Good Girl, Bad Girl: A Videogame Regurgitation
You eat something enough times, you’re going to get used to it no matter how much you dislike it.
That’s mainstream media in a nutshell. Our visual diet is composed of clichés and tropes that have spanned for decades across countless mediums and can be consumed in a matter of minutes or hours. While we can all stand to indulge in a little junk food now and again, there comes a time we need to get more critical of what we’re putting in our proverbial mouths. Media can influence the way you interact with your neighbor or talk to the barista behind the counter. At its best it connects people together and shares everyone’s innermost thoughts and desires. At worst? Our prejudices, willful ignorance and unfounded anxieties.
One such prevalant and ugly way of dividing and conquering people is what I like to call the Good Girl, Bad Girl cliché.
Used to take women of different backgrounds and juxtapose them against one another as competition, romantically or platonically, the Good Girl, Bad Girl is a classic mainstay. It manifests in petty cat fights to titillate the presumed straight, cisgender male viewer. It crops up as positive or negative narrative framing, giving one more screentime and the other an unceremonious death. It reduces women to a proverbial buffet to be mused over, selected and readily devoured (as you can see, this food metaphor has a lot of mileage). Don’t confuse this piece for a bare and basic defense of ‘all women’, however. The Good Girl is frequently a woman from privilege, regularly uplifted because she’s ticked off most of the requisite boxes to be ‘deserving’ of attention, protection and respect. While she does face misogyny and objectification, I lean toward defending the Bad Girl. The one rejected in fictional narratives and the real world.
This has become common in recent titles, making it clear these rotten societal scraps won’t be cleaned up any time soon. I’m going to explore the dichotomy presented between women in videogames — the inherent misogyny/ethnocentricism/whorephobia present in these roles and what they mean for an industry overwhelmingly dominated by a specific kind of person. Three guesses as to who those might be and the first two don’t count!
Mass Effect, to be as underwhelming as possible in the lead-in paragraph, is pretty popular. Its large and interesting cast has long since been one of its biggest draws — for better and for worse. Ashley and Liara, two romanceable squadmates introduced in the first game, are a pretty obvious Good Girl, Bad Girl allegory. Where Liara is demure, educated and coded white, Ashley is a rough-around-the-edges Latina in a traditionally masculine career field. Early romance mechanics display Liara’s bizarre and unexpected flirting (no matter how rude or polite you are to her), suggesting more than a little favoritism on the part of the writers. Which, hey, is fine. Just not when it’s rooted in archaic viewpoints. You can also get them both to squabble over you if you cheat on both of them behind their back. Everyone* loves cat fights, right?
This is carried over into Mass Effect 2 with squadmates Miranda and Jack. Miranda Lawson is a bit of an interesting case in that she would have likely been the Bad Girl in any other setting due to her working with an extremist group and femme fatale presentation. Seeing how this cliché works when one woman is actively situated against another, she is propelled into Good Girl territory by the existence of Jack. Where Miranda is (say it with me now) posh, classy and distinctly feminine, Jack is a tattooed felon who sports a shaved head and curses more than George Carlin. Before you ask, yes. These two also get into a cat fight. One that has a male character asking you to ‘take pictures’ of, no less. Fuck’s sake.
Now we have the beautifully disappointing Watch Dogs. While plenty of reviewers have already lambasted the title for its atrocious lead and lackluster open world gameplay, I’m going to take a hard left and focus on the Good Girl, Bad Girl presented in the main character’s sister Nicole and fellow hacker Clara. The sister is (second verse same as the first) blonde, middle-class and oh so worthy of the audience’s sympathy. Clara, on the other hand, is a dark-haired wild card (Aiden Pearce’s own words, even) sporting elaborate tattoos, piercings and a partially shaved head. Did I also mention she’s an illegal immigrant with a more sexualized design? I’m finding her less relateable already!
