When we discuss the politics of art, it’s easy for the results to be flattening and reductive. Art, at its best, is greater and more delicately complex than politics, and even overtly political art must first succeed as art, secondly as a piece of politics.
Feminism isn’t exempt from this—if anything, feminism must work harder to overcome the severe, scoldy image that is perpetuated of progressive gender politics. There is a sort of idea that the aim of feminism is to stop people from having fun. Thus the specter of “political correctness” as a kind of stern schoolmarm trying to repress everyone’s innocently pleasurable natural urges.
This is bullshit, of course, but it can operate as a useful constraint on feminist discourse, encouraging us to avoid over-simplification in our analysis. When we’re asking whether art promotes our values, we have to remember that it’s art, not propaganda.
In Song of the Deep, a story-rich Metroidvania style game released July 12, 2016 by Insomniac Games, the protagonist is a young girl named Merryn whose father is lost at sea during a storm. The plucky Merryn immediately responds by constructing a functional submarine out of spare parts and setting off to find him.
Now, we’ve got a lot of progressive gender politics going on right there, a lot of boxes being ticked. Female protagonist, check. Girl acts with agency instead of being a damsel in distress, check. Appropriation of traditionally masculine engineering skills, check.
But Song of the Deep isn’t just a vehicle for an admirable role model for a couple of reasons. One is that all this setup is merely the framework for a story of lost civilization exploration that would be equally pleasurable no matter the gender of its protagonist.
The second is the beautiful, painterly art and the storybook quality of the gentle, Irish-accented narration. This aesthetic focus is in no way incidental to the story or the social views it may promote, but has the potential to help young girls identify with Merryn more than they otherwise might.
There’s almost a genre of blog post nowadays about “princess culture” and its hold on our daughters. But one point often gets lost in this handwringing: Disney’s fairy tale/princess movies are a rare pop culture commodity aimed at kids that incorporates actual beauty into its production (a lot less since they phased out hand-drawn animation, but there’s still beauty).
So while young girls are certainly responding to a fantasy of privilege and expressing and perhaps reinforcing ideas of gender rigidity, they are also searching for beauty to satisfy a need that most culture produced for them doesn’t meet. From that perspective, making Song of the Deep a beautiful story about a girl with agency is very, very smart.
But Merryn comes into the scene as the beneficiary of generations of evolving gamer culture. Consider Lara Croft, the protagonist of the Tomb Raider series. In initial incarnations, she was not exactly what you’d call an inspiring figure, unless you call an erection “inspiration.” As such, she became a locus for discussions of female sexuality in games, often coded in good/bad, pure/sexual binaries that we’ve yet to wholly unravel.
But as Lara’s breasts shrank and her character became stronger and more aggressive (no doubt a career of full-time tomb raiding will do that to you), she became a more nuanced character. You don’t have to like Lara or what she represents, but you can’t dismiss her, or the effect of her iconic status on the discourse of gender in games.
Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency may have done more than anyone else to place that discussion front and center in gaming culture. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, where Lara’s animus Nathan Drake abides, has also developed over the years, and director Neil Druckmann has explicitly cited Sarkeesian’s videos as driving their efforts to introduce more parity into their stories.
In an interview with GameZone, he discussed how their approach to introducing new characters has changed: “When I’m introducing and describing a new character to our lead character concept artist, constantly she will ask, “What if it was a girl?” And I’m like, Oh, I didn’t think about that. Let me think, does that affect or change anything? No? Cool, that’s different. Yeah, let’s do it.”
Some have pushed back against this approach, suggesting it leads to a kind of tokenism to treat gender as unimportant rather than developing women with specifically feminine stories, whatever that might mean. This is akin to the “guy with boobs” criticism often leveled at strong action heroines. I’m always troubled by the “guy with boobs” trope, not least because characters who are described thus are often violent, sexually amoral, and unsociable, and I’m not at all willing to concede those to be defining characteristics of masculinity.
We may never come to an agreement about how women (or men) “should” be portrayed in games, but our minds and our games are enriched as soon as we begin asking questions about those portrayals. If feminism in games can look like a fairy tale, or an evolving daredevil, or even just the inclusion of strong secondary characters, we’re well on our way.