In one of my blog threads a few months back, someone (I have entirely forgotten who, and feel free to make yourself known so I can credit you properly) argued that the problem with feminist gaming criticism is that it includes both ideological correctness and quality in the same rating. They praised Christ Centered Gamer, which separately ranks how good a game is and how Christian a game is.
As a non-gamer, I don’t really think it’s my place to have opinions about how gaming reviews work. However, I think this brings to light an interesting wider issue.
I would agree with my commenters if the only issue were effects on people reading. If reading sexist books tends to make people more sexist, and reading anti-Christian books tends to make people less Christian, then of course both I and an evangelical would like people to read ideology-compatible books. But people expect book reviews to be about the quality of the book. Giving a good book a poor review because I don’t want people to disagree with me is poor business practices in the free marketplace of ideas.
However, I think this argument is missing an important point: for the serious Christian, anti-Christianity is usually an artistic failure; for a feminist, sexism is usually an artistic failure; our reviews should reflect this. I’ll begin by giving an example of something where neither is an artistic failure: porn.
If a Christian went up to a porn writer and said to her “none of these people are married and the vast majority of them are bisexual! This is sinful!”, the porn writer would be well within her rights to respond “dude, it’s porn.” Similarly, if I, as a feminist, went up to a porn writer and said “none of your characters are doing anything remotely approaching consent best practices, also they are all gorgeous and that is promoting unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards,” the porn writer would probably be like “dude, it’s porn.”
Porn is an artistic genre that is perhaps uniquely single-purpose: it is supposed to arouse the reader until they have an orgasm. All other artistic goals are secondary. If our porn writer– no doubt extremely annoyed at this point– were asked “how does this BDSM AU work on an economics level? Wouldn’t civilization fall apart if half of society were forced to do nothing all day but wear buttplugs and be chained to beds?” she would no doubt respond “it’s PORN! If you want realism, go read a literary novel about an English professor contemplating adultery! Jesus Christ, can everyone leave me alone to write about my characters toeing out of their shoes now?”
If character development, good worldbuilding, and an intriguing plot make the story more fappable, then the porn writer should include it; if they don’t, she should have cardboard characters having unconflicted sex in a deeply economically implausible setting.
This is true of other works which are supposed to elicit emotions. Romance novels are supposed to make the viewer feel simulated new relationship energy; action movies, excitement; horror stories, fear. To a certain extent, saying “but there aren’t actually any 27-year-old self-made billionaires with large amounts of time to do hanggliding and stalk college students” is missing the point.
So when is it an artistic failure?
The first is failure of imagination. For example: I don’t think that the reason so many characters are able-bodied white men is that every author has independently thought about it and decided their story can only be told using an able-bodied white male protagonist. I think authors default to able-bodied white male heroes without thinking about it. This is annoying, because a lot of stories would be legitimately better as stories if they were told about a physically disabled woman of color instead. This isn’t due to any superiority of physically disabled women of color: if authors defaulted to physically disabled heroines of color, the same would be true of white able-bodied men.
Avatar the Last Airbender fans: imagine Toph. Imagine Toph as a man who can see.
The hill I die on here is that Tony Stark would be tremendously more interesting as a wheelchair user. This gives him a reason to make the Iron Man suit in the first place: able-bodied Tony has no reason not to have just built a gun, but disabled Tony has just been shot in the back and needs help walking. He could make snarky comments and shut down journalists writing about Tony Stark, Who Used To Be A Billionaire Playboy Until He Became Disabled And Learned What Really Mattered In Life. There could be suspenseful moments when the villain attacks him and he doesn’t have the suit on, so he can’t stand. He could totally have a rocket-powered flying wheelchair. And if you don’t think that rocket-powered flying wheelchairs are awesome, get out of my face.
But nobody thinks to themselves “hm, would it be more interesting if this action movie protagonist were a wheelchair user?” and so we are stuck with zero rocket-powered flying wheelchairs.