Unfortunately the game doesn’t sport any female characters outside of these two. Aside from Donna, anyway, the one-scene wonder whom you rescue in a side plot from a sex auction and never see again. Put two and two together and you have a pretty good idea where these women end up. (SPOILERS) Clara’s moral ambiguity doesn’t gel with the male-dominated presentation of the game and she ends up killed in a set piece in the third act once it’s revealed she had an indirect hand in Aiden’s niece’s death. About as indirect as his, but that’s beside the point! Nicole, on the other hand, is rescued in a later set piece and carted off into the sunset where she can live without her brother’s shitty influence. A happy ending for her. Not so much for Clara.(END SPOILERS)
Then we have the most painstaking example of this trope you could ever wish to find in Videogame Land. Chloe and Elena from the Uncharted franchise are as representative of this cliché as crocs are of a hellish fashion sense — Elena is the token thin blonde bombshell in a white collar career field, showing sexual tension with Drake within their first few lines together but kept at bay with the chaste Will They Or Won’t They. Chloe, on the other hand, doesn’t show up ’til the second game and is flat-out written out of the fourth. Why? Well, she’s ethnically ambiguous, morally ambiguous and sexually ambiguous. If she was any more difficult to pin down I might have to stop judging marginalized women based solely on arbitrary standards and try the whole ‘case-by-case’ basis thing!
She sleeps with Drake as well as one of his friends-turned-enemy, with plenty of jokes concerning her appearance and sexual nature peppered throughout both titles she appears in. (SPOILERS) I feel almost bereft putting a spoiler tag here because you know who Drake is going to end up with by the end of the series.(END SPOILERS)
The game, of course, attempts to have its cake and eat it by having Chloe and Elena lampshade their respective roles in their first interaction together.
What’s that? Simply pointing out what you’re doing is cliché and tired doesn’t automatically make it not cliché and tired? Now let me tell you, if I explictly make note that the undercooked pan pizza I just served you is undercooked, that means it doesn’t taste like cheap dough ready to give you the shits. Got it? I have more food metaphors where that came from!
Overwatch, for all that I adore this title (and plan on writing future articles about), even touches on this trope in its visual design. Since the game doesn’t have a linear story or single-player campaign, the closest we get to Good Girl, Bad Girl is how starkly each female character is designed according to their moral compass. The unequivocally good heroines, while a bit more varied than your average line-up, still don’t show quite the level of Bad Girl traits that the morally gray and evil women do.
The visual shorthands of feminine villiany are plain to see in Widowmaker, Sombra and Symmetra. Not only are they incredibly feminine in their long hair, make-up and spiked nails, they’re distinctly more sexual than Tracer or Mercy — although the former did get quite a bit of hubbub concerning a certain pose, she nonetheless occupies a familiar design sphere that runs the gamut of Safely Tomboyish to Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Why am I focusing so much on AAA titles when that’s where the utter sludge is going to be pushed in full force? Well…that’s exactly it! Due to budget and marketing, these are the games that get the most attention and, thus, have a much broader sphere of influence than your average indie title. It doesn’t mean they’re inherently more worthwhile emotionally or intellectually (far from it), but it helps to pinpoint exactly what gets shoved in our faces constantly to the point we almost don’t recognize them for what they are. Much like a virus, harmful messages work best when undetected and unchallenged.
The film industry has been crossing over with the videogame industry more often than not over the past few years, with the gap being bridged through technology and similar artistic presentations. Harry Potter shows this all throughout the series, with white character after white character dating or showing interest in characters of color…only to unanimously end up in long-term relationships with other white characters once they’ve settled down. Action films are pretty fond of this trope as well, as one of the proverbial hydra heads of the Good Girl, Bad Girl is maintaining a hegemonic power fantasy (the wildly popular Mad Max: Fury Road and Pacific Rim have clearly shown us only privileged men enjoy the allure of giant robots and explosions).
True Lies, a popular 90’s action-romance flick, has the sympathetic white housewife juxtaposed against the villainous woman of color, later culminating in…a cat fight. The Incredibles, a film I enjoyed for its dynamic action and stellar acting, still wallowed in the trope like a pig in slop with Good Girl Helen and Bad Girl Mirage. The former is a dissatisfied housewife (though, to be fair, her husband is an egotistical prick) and the latter is a mysterious seductress who is implied to have slept with the villain as well as shows interest in the hero. I could go on, but I’m already starting to bore myself to sleep.
