July 25, 2012

Xenomorphs and The Sacred Feminine

UPDATE: I wanted to thank everyone who contributed their two cents to my problem.  This is such an important mythology to me, and I've been looking forward to playing a new chapter for such a long time that it was incredibly frustrating to experience such cognitive dissonance over it.

Well, fortunately, I have good news to offer you all: We Won!

That's right, Gearbox, in a rare display of wisdom, listened to it's very vocal fans (myself included) and has announced officially that there will be female playable characters in their game.  As if that weren't enough, apparently it's not just the multiplayer mode where it would arguably be more vital, but in the single-player campaign as well that the women will be joining the fight.  Folks, I know it seems like something unimportant at times, but this is a big deal for the games industry from where I stand.  I was really starting to despair a little bit there given how magnificent their previous Aliens game (Aliens: Infestation on the Nintendo DS) was in regards to having male and female perspectives.  I'd begun to think that Gearbox and/or SEGA had gone the way of the overly-macho development studios cranking out endless streams of Y-chromosome-only shooters.  I'm thrilled to be proven wrong this time.

It's rare that any developer listens to its community with regards to these kinds of late-in-the-game changes, but even rarer when it's an issue of social justice that drives the community outcry.  I could not be happier with their decision and I'm pleased to announce that I fully intend to support their effort towards creating a more inclusive experience by pre-ordering a copy of Aliens: Colonial Marines for my Xbox 360.

I would also like to encourage any gamers or fans reading this to stand with me in buying a new copy of this game (NOT used; I want Gearbox to get the money they deserve for this) to show your support for a very positive and very progressive move on the part of the development team in a time where this sort of decision is not made lightly.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed their thoughts on this matter, and an extra big thanks to SEGA/Gearbox for doing the right thing in the end. 

A post breaking from our usual content (to deal with something very personal) will follow shortly, and then we'll be back to our typical discussion essays by around the middle of the month.  I thank you for your patience and understanding and hope you all had a wonderful holiday weekend.

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.


I come before you, my readers, with a quandary, and I'd like your help. I am currently unable to decide whether or not to purchase an upcoming game due to it's position in popular culture. I know that not all of you keep up with video games and some of you couldn't care less about them. That's fine; I'll do most of the work for you, in terms of bringing the issue to light. The problem, put simply, is that the game I speak of occupies a precarious position in popular culture (for me and several others) that makes it very difficult for me to make up my mind about buying it. I've been racking my brain for a while now, and fed up with indecision, I realized I could just bring it to you and see what you all have to say on the issue. I won't promise to base my decision solely on whatever feedback you may give me, but I will say that your thoughts on the matter may help tip me in the right direction. Furthermore, it's actually kind of interesting to talk about. Besides, it involves two of my favorite things on this planet:

Aliens and Women

Ok...did that stunt get your attention? Good! Glad to have you on board. Those of you who do follow gaming news will no doubt have surmised that the game in question is Sega and Gearbox Studio's upcoming shooter Aliens: Colonial Marines. A little background for those of you new to this: the game is framed as a direct sequel to James Cameron's masterpiece Aliens and focuses on a squad of colonial marines investigating the events at the now devastated and abandoned LV-426 (the colony where the movie takes place). The basic mechanics are like those seen in any FPS (first-person-shooter) and incorporates an emphasis on multiplayer tactics in both a cooperative and competitive environment. The single player campaign can be played alone (not recommended...it's an Aliens game, after all) or with a friend. The multiplayer mode has two modes: In cooperative, you and a team-mate must survive the onslaught of xenomorphs while defending a position or maneuvering to a new one, and in competitive, you are either a marine or a xenomorph and both teams are tasked with racking the highest body-count before the round ends. For the sake of brevity, let me put my enthusiasm for the game in terms that some of you might expect to hear coming out of my non-digital mouth:


Got it? Cool. Moving on then. In addition to all those (less vacuous) features of the game, the player is allowed to customize a marine and "enlist" for the purposes of the aforementioned multiplayer games. Combine that with the possibility of playing as more than one type of Xenomorph and Colonial Marines sounds more and more like the kind of game I simply must own.

So where does "women" come in? Well, that's actually why we're here today: they don't. At all. Gearbox has officially announced that none of the playable characters in the game's single or multiplayer modes will be female. "So what?" I hear some of you ask. "Another video-game excludes women...big deal". Video games don't have a great track record when it comes to female representation, and most games don't have playable female characters. This is especially true of the FPS genre, and even more true recently. So, maybe you'd be right in just shrugging it off as another of the many, MANY games that just aren't gender-equality friendly. Normally, and under any other circumstances, I'd be right there with you in dismissing it. But this isn't any other circumstance. This is Aliens.

