Ed. note: This piece sparked a lot of debate in the comments and elsewhere. We’ll be looking at the trailer and the surrounding issues at greater length early next week. In the meantime we’ve amended the original headline for insensitivity. -Jamin
Ed. note #2: We’ve since apologized for this piece. We can’t retract because this is an opinion, not news, which is part of problem. Also, we believe that we should keep our mistakes live. Please accept our deepest apologies.
Earlier this week Patricia Hernandez wrote a confessional explaining why she’s stopped using the word “rape” to taunt people she beats when playing videogames, in part because she herself had been raped. Hernandez repeatedly addresses the subject of “rape culture” as something exemplified by the common use of the word as a game taunt. “I raped you,” you might say to someone you’ve just shot in Gears of War or, going further, you might repeatedly lie down on top of the prone body of your foe, loosely simulating rape in the game world.
Writing on his website Critical Damage, Kill Screen contributor Brendan Keogh ties Hernandez’s story to the on-going derision for the recently released Hitman: Absolution trailer, which featured Agent 47 killing a group of women assassin’s in skin-tight neoprene nun outfits.
Do I have a problem with the existence of female assassins? No. Do I have a problem with female assassins dressing up as nuns? No. Do I have a problem with Agent 47 killing females dressed up as nuns in self-defence? No. What I have a problem with, what you should have a problem with, is that these aren’t just ‘women assassins dressed as nuns’. These are women designed and dressed by the trailer’s producer (probably a male) to look (a male version of) sexy while another male (Agent 47) bashes the shit out of them all while other males (the imagined gamer at home) watches on. It is pretty telling that the opening of the trailer is the manly man getting dressed for the encounter while the sexualised women get undressed for it. You, the viewer that the trailer’s creator assumes is male, are meant to think these women are sexy, that their naughty-nun costumes and their giant bosoms and stripper heels are sexually appealing while Agent 47 exerts his male dominance over them, while he puts them in their place. Oh? You think you are powerful assassins? No. You are foolish little girls. Here, see how areal man assassin puts you in your place. No, he doesn’t ‘literally’ rape them, but a male forced these (fictional) women to act in a way males would find them sexy while another male did violence to them. That is teaching women their place. That is fucked up. That is rape culture.
There are a number of problems with arguments like these, foremost of which is the presumption that the central intension of the Hitman trailer was titillation and arousal. It is possible to depict an act in art without endorsing it, and while the women in the trailer are certainly meant to evoke sexuality, they are not necessarily meant to be arousing to the viewer. In contrast to otherwise similar depictions of unnaturally skinny and sexualized characters like Resident Evil’s Jill or Bayonetta, the point of the nun’s sexual depiction seems to me to be primarily a matter of contrast with the stark asexuality of 47.
This scene is only teaching women their place if we assume that the purpose of art is to teach. Art should not be a teacher but instead it should provoke. It has been and will be a place for subverting moral ideals, transgressing taboos, and exploiting the superficial mandates of good taste, from John Waters to Dennis Cooper to Shakespeare at his cannibalistic best. It’s unfortunate much of this debate has to take place over a game no one has yet played, but IO has a well-deserved pedigree as a developer of taboo-transgressing ruthlessness. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is a masterwork that satirizes its central mechanic. If games need to be about shooting people, than their heroes must, by definition, be idiotic cretins who can never escape one another. In making a game about an assassin who has been stripped of his social humanity, what better way to show it than by throwing at him all the cliched icons of the western sexual marketplace (here’s what it looks like when men are the sex objects, for reference–probably NSFW) and he barely even registers it.
What’s finally undigestible about the connection between Hernandez’s story and the belief that there is such a thing as “rape culture” in videogames, is how narrowly it views art. We do not say there is a “murder culture” in Gears of War because it’s central mechanic is murder. We acknowledge the simulated killing of people in the game is a metaphor, an interactive euphemism. It’s a metaphor in bad taste, and a thoroughly stupid mechanic, but we do not question its literal status. It’s a shell. Using the word rape as a euphemistic taunt is in bad taste. But I do not see anymore of a connection to “rape culture” when a tasteless 13 year-old uses it as a joke than I do when I hear a 30 year-old man describe the “girl” who works in his office. Both reflect the leviathan of dismissive antagonism to women as co-equals in our culture. But we risk going crazy if we take either at face value. That is the beauty of euphemism, it is self-consciously untrue and so buys for itself tasteless liberties not available elsewhere. That is the point of art, to free ourselves from the need to always be moral instructors, role models, and power brokers. Let yourself be scandalized in art.