Considering Violence, Rape, and how we Interpret Media
When IO released their new Hitman: Absolution trailer last week it made a lot of people angry. Rhetorical guns blazing, they took to their respective forums and articulated their disgust.
For those who don’t know, Hitman is a videogame series self-evidently based on stealth and shooter gameplay. Players maneuver the main character, Agent 47, through different environments, taking out specific targets as well as any obstacles that arise in-between.
The new trailer and the ensuing condemnation raise several important questions, some of which are exclusive to the game itself and the marketing behind it, but also others that reach beyond videogames entirely and into broader issues of how society relates to the media it produces.
Sexism and rape are two things from a subset of issues upon which having an opinion is a delicate business. Like racism and abortion, they are infused with a highly personal and yet deeply systematic form of violence. Rape is an overt and highly sexualized type of violence, and while sexist and racist attitudes can escalate to that, they’re tyranny is institutionalized and often much more subversive, and thus not always as easily rallied against. In this way, arguing against racist and sexist attitudes is part of protesting them.
Here, difference of opinion can quickly lead to insensitivity, or at last appear to, and thus implicate the speaker in the very injustice upon which they are speaking. Disagreeing with someone about whether an action or claim is violent can become an act of violence itself. This makes nuanced, patient, or charitable discourse on these topics difficult. When it comes to videogames, it gets even harder because, while most people might play Farmville or Angry Birds, still relatively few play the blockbuster hits that most often embody or perpetrate discriminatory narratives.
The trailer depicts 47 patching himself up in a hotel room as a group of nuns walks towards his building. Only they’re not nuns. First the camera cuts to their stiletto heels. Then reveals their fish net stockings. And finally each women takes off her habit revealing curves and a bust to match any pornstar’s. Each of the women pulls out their respective weapons, including an RPG launcher. 47 turns up behind one of the women, and a bloody slaughter ensues.
Is this another case of videogame hyper violence? Is it sexist? Is it a part of “rape culture?”
The answers to these questions could run the gamut. The trailer isn’t real. It’s a piece of marketing that’s trying to sell us on a larger creative project. Our understanding of it is context dependent, and the context is hardly clear. There are quite a few interpretative possibilities. So how did the discussion of the trailer devolve so quickly into the enlightened vs. the narrow-minded and misogynistic?
Michael Thomsen wrote a short post on the event at Kill Screen. The pitchforks and torches came out shortly after. And the outlet that published his brief riff has since apologized for doing so. In it, Thomsen suggested the following,
“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.”
He was reacting to this piece by fellow Kill Screen contributor, Brendan Keogh. At his blog, Critical Damage, Keogh wrote, “My problem with this trailer is precisely its sexuality, more specifically its conflation of sexuality with violence.”
More than that though, Keogh was shocked that anyone could conceive of the trailer as unproblematic. “Apparently,” he continued, “the videogame rape culture is so ingrained that this actually needs to be spelled out.”
Within a few sentences, and some links to other posts, Keogh moves from calling out the sexual overtones of the trailer’s violence, to labeling it as metaphoric rape and locating it within culture that seeks to normalize violence against women. What’s more, he moves from the critical state of mind that gives rise to this kind of nuanced interpretation, to a level of certainty and condemnation that is steeped in hostility, that doesn’t seek to rebut opposing opinions, but deny them any legitimacy at all.
Keogh outlines the definition of rape culture he works with throughout the piece as follows, “[T]he means by which our society keeps women subservient to men by constantly reminding them that if they step out of line, if they for a moment think that they have as much freedom or power as men, men will rape them and put them back in their place.”
There is no room for nuance here. A complex subject is forced into a series of absolutes. All issues of gender and sexual equality are reduced to rape. “Rape culture” isn’t just a problematic attitude that can lead to or trivialize sexual violence; it’s the basis for all such violence, whether physical or verbal, explicit or assumed. For Keogh it is the means through which men actively keep women subservient.