I've been a fan of the Alien franchise since I first caught a glimpse of Aliens (yes, I saw the first one second; you got a problem with that?) when I was five years old. As I started asking my family questions about the movie, they saw fit to introduce me to Alien, Aliens (in full this time) and eventually Alien 3, and, thus, a fanboy was born. These three movies proved to be a very important part of my formative years as I found newer and more nuanced ways to appreciate them as works of imagination, action, science-fiction, horror, art, and even science-fact. In short, I became obsessed with these movies and have maintained that obsession into my adulthood (stop snickering...I am an adult). To this day, the xenomorphs haunt my nightmares, and their iconography is both a terror and a joy to behold. It's a strange phenomenon that I can be so fascinated with and frightened by them even at this point in my life. I still can't put one of these movies on at night, lest I have trouble sleeping (except Alien Resurrection, which I can't put on at all), and I often won't watch them alone for fear of scaring myself. I've never been a big horror fan, so I'm not "in to" fear as an adrenaline booster, and I don't like being surprised or scared. Despite all of that, I can't help but be drawn to the monsters born of H.R. Giger's imagination and to the cinematic universe they inhabit.

"Still haven't explained what this has to do with women, Trevor." Ok, fine...As I said just a moment ago, I've found new ways to understand the Alien franchise as I've matured in both body and mind, and there's one aspect about this particular universe that, while I couldn't have said it then, has always been important to me as a viewer. It's not unreasonable to say that this is actually the thing that drew me to it as a franchise in the first place. Whatever else can be said about the Alien movies, they are, fundamentally, about women. Not horror, not action, not even monsters. Women.

Every single movie in the original franchise (no, you don't get to count the Alien vs. Predator movies, although they have their own kind of appeal...more on that in another post) has been about female perspectives and voices in a male-dominated world. Alien dealt with a working-class woman named Ellen Ripley aboard a ship of "manly-men" (yes, yes, and one other woman - who, if you pay attention, is the example of how women should NOT act) and her struggle to both survive and hold everyone together, despite not being particularly powerful or respected. Her actions are always made with the best interest of her crew in mind, but almost all of them are immediately smacked down by a man who wants to make sure she "knows her place". And who survives the whole ordeal? HER! That's right, the movie does more than just pass the Bechdel Test, it actually makes feminine thought and action it's star while subverting antiquated patriarchal thinking in the process.

In Aliens, the general theme of women being ignored to the detriment of all is spoken even louder. In the beginning of the movie, all of the big, burly, corporate men, (and one woman, ok?) shoot down everything Ripley warns them about due to their single-minded pursuit of profit for their corporation. So, naturally, they choose to send down a group of big, burly, army men (and women who have decided to embrace many aspects of traditional masculinity) to "deal with it" and, SPOILER ALERT, they all get eaten...except for one. Corporal Dwayne Hicks....now there's an interesting counter-example. Yes, he's male. Yes, he's a marine. No, he's not a "big, burly, army man". He's actually the ONLY man in the whole franchise to date who has openly chosen the path of cooperation with women willingly and without anything but his own sense of reason to guide him. He's the only man who actively courts Ripley's ideas (and to an extent, Ripley herself) and seeks to find a solution with her, rather than around or in spite of her. No, the android doesn't count either. He's interesting in his own right, but not vis-a-vis his relation to Ripley or women in general. It would take a whole other post to deal with him properly.

I'm not going to discuss Alien 3 in length for the sake of time, but here's the Cliff notes: Ripley is, again, the ONLY survivor in a prison colony made up exclusively of men. I'm confident you can figure out the meaning in that for yourself. Instead, I'm going to bring up another aspect of Aliens' treatise on women that makes it so special in it's own universe and the world of sci-fi action more generally: Motherhood. The ENTIRE movie is a discussion of the exclusively female issue of motherhood. Ripley's daughter is dead at the beginning of the movie forcing her to confront issues of child-loss and failed motherhood. Later in the movie, she encounters a little girl (reminiscent, no doubt, of her own daughter) whom she decides to care for in order to help fill that void left by her tragic loss. Rebecca "Newt" Jorden, is herself, a good example of female triumph in the franchise, since she is also a lone survivor whereas her brother, father, and mother all got killed in the initial take-over by the xenomorphs. But moving on, there is one last example of motherhood addressed in this movie that can't be ignored. It brings up issues of single-motherhood, rearing children in a grim and unpleasant world, and the challenge of fighting for both your childrens' and your own survival: The Queen. Thought I forgot that, didn't you?

The Alien Queen herself is a grotesque mirror for Ripley's character in the film. Both are parents forced to confront loss and pain in regards to their children; both are in the midst of a struggle for survival against terrible odds (or did you not think the Xenomorph hive would be destroyed by an over-heating nuclear reactor?) and both are prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure that survival. This is a story of women's issues through and through, and it does it in a way that doesn't rely on "girliness" to make a point about embracing feminitity or "tom-boyishness" to make a point about the rejection of femininity. Ripley neither surrenders to traditional notions of womanhood (like her late co-worker in Alien) nor does she submit herself to the anti-feminine masculinity of the army culture (like Vasquez in Aliens). She is a complex women, to be sure, but she maintains that complexity by embracing the reality of her situation. She can be mothering to a frightened girl and torch a nest full of xenomorphs all without losing her sense of self in the process. She's a true heroine. It's this characterization of Ripley that has held my attention so firmly on this franchise. I may not be a woman, myself, but dealing with gender-identity issues and conformity are most certainly things I've had to confront in my life as a boy, teenager, and adult man. Just because she's a woman, doesn't mean that I, as a man, can't understand her struggle. Watching her provide such a shining example of a person who can simply "be" without being constrained wholly or unnecessarily by mere genetic pre-configuration was an inspiration to me when I was a boy, and still is now.

So to bring this all home, let's return to Colonial Marines. Given all this thoughtful writing and characterization of women throughout the franchise, why in all the surveyed worlds would they exclude them completely from an in-continuity game? It just doesn't make any damn sense! I can already hear some of you saying: "maybe women don't want to play this game". WRONG. Some more of you are probably of the opinion that it's not really a step forward to have women take up the role of "big, burly, army men". On that I would agree with you wholeheartedly, but it's not up to the developers of any game to make that choice for an entire demographic, nor is it right for anyone to say that they shouldn't if they really want to. Would I likely be playing as a female avatar were they to include them? No. In fact, I can pretty conclusively tell you that I don't like using female avatars. Part of that is identity, but the other part is that I just like the way men look in armor more than women (and particularly so when the artists "over-stylize" the women...gamers, you know what I'm talking about). Besides, anyone who's known me more than a minute knows I'll technically be playing as a female anyway: I'll be playing as the Xenomorphs! Either way, it's not really relevant, since If I find it more meaningful to play through a game with an avatar more closely approximating my own gender, then why would we assume that women wouldn't feel the same way? It seems really backward and not especially thoughtful on the part of the development team. Even Halo: Reach and Gears of War 3 finally wised-up and gave the option of a male or female avatar to accomodate the expanding demographic of gamers.

In summary: The game looks like a blast to play, incorporates characters and themes from a franchise I love dearly, and boasts the opportunity to vent my frustration with the human race by turning them all into an a-la-carte menu. On the other hand, it has ignored, entirely, an aspect of the series that has by far the most significance and meaning of any of its recurring themes, and in doing so, has turned up its nose at a demographic that I have nothing but admiration and respect for. Hell, if they'd even just include one woman in downloadable content, I wouldn't even be having this argument with myself.

So it boils down to this: Do I buy the game and enjoy it for the great time I can virtually guaruntee it will be, or do I avoid lending my voice of approval, via wallet, to a product that ignores such a critical social reality? Let me know in the comments what you think, or failing that, what you would do.

I'm Trevor, and, this time, I need YOUR Frame of Mind.


  1. Despite the views of some, I am not a proponent of austerity for all. Finding something that thrills you and pursuing it is one of the things that makes life worthwhile. But living true to one's values is also something makes life worthwhile. Recognizing that following one desirable path may conflict with another desirable path is a sign of wisdom, particularly when there may be cultural and/or peer pressure in one direction or the other. In my experience, the presence of the struggle is an indication that I am working to clarify who I am, and making a decision one way or the other cuts off that work. I find that if I just sit with the struggle for some time, the struggle resolves itself, clarity comes and I know how to proceed. I have never once regretted a decision, small or large, made in this way, though I have regretted decisions made in other ways. Often it turns out that I really knew all along what the right path was for me, but some other part of me was pulling me away from that truth or somehow blocking my access to it. Patience and allowing the uncertainty to simply be there is very powerful (though not necessarily comfortable)--it somehow causes the distracting part of my mind to quiet down or open up space so that I can see what lies deeper, which is always more reliable. To me, discovering who I really am has been the greatest joy of life--far greater than the pleasure that comes from things, activities, relationships with others, or anything else. It brings a sense of peace and connectedness that nothing external can rival, no matter how wondrous. Enjoy the struggle!

