as dear Uncle Pey’j, who aren’t, strictly speaking, human) that has kept the game alive in our hearts. It’s the way that Jade, by definition, was an altruistic character who cared deeply about those orphaned by the conflict raging on her homeworld, and the way that she and her friends worked together, a warm camaraderie between them, in an effort to liberate the oppressed and expose the truth.

In Beyond Good & Evil 2, you create your own character, who starts at the lowest ranks of space pirate society and rises through the ranks, eventually assembling a diverse crew to sail around the solar system, exploring new worlds and, one imagines, fighting for what’s right while also getting into no small amount of trouble. Clearly, the developers want Beyond Good & Evil 2 to explore cooperation and camaraderie as the first game did; one player’s crew may end up looking very different from another’s, but almost inevitably, each crew will include a diverse assortment of people and hybrids from different cultural backgrounds. However, I’m skeptical as to whether a game in which you not only create your own character but make countless choices about how to behave — Do you attack that slave ship and liberate the hybrids it’s carrying or do you let it continue on its way unhindered? — can possibly center concepts of cooperation and unity the way a game can when you are, by definition, playing an altruistic character who wants to work with others for the common good.

The behind-closed-doors presentation I saw began with a perusal of some of the game’s striking concept art, full of characters whose looks tell a story: human beings and hybrids of all kinds, some stern and steely-eyed, others like Knox, the monkey hybrid featured in the reveal trailer, bristling with energy. (Particularly exciting to me was Shani, the black woman also featured in the trailer, who I’d initially thought, and hoped, might be BG&E 2’s protagonist.) This beginning seemed to be a way of reassuring me that, regardless of everything I was about to see, Beyond Good & Evil is still a series concerned with characters, and with the value of each individual life. It was important to start there, because it would have been very easy to believe, based on what was to come, that the individual had been lost in the vastness of Beyond Good & Evil 2‘s scope.

What followed was a tech demo of the game, which is being built in Voyager, a new engine designed for BG&E 2 with a focus on scalability; the vision is for the game to move seamlessly from the intimacy of one-on-one interactions (the sort that might take place in neon-lit noodle houses on cramped, bustling city streets, for instance) up into the skies above, and from there, into the stars, where, provided your ship has the technology, you can shift into hyperspace and arrive at a distant planet that may have its own rich, bustling cities to explore. During the demo, creative director Michel Ancel and other team members started by inspecting the gigantic statue of Ganesha that looms over Ganesha City so closely that I could see the rivets holding its metallic panels in place, before zooming out to show the whole sprawling city, and then further still, until I was looking down on the curved surface of the planet from space; and as night fell on the part of the world below, scattered cities all over the globe became visible, glistening like stars.

Then they actually took me up into the stars, in a smooth shift that made it impossible for me to not recall lifting off from a planet’s surface straight into space in No Man’s Sky. And with that recollection came the question of whether a game of this scale can actually give us characters worth knowing and worlds worth exploring. Of course Beyond Good & Evil 2 isn’t aiming for No Man’s Sky’s seemingly infinite number of procedurally generated worlds, a number of worlds so vast that it wound up feeling meaningless in its vastness and sameness; the developers made a point of saying that they want the game’s universe to be full of locations that are designed, places like Ganesha City, with character and history.

Speaking of history, that looming statue of the Hindu god Ganesha hints toward Beyond Good & Evil 2’s backstory. The game takes place in a distant future in which India and China became global superpowers and humanity relied on the slave labor of genetic hybrids to colonize deep space. The presence of Indian and Chinese cultural influence in so much of the game’s artwork lends it a captivating flavor, but I did wish that the team of people I met who are involved in the game’s development and who were here at E3 representing its vision reflected the range of cultures the game is drawing from. The game is ostensibly about a bunch of pirates from different backgrounds, races and even species coming together, yet everyone I met who is working on the game is white.

Still, Beyond Good & Evil 2’s concept is thrilling. It just all sounds like so much. Maybe too much. I don’t know if I think it’s possible: a game with all the thrilling freedom of a galaxy to explore, that’s actually worth exploring, and that has a huge cast of richly developed characters who you can grow deeply attached to over time. I could believe in the vision of the character-focused game that creates a sense of solidarity and camaraderie among a diverse crew of pirates united by common cause, or in the vision of the game that sets you free in an extraordinary galaxy. But how can one game do it all? How can a game successfully balance these elements?

It’s not that I don’t like Beyond Good & Evil 2’s vision. I love it. For the moment, however, I remain skeptical that the game can come anywhere near achieving its ambitions, though I’d love nothing more than to find out someday that all my reservations were misplaced, and that its vast galaxy actually does possess all the individuality and humanity of the first game, and then some.

(Watch our video on what makes Beyond Good & Evil‘s Jade such a wonderful protagonist.)

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Posted by Carolyn Petit

For the past two years, we’ve produced gender breakdowns of the games showcased at the major press conferences of E3, the game industry’s biggest annual event. We do this not because we believe that every game starring a female character will be great, or that every game starring a male character will be awful, but because, when taken in their entirety, the numbers can tell us something about whose stories the game industry deems worthy of telling, and whose it doesn’t. Obviously, the press conferences at E3 hardly cover every game released or even every game featured at the show, but they do tell us how some of the biggest developers and publishers in the industry choose to define and market themselves when given the tremendous amount of attention that E3 brings with it.

Join Anita and Carolyn as they discuss gender representation trends at E3 live from the Engadget Stage Thursday June 15 at 2:30pm PT.

This year, more featured games than ever before allow players to either choose from a pre-existing assortment of characters of varied genders or to create their own. In fact, over half of all games featured at press conferences, 58 out of 109, fall into the category of games in which you do not play exclusively or primarily as a specific male or female protagonist. Being given the option to create your own character, or playing as multiple characters of different genders, is great. But it’s worth noting that, in games where a choice of gender is not provided, over three times as many games featured centered on men as centered on women. (In games that have both competitive multiplayer and single-player story campaigns, we took our data from the campaign. Therefore, Star Wars Battlefront II is among the games counted as having a female player character.) Our N/A category accounts both for games in which you play as a character of unspecified gender, such as Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and those games in which you essentially play as vehicles or other objects, such as Rocket League and Robocraft Infinity.

We appreciate and commend those games that featured female characters and players in their E3 demos. Anthem, for instance, is a game in which players can determine the gender of their character, but the demo centered on a female character and female player. Presentations like this help to normalize the presence of women in both online and physical gaming spaces.

Compared to last year, in which 12 times as many games featured male characters as featured female heroes, this would be a very good year. But the very fact that a year in which the number of games featuring men only outstrips those featuring women by a factor of 3 ½ instead of a factor of 12 qualifies as a “good year” is itself tremendously damning, revealing that there is still so far to go before we come anywhere close to achieving gender equity in gaming representations. Games that give us defined female heroes continue to be essential, in part because we still live in a culture that regularly encourages girls and women to project themselves onto and fully empathize with male characters, but rarely encourages boys and men to fully project themselves onto female characters. When players are encouraged to see a game universe exclusively through the eyes of a humanized female character, it helps challenge the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t identify with women as full human beings.

On combat:

This year, as was the case last year, over 80% of games featured at E3 press conferences utilize violence as a gameplay mechanic. We have given the benefit of the doubt to card games such as Fable Fortune and Shadowverse in which the action clearly represents a battle, reasoning that they also simulate two people sitting across a table playing cards with each other. If we hadn’t done this, the percentage of nonviolent games would have been even lower.

As with our numbers on gender, it’s important to understand that this data isn’t meant to suggest that every game that employs combat mechanics is bad, or that every game that doesn’t will be good. Additionally, we are in no way equating all games that employ violent mechanics with each other; the data isn’t intended to suggest that the colorful sword-swinging of Tunic is the equivalent of the brutal beheadings we may see in a game like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. Rather, we present the data to call attention to how prevalent violence remains in games of all kinds, because when violence is so consistently seen as a core component of game design, it limits our sense of what games are capable of and what kinds of stories they can tell.

 

You’ve reached the end of this piece – but there’s plenty more where this came from!

 

All of Feminist Frequency’s work – web pieces just like this one, videos, newsletters and interviews – is completely free to the public. But, everything we produce requires research, staff time and resources.

 

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