FF13 + Splinter Cell Conviction: Women Who Punch. Or, Get Punched.

The cutscene above, featuring FF13's female protagonist Lightning, occurs pretty early on in the game (maybe a couple hours in, depending on your playstyle). The scene establishes a few crucial aspects of Lightning's character: she's strong, she's tough, and she's completely fed up with Snow, the fiance of her maybe-dead sister Serah. It establishes all of the above when Lightning punches Snow in the face. Twice.

This choice actually made me pretty uncomfortable, for a few reasons.

I'm for gender equality in games. But I happen to know that if Snow punched Lightning back, that wouldn't go over very well with gamers, even though -- in my opinion -- he's well within his rights to do so.

It's worth nothing that this game has no blood, and all of the characters retain their pristine tiny noses and pretty features before and after battles (and before and after cutscene-punchings) ... but there's still violence, even if we don't see the after-effects. There's a lot of "magic" fighting -- everybody has different powers. The enemies -- which are generally animal-like monsters, not people -- evaporate when they "die," so you don't see a body pile-up. Typical RPG fare. It's not like, say, Borderlands where all you have to do is look at a post-battle pile of corpses to see the physical evidence of the serial killer you've become.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with FF13's sparkly non-violent violence; it's what gamers expect of this genre. Personally, I think it would be much more interesting to see a gritty version of a Kingdom Hearts or a Final Fantasy-style world, where those gorgeous noses actually get broken, and by the end of the game the once-pretty characters are shells of their former selves and the victory is entirely different than they expected ... but maybe I'm just a sick fuck for thinking so. Anyway, back to my original point.

FF13's Lightning is very similar to ... well, most of FF's male characters. You could make her into a bishonen simply by changing her skirt to skinny jeans and getting rid of her boobs, plus signing on a male voice actor. The fact that you wouldn't have to change any of her dialogue or mannerisms says something. I don't dislike her personality, though. I actually think Lightning is a pretty interesting character for this very reason, and she even has a similar armor style (the single pauldron) to some other male bishis that have been in Final Fantasy games. Usually bishonen protagonists (and antogonists) are already andronynous, so it's interesting that the developers decided to make FF13's pretty-faced hero a woman instead of a man.

One of the weird parts is how tiny Lightning is. Where is she hiding all of that muscle? She looks like she weighs no more than 110 pounds, and yet she can throw a punch that knocks Snow back on his feet. I know from seeing it with my own eyes that skinny girls can be extremely good at martial arts (and fencing, and boxing) -- but generally this is because they are more flexible (unexpectedly high kicks ftw), and they can use their small size to duck, weave, and move in and out of the fray rapidly. Usually they'll take down a larger enemy by using their opponent's increased strength against them -- for example, going for the knees while the enemy rushes forward for a tackle, and then, if it were a life-and-death scenario, a wallop to the back of the neck would take the guy out for good. But ... Lightning literally just punches Snow in the face and he falls down. Twice! I'd believe that he might shake his head dizzily, but getting knocked to the ground? He's a huge guy! She's miniature!

In real life, if Lightning were a soldier, she'd probably be a bit more jacked than she is. But it's just not pretty for a woman to have arms that are bigger than toothpicks, especially according to the art style of Final Fantasy games -- women are supposed to be weak and dimunitive. It's not just FF games, either (see: people having conversations about leveling up their female Fable characters' strength without having them look "ugly" due to too much muscle mass).

Have you ever seen even a hint of a bicep on an FF lady? Not that I'm complaining per se -- in the case of the women who are sorceresses, it's believable that they wouldn't have any muscle. Their strength is magic, not physical, after all. But when you have a character like Lightning, who is supposed to be a soldier with some brute strength, it's harder to swallow when she looks like she'd blow away at the slightest gust of wind.

I mention all of this because I believe the reason why this scene doesn't disturb gamers is because Lightning is so tiny, and Snow is so huge in comparison. Therefore it's almost funny (and therefore acceptable) that Lightning can punch him and knock him over ... even though it's actually a completely unfair fight, since given what we know about their characters, Lightning is in way better fighting shape than Snow. If this were a fight between two guys, Lightning would look like a jerk for flaunting how much stronger he is. If it were two girls, same thing. And if it were a man hitting a woman ... well, that's completely unacceptable, right?

