The Catwoman controversy: sexism in Batman: Arkham City?

News Luke Holland 31 Oct 2011 - 13:04

While Arkham City’s been praised, its portrayal of Catwoman has provoked controversy, too. Luke takes a closer look at the accusations leveled at the game…


Arkham City,
the second of Rocksteady's forays into its graphic novel-tinged imagining of Gotham, is topping the charts, and to unanimously high critical praise. Building admirably on the robust foundations laid by the first game, Arkham City managed to exceed the verve and scope of Arkham Asylum, emerging as a definite game of the year contender.

Yet despite its quality, the Internet has been prickling with dissenting voices – none calling into question the quality of the final product, but rather its pejorative-laden treatment of one of Gotham's most prominent characters: Catwoman.

In a game so aimed at a mature audience, it may come as a surprise to some that use of the word 'bitch' – a relatively tame expletive, compared to most – could create such a furore, especially within the context of a game where female characters (scantily-clad as they may be) are of equal formidability to their X- and Y-chromosome counterparts.

Yet the complaints go deeper than this, and appear to have hit a nerve.

It all began with a blog post by Film Critic Hulk, who bemoaned the portrayal of Selina Kyle (and other, less prominent female characters) as masturbatory aids to the game's henchmen ("They all look good in here..."), her cloying flirtations with Batman following a rescue at his testosterone-soaked hands, and the non-stop 'bitch'-cussing, despite the rather redundant observation that 'bitch’ refers to a dog.

Film Critic Hulk argued that the game over-egged its misogyny to an uncomfortable degree, and included with it no actual salient purpose within the game besides some vacuous notion of an 'edgy' representation of criminal behaviour, which he argued to be a deeply flawed excuse.

This was followed by a similar article on respected gaming site Kotaku, which said "...there's a fine line between edgy dialogue and forced, angry overkill," while GameFront's more lenient opinion was that "Many people don’t even consider the weight of the word when used against a female, equating it with 'bastard' for males."

Whether Gotham's roaming criminals would indeed label a quasi-feline anti-hero dressed as a cat a 'bitch' in reality is of course a ridiculous question, because, as a hypothetical notion, it is so far removed from reality in itself. It could be said that Rocksteady were staying true to the adult source material, yet there can be few who'd argue the female of the species receives a fair cop in videogames as it is.

So why include such potential sexism is the first place?

Arkham City’s pejorative machismo and heaving bosoms could be seen as yet another pandering to the perceived yet wildly inaccurate 14-18 year-old, developmentally-dunderheaded male demographic, who, to a depressingly large number of misinformed people, still represent the vast majority of gamers.

Yet we know that this demographic is a fallacy: a 2010 study showed the average age of US gamers is 37, of which female gamers make up 42 per cent. This represents an increase of two per cent in the previous year alone. (Source: The Entertainment Software Association - theesa.com.) 

Gamers, as a group, aren't idiots, and can surely be trusted to separate truth from ironically hyper-realised fiction, much as they did with GTA's sordid, solicitous in-car encounters, for instance.

However, developers of triple-A titles do still produce predominantly male-orientated software, which suggests one of two things: that the above statistics are misleading, or that female gamers enjoy playing as gruff grunts with arms the circumferences of bins just as much as their male counterparts.

Assuming it is the latter, female gamers must also contend with the perennial annoyance of an extraordinarily high percentage of female characters subscribing to the Nuts magazine idealised notion of physical appearance. Then again, most male gamers don't really look like Nathan Drake or Marcus Fenix either, but these are two discrete issues: female videogame characters remain sexualised to a degree far higher than in most other media (possibly even comics), and evidence to support this is everywhere you turn.

Developers are surely more aware of this gender disparity than most, and if Rocksteady was aiming for a young male audience then surely the treatment of women within the product would have been carefully considered, besides the slapping of a 15 rating on the cover. This is an adult game with adult themes, yet it is set in a comic-book world, which is perhaps why some find its offhand misogyny unsettling.

The perceived problem with Arkham City is less to do with skimpy outfits or their relationship with (or detractions from) female equality than it is to do with the connotations of the way Catwoman is verbally addressed and blithely objectified. 

Which begs the question, was the treatment of Catwoman in Arkham City actually sexist, or has a fuss been kicked up over nothing? Have we reached a point where we can stop getting upsetover things like this, or does it represent a huge step backwards in a medium already in dire need of gender-representational progress?

Our own Michael Leader broached the subject with Arkham City’s art director David Hego, who, while admitting the game could be perceived as having sexist aspects, stated “...it [sexism] is not the message behind it. We tried to make a very strong and very defined character.”

A few months ago, Harry Slater also wrote a series of articles detailing gaming's shortcomings in regards to mature subjects, including gender roles. Yet the extent to which sex sells is not the issue here - the accusations against Arkham City concern more insidious intent.

By visiting this site you've already proved that you are good-looking, wise and reasoned individuals, so we'd be really interested to know your thoughts in the comments section below. It's a subject that's open to interpretation - offence is subjective, after all - yet it’s one that has flared up to a surprising degree, and as such must be worthy of discussion.

Is Arkham City guilty of sexism, or is this all just a big fuss over nothing? Readers, we throw it over to you.

You can read our review of Batman: Arkham City here.

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