Heck, we can even get more classic and cite Betty and Veronica, the long-running comic series about a love triangle between a guy, a Good Girl and a Bad Girl. In fact, this series is the trope namer over on TVTropes. It’s important to note that there isn’t a complete counterpart for Good Guy, Bad Guy, so to speak — if anything, bad men are given far more leniency in mainstream media than bad women are. Their racial counterparts, at any rate. A glance at Rotten Tomatoes on any given week shows thin, cishet white women getting more and more opportunities to play up the Bad Girl or the badass while remaining sympathetic.
So, do any recent games do this differently? Well, there are a few. Two of the most notable examples are Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire. Do they go all the way? Eh…let’s take a look.
Red Dead Redemption‘s Marston and Bonnie seem to play the trope as straight as an arrow during their first meeting. I mean, a thin and conventionally attractive blonde white woman working a ‘good’ job? That’s the just-add-water of mainstream romance tropes! Thankfully, this is pleasantly subverted early in the game — Marston reveals he is, in fact, happily married and trying to get back with his family after being roped into a borderline-kidnapping scheme conducted by two elite jackasses.
His wife, Abigail, would be the Bad Girl through and through if not for the narrative framing. Her dark hair, uneducated background and past stint as a sex worker would instantly brand her as the unfavorable option anywhere else. Here she’s presented as sympathetic, just as flawed and interesting as the male lead. Even when Bonnie and her meet later in the game they don’t have a tired spat — they actually get along swimmingly and even join in a few rounds of roasting Marston. Thank fucking goodness.
Unfortunately, the game is still pretty shameless in whitewashing American history and delegating most of its cast to white men and the occasional white women when the wild West was anything but. I’ve spoken before how Luisa, a young Mexican woman who fights for freedom, should have been treated way better.
L.A. Noire, an action-mystery title that has you play a detective solving a string of murders in 1920’s California, has the sultry and mysterious German nightsinger Elsa and the good American housewife Marie. Although Cole Phelps is married to the latter, he shows interest in the performer and regularly visits her. She faces quite a bit of sexist abuse at the hands of men, particularly for her sexual image and foreign status.
(SPOILERS) When it later turns out she may have some connections to a string of murders his flings with her start to affect his career and credibility. This later culminates in his wife leaving him (in her only scene, no less). Even more surprisingly, the one who ends up dying in the third act is not Elsa…but the lead character. All of this would be a touch more notable, of course, if she also wasn’t the only reoccurring female character in the entire game. Seriously, this title has more men than an Oscars panel.(END SPOILERS)
To put it plain? There’s nothing inherently immoral or ambiguous about any of these visual or social traits. Yet this is the message that keeps being pushed over and over again, with consequences that can be felt in the day-to-day. It’s not a coincidence that women who were sexually harassed or assaulted are frequently asked what they were doing or wearing at the time. There’s a reason women are economically punished for not adhering to standards of femininity, while simultaneously being reminded in mainstream media that to be too feminine is to be evil or slutty or both. Women of color, particularly those with dark skin, face a whole ‘nother world of hurt.
The Bad Girl often being written out, fighting the Good Girl and even killed at rates the Good Girl doesn’t quite experience tells us something. That Good Girls and Bad Girls never seem to be fat or transgender also tells us something. It’s one thing to be given conditional screen time and eventually booted out of the narrative. It’s another to be constantly rejected before the design stage even begins. Damn.
It’ll seem like nitpicking. But really, isn’t media all about the little details? You remember your favorite movie because of that one scene. You recall a beloved song because of a hook that gets you moving or a lyric that touches your soul. These details add up. Considering more marginalized women gamers are already pretty alienated in gaming communities (I mean, take a glance at any recent headlines featuring ‘doxxing’ or ‘harassment’), this pervasive cliché only stands to turn these little details into an overflowing pile.
Videogames are defined by their interactivity. When people regularly engage with female characters who are designed to be parsed and separated into good and bad traits, this spells nothing but disaster for actual women in the everyday. The occasional subversion here and there doesn’t put much of a dent in a constant stream of Good Girls and Bad Girls, the latter forever swirling deeper in a muck of respectability politics while men and privileged women are allowed to romp on adventures either mostly or entirely unimpeded by whorephobic comparisons, casual racism and cat fights.
People are more than welcome to eat garbage. I just think I’ll keep looking for products that are tastier and better for my health.