  2. I don't want to be that girl, but you so beautifully juxtaposed being able to choose from several different types of xenomorphs with not even being able to chose a different sex of human that auuuuugh... ...Fortunately at that moment a cat walked over and sat on my arm, restoring my sense of sanity.

    I'm certainly not going to buy the game, but I wasn't anyway. I think you should definitely buy the game, because stupid human problems should never interfere with happy xenomorph fun time. That said, I'm also happy to delve a bit deeper, especially since I might well be advocating a different opinion if I didn't know you.

    Given the thematic background you've lain out, it's intellectually unforgivable for this game to neglect women entirely. Given my own tendency to play devil's advocate, though, I just keep coming up with more ideas that could save what looks otherwise to be a terrible decision. The first thought that pops into my head is that this could be taken as its own message: maybe only hordes of stupid men would get killed by the aliens, so the reason you can't play as a woman is that it would render the game boringly unplayable since that's tantamount to some form of God mode. Unfortunately that argument's more ridden with holes than, well, the average colonial marine at the time of the film's finale. Maybe a better argument could be made for seriously thinking of the xenomorphs as the female option, but that still seems like missing the point. But maybe being male is essential to the plot! Maybe the game will force you to experience some of the deep, personal vulnerability of the movies, promoting sensitivity towards the rape issues so hotly discussed on forums! Maybe... but probably not.

    I'd love for the games to be striving for the treatment of women the movies achieve, but... In-universe justifications remain shaky when they're built on BS real-world decisions, and from what I've read this choice is on the level of the lack of female avatars in Brink. (Oops, women just aren't worth the extra development time!) That said, there's really only one way to find out. Aside from reading any of the dozens of reviews and critiques or watching review vids or Let's Plays or... oh, you get the idea. Get the game.

    As a final addendum: Maybe I'm tired of reading critiques online about women in games, valid and infuriating as they are, but I just don't have the heart to say don't play it if you'll have fun with it. Industry progress is slow but apparent, and I don't know that missing this one game with features you really have been looking forward to will make much difference. It could be that makes me part of the problem, but with that in mind I would like to make very clear for those reading that my endorsement is valid for this particular individual only. If you're thinking of picking up Aliens: Colonial Marines just to have another shooter around, my vote is strictly "Don't."

    And now, for a really complex debate, ask me how I'm feeling about Chick-Fil-A these days... [sob]

  3. Any game with customizable characters has one possible outcome, and one only:
    In short, from the perspective of the average gamer: "IF I CAN'T KILL ALIENS AS A 2 FOOT TALL BEARDED ASIAN PROSTITUTE I'M NOT PURCHASING YOUR GAME." So, basically, bad business decision on their part.

  4. If I understand your situation, this is a product you think would be highly valuable for you to use. Your objection to it is that it does not contain an option that you would not use even if it were there. You object to the absence of that option because it offends your personal sense that the game (and games in general) ought to be more inclusive of women, and because of the origins of this particular game in a series of sagas that are about women! If I have that right, I share your sense of offense on both counts. I probably wouldn't play the game in any case--I've never found a video game I've enjoyed, and this doesn't sound like it would be any different for me. So my not wanting to play the game says nothing about what you should do.

    My conclusion is that you are asking the wrong question. The question is not whether you should buy and enjoy the game. The question is what can you do to right the wrong here. Personally boycotting the game won't make any difference at all. Your $60, or whatever the price is, will make no impact by itself, and even if the absence of your purchase were somehow noticed by the manufacturer, they would not know the reason for it.

    So, start a movement. I don't know anything about gaming culture. But pretty much every social niche these days has a place in the blogosphere. There are statistics blogs, so I can't imagine there aren't gaming blogs. Go on those blogs and place your protest there. The game manufacturers surely watch those spaces to see what gamers are interested in. Write to the manufacturer, and, more important, ask your gamer friends to do the same and ask them to ask their friends to do the same, etc. Next time you're listening to a call-in show on the radio that's talking about a gender-bias issue, call in and raise this as an example. Write in to gaming magazines. Make a stink!

    That's my frame of mind.

    P.S.: Enjoy the struggle, too!