Anita Sarkeesian is back with a new installment in her feminist analysis of video games. This one is a 25 minute discussion of the Ms. Male Character Trope, the phenomenon in which video games spice up their characters by including a female modeled off of the original male character. It’s a good example of the way in which males are centered, while females, if included at all, are seen as a non-normative kind of human, animal, or thing.
She starts with the classic example of Pac-Man and Mrs. Pac-Man, observing that only Mrs. is marked with symbols of femininity; Pac-Man, who’s not even called Mr. Pac-Man, has no markers at all. This is typical. This is how maleness is made simultaneously invisible and front-and-center, while femaleness is othered. Like this:
A fan sent her an example of what a reverse world would look like, where women were the default and men were marked and othered. Awesome:
I have enjoyed Star Wars Angry Birds since I first discovered it almost a year ago, at the suggestion of my brother (a fellow Star Wars fan). While I never warmed to the original Angry Birds, I was tickled that I could clearly identify the Star Wars characters the birds represented in the themed version of the game. When Star Wars Angry Birds II released last month, I anxiously dove into the sequel. On a whim, I decided to use the new store feature to look through the many characters that I might someday unlock.
When I finally scrolled through all of the characters in the game, I noticed something peculiar.
Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford, a white male, in the Star Wars films) is portrayed by a yellow bird. Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill, a white male) is portrayed by a red bird. Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson, a white male) is portrayed by a tan bird. These birds all have costumes or props that identify them as the characters they are meant to represent, but their color is not related to the skin color of the characters/actors in the films.
This pattern held true for every (human) male character with two notable exceptions: Captain Panaka (played by Hugh Quarshie, a black male) and Mace Windu (played by Samuel Jackson, a black male) are both portrayed by brown birds.
So, what’s the message? Well, for white, male Star Wars characters, skin color is unimportant; white characters can be represented by a bird of any color. It is the costuming or props used by these birds that convey the essence of the character. But for black Star Wars characters, their skin color (brown) becomes the defining element conveying the essence of the character.
Likewise, gender is also a defining characteristic for the portrayal of female characters. Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher, a white female) and Padme (played by Natalie Portman, a white female) are both portrayed by pink birds. There are no other pink birds in the game. Again, the color of the bird is unimportant, unless the bird is female, in which case the character’s gender (denoted by its pinkness) becomes the essential element of that character.
This same pattern also appears in the original Star Wars Angry Birds, in which Princess Leia is the only pink bird and Lando Calrissian (played by Billy Dee Williams, a black male) is the only brown bird.
White privilege and male privilege persist, in part, by framing the white, male experience as normal. Even in a game like Star Wars Angry Birds II we see the invisibility of whiteness and maleness and the foregrounding of race and gender for people of color and women.
Galen Ciscell is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Pacific Lutheran University. He is also the designer of the cooperative board game Atlantis Rising.
New research is discovering that the “ambient environment,” the passive context in which activities and decisions occur, can have a big impact. In a paper by psychologist Sapna Cheryan and three colleagues, they recount how the ambient environment affected men’s and women’s interest in majoring in computer science and their sense that they were capable of doing so.
To test this, they invited some of the respondents into a neutral room, while others entered a room covered in “computer geeky” things: a Star Trek poster, comic books, video game boxes, empty soda cans and junk food, technical magazines, and computer software and hardware. (Don’t kill the messenger; these were items that other college students had agreed were typical of a “computer science geek.”)
Cheryan and colleagues found that men (the dark bars in the graph below) were unfazed by the geekery (they were slightly more likely to be interested if the environment was stereotypical, but the difference is within the margin of error). Women who encountered the geeked up room, however, were much less likely to say that they were considering a computer science major (the light bars).
This research is a great example of the ubiquitousness of the cues that tell us what types of interests, careers, hobbies, and activities are appropriate to us. Our ambient environment is rich with information about whether we belong. And that stuff matters.
Source: Cheryan, Sapna, Victoria Plaut, Paul Davies, and Claude Steele. 2009. Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97, 6: 1045-1060.
This vintage ad for a cockroach racing game is a great reminder that what seems normal isn’t necessarily natural or inevitable. Most Americans today would grimace at the idea of playing with cockroaches, as the insect is held up as an icon of filth and disease. But sometime in the ’40s, someone at the International Mutoscope Reel Company thought this was a good idea! Or, then again, maybe times haven’t changed so much; the company went bankrupt in 1949.
This screenshot of the front page of The Sun is an excellent example of the eroticization of violence against women and our insistent denial of it:
The article is a condemnation of a video game in which the goal is to rape a mother and her two daughters (and force them to have abortions if they get pregnant). They call the game “sick” and “shocking,” but also include a huge picture of the virtual rape victim sexily stripping down to her underwear. Twisty, at I Blame the Patriarchy, observes that “…in terms of screen real estate, titillating images take up more space on the Sun’s web page than actual copy…”
Notice, also, the “related story” about a girl murdered who had reported rape threats and then, to the right of that, a dating advertisement featuring a couple of girls making bedroom eyes at the viewer.
This is what rape culture looks like: a story about a video game that encourages players to rape and otherwise torture women and girls, alongside titillating images from that very game; a story about a “girl” who had actually been murdered, alongside a photo of her looking invitingly into the camera; and a dating website. With this material like this, we learn that sex, violence, and women aren’t separate concepts. Instead of learning to think about sex, violence, and women, we learn to think about, and fantasize about, sexviolencewomen.
New data about the science aptitude of boys and girls around the world inspires me to re-post this discussion from 2010.
Math ability, in some societies, is gendered. That is, many people believe that boys and men are better at math than girls and women and, further, that this difference is biological (hormonal, neurological, or somehow encoded on the Y chromosome).
But actual data about gender differences in math ability tell a very different story. Natalie Angier and Kenneth Chang reviewed these differences in the New York Times. They report the following (based on the US unless otherwise noted):
• There is no difference in math aptitude before age 7. Starting in adolescence, some differences appear (boys score approximately 30-35 points higher than girls on the math portion of the SAT). But, scores on different subcategories of math vary tremendously (often with girls outperforming boys consistently).
• When boys do better, they are usually also doing worse. Boys are also more likely than girls to get nearly all the answers wrong. So they overpopulate both tails of the bell curve; boys are both better, and worse, than girls at math.
• That means that how we test for math ability is a political choice. If you report who is best at math, the answer is boys. If you report average math ability, it’s about the same.
• How you decide to test math ability is also political. Even though boys outperform girls on the SAT, it turns out those scores do not predict math performance in classes. Girls frequently outperform boys in the classroom.
• And, since girls often outperform boys in a practical setting, math aptitude (even measured at the levels of outstanding instead of average performance) doesn’t explain sex disparities in science careers (most of which, incidentally, only require you to be pretty good at math, as opposed to wildly genius at it). In any case, scoring high in math is only loosely related to who opts for a scientific career, especially for girls. Many high scoring girls don’t go into science, and many poor scoring boys do.
Now, let’s look at some international comparisons:
• Boys do better in only about ½ of the OECD nations. For nearly all the other countries, there were no significant sex differences. In Iceland, girls outshine boys significantly.
• In Japan, though girls perform less well than the boys, they generally outperform U.S. boys considerably. So finding that boys outperform girls within a country does not mean that boys outperform girls across all countries.
• Still, even in Iceland, girls overwhelmingly express more negative attitudes towards math.
So what’s the real story here? Well, one study found that the gender gap in math ability and the level of gender inequality in a society were highly correlated. That is, “…the gender gap in math, although it historically favors boys, disappears in more gender-equal societies.”
Part of the problem, then, is simply that girls and boys internalize the idea that they will be bad and good at math respectively because of crap like the “Math class is tough!” Barbie (sold and then retracted in 1992):
However, girls’ insecurity regarding their own math ability isn’t just because they internalize cultural norm, their elementary school teachers, who are over 90% female, sometimes do to and they teach math anxiety by example. A recent study has shown that, when they do, girl students do worse at math. From the abstract (this is pretty amazing):
There was no relation between a teacher’s [level of] math anxiety and her students’ math achievement at the beginning of the school year. By the school year’s end, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading” and the lower these girls’ math achievement. Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorsed this stereotype had significantly worse math achievement than girls who did not and than boys overall.
So, with only the possible exception of genius-level math talent, men and women likely have equal potential to be good (or bad) at math. But, in societies in which women are told that they shouldn’t or can’t do math, they don’t. And, as Fatistician said, “math is a skill.” People who think practicing it is pointless won’t practice it. And those who don’t practice, won’t be any good at it… Y chromosome or no.
We’ve collected several more examples of the tendency to present men as the norm, while women are a marked, non-default category. @LydNicholas tweeted us this example of a LEGO product advertised on their website. Notice that the blue version is a LEGO Time-Teach Minifigure Watch and Clock, while the pink version specifies that it’s for girls:
Jessica J. noticed that Wal-Mart Target helpfully lets you know where to find both neutral, plain old deodorant and women’s deodorant:
Jane G. sent us this photo of t-ball sets, one for girls and the other with no sex specified:
Aline, in Brazil, found these two wall painting kits. One is just a painting kit and the other is specifically “for women” (“para mulheres”). The latter, she said, claims to be a special offer, but is actually about $2 U.S. dollars more.
Eric Stoller pointed out that ESPN differentiates between college basketball and “women’s” basketball:
Lindsay H. pointed out that when you go to the U.S. Post Office’s website to forward your mail, it offers you the chance to subscribe to magazines. Those aimed at women (Cosmopolitan, First for Women, etc.) are in the category “Women,” while equivalent magazines for men (Esquire, Maxim) are not in a category titled “Men” but, rather, “Lifestyle”:
And Jane V.S. noticed that REI has various types of marked, “non-standard” sleeping bags, including those for tall people and women:
Renée Y. sent along another example, bike helmets:
Jessica B. spotted this pair of sibling outfits, coming in “Awesome Girl” and “Awesome Kid”:
E.W. searched Google for men’s specific road bikes and Google asked, “Don’t you mean women’s specific road bikes”? Because there are road bikes for people and road bikes for women.
Ann C. sent a screenshot of bubblebox, a site for children’s games. Notice that along the top there are seven options. The last is “girls,” suggesting that all the rest are for boys.
So, there you have it. In this world, all too often, there are people and there are women and girls.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
About Sociological Images
Sociological Images encourages people to exercise and develop their sociological imaginations with discussions of compelling visuals that span the breadth of sociological inquiry. Read more…