A few months ago I had a talk with Iris Bull about feminism, representations of women in games, and how people talk about digital bodies. With her permission, I’m posting it here.
Austin Howe: Can I ask you Questions About Feminism?
Iris Bull: sure
Iris Bull: anytime
Austin Howe: So I was on twitter expressing my frustration about Suikoden II that so far it seems like every woman exists to compliment you and be sexually suggestive
Iris Bull: i saw that
Austin Howe: One character in particular was implied to have performed a sexual favor for a guard to help get past them
Iris Bull: i don't know that i agree with [redacted]
Austin Howe: I noted that that character looks like this: http://suikoden.wikia.com/wiki/Rina
Austin Howe: And I noted that, in discussions regarding representations of women in media, if you were to side by side that design with Tifa from FFVII, Tifa would win without actually referencing the texts either character comes from
Austin Howe: This is despite the fact that Tifa's character is pretty much the exact opposite of what happens in Suikoden II.
Austin Howe: Which is not to say that she's so shy as to be Unsexual (as opposed to asexual, different thing obviously) but rather that there's a subtlety to her writing and with the other women that simply doesn't exist here
Austin Howe: So yeah someone basically said you can't slut shame Digital Women
Iris Bull: yeah, that doesn't really make sense to me
Austin Howe: I'm not really sure that adds up in . . .
Austin Howe: Well to put it simply it Does Not Work with any postmodernist critical framework
Austin Howe: It doesn't jive with Death of the Author
Austin Howe: And it doesn't work with reader response
Iris Bull: media criticism is inherently associated with real people and events
Iris Bull: because media is inherently associated with those things
Iris Bull: not sure what he means by "philosophically equate"
Austin Howe: Well here's the other thing
I realize that People Have Problems With Postmodernism
Iris Bull: it's a novel without an ending
Austin Howe: The idea that the line between what is real and what isn't real has never been definite
Austin Howe: That's important
Austin Howe: And frankly it's kind of something that, without referencing explicitly, is kinda foundational to my entire approach to both art and criticism
Iris Bull: you might even say: it is from the ambiguity of the real that we construct new possible social realities
Austin Howe: So frankly, not only would I disagree with the idea that you can't slut-shame unreal women (you definitely can by erasing their words and only considering their midriff, that's For Fucking Sure)
Austin Howe: But frankly, I'm not even totally convinced that games are "unreal"
Austin Howe: Which, I realize what kinda hole that starts digging
Austin Howe: But like, put it this way
Austin Howe: Even the basic ways that people talk about how media affects them kinda reflects that uncertain line between the two definites
Iris Bull: v dangerous terrain, austin. v dangerous indeed.
Austin Howe: "This album saved my life"
Austin Howe: "I really related to this character"
Iris Bull: ^ not evidence of the real
Iris Bull: maybe we can think of The Real as a constructed model, but it is never an Object. we may Relate with the Real, but nothing is ever Real.
Austin Howe: So it's less that games and films have reality in them but rather that what we consider reality is not itself completely real
Iris Bull: yeah
Austin Howe: Alright so then consider the inverted wording of this question I typed before that
Austin Howe: "If these things weren't real you wouldn't be able to relate to them?"
Iris Bull: yea!
Iris Bull: but no matter how you spin that for some people, there will always be someone you encounter who hasn't thought about Real as Fundamentally Not An Object
Austin Howe: And really, if fiction was truly "unreal" (still using casual wording here, work with me, Ye Educated Madam)
Iris Bull: lol
Austin Howe: Then . . . how would we be offended by it in the first place?
Iris Bull: to be offended = a particular relationship to a proposed reality that we reject For Reasons
Austin Howe: We can be offended by the appropriation of fascist imagery, for example, because we recognize the lineage from Real World Fascism to Fictional Fascism
Austin Howe: If fiction wasn't in some sense "real" then we would actually be incapable of being offended by that!
Austin Howe: Social critique of media would have no basis!
Iris Bull: yeah :)
Austin Howe: So then, when we accept that there is "reality" contained within fiction objects
Austin Howe: We understand how people can be hurt by media
Austin Howe: And we can also understand how we might be hurt by other's reactions to media
Iris Bull: :)
Austin Howe: I can be offended by a mischaracterization of Squall
Austin Howe: Because, as a character representative of mental illness
Austin Howe: I feel a sort of relatability or even a sense of brotherhood with him
Austin Howe: So when he is attacked
Austin Howe: I feel attacked
Iris Bull: ^.^
Iris Bull: fucking cool, right?
Austin Howe: So Squall is a "real" presence in my life
Austin Howe: Right, ok, it's super cool to know that how I think about media works in theory
Austin Howe: Let me finish this thought and I'll tell you about a thought I had in high school
Austin Howe: Ok so finishing on women
Austin Howe: This goes back to women
Iris Bull: yup
Austin Howe: Because when people attack Tifa for her design and seemingly that alone
Austin Howe: It's singularly a critique not of the designer's decision to put her in those clothes
Austin Howe: But the fact that She Is Wearing Them as an abstract concept
Austin Howe: Critiques of Tifa are rarely critiques of Tetsuya Nomura's misogyny which may or may not be true
Austin Howe: (As in he may or may not be a misogynist)
Austin Howe: So you CAN slut-shame Tifa because you can attack Tifa in exactly the same way that you attack a human being
Austin Howe: Which is especially hurtful when it erases her personhood, it erases the fact that the personality we attach to those clothes is not the personality that Tifa has
Austin Howe: It erases the fact that Tifa actually shows discomfort with her sexuality at a few points
Austin Howe: Women can feel hurt by this because this story is arguably representative of certain experiences (I can't speak on this for sure.) I can feel hurt by this because I've seen people do to human women what they do to Tifa, reduce the virbancy of a person down to the makeup they wear and the figure they were born into.
Austin Howe: Ok, cool, I think I've reconciled now.
Iris Bull: yeah, because if you're not interrogating the context in which Tifa was created, you're not identifying the work that her representation does in a variety of other contexts—you don't acknowledge her constitution as both a text and a tool with ideologic functions. In a way, Tifa can only represent agency, but much in the same way that the people around us—people Other Than Us—also represent agency. To recognize Tifa as complexly as a person is rhetorically important because we use those critiques on Real People, too.
Austin Howe: Yup
Austin Howe: So when I was in highschool
Austin Howe: Before I knew about the death of the author and things like that
Austin Howe: I had this approach to media which was something along the lines that media should be considered as something like an alternate dimension of existence
Austin Howe: Where authors are the creator-gods of their media who single-handedly determine the lives of the people living in their universes
Austin Howe: And I kinda used that as a framework by which to approach empathy for fictional characters
Austin Howe: It was weird
Iris Bull: not weird
Austin Howe: But I guess my point is I always used to think that my approach to fiction was kinda, for lack of better term, insane
Austin Howe: That the way I thought about media was indicative and symptomatic of my mental illness
Austin Howe: So it's really great to see all these people who, when you rearrange verbs and nouns, think about stuff in basically the same way
Iris Bull: i think i've always felt crazy. on my twitter avi where i list "weird stuff," that's how i couch my insecurities about how i make connections between different types of knowledge, different ideas/concepts. and i think it's often really easy to feel crazy when the people around you don't acknowledge how structures and spaces, people and things outside of us, how those things shape what we do and who we think we are. i feel most crazy around people who insist that ideas like "freedom" are Real. i am purposefully conditioned to feel crazy when my perspective of reality is not evidenced elsewhere—in popular media, in academic conversations, etc.—and i feel even more crazy when i don't feel like my words adequately describe my thoughts and feelings. i think that a lot of this comes from being conditioned to think that older people and past civilizations are/were wise—that they figured shit out. what i feel like i sense more and more everyday is how *little* people and past civilizations have done. but i also think that's an error in my perspective. i can only see the way things should be because it's easy to be dissatisfied with what you have. /ramble
Austin Howe: Well a woman fav'd my tweet about not slut-shaming in criticism
Austin Howe: So that's most of what I need
Iris Bull: you do you, austin. you do you.
Austin Howe: I'm gonna copy paste most of this down and post it to my blog if you don't mind?
Iris Bull: No problem.