Essay: Video Games Creating a Patriarchy for the Male Gaze

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According to John Berger, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.” (1972:42). With this dissertation focusing on the gender relationship and using the “male gaze” theory as the key element to elicit a social phenomenon called “patriarchy”. To trace of the phrase of “male gaze”, this dissertation will look back to the “ Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey which was published in 1975. Within her essay, Mulvey declare that in a movie women are generally the objects, rather than a holder, gaze is due to the control of the camera comes from the factors such as the presumption of heterosexual men as the default target audiences for most film genres. Besides, Mulvey believes that sexual objectification is comparable with the male gaze, as both theories have influenced the gender relationship of our culture, and it’s being an important part of the patriarchal order. Therefore, this dissertation will also explore the sexual objectification and the patriarchy, and their relationship. While the Hollywood protagonists were dominantly male, the foundation concept of men as the viewers and women as viewed still applies today. So, how does these feminism film theories related to the video games? Particularly the intention of heterosexual, they are both aimed mainly at the male audiences, and both the movie and video game contain the narrative element.

This project will focus specifically on the contemporary game industries and the use of those games. Since the arise of the video games, the game industry diffusely still treat women mainly as an object to demonstrate their sexual characteristic. Nevertheless, video game is not just a narrative activity as the movie, as Adrienne Shaw said, “games are interactive in terms of their ludic and narrative properties, but they are also bodily and socially interactive. These factors shape players’ relationship with game texts and if or how they identify with on-screen characters” (2015:98). Video game is an activity that contains both narrative and interactive element, so, this dissertation will show the differences between the narrative cinema and the interactive narrative gaming, and how the male gaze and patriarchy still dominant in such video games. Furthermore, some people argue that video gaming is just a kind of media, is a second dimensional product, what happen in the video game does not affect or relate to the reality. Nevertheless, Michel Foucault-a French postmodernist; which has been hugely influential in shaping the understandings of power. He identify the power as a medium that affect the thinking of human beings and construct our society, and the “power” which is including many aspect, movie, music, books, and the video game undoubtedly. He stated, ”Power is everywhere and come from everywhere, so in this sense is neither an agency nor a structure.” (Foucault1998: 63). Therefore, this dissertation will show how the patriarchal element in video game is not just reflect, is even informs and normalizes the cultural position of our society. To achieve the task mentioned above, using a video game with high popularity “Grand Theft Auto 5” as a key resource to prove that how the “patriarchy” still active in a medium that contain both narrative and interactive. Furthermore, the case study of this game will be cover from the game cover, characters, and gaming system, which aimed to have a more general and objective outcome. Thus, this dissertation will discuss how the “male gaze” and “patriarchy” still dominate in the contemporary gaming culture as a foundation to construct the argument.

Literature Review:

Male Gaze

A primer of the male gaze, it is important to define its fundamental concept. What is gaze? The gaze is a notion used for analyzing the visual culture, which deal with how the audiences view the people presented. The types of gaze are mainly classified by who is doing the looking. To introduce the term “male gaze”, it was first emerged from an essay entitled “ Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, published in 1975 by Laura Mulvey. Mulvey stated, “ In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” (1975:19). Mulvey make use of psychological theory as a key resource to illustrate how the patriarchic subconscious of our society shape the cinema. With what she said, the cinema is organized along lines, which is relevant to the cultural subconscious with the patriarchy. Her main argument in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is that the Hollywood narrative films utilize women as an object in order to offer a pleasurable visual for the men. The narrative film construct the as masculine. Women are always the object of the gaze from men, but not the bearer of it, as she apprise women “the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” (1975:58). Besides, Mulvey think that the cinematic gaze is always produced as the masculine perspective, which including the ways of the identification generated with the male hero and via the use of the camera. And there are two forms in which the Hollywood cinema produces pleasure, forms which emerge from different mental mechanisms. The first one is the objectification of the images, while the second one is the objectification with it. Both mechanisms are representing the mental desires of men. She concludes that the inequality of the gender power is dominating in the cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male spectator, while it is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.

What Mulvey indicate in her essay, it is part of the film theory, however, the male gaze is a term or ideology that can widely applied on many aspects, rather than just movie. For instance, fashion. Rather than just being an object of the gaze in front of the camera, male gaze is still alive in our culture or even daily life, as Negrin state in “Feminism and Fashion”, “Fashion was regarded primarily as an instrument of oppression in which women were turned into passive objects of the male gaze” (2008:33) Therefore, fashion is one of the apparatus that lead the female become the object of the male gaze. Thus, except the film theory, male gaze still can apply on other aspects, which become a really common gender relationship in the contemporary culture.

The male gaze take place when the camera or sight stands on the heterosexual male spectator perspective, for instance, it may focus on the curves of a female’s body. Those women are usually showed on two different aspects. The first one is as an erotic object for both the characters within the film, and the second is for the audience who is watching the movie. As the intention of the cinema is always aimed mainly at the male audience, therefore, its construct an asymmetry circumstance, the woman is always the passive side, while the man is the active one. According to Wykes and Barrie Gunter comment on male gaze’s images, “ For Berger these images record the inequality of gender relations and a sexualization of the female image that remains culturally central today. They reassure men of their sexual power and at the same moment deny any sexuality of women other than the male construction. They are evidence of gendered difference… because any effort to replace the woman in these images with a man violates ‘the assumptions of the likely viewer’ (Berger, 1972:64). That is, it does not fit with expectations but transgresses them and so seems wrong.” (2005:38-39). Under such condition, Mulvey argues that, the male gaze is generally having priority over the female gaze in the mainstream cinema, which is reflecting the gender inequality.


This inequality can be attributed to patriarchy that has been defined as a social ideology inserted in the belief systems of Western culture and the patriarchal societies. Some feminist (David A. J. Richards) defines patriarchy as an unfair social system that enforces the gender roles and is oppressive to for both male and female. Which males are holding the primary power, dominating in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and the control of property. Those feminist usually specialize patriarchy as a social construction, which can be conquer by disclosing and critically analyzing its manifestations. Before the widespread use of the term “patriarchy”, feminist would use ”male chauvinism” and “sexism” to describe the similar phenomenon. Bell Hooks, a feminist, argue that “patriarchy” identifies the ideological system itself, which men are innately dominant or superior to women, and that can be believed and acted, by either men or women, while those old terms only imply men as an oppressor of women. Historically, the term patriarchy was used to describe the despotic rule by the male, the leader of a family. Nevertheless, in contemporary society, it is referring to the social ideology in which the men mainly hold the power generally. As Sylvia Walby posits patriarchy is “a system of social structures, and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women” (1990:214). What Wably said is defining patriarchy as an unfair social system; it often includes the social mechanism that raises men dominance over women. In addition, Sylvia Walby has point out six overlapping structures, which define patriarchy and that take different forms in different cultures and different times. Which are including the state: women are unlikely to have formal power and representation; the household: women are more likely to do the housework and raise the children; violence: women are more prone to being abused; paid work: women are likely to be paid less; Sexuality: women’s sexuality is more likely to be treated negatively; culture: women are more misrepresented in media and popular culture. Besides, the social and cultural conditioning is not the only aspect that responsible to establish this kind of male and female gender roles. According to the standard sociological theory, patriarchy is an ideology that passed down from generation to generation. These constructions are not just prevalent in the societies with traditional cultures and less developed area. Even in modern, developed societies, the gender messages transmitted by family, mass media, and other institutions, which is also largely favor the men having a dominant status. In this case, we can see that the ideology of patriarchy is primarily influenced by our awareness from the society, culture and even family.

Yet, some “sociobiologists” argue that the idea of patriarchy is not just originate from the social and cultural influences, but also the biological factors. Steven Goldberg, a sociobiologist, which contend the patriarchy as, “the ethnographic studies of every society that has ever been observed explicitly state that these feelings were present, there is literally no variation at all.” (1973:63). He believes that social behavior is mainly determined by genetics, thus, patriarchy is a
Ideology arises from innate biology, rather than just the social conditioning. This argument claim that due to the biological formation of women, they are more suitable to carry out the role such as anonymous child –rearing at home, rather than the role of a high profit decision-making. As Richard Lewontin-a biologist said, “the existence of asexual division of labor in primitive societies is a starting point as much for purely social accounts of the origins of patriarchy as for biological.” (1984:157). Therefore, by means of the growing power of such patriarchal system, gender bias was created within the work force, which leading a situation “ men are more likely to be cabinet ministers or parliamentarians, business executives or tycoons, Nobel Prize winning scientists or fellows of academies, doctors or airline pilots. Women are more likely to be secretaries, laboratory technicians, office cleaners, nurses, airline stewardesses, primary school teachers, or social workers.” (1984:132). Furthermore, among with the structure of patriarchal society, these gendered biases are ideologies are more likely to be developed in the educational system. For instance, boys are assumed to have more keen dimensional abilities than girls in mathematical and scientific fields, while girls are supposed to better in linguistic skills. These stereotypical manifestations within the educational system shore the notions of gender bias. Consequently, the social conditioning; women conform to the stereotypical images, which contain erotic message, traditional culture; the patriarchal ideology passed down from family and mass media, and biological factors; men are physically stronger than women, which is more suitable to engage important position within the work force. Because of the above aspects combined together which sustain the patriarchy.

The interactivity of video game

The theories of male gaze and patriarchy mentioned above, though they were introduced as part of film and social theory, they can and are often applied to other kind of media. For example, video game. James Paul Gee comment on video game as, “the tripartite play of identities (a virtual identity, a real-world identity, and a projective identity) in the relationship “player as virtual character” is quite powerful. It transcends identification with characters in novels or movies, for instance, because it is both active (the player actively does things) and reflexive, in the sense that once the player has made some choices about the virtual character, the virtual character is now developed in a way that sets certain parameters about what the player can do. The virtual character redounds back on the player and affects his or her future actions.” (2003:58). Gee state that video game is a media that contain both interactive and narrative elements rather than just narrative like movies and books. Therefore, to justify the property of video game, before talking about how the male gaze and patriarchy still dominate in the video game, I would like to define the interactivity of video game first.

According to Adrienne Shaw, “Broadly speaking, the game industry constructs games, and audiences view games as responsive to player’s wishes.” (2015:103). This responsiveness is always used to differentiate the video games from the other media, such as, movie, music, books, etc. It is not saying that this kind of engagement in video games is greater or more intelligent, when it compare to the other media. Those engagement and responsiveness of video games are articulate with the factors of narrative and representational. The players of the games are not just watching or reading stories to see the development of the game story and the consequence of the characters, as what they do with the movies and books. In video games, players need to engage with the texts quite often, they need to assimilate into the game story rather than just sit in front of the monitor. Besides, the goal of the players and the characters are usually conjoined together. The players is not expecting for the character to succeed, like what the may do with a novel, a movie, or even a television show, as they are fighting for themselves to win as they are the real controller of the game. In other words, the game character and player are linked together. What mentioned above is the interactivity of video games, different from the narrative movies and books, in the game world, the player is the master of the world, and they can control the behavior of the character by their own thinking and feeling. And we can say that, due to the interactivity of game, which reduce the distance between the players and their on screen characters, thence, there is a stronger identification in video games compare to the other media. As Geoff king and Tanya Krzywinska said, “The activity of the players is essential to the realization of much of what unfolds in the playing of games, even where the parameters are clearly established in advance. As a consequence, the player can seem more directly implicated than traditional media consumers in the meanings that result.” (2002:169). Thus, the interactive properties of video games establish more connection between the character and player, which the movies and books can’t reach it.

The Interactive narratives

Nevertheless, some people argue that video game does not contain interactivity merely, but also include the element of narrative. To delve into the essence of video game, it is important to discern different type of video games and their characters. Adrienne Shaw stated, “A digital game avatar is the visual, digital embodiment of the player in the game world.” (2015:100). The term avatar mentioned by Shaw, its original meaning is referring to the physical manifestation of the Hindu deity on earth; it’s the embodied form of a fugacious being. However, it cannot be utilized to all video games, as it insinuates self-representation. Or have a more simple definition, when you create a representation of yourself in an online or offline game, it is an avatar. Which mean an avatar is a character created by yourselves, and does not contain any narrative factors, such as, story or the background of the character. Apart from the avatar, another kind of character called digital game character, which is the game developer designed a character, and player is just the controller of the character. For instance, Mario of Super Mario Bros., Lara Croft of Tomb Raider and Master Chief of Halo are digital game characters rather than avatar. Those characters mentioned above, they are designed for the players to control, each character have their own background. Although the players can change the costume and weapons, etc., they still need to follow the story flow. And this is the video game that contains both interactive and narrative elements. In addition, the interactivity of video game is a significant difference from the other media. Yet, video games don’t just provide interactive to player, as T. L. Taylor claims, “ Players do not just consume, or act as passive audience members of, the game but instead are active co-creators in producing it as a meaningful experience and artifact.” (2006:133). This is not saying that video games are always or inherently active. Except the game player, there is another kind of audience which is only watching others play the game, but never involve, this kind of audience called the secondary player. For them, the video game is just a narrative image belike movie and television show. James Newman describes the secondary player as “ a role frequently taken by players who like the idea of games but find them too hard and is just one example of the ways players appropriate videogame experience in manners often not intended by producers (or observed by researchers)” (2013). Therefore, movie, television and literacy audiences are just absorbing the mediated message created by the producers, they interact with nongame media by questioning them, structure them and remarking them. Thus, when it comes to interactivity, video games are both like and unlike other media.

Relations between second dimensional and reality

The theory mentioned above is regarding to the gender relations and the video games. Nevertheless, some people argue that what happen in the video games, the patriarchal social system, gender imