How a plastic torso ruined feminism
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
It’s unlikely Friedrich Nietzsche was thinking of social justice and video game controversies when he wrote that line. More likely he was gazing at his own navel and pondering the meaningless of everything in the universe. Still, it serves as a decent cautionary statement for those getting into activism: it’s hard to combat fanatics with fanaticism. Unfortunately, the gaming industry has a tendency to overreact to things – no doubt partially due to a slight persecution complex and past events that have cast it in an unfavourable light. The most recent controversy du jour surrounded Dead Island Riptide and a special edition statue. Specifically the bloody human torso statue that comes with the UK and Australian Zombie Bait edition.
On the surface it’s simply another collector’s item for whoever buys these types of things, just like the crouching Batman, oversized Skyrim dragon and BioShock 2 soundtrack vinyl. But the gaming press was quickly awash with words like “shock”, “outrage” and “disgust”. The main problem people seemed to be having – although it’s difficult to pick apart single arguments from a landslide of emotion – is 1. the statue is female, and 2. it’s gory. Both of these things are true, of course. What matters is whether you think that’s cause for concern.
A lot of emotive language and argument was tossed, grenade-like, out of imagined trenches. It’s offensive to women, displaying them as sexualised objects by literally presenting a sexual object. It’s disgusting and wrong. It demeans the industry and adds fuel to the fires of those who dislike video games. The deeper you dig the more bizarre and nonsensical the claims get, with some nuts shouting that it’s the same as sending people porn.
Reaction to the statue (and let’s try to remember at all times that it is just a statue) was so severe and so overwhelmingly negative that publisher Deep Silver issued an apology via Twitter in short order:
We deeply apologize for any offense caused by the Dead Island Riptide “Zombie Bait Edition”, the collector’s edition announced for Europe and Australia.
We sincerely regret this choice. We are collecting feedback continuously from the Dead Island community, as well as the international gaming community at large, for ongoing internal meetings with Deep Silver’s entire international team today.
This should be more worrying to people than a piece of plastic with breasts. A company made a tacky statue to sell to gamers and they’ve been forced to apologise due to a collection of loud voices with very little backing up their claims.
And the torso is tacky, no arguments there. It’s a torso, for a start, covered in blood and wrapped in a Union Jack bikini. But being without class is not the same as being without merit. Many complaints about the piece have prefaced feminist worries with the idea that it can’t possibly stand as art because it’s ugly and because it’s commissioned marketing. Suggesting anything can’t be art because you don’t like it seems ridiculous in any context, as there are mountains of material I would classify as terrible without dismissing any form of expression present. Someone had to design the piece, create a prototype, tweak that design and then produce the statue; at some point there had to have been creative thought.
Deep Silver stated in their initial press release that the 31 cm high statue of a zombie’s torso is a “grotesque take on an iconic Roman marble torso sculpture.” Examination of the piece certainly backs up that theory, as there are plenty of examples of similar torso sculptures if one cares to look. It is very hard to find one that is fully clothed, however, and many lean more heavily on the male anatomy in all its dangling glory. Gore aside, the Riptide sculpture is actually a damn sight classier than these ancient pieces by our modern standards, depicting far less of the human form and in an outfit you could see on any public beach. I can only imagine the uproar if a game company released a tasteful nude as promotional material.
As for the idea of marketing and commissions not being art, I can’t imagine anyone would say that the upcoming statue of Songbird from BioShock Infinite isn’t art, or the purposefully sexual covers of Catherine. Indeed, much of the art people see is commissioned as marketing or some other specific purpose. It’s a wonderful utopian idea to think that art and commerce are separate entities, but many of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous works were made for rich people with deep pockets. Art doesn’t stop being art because someone paid for it.
Next comes the question of appropriateness. Is it appropriate to have a bloody torso (nominally female, for the moment) as an advertisement for a game. It’s a nebulous question to begin with, we all have different ideas on what constitutes “appropriate”. You might not think it’s right to wear pyjamas to the supermarket; I don’t think people should be allowed to spit in the street; my father doesn’t think it’s appropriate for gay people to touch in public. So overall appropriateness is a dead end. Instead, we can look at the statue in its own context: Dead Island Riptide is a game about a tropical island overrun with zombies. The torso is of a woman dressed for the beach who has been attacked and turned into a zombie, then presumably hacked up. Which is exactly what the entire game is about.