The second is realism. Most stories are supposed to be Like Reality Unless Noted: there might be vampires, but Tokyo is still located in Japan. As a feminist, I believe that sexist ideas aren’t just unethical, they’re wrong. In the real world, women are actually concerned about things other than babies and lipstick. If all the women in your story are concerned about nothing besides babies and lipstick, then your story is flawed, in the same way that your story would be flawed if Tokyo were inexplicably in France.
This is the origin of my grudge against Pacific Rim. Pacific Rim is set in Hong Kong. The fact that there are no Chinese people with both names and speaking parts in the entire film is, in fact, unrealistic! Where the fuck are the Chinese people in this movie? Are they hiding?
This is also true, incidentally, for our Christ-Centered Gamers. Christians believe, as an empirical fact, that the world was created by an all-powerful, all-loving deity, and that Jesus Christ died and was raised from the dead to save us from our sins. If the world of your story does not look like the sort of world in which those things happened, it is unrealistic.
The third is thematic resonance. Most stories– particularly those that have any pretensions of being “art”– don’t just exist to entertain people. They’re supposed to convey something about how the world works, something of the author’s worldview, some truths that the author thinks are important. This doesn’t mean they should be preachy: in fact, good art is very rarely preachy. But NBC Hannibal is about abuse– about powerful, charismatic abusers, and how invisible their evil is and how cleverly they manipulate institutions, and the desperate lengths to which abuse survivors are driven to escape them– without any character sitting down and telling you “So, Abuse Is Bad, And Sometimes Abuse Victims Have To Do Immoral Things To Try To Get Abusers To Stop.” Similarly, the Hunger Games is a meditation on celebrity culture, but it doesn’t pause the book at any point to tell you “Okay, You Know How We Treat Child Stars? Basically The Hunger Games. Stop Laughing At Amanda Bynes For Having A Psychotic Break.”
I want to emphasize that this is not necessarily leaving the realm of art for art’s sake. Oscar Wilde took a far dimmer view than any Gamergater of art being considered “moral” or “immoral”, but he said also that “the moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist“. If the artist is engaging with morality as part of their book– as both Hannibal and the Hunger Games do– then critiquing their morality is fair game, without referencing other people.
And… I guess there’s a place for “I see what you’re doing and I respect your talent and that you have clearly pulled it off, but it gives me the fucking creeps.” I respect that Salvador Dali is an extremely talented painter, but I am not ever going to like his work, because I am never going to embrace “fuck rationality, we should all like dreams and surrealism instead.” And maybe that’s all I can ethically do.
But then that leads to a question of how we can do critique at all. My preference for serious optimism over grimdark is no different than my preference for lush prose over Hemingway-style sparseness, or creative and economically plausible worldbuilding over And Here Is The Generic Spaceship Set, or for that matter themes that grow organically out of the story instead of morals the author has someone explicitly state at the end. All published works appeal to someone, or they wouldn’t be published; how can I ground my opinion that Divergent is bad but fun or that Aristophanes wrote the best dick jokes of all time?
Barring someone solving the epistemology of book reviews for me (which: please do), I feel like reviewing themes is exactly like reviewing anything else: I can say “Frank Miller comics are bad because they are very grimdark.” And by that same token, it is licit for me as a feminist to say “your books are bad because the theme is that women should be slaves of men“. At the same time, I can say “Hannibal is such a good TV show! Its portrayal of abuse dynamics gets at truths that a lot of stories about abuse won’t touch.” Similarly, our friends over at Christ Centered Gamer can totally say “the theme of this story is that forgiveness is impossible and one should instead take vengeance; therefore, this is a bad game”– or, conversely, “this game champions the virtue of self-sacrifice, 10/10, definitely What Jesus Would Play.”
I hope this makes my position on video game reviews clearer. To the extent that video games are just supposed to be fun and challenging, critiques of them for their sexism are irrelevant from an artistic perspective. To the extent that they are supposed to tell stories, have themes, or be art, sexism is very, very relevant. The idea that quality can be separated from politics is false.