Not according to Splinter Cell: Conviction, in which protagonist Sam Fisher punches a woman in the face until she bruises and bleeds. The fact that I can't find the scene in question on youtube speaks volumes -- unlike that FF13 scene, which is all over the place. The Idle Thumbs podcast was just talking about how uncomfortable this scene made them in their most recent podcast, "Remember the Airfield." In the scene, you -- playing as Sam -- have no choice but to beat up a completely defenseless woman. A cute redhead computer hacker, at that. You can't advance the game forward without punching her. Splinter Cell puts you in several situations like this, some where you have to use torture to "interrogate" suspects. Never mind whether or not you think torture even works in real life -- it sure as hell works in this game! According to the Thumbs podcasters, the game comes up with an "excuse" for why you need to beat up Anna, and the scene is not only excessive but misogynist.

Much as I love those guys' podcast ("Remember the Airfield" was a particularly hilarious episode), I don't think I agree with them on this. First of all, I was willing to believe the game's justification for Anna's abuse. I didn't even question it. In a game where a dude spends all of his time beating up other dudes with no women in sight, it seemed only fair that he'd have to beat a female up at least once. It's only fair, right? (And isn't it even less believable if he never does?)

Of course, she is completely defenseless, which is uncomfortable ... except pretty much all of those other guys you beat up are defenseless, too, after you disarm them. You're way stronger than anyone else, so disarming people doesn't even seem hard for you, and personality-wise you're pretty much a madman so you have no qualms about violence.

The problem with even trying to discuss these issues is that, when it comes to gender equality, video-games do some things that could never happen in real life. For example, take any fighting game with a co-ed roster. All of those women are equally strong to their male counterparts. It's kind of neat to watch Chun-Li hold her own against a long string of huge dudes, provided that she's in the hands of a talented player. And although this type of thing is possible, within reason, in real life (see my previous section about small women doing karate), most of the time a male opponent is bigger and has the advantages that come along with that. There are workarounds for small people, and I definitely don't think women are useless as soldiers -- especially if they're snipers or doing other forms of combat that don't require hand-to-hand, and nowadays most combat doesn't require hand-to-hand. However, there's a reason why boxing divisions for separate genders exist, and Street Fighter doesn't include any such thing.

Many video-games, especially fighting games and RPGs, do away with almost all of that gender separation stuff (shooters don't seem to have cottoned on to this as much, but there are noted exceptions). Even if the female characters aren't physically strong, they'll have magic to balance it out. Or, in Lightning's case, they actually are physically strong even though they still look tiny, cute, and feminine. I think of this as a literal representation of the fact that sitting on a couch holding a controller is something that is also removed of gender. Anyone, regardless of age, appearance, or background, can be good at video-games if they simply put their mind to it. That's because video-games are about mental strength, not physical.

In real life, brute strength is already becoming less and less necessary. Our society depends on machines for physical labor, and it's better to be good at mental skills if you want the "real" money. Wars can be won with technology rather than troops on the ground, and the weapons themselves are tools that anyone can use. You don't need to be strong enough to kill a person with your bare hands nowadays. You only need to be strong enough to carry an AK-47. We've come a long way since Sparta, and thank goodness.

I'm not entirely sure where I fall in this debate, at the end of the day. Part of me says, if everybody in the game is of equal strength, then does gender still matter in FF's fictional world? In Splinter Cell, if everyone besides Fisher is equally defenseless and equally deserving of punches, then why does it matter what gender his victims are? Can't everyone just punch each other indiscriminately? But perhaps we should try to preserve the fact that in real life, men are naturally more capable of packing on muscle than women, and probably don't even realize how much stronger they really are, even if they've never once picked up a barbell. It's questions like these that make inclusion of gender equality in games so complex, and sadly, I'm not sure what the answers are.

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