Sometime last year, I decided to start a new little hobby that wasn't gaming in order to broaden my interests a bit. This was during a time of mental transition in a lot of ways when I simply didn't have the energy, for many reasons, to dedicate time to games. But being the impractical consumerist dullard I am, I decided to choose a hobby that was largely no less inexpensive than games at all, or even interactive or engaging in anyway, which is one positive thing I can at least say about gaming; I decided to get into pinup.
Now I'm a guy, so to actually be involved the lifestyle and sub culture of pinup in any kind of direct way would be, to say the least, somewhat counterproductive. I could imagine I wouldn't look too good in Bettie Page era nylons and heels, since I can barely wear a t-shirt and jeans without looking like an obese slob. And trying to explain exactly what my slowly growng collection of pinup prints, paintings, and magazines is usually not worth the effort, so I don't bother trying. But if I had to use three words to describe how collecting photographs of lovely ladies donning corsets, up-do's, and sultry smiles isn't some degenerate, masturbatory practice, it would be: "Pinup isn't porn."
It's kind of weird writing about this on a game site, but I'll get to the point eventually. When I was teenager, the lurid gawkers my own age were always looking at girls in the class, ogling the barely teen bounce of pubescent bosoms, and speaking in an exclusionary language to one another that would get them a fucking jail sentence if they were heard speaking that way in their adult years. That was one of many points where I was totally unable to relate to my peers, and along with my gaming hobby, was just one of so many reasons I was typically ostracized until I found my own little clan near the end of the vicious slog that was high school. It wasn't that I didn't like girls; I did. I just didn't really have any interest in the ones under 35, and was especially resistant to the typical ensemble of sneakers and jeans; I was the guy interested in his parents' friends, especially if they knew what a good pair of heels looked like. I liked older, classy ladies. And when my wife has questioned in the past, "well how come you're with me? I'm younger than you." I jokingly tell her, "yeah now, but one day you'll be old."
That sounds a lot more misogynistic when I write it down than it does in our constant exchange of daily verbal pokes, but it's one of those running jokes between us, and there is a modicum of truth to it regardless of any mean spirited interpretations that might arise from it.
In the world of gaming, there is a constant controversy that I don't even need to explain; the idea of objectifying women. At it's most egregious, this unfortunate problem arises in the form of treating women like nothing more than in-game sex objects to be mercilessly ogled and mistreated by backwards, basement dwelling sexless introverts. At it's most innocent and "harmless", it can be a problem as simple as a pair of gigantic breasts bouncing around in Dragon's Crown. But the fact remains that women are not well represented in games, not on the same scale that guys are. There are plenty of games that represent many different body types of males, personalities, attitudes, but a lot that miss the mark when it comes to female characters. The oversexualized buxom beauty whose vapid remarks serve no purpose but to titillate a male audience are starting to be criticized, rightly, on a level which is encouraging developers to change. But in an industry practically dominated by creative minds that are predominately male, having a decent female protagonist who isn't a total, vapid windbag is often a rare thing to come by.
Conversely, stripping all sexual characteristics from your female characters, and simply turning them into violent sociopaths as a way to compensate offers nothing more than a false sense of equality. It sends a bad message; that females wanting to be on equal grounds with males have to be needlessly masculine and un-feminine in order to do so. There are clear differences in the physical makeups between men and women, so having every female character be a Vasquez from Aliens just serves to push the "butch" stereotype, that a woman who wants to do "man things" has to be as ripped, nasty, and roughly chiseled just to keep up with the boys. It's something I don't agree with at all. True equality, to me, is men and women having equal rights, and being on the same footing, while being able to preserve the qualities that make them unique. And being different within that very typical standard should be an option as well; not every man has to be a square jawed jock, not every woman has to be pretty and feminine while simultaneously jumping around and kicking ass, but there should be a general division between the two; blurring that at any opportunity because writers are simply too lazy to embrace different personality and physical types is something I no longer want to see.
But that being said, there is a clear difference between women being objectified, and women utilizing their femininity for their own benefit; and this doesn't boil down to the seductress stereotype of a woman who constantly uses her feminine wiles in order to turn the tide of a situation by simply taking advantage of a mans erect sub-brain. It's the difference between a dating simulator where every woman is a submissive piece of meat that will instantly bend to the will of the user and expose herself in often grotesque ways due to the results of some vague, arbitrary moral questioning, or a character like Jade from Beyond Good and Evil whose own gender doesn't come into the equation at all when establishing her as a likeable protagonist with clearly defined goals in mind, who is ambitious and strong without being terminally unlikeable and ethically putrid in order to make her strength clear to the audience playing. At the same time, anyone who says Jade isn't easy on the eyes is a loony themselves; but that's OKAY, because her looks don't define the rest of her character; they are not treated as an integral trait to be abused. They are not used to actively objectify her in anyway for the transparent intention of drawing in a male audience who otherwise might not want to play as a "girl."
