Thursday, April 12, 2012

Catherine and Sexism - It's Not What You Think

I've been reading a lot of articles lately about sexism and gaming or feminist characters in young adult novels. These are things that have been on my mind a lot lately. I suppose in order to finally the argument with my fiance about whether Bella or Katniss is a better character or even a good feminist role model for young women, I'll have to finish dragging myself through Twilight - for the record I made it through two books and would rather drag myself through a field of salt and broken glass after having all my skin flayed from my body. I've linked to a lot of these articles on my Facebook page or you can always follow me on Twitter at girlvszombie. I also recommend following the fantastic femmissgeek as she was the source I found most of the articles through.

In particular, there was this article about gamers as a community working to remove sexism from games. As with most things, I have points where I agree and disagree, but it got me to thinking about the game Catherine. 

Yes, Catherine is absolutely guilty of putting women in sexually provocative positions and turning them into objects. In the booklet that came with the game there is even a picture of Catherine eating pizza that looks like something else entirely when first viewed because of the way the booklet opens.

For those of you not familiar with Catherine, it is a game that follows a guy at the crossroads of a relationship. He's been sort of happily plodding along for a few years in this relationship with his girlfriend Katherine. On the day that she starts to pressure him - because her parents are bothering her about it and because of what her friends are doing - about finally getting married, he gets drunk at the bar he goes to every night (for drinks with his buddies) and meets a bubbly, young blond named Catherine whom he wakes up next to in the morning with no recall of what happened the night before. Katherine and Catherine are both blondes and conventionally attractive. Catherine is definitely a male sexual fantasy and she is very much meant to be and you can definitely see this as all very sexist.

The real problem comes from the fact that this game had a really great chance to explore relationships. It took the opportunity to make a game that would be interesting to both sexes and completely attempted to alienate women. Katherine is reduced to a shrill harridan most of the time, pressuring the main character about getting married and having children. She nags and sends passive aggressive text messages. She's the stereotype of what an adult relationship is to most adolescent males. She's the reason that a bachelor party is this sort of funeral dirge for the freedom of the groom. It's supposed to be the choice to grow up, the choice to be a mature adult and yet there is nothing really mature about the relationship.

Catherine is reduced to a male fantasy - with one exception. She's the 22 year old that a guy takes home from the bar with no honorable intentions and finds clinging to him and expecting a relationship. Some of her first lines in the game are about how relationships and marriage are almost unnatural and like prison. That it is better to be free. In both situations, the main character finds himself trapped between two women who both want to trap him in a relationship. Catherine couldn't have just been telling the truth about not taking anything seriously. She couldn't have just slipped out quietly in the morning and left it at that. Instead we are repeatedly subjected to scenes where she either shows up at the bar at the end of the night or wakes up purring about last night and how she's never let anyone do THAT with her before.

Without getting all spoiler riddled on you, I'll say that the game gets a lot more complicated than all that. It's a choice between chaos and order. It has multiple endings and to some degree, it explores relationships and fidelity and the choices that MEN make. I enjoyed it a lot, but the portrayal of women was insanely offensive and I'd even say that the portrayal of men is offensive as well.

Sure, this ordinary guy bumbling through life manages to nail a barely legal centerfold and she acts like she wants to be unattached and just blow his mind with the sort of sex men imagine happens with gymnasts or yoga instructors. Sounds great, right? I mean, aside from the fact that it removes all agency from the main character. He's basically helplessly lead around by his penis. He's riddled by guilt, he resolves not to do it again, and every morning there she is again. I mean, it is possible that women are supernatural succubi that men are helpless to resist, but I'd like to think that men are a little stronger than a tempting pair of breasts and legs. Shouldn't men be just as offended by their portrayal as weak and spineless walking erections as women are when they are portrayed as little more than tits and ass? Shouldn't they be offended by being reduced to the corruptors and betrayers of women?

Despite its rampant sexism, primarily reducing men and women to relationship stereotypes, this game is a lot of fun. I enjoyed the puzzle solving aspect and watching the peripheral relationships that surround the central story line are interesting. Men reflecting on the women they have wronged, their relationships with their mothers, and the one that got away. The regret and resolve and maturity of these peripheral characters is really and truly interesting. The "boss" characters that chase the main character up the steps at the end of each night are often pretty horrifying, but again generally they are just the things that are supposed to scare men about women, relationships, and commitment.

And to think, this isn't even the post I had planned for you. I've still got a lengthy piece on Suda51 and Grasshopper Studios' Shadows of the Damned and its portrayal of both ethnicity, relationships, and gender roles.

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