Gender Stereotypes: Our Last Line of Defence, Apparently

Much as I've been enjoying it, and I most definitely have been, there's something in XCOM: Enemy Unknown that bothers me. With all the customization options, different hair styles and colours, a variety of facial hair for men, some helmets, a huge range of colour options for armour and two different styles for each suit, different faces, even alterable voices, you can't do thing one about the basic build of your soldiers. No matter what, every woman is willowy with prominent hips and bust, and every man is a tank whose head and shoulders meet almost without need of a neck. This works decently enough for male heavies and female snipers, but what about the reverse? And why are my female assault units so physically insubstantial compared to their male counterparts? It's a little thing, perhaps, but it really does nag at me, because it prevents me from fully engaging with the world the game is offering me; the stark division between the sexes pulls me out of the experience, because I'm constantly reminded that what I'm seeing is a design choice rather than a representation of human body types.

This sort of thing isn't uncommon, sadly. Sexism isn't just about who is allowed to do what, or even whose armour is armour and whose armour is a chainmail bikini. Sometimes it's about the way you design a character, the things that says about them and the limitations it imposes on them as believable agents in their fictional universe. Body type is one of the most subtle, and in genre works the most pernicious, form of sexism.

Things with actual human beings, obviously, can't suffer from this too badly. While Scarlett Johansson doesn't quite look like the apex human killing machine she portrays in The Avengers, Jeremy Renner isn't exactly a walking slab of muscle himself. No, it's mostly limited to illustrated or animated visual media; your comic books, your cartoons, your video games. Anya Stroud has almost nothing in the way of muscle definition, compared to the hulking Marcus Fenix. Nathan Drake, lean and reasonably designed as he is, looks like a bodybuilder next to the spindly Lara Croft. Mystique and Elasti-Girl appear fragile, the former in particular, while Syndrome and Mr. Incredible are beyond solid, and even the lean and lanky Frozone seriously outmasses the women. Superman, an alien whose strength is entirely based around exposure to yellow sun radiation, has muscles on his muscles, while Power Girl and Supergirl, who are usually almost as strong as he, rarely have any bulges that aren't on their chests. Heck, compare Iron Man and Rescue, or John Henry Irons and Natasha Irons' Steel suits. Powered armour suits based on the same framework and fundamentals, but the men's is bigger, more solid looking, while the women's is thinner, lighter, with a greater emphasis on replicating their sexuality. John Henry's suit has broad shoulders and a moulded metal 6-pack; Natasha's has a wasp waist, tits and a braid.

Ironically, one of the places this comes up least is in the designs for Warhammer 40K. Yes, there are no female Space Marines. But the Sisters of Battle look bigger and more solid than Guardsmen. Female Dark Eldar wyches may not wear much, but neither do their male counterparts. And Tau and Eldar female characters are all the same size and build compared to their male counterparts; Jain Zar looks just as solid as Asurmen, which is to say compared to a Space Marine, not very. 40K has more, perhaps far more, than it's fair share of problems regarding sex and gender, but surprisingly this isn't one of them.

Now, a lot of these female characters are 'strong', which is to say that they're usually capable of dealing with a problem so long as there isn't a male character around who can solve it for them. Lara Croft is a successful treasure hunter; Elasti-Girl was a respected superheroine; Power Girl is simply amazing on all fronts, or at least she was before the Nu52 reboot made her an entitled thief and ludicrously reluctant superheroine. But these are visual media, and a character is defined as much by what they look like as what they do. It's great that Wonder Woman can go toe-to-toe with Mongul, but why does she have to do it in a one-piece and high heels when Superman is just gloves and a helmet away from being covered head-to-toe? The emphasis on sexuality, on showing curves through suits of powered armour and making equally strong non-human characters wildly different sizes, colours those characters just as much as whether they can knock out a room full of ninjas or punch through a tank.

There's nothing inherently wrong with making a character sexually appealing. It's when it happens at the expense of making them look like they'd be capable of doing their jobs, or when they look out place next to people who are doing the exact same job, that it becomes an issue. Yes, men and women are built differently in general, and yes, men often have an easier time putting on muscle than women. But the only people who look like Fenix and the other male COGs are people whose job it is to look that way; bodybuilders, not soldiers. You'll get good arms from toting a rifle, no question, but you won't get slabs of meat the thickness of your female counterpart's hips. And if Batman really wanted all those muscles everywhere, he wouldn't have time to be either billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne or the brooding dark knight detective, because he'd be spending all his time in the Batcave drinking protein shakes and doing reps. And don't even get me started on what Superman could possibly be finding to lift that would give him that kind of body!

On the great spectrum of sexism, this is a relatively minor issue. At least there are female XCOM operatives and COGs and such; for all its decent showing on body type issues, 40K has the Marines, Orks, Necrons and Imperial Guard as all-male model lines, with one Tau female special character and men in the Sisters of Battle codex. But just because you're not doing as badly doesn't mean you're doing well.

So, how about it, XCOM? Can I get a willowy male sniper and a behemoth of a female heavy? Pretty please?

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