X-Files: First-Person Shooter and The Eating Disordered Goddess.Posted: May 26, 2012
I’ve been working my way through all 9 seasons of the X-Files, and have finally hit season 7 (oh insomnia, I’d have no time to watch mah shows if it wasn’t for you). Know what’s in the 7th season, people, aside from more sex jokes from Mulder and smouldering, seductive eyes from Scully? The episode “First-Person Shooter.” Honestly, watch it. Kicksplosions and a murder-mystery. Oh, and it’s a Lone Gunmen episode. So! It’s about a company that has created a virtual reality video game where you get to be the bad-ass character with a machine gun — one I could never actually carry in real life (my cousin’s Nerf machine gun was almost too heavy for me). Anyways, as you expect, people start dying and Mulder and Scully get called in to find out how someone can die from a bullet wound, when no bullets were ever fired — they use laser beams in the game simulation, obviously.
What got me about the episode was the empathetic way it deals with gamer girls. Phoebe, played by the always amazing Constance Zimmer, is an attractive, intelligent gamer, who co-creates the virtual reality game and, on the side, creates her Goddess-character as a mode to combat her otherwise feeling of powerlessness within the gaming community.
This got me thinking about an article I read in November 2011 on Jezebel. The article, originally posted on GeekFeminism.com, was entitled: “Geeks Get Eating Disorders Too,” and was a first-person account of what it’s like being a girl within the geek community, feeling not only isolated and alienated from her male friends, but also from her own body. Talk about the ultimate feeling of not fitting in.
The line that stood out for me from the anonymous article was that there seems to be an assumption that geek girls are better off in the body image department than non-geek girls, by virtue of their community. The author states that “women get the same role-models in geek culture as they do in the rest of the world, but that culture is determined not to address this, nor to address the problems it might cause us.” But beyond that, these characters become the vehicles that gamers are supposed to relate to and at times, throw their indentity into, so is the lack of distance between character and gamer an issue here?
As an aside, I want to be clear: I am not placing any blame on video games or the gaming community here. I love video games and will argue anytime about their value as both an artistic medium and a goddamn amazing form of entertainment. I am just looking at eating disorders in this specific context to generate a dialogue, because, after all, that is the issue at hand.
Now back to me thinking that I really am my character in Baldur’s Gate. The distance is supposed to be dissolved between character and gamer, and this can potentially create a host of issues for females. In film spectator theory, “the woman who identifies with a female character must adopt a passive or masochistic position, while identification with the active hero necessarily entails an acceptance of what Laura Mulvey refers to as a certain ‘masculinisation’ of spectatorship” (Mary Anne Doanne, Film and the Masquerade). While I know Mulvey and Doanne are dealing explicitly with film theory, their ideas are helpful, because in a large part, gamers are a form of spectator. So if the only way for a female gamer to actively identify with a protagonist is either masochistic or to be masculinized, female gamers are put in a very precarious position from the start.
While the X-Files episode dates from the late ‘90s, I can’t help but wonder if the problem it presents is still largely at play today. Has this really gone away? Women make up a large portion of the gaming industry, and the gamer girl has been welcomed into the fold — but has it been on the condition that she still operates as an extended version of the sexualized video game female character? I don’t necessarily agree, but I think it’s something worth at least questioning. The X-Files episode relays this and then combats it quite poignantly: if all we see are the Goddesses, then we miss the Phoebes. With Phoebe, her issue was one of control and feeling powerless in a world dominated by men.
And with eating disorders, and anorexia specifically, the disorder is all about control, which gets parlayed into body image. Let me tell you, that when you’re facing a million shitty-ass things that are completely outside of your ability to influence or help, when you’re crushed by a weight of powerlessness, counting calories and controlling caloric intake feels good. It feels really, really good. And because being powerless can easily get translated into an internal sense of uselessness, being able to control something helps to mitigate the fear and anxiety, especially when that something is so inextricably tied to your own sense of self-worth (and body image largely is). This is why a lot of clinical psychology courses are discussing anorexia as a very specific manifestation of OCD, or at least highlighting the high rates of co-morbidity of anorexia and OCD. Counting calories is the compulsion that calms the obsessive thoughts of feeling powerless and useless.
And geek girls are no less susceptible to this than any other girl. But it still feels as if there isn’t quite the same vocalization given to it. The author of the Geek Girls article explains that “EDs are women’s problems. Geek culture is not “girly” and rejects all notions of “girly”. ” Geek culture is immersed with individuals who have felt alienated and were bullied for not belonging or conforming to what society deemed as “cool” or “normal.” The GeekFeminism.com article was written less than a year ago, illustrating that there is still a rift within nerd culture for many ladies.
In the X-Files episode, Phoebe feels powerless: so she creates the Goddess as her gaming avatar, but the representation of the Goddess is insanely problematic. She’s based entirely off what would get her noticed and praised: her tits, ass and impressively large gun (which this time I’m going to argue is phallic — now I get my feminist card back, right?). The end of the episode, showing the Goddess changed into a digital, realistic representation of Phoebe, is beautiful and brilliant. Phoebe’s method of gaining control is to create a representation of herself that is in fact the only representation of females in video games that was allowed, i.e. the smoking-hot warrior woman. But this backfired horribly.
So the episode ends showing this turned on its head: the Goddess avatar has been turned into a realistic representation of Phoebe herself. The point is Phoebe needed to learn how to gain power through herself (which is still pretty damn sexy), and not through some unrealistic representation because, as X-Files taught us, those represenstations break free and go all psycho-killer on us. I’m being facetious, but only half-so. The representations aren’t evil if we know what they’re all about it. It’s when we give them the power that they become all vicious and stabby.
While I know I’ve been giving sexualised representations of women a lot of flack, I want to be clear that I don’t think this is the main problem (which I also discuss in my Intro to Gender Criticism for Gamers over at Medium Difficulty). Sure, it fucking sucks to feel like you can’t possibly measure up to the characters you’re playing (and yes, us with severe self-esteem problems and disordered eating habits can find anything to measure ourselves against — and we almost always fail these imagined comparisons.) But as I’ve discussed in my Psylocke post, I don’t think all sexualisation is terrible: we want sexy characters, male and female. We shouldn’t get rid of sexualisation, because it’s wonderful and exhilerating, and we’re all drawn to video games in part for the spectacle they provide. I’m probably going to be either Emma Frost or Kitana from Mortal Kombat for Halloween this year, and we all know those ladies don’t have a problem showing a little skin.
The sexualisation isn’t what I’m faulting here. It’s a symptom. And treating the symptom won’t fix the lack of empathetic communication that is necessary here. And to be explicitly clear, the problem is not video games or the gaming community: the problem the lack of conversation/understanding in all communities. The problem is the sexualisation without an on-going conversation about what it represents, signifies, and effectively, does within our culture.
Eating disorders are so widely misunderstood and the violence associated with negative body image feels so overdone to the point where most people don’t even want to hear about it any more in everyday culture. Imagine being involved in a community that hasn’t found a way to voice their issues with e.d.s yet, if our culture at large still misunderstands/misrepresents eating disorders.
That’s all, folks. It’s not an issue of shielding ladies from sexified/objectified images, but one of discussion. There’s a lot more at play in e.d.s than just self-esteem and body-image, and as with any issue people are facing, the first and biggest step is conversation. And I’m pretty psyched that X-Files got to be the launching pad for this post, because let me just say it: X-Files, your kung-fu is the best kung-fu.
– Kaitlin Tremblay