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JoyfulSanity avatar 4:23 PM on 09.26.2013  (server time)
“Sexualized” is a lazy term. Think before you use it.

For all the times the words “sexualized” and “sexualization” pop up in articles and comments sections on gaming sites these days, have you ever taken a step back and asked what those words mean?

I mean, I’m sure we all kind of think we do, just based on the fact that the word “sexual” is in both terms, but I want you to actually put what you think they mean into words. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines sexualize as “to make sexual: endow with a sexual character or cast.” However, that only asks more questions than it does answer them. How do you make something sexual? Does sexual mean erotic or is it just pertaining to the act of having sex? Is the criteria for being “sexual” objective or subjective?

When you call a character or videogame “sexualized,” how do you answer any of these questions in your use of the word, and is there any hope that I, the person reading your thought, would answer those questions the same way? With how prevalent discussions on “isms” have become in gaming communities, something desperately needs to be done with the language we use in the process. The fact of the matter is, when you rely on the term “sexualized,” you aren’t creating conversation. You’re avoiding one.

The main problem with the term “sexualized” is that, when used by itself, no one has any idea what you’re talking about. The term has become so overused (and even inflammatory) that any meaning it may have carried in relationship to gaming has been lost. Only calling a character “sexualized” is the intellectual equivalent of saying you dislike something because “it’s bad.” Instead of actually formulating a unique thought and conveying your opinion, you create a vague blanket statement in which it’s the reader’s responsibility to assume what you mean. If I had a nickel for every flame war that could have been resolved if the participants in the argument actually explained what they meant by “sexualized” before shooting back and forth with “yes and you’re ignorant” and “no and you’re stupid,” I’d buy us all pizza.

For example, as someone who does not generally follow Metal Gear Solid and wasn’t really interested in watching any trailers for Metal Gear Solid V, I was fairly confused when I saw certain sites and comments calling out the “sexualized design” of the new character named Quiet. Without any effort made to explain how she’s sexualized, the arguments by themselves were virtually pointless. Sure, I can try to understand that someone thinks her sexualization is bad, but that’s like expecting someone you just met to legitimately believe that your grandmother makes the world's best meatloaf without explaining what’s in it.

I initially planned to put a picture of Quiet here, but after seeing this... I couldn't resist. You must understand. I could not resist.

Even after seeing pictures of her character, the term “sexualization” is ambiguous. Is “sexualization” referring to her attire? If so, is it because of how revealing the outfit is, how seemingly impractical it is for a combat situation, or both? Is it her figure or breasts that are sexualized (a point I’ve discussed in the past)? In any trailers or screenshots, is she specifically portrayed as a submissive sexual object? For all I know, her sexualization could be referring to all of these things or none of these things, but without any kind of clarification I have no idea what the discussion is even about.

Note: I did become aware after writing this that Hideo Kojima made some references to designing Quiet as a "sexy" character, but regardless of those sentiments (or other statements he may have made), my misgivings with these kinds of arguments still stand. And really, a good argument wouldn't assume everyone knows everything about every prerelease piece of information anyway.

The other problem with calling a character “sexualized” is that it can imply that you somehow know about a prior version of the character that was not sexual, but then someone came along and did something to make the character sexual. See, when these terms are used in reference to real life issues, “sexualize” is more often used as a literal extension of its dictionary definition. For example, when Bratz dolls caused controversy for being sexualized, it makes at least some sense with only a glance. The dolls portray young girls as older and, yes, sexual by the use of suggestive clothing, poses, and makeup. Modern society generally agrees that prepubescent girls shouldn’t be portrayed as sexually desirable, so the term “sexualized” makes sense. When something (in this case, children and childhood) is either made sexual or at least more sexual, the term “sexualized” is a bit less ambiguous. Granted, even in the case of Bratz dolls, those who argue the point still have to explain how they are sexualized, but at least there’s less confusion in what the term means.

This isn’t to say that the terms “sexualized” or “sexualization” can’t be used when discussing videogame characters; the terms just need clarification. To go back to Quiet’s design, instead of saying “Quiet is sexualized” and calling it a day, someone could say, for example, “Quiet’s uniform is as revealing as a sexualized army girl Halloween costume, and hopefully Hideo Kojima is able to justify the design in the game’s story.” Now the reader will know what perspective the commenter is coming from, and by having to answer the question of “what do I mean by sexualized,” the commenter was forced to make the argument more solid and justifiable as a result.

Just to be abundantly clear, I’m not saying we should avoid discussions about “isms,” sex, or sexualization itself. In fact, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. Particularly around here on Destructoid, I’ve seen some of the most thoughtful, intelligent, and persuasive arguments about these subjects, and I don’t want that to ever change. Yet it has become impossible to ignore those that seem to use these words just for the sake of trying to appear as politically correct to others on the internet. Before sounding off on a particular subject or issue, we all need to be honest with ourselves and ask whether we’re actually contributing something meaningful or are just making noise for the sake of attention.

Picture slightly censored for those who are offended by butts.

If you find yourself using these words, challenge yourself to clarify what you’re actually addressing and modify your argument to reflect this. And if you’re unable to do that, then relax; there’s other things you can do to be helpful and supportive for a cause! Say some nice words to someone if they make a great argument, support developers who create games with characters you particularly enjoy, or tell your friends about a great game or article you found. Bringing about change for a good cause comes in a variety of forms, so not being recognized by internet users as a champion of inclusivity doesn’t mean that you aren’t one. At the end of the day, we’re all just regular people trying to learn more about a subject, and sometimes it’s good to be silent to see what other people have on their minds.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be making several phonecalls to my internet service provider to let them know that “sexualized young girls” was a suggested Google search that came up in my research and I swear it’s not what it looks like.

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