Batman: Arkham City's troubling gender politics
// Gurpreet Kambo

While gendered and racial discrimination is an ongoing issue in video games, occasionally one particular game comes along that makes the issue a focal point of discussion. The industry is overwhelmingly dominated by white males, even moreso in the current console generation, due to the decline of the Japanese gaming industry. Expectedly, it also overwhelmingly represents this rather limited perspective. Currently, critical darling Batman: Arkham City has come under fire for its portrayal of women and its problematic sexual politics.

While I have only put a couple of hours into the game, I can see where this criticism comes from. The game has two primary female characters: Catwoman, a new addition to the game, and Harley Quinn. On a prima facie level, both women are highly sexualized. They are both skinny, with large breasts, and wear revealing attire – Quinn with a school-girl/Lolita outfit, and Catwoman with a skintight black suit. Both women’s outfits reveal hefty cleavage, which the camera doesn’t hesitate to focus on. The prequel, Arkham Asylum, also had a character called Poison Ivy, whose attire was perhaps the most revealing of all: a midriff-baring cardigan, and a tiny, vaguely plant-like bikini bottom (Ivy being a character who can control plants).

Their characterizations are also a dimension in the gendered dynamics of Arkham City. Quinn’s portrayal appears to be one of servitude to the Joker, one of the villains. She displays an almost childlike devotion to him, though he clearly has no such regard for her. The character does not show any particular personal agency other than what the Joker tells her to do. Surprisingly, the Quinn character is a former psychiatrist who fell in love with the Joker when he was an inmate at Arkham Asylum, where she worked.
It appears that the writers of the Arkham games, critically acclaimed that they are, may have given Quinn the short shrift as a character. Her past would indicate a level of personal agency that does not seem to appear in this interpretation of the character – everything that has been shown about Quinn is meant to purposely give the interpretation of her being “ditzy”, from her high-pitched voice to her “aw-shucks b-man” personality. Even Batman describes her as “never very smart,” in reference to one of her plans.

However, in a post on his personal blog, Girl Parts author John M. Cusick notes that Quinn may be one of Batman’s most subversive characters: “Harley was a doctor when she met the Joker, which means her ‘aww-shucks B-Man” shtick is all an act. Harley chooses to disempower herself, becoming a (dangerous) child. Just as, I think, allowing oneself to ‘go crazy’ is at once empowering and disempowering, i.e. seizing control by losing it.” However, this is too deep in the subtext in Arkham, and the gamer has to work too hard to unpack this apparently problematic portrayal, as there is actually not much indication in the game.

Apart from her ambiguous ethnicity, the Arkham interpretation of the Catwoman character is conventionally “sexy”, a fairly standard Hollywood femme-fatale, right down to her “sexy” voice, manner of speaking, and sexual puns. Unlike Harley Quinn, though, she is clearly her own boss, and uses her sexuality to manipulate situations to her own advantage. A character can be sexual and not be sexualized, as characters that are sexualized are artificially done so to pander to viewers (and only a very specific group of viewers at that).

The issue of the portrayal and characterization of women is often just as much about context as well. Of course, it isn’t bad to have characters who are openly sexual – sexuality is a part of life, and our art and fictional representations should reflect that. It is in the way that the world and characters depicted in the game react to that character that matters. In Arkham, as has been widely reported, Catwoman is referred to as “bitch” by many male characters in nearly every scene she is in (this is the issue which has spurred so much discussion online). It is also suggested by some goons that she is bisexual, as if that is a putdown. The same characters also suggest that Quinn may be a transsexual.

It is easy to see how this kind of abusive and disturbing attitudes towards women may fit within the dark and dangerous world of Gotham City; however, it is also easy to see that the game would not have lost anything without it either. Arkham City is certainly worthy of the price of admission, and I encourage anyone with an interest in the action/adventure genre to play it. The question remains, however, if we vocally criticize questionable content in blockbuster video-games, will the developers heed to our concerns? After all, they already have my $60.

// Gurpreet Kambo, News Edito
// Illustration by Jason Jeon

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com