It’s hard to fathom the idea of someone who has no problem with shoving an electrical machete into the guts of a screaming, bikini-clad woman in the game, but is outraged at the idea of a statue depicting the result. You can’t have your bloody cake and murder it too.
Referring back to Deep Silver’s apology, they point out exactly that, stating the torso is “cut up like many of our fans had done to the undead enemies in the original Dead Island.” To turn this tragic comedy into a grand farce, many media outlets and commentators actually scoffed at this inclusion, as if it was outrageous to suggest that promotional material was allowed to reflect the product it was promoting in the first place. In a statement on Gamespot, games writer Rhianna Pratchett said “Why did part of Deep Silver’s apology seem to be trying to shift the blame onto players by suggesting that it’s already what they do in the game?”
Perhaps because it is what they do in the game. The mind boggles at the fact that simply stating a fact about gameplay could be viewed as “shifting the blame”. She notes that she does many things in games she wouldn’t want on her desk. Right she is, leading one inexorably to that unfortunate cliche: just don’t buy it.
That is, apparently, an unacceptable answer for opponents of this hunk of metaphorical meat. What has been most interesting – and most depressing – about this situation is the vehemence with which people have attacked not just those who made the statue, but anyone who might suggest they want it. Even those taking a neutral position have been pressured to toe the line and demand the offending article be banished from the face of the Earth. Many were joining the fray, but Jenn Frank emerged as a sort of “voice of the people” on Twitter when she dedicated several hours to the torso situation. Among the outrage was this:
It’s more than slightly disingenuous to state that it’s perfectly acceptable to buy this product, then immediately turn around and call anyone who does so a sociopath. Not only is it genuinely (and ironically) offensive, it seems like a failure to understand the meaning of the word itself. To equate the actions of a sociopath with someone who buys a horror-themed collectable is meaningless ad-hominem. Sadly, she wasn’t the only person who decided to use sensational language in favour of accuracy and levelheadedness. Destructoid writer Jim Sterling wrote “Jesus Christ, what kind of sociopath would actually want this 12″ resin nightmare? Even putting aside the weird message a sexualized corpse torso sends, it’s just … ugly.”
The arguments against such a point of view I’ve already covered, but it’s particularly difficult to have a decent conversation on such topics when those loud, offended voices are unwilling to engage. Frank represents a general feeling in these segments of the community that we should just accept that these things are offensive simply because people are offended.
That settles it then. It isn’t okay. Whatever that means. Everyone pack up your stuff and get out, because it’s not okay. What about it isn’t okay? Is there any aspect of it that is okay? Can we talk about it? Shutting down conversation is always a much more terrifying prospect than something I personally dislike. It’s that whole “not agreeing with what you say but fighting to the death for your right to say it” business. This feels like a minority opinion, however, if this tweet by Polygon’s Justin McElroy tweeted the following, apparently resonating with many other people who hate discussion:
This wrongly assumes a few things. First, it explicitly states that a man’s point of view is invalid when discussing women’s issues, which means that anything I, as a man, have to say about the issue is moot. Even if it’s positive. Second, it implies that women are always right about issues, and – at the risk of blowing minds – they’re demonstrably not any more right or wrong than men on average. Third, it assumes that women always agree on these matters, which is the most inaccurate idea in this whole debacle. Many women either don’t care about this statue, or testify to the complete lack of offence it caused. If you’re conceding that not all women agree, then your argument is not that we should agree with women on women’s issues, it’s that we should agree with the most offended people, even if they might be wrong. Because if you’re offended then your point of view has more weight, apparently.
If this Riptide statue has exposed one important thing for the games industry, it’s the dangers of appeasing the mob. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t like the statue, and there’s no problem with viewing it from a feminist perspective. But the arguments being thrown around the gaming press and social media have been paper thin at best, and outright wrong at worst. More importantly, an open dialogue was actively discouraged in favour of catering to those who could shout the loudest. I would rather live in a world of offensive torsos and considered discussion than one where everything is homogenised to avoid any chance of controversy or points of difference. Our maturity as a subculture isn’t measured on how many violent games we have versus emotional epics; it’s measured on how we handle the aspects we don’t like. By that count, this bikini girl has made us look very childish.