That's why it saddens me to hear some of the criticism surrounding the upcoming game by Zeboyd, a new 16-bit RPG featuring a female lead. I have read many people who were fans of the older games not wanting to play Cosmic Star Heroine specifically because they have no interest in filling the boots of a female role. On the one hand, I suppose I can try and understand the inability of some to remove themselves for an hour or two a day and act as a character that doesn't represent their gender, but it comes off more as a genuine insecurity.
But I digress. How does pinup fit into all this? How can I possibly relate beautiful women dressing in classy wears and posing in front of a camera to something as complex as the video game industry without sounding like a complete, misogynistic, ill-informed fool?
Well maybe I can't, but I'm damn sure gonna try.
Pinup is unique and distant from any kind of pornography, in my observation, because of one distinct difference; attitude. I mean there are a lot of elements that come into play. Style, artistic integrity, and so much else, but the women involved in pinup are the key difference that draws a line between the retro risque photoshoots of the modern pinup and the purposefully exploitative manipulation of the porn industry.
My wife in particular likes to read the magazines I collect because a lot of the time they have some very interesting and insightful articles, usually featuring women of the past who were involved in the industry in its infancy, and who were figures of power and intimidation a lot of the time; the flavor text accompany pinup photography is very much one where the woman plays a dominant role, and the fact that most pinup magazines don't actually cater towards men and at all, but are rather written by women for women, exude this sensibility at every corner. You can see a lot of this on Facebook fan pages where the disparity between male and female fans becomes so apparent; men become salivating dopes who will toss their money at the models, and the women are typically asking about the locations and accessories used in the shoot. Both are there to look at beautiful ladies, of all shapes and sizes putting themselves in front of a camera in order to evoke a more classical age of risque photography, but the fanbase is never dominantly male; a very interesting distinction.
(Canadian Pinup Model Bianca Bombshell)
Women of all shapes and sizes, indeed. In just about every pinup mag on the market today, you will find a vast array of different model types. The good mags are not afraid to feature plus size models who would otherwise be completely ignored by the rest of the modeling industry at large; the emphasis on featuring real women from all walks in life who appreciate the pinup aesthetic or lifestyle to some degree is a refreshing change of pace from the airbrushed fantasy of tall skinny blondes that you might find in an issue of Maxim or Sports Illustrated. It expresses the idea that beauty and sexiness is not exclusive to a certain type of women, and is a lot more positive, in many ways, to the unrealistic body types pushed by major womens magazines today, which have a huge hand in pressuring women to conform to a certain look, and, more egregiously, to constantly appeal to what men apparently want rather than determining their own standard for beauty.
If the pinup lifestyle and my own fascination with it has taught me anything, it's that JUST being a woman, just being in front of a camera or being dolled up in some way is not enough to justify the cry of "objectification." The pinup models I follow and communicate with on a regular basis started it as a hobby; two of them are actually married to photographers, who also happen to be the ones that do most of their shoots, and the crossover between pinup and burlesque dancing is made apparent with a lot of the models. But they started doing it as a hobby, and grew their own personal businesses from it as their popularity increased. They are the ones running the show, and don't answer to anybody; and there are more than a few models who are now running their own magazines, and deciding both what kind of written and photographed content will be featured within. Beautiful women, in total control, with men playing almost no role in their success, except for groveling at their feet (especially if your name is Elmer Batters) and worshiping the ground they walk on.
How this sort of thing can translate into the game industry, I'm not really sure. But like the pinup industry today being largely female owned and operated, I think having more heroines or characters who find a happy balance between the ultra dominant and largely submissive stereotypes we so often see is a good start. Having women act like women, or in other words, like normal people with varying personality traits, body types, and the like, is a great place to start. But going to far in one direction is no way to go about it.
I used the pinup example specifically to highlight a counterculture where women are not afraid to both be beautiful and powerful, but where neither of these factors rely on the men around them in order to succeed. They can embrace their femininity for what it is while simultaneously maintaining a professional disposition; they are not walking pieces of meat to be taken advantage of by sweaty, balding business executives. They are independent, powerful, and most importantly, unabashedly human; not airbrushed aliens, not one trick ponies, but rather people who come from all different walks of life; and that is the type of portrayal I want to see more of in games.