Monday, January 31, 2011

Castle: Bringing Sexy Back in a Button Down

It's not often that I'm able to look at something in mainstream media and be pleased by the portrayal of my gender. Sure, there are sexy women around - many of them - but in terms of personality, conduct, and self-respect, I tend to come away feeling disgruntled. My most recent favourite has been DI Drake from Ashes to Ashes, the somewhat-sequel to Life on Mars. Even she, however, leaves me feeling a little seedy for watching her on-and-off-again not-quite romance with Gene Hunt, in the same way that you feel embarrassed watching a particularly pretty friend with low self-esteem get drunk and crack onto a mutual acquaintance. Sure, DI Drake is going through a lot, but I still have to go make a cup of tea every time she starts asserting her independent, modern-woman ways.

Enter, then, Kate Beckett from Castle, who manages to be witty, job-oriented and forceful, while maintaining her allure. I've only seen the pilot, but that second-to-last shot of her walking away, having just made a very confident statement about her sexuality, and managing to be sexy a) because she doesn't look back, b) with short hair and minimal makeup and c) in an untucked, untailored light blue button down shirt with rolled-up sleeves and black trousers, gives me hope that maybe a show has got it right.

What is it about games that means we can't have women in this kind of situation? The closest I can imagine is Alice from Alan Wake, and then the most frequent shot of her is in her underwear - granted, not sexy underwear, and it does make it feel as if she's in greater peril than she would be if she were fully clothed, but even she suffers her husband's frequent temper tantrums. She's more complex than that; I'm not denying it. But at the same time, she isn't sexy. I feel something for her, sure, and I want to save her, but she's not attractive in the same way as Detective Beckett.

A lot of this comes from the Male Gaze which, arguably, should now be re-branded the Female Gaze, but that's another post entirely, and one I'm not qualified to cover. Basically, what it comes down to is this: we want what people we respect or like want. That means that if your friend, who you greatly admire for their job, house or family, decides to buy a certain painting or brand of clothing or makeup, you're more likely to gravitate toward that brand in order to attain whatever success your friend has that you want. It's the whole fake-it-'til-you-make-it scenario, and it works. We become better people by modelling positive behaviour.

So the reason that Detective Beckett is attractive, and this is where the Male Gaze comes in, is that Rick Castle (a.k.a. Mal from Firefly) wants her. As a woman, perhaps we'd like Nathan Fillion to look at us that way. As a male, we'd like to be a spaceship captain cowboy. What's not to want? This desire taps into both genders, but more importantly, it also empowers women.

Castle doesn't want Beckett because she's easy, he wants her because she's not. I realise this is giving a contrasting message to men - chase what you can't get - but the reason that Beckett is sexy and not sexual, from a woman's point of view, is because she's the one in control. She dresses conservatively, doesn't seem to care about her appearance, and certainly doesn't care about Castle's opinion, which makes her attractive to both him and us - it's her confidence that does the trick. I'd write another post about how women can never look too good if they want to be taken seriously, and if she does ever wear makeup it's either going to have to be 'undercover', or else change her character entirely, but I don't think that would be much fun to read. Suffice to say I'm happy a reasonably well-groomed, well-dressed, well-situated female detective as the sexy to Castle's smarmy. That's really it.

Can we do that in games, do you think? Stuff gender differentiation - power armour should make everyone look like a man. Unless the women in the army have some seriously amazing genes, they can't be athletic and stacked enough to require an entire extra plating cavity in their armour just to show they have breasts. Shouldn't all soldiers be treated equally in the future, anyway? Should you prioritise saving your comrade, who is wearing a helmet, because of a little extra chest bulge? No way, otherwise men are going to start wearing women's armour, too, and that will just be unfortunate, least of all because that extra little air pocket will work great with incendiary ammo.

Can we have a female character who is not at all interested in the player apart from in a professional capacity, who is sexy without showing more than her neck and her arms, is good at her job, and doesn't suddenly fall apart or need to be rescued? Do you think we can do that, games industry?

I'm willing to try if you are.

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