The video game industry is not exactly having a banner week. First, some passionate players decided to reaffirm the stereotype of gamer trogolodytes by viciously going after a feminist video blogger for daring to crowdfund a project about female character tropes. Then, a bunch of folks at E3 decided to treat actress Aisha Tyler like should couldn’t possibly be a serious gamer. Now, Tomb Raider executive producer Ron Rosenberg (no relation, or he’d be getting an earful from me in person) has announced that, in a redesign that makes the character less obviously a sex object, the big development for her character is that she’ll be a potential victim of rape.
As reported by Kotaku, Rosenberg said that there will be a scenario where “island scavengers” attempt to rape her, and that this is a great thing because “She is literally turned into a cornered animal. It’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s forced to either fight back or die.” Generally, character evolution involves how people respond to situations, not what other people do to them. And as actress Brit Marling pointed out in April, sexual assault is one of the most common dramatic wells Hollywood likes to go to as an attempt to force a female character to go through something difficult. It’s narratively lazy, and speaks more to what men like Rosenberg imagine about rape and strength than to any particular woman’s lived experience.
And beyond raping strong female characters as miserable cliche, as a lot of writers have pointed out, the game is a profound failure of empathy. Kat Howard points out how disturbing it is to have whether a character is raped be entirely dependent on the actions of the player: “Here is what we get asked: What were you wearing? Did you know him? Did you scream? Was your skirt too short? Were you in a bad part of town? Did he spend a lot of money on dinner? Were you wearing a bra with that dress? Did you let him touch you? Did you hit him? Did you fight back? Did you fight back enough?” The fantasy of being powerful enough to repulse any attack is a compelling one, but it stops short of placing responsibility where it actually belongs: with rapists. And it’s much more compelling—and less exhausting— to dream of living in a world where you are never threatened than it is to dream of constantly fending off attackers.
Given that Rosenberg also said that he expected men playing the new Tomb Raider will feel like they’re protecting Croft rather than embodying her experience, Kellie Foxx-Gonzalez at The Mary Sue points out that his assumption is rooted in the idea that “Men cannot ever relate to women (or women characters) in a meaningful way because we are fundamentally different and share no overlapping interests or experiences.” By Rosenberg’s reasoning, women can be objects of desire or protective impulses, but not of identification, a formulation that makes no sense given how many men play as female characters. In this specific case, the assumption is that men couldn’t possibly empathize with a character who is at risk of being raped, but that they can protect her. I’d be curious to see how men reacted to playing a character who was sexually assaulted no matter what they did, and no matter how powerful their character was. I imagine most of them wouldn’t like it very much. And I imagine people would have less fun playing a game where being strong kicks in after an assault, where you have to figure out how to make someone feel safe and confident again. Internal battles are more complicated than first-person shooters, but they’re a lot closer to the actual experience of surviving sexual assault.