It is this definition and Keogh’s particular interpretation of the trailer that gives rise to his outrage,
“What I 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 a real 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.”
The problem comes with how many interpretative leaps this conclusion requires. Even granting an all male team behind the both the game and marketing, Keogh demands that we assume their reason for making the women look hypersexualized is specifically so 47 can “bash the shit” out of sexy women, and not for any other reason. Not for as Thomsen suggests, to hyperbolically show 47’s dehumanization through his indifference to their sexual appeal. Not even for the more basic reason that almost all females appearing in AAA console videogames are defacto hypersexualized, and though this has taken far too long to change, this trailer seems hardly unique in this respect.
We must further assume that the only reason these assassins are women is so a predominantly male audience can watch a white male “put them in their place.” And that by virtue of these women being fictionalized creations of male designers, their very lack of agency as digital avatars is part of the violence being committed against them.
What I find troubling is that Keogh assumes that the people watching the trailer would enjoy watching a man kill hypersexualized women in such a way that is symbolic of rape, and thus that’s why the trailers creators made it the way they did.
Now I don’t discount Keogh’s interpretation, which I focus on here because it is emblematic of many other people’s. I don’t agree with his interpretation either, but do regard it as a legitimate one.
However, as Thomsen suggests it is possible that, “the point of the nun’s sexual depiction seems to me to be primarily a matter of contrast with the stark asexuality of 47.”
Whether or not that is the case, or is the best interpretation given the evidence available is up for debate. But it’s a possibility, one that I find compelling, and which isn’t on its face absurd. Thomsen and others have noted that to depict is not to endorse. However, in this case, the assumption seems to be that merely depicting euphemistic rape, if we accept that is what the trailer does, necessarily perpetuates a culture of rape that normalizes that kind of violence, and in doing so invites those of us who witness this piece of media to consciously or not become more accepting of it.
But what about in my case? I saw the trailer, and was visually disgusted. Not because I saw it as a metaphor for rape (though perhaps as many others would claim my subconscious did), but because it was violent for no ostensible reason. The assassins went to kill 47, and then he killed them instead, even if he was punched and stabbed in the process. The trailer is near context-less. We can’t locate a compelling reason for anyone’s actions, even if 47’s are presumed to be in self-defense.
How then do we adjudicate different interpretations of media? Because it’s clear that at least for the people who see the trailer as a metaphor for rape, it does not somehow normalize rape for them. In a way, what the community protesting this kind of content is actually concerned with are people who at once lack a critical stance when watching the trailer but will still, on a subconscious level, internalize its symbolic message. This seems to beg the question: if two people come away from a piece of media with two different understandings of what it conveys, whose is right?
What if two critically situated people, both well versed in media interpretation and cultural criticism, come away with different opinions on the matter? What if someone who is less “educated” on the matter has a third diverging view point. Or people from different racial or cultural backgrounds present even more variance? This isn’t an easy thing to figure out (which is why thoughtful censorship is always difficult in practice)
For me personally what the trailer conveys is pure violence; energetically unsettling and brutally revolting. This is something Dave Thier addressed at his Forbes blog.
“That violence is often committed against faceless men, and so one could suppose that the inclusion of women is some march towards a twisted version of ‘equality.’ It doesn’t feel that way. That’s because video games don’t just have a problem with depicting women. Video games have a problem with depicting humans.”
And this is the more central problem that I see. As Thier notes, sexism in videogames is a problem that’s being addressed, however slowly, but “violence is a core principle.” What surprised me most was the outrage leveled at the Hitman: Absolution trailer because its violence was perceived by some to be exclusively aimed at women.
Is this the same sub-culture that doesn’t take issue with Grand Theft Auto, Gears of War, or Max Payne? The first series in that list allows and encourages players to shoot cops, run over pedestrians, and make their way through the criminal underground. No, you don’t have to do those first two things, but they are more likely than not going to happen and the game mechanics even reward those behaviors; sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly.
Gears of War, another popular and fairly uncontroversial series (at least within the gaming community) is sold on the opportunity to chainsaw enemies in a blood splattering frenzy. What’s more, the game presents these enemies as faceless, unthinking goons bent only on trying to destroy humanity. By the end of the third game, the goal of Gears of War is not only to fight off the invasion by the “other,” but to successfully commit genocide against it.
Then there’s Max Payne, a series in which the most recent installment finds its protagonist indiscriminately gunning down hundreds of people. The core gameplay mechanic, “gun time” is an ability wherein Max can slow down time while still aiming and firing his gun at regular speed, thus allowing him to deliver multiple headshots in a couple of seconds. The entire game is sculpted around this single conceit. Literally, the game is about presenting entertaining and challenging situations for players to slaughter other “fictional” human beings with grisly precision.
Tom Bissell noted this in his recent reaction to Max Payne 3,
“Let’s also not kid ourselves about what happens even to a sane, well-adjusted person after an entire day of watching faces get shredded by bullets. I played Max Payne 3 in two long sittings. After the end of my first sitting, which lasted around six hours, I went to a dinner party with my girlfriend. I was, she reports, “mouthy” and “agitated” during our dinner, and she wondered what had gotten into me. What had gotten into me was that I was shooting people in the face all afternoon. In this sense, Max Payne 3 is something of an anarchic throwback for Rockstar, especially after the more searching Red Dead Redemption and more accommodating L.A. Noire, which allowed casual players to skip the action parts. Max Payne 3 is a game for the hardest of the hardcore and the strongest of the strong-stomached. When it comes to blood and violence, my video-game stomach is strong indeed, but something about Max Payne 3 made me wonder what on earth had been added to the table creatively with its in extremis kill-cams. It’s not enough, I don’t think, if they’re there only because someone thought they looked cool.”
Is the glorification of slaughter, without any conceivable creative purpose for doing so, a problem? I lean toward yes, but remain far from certain. Either way, it’s pervasive in videogames.
Which is to say that to whatever degree Hitman: Absolution does contribute to a culture of rape, it appears to contribute much more forcefully to a culture of general violence. And not just in the abstract. One could interpret rape into the trailer, but no symbolic sensitivity is needed to find the violence. It’s essential. And not just in Hitman: Absolution, but in most popular videogames.
I can’t help but draw an analogy to film here. Pornography, while part of what the medium produces, is never considered when discussing the medium’s merit. Hyperviolent (less so now) and hypsexualized films are kept to the fringe.
That’s not the case in videogames though: the pornography of videogames is the mainstream. Things that wouldn’t be considered kosher, like taking pleasure in senseless slaughter of realistic looking, sounding, and dying people, are the basis for the medium. That is becoming much less so. Even while large companies try to pour millions into gun-slinging power fantasies, the indie scene is doing several interesting, imaginative, and diverse things. But Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty remain industry defining franchises.
Yes, some games take the violence and put it through a narrative meat grinder that helps justify it by putting it in the service of some moral cause or goal. But most of the best selling games are extremely light when it comes to ethical complexity or establishing purpose: the violence is the thing, and it’s loud and bloody and god damn it gets your heart pounding.
Thomsen is of the opinion that,
“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”
I wouldn’t say that the purpose of art is to teach, but it does seem that art necessarily has a point. That point can be as basic and sublime (or primal in the case of pornography) as bringing aesthetic pleasure to the audience. It can also be more complex and make an argument. Provocation and subversion are two ways of doing this, but provocation and subversion for their own sake don’t really make sense. Should artists seek to offend in the blind hope that simply challenging norms and established values will yield some sort of new wisdom?
I’m not sure, especially in a world where even if I trust myself to view media with a critical and thoughtful eye, I can’t always trust others to do the same. Perhaps I can interpret the Hitman trailer in such a way that it actually proves enlightening in some capacity (in which case media criticism starts to function rhetorically as well). But what if that’s not the one that most other people go with, or the one that ends up informing their conscious and subconscious views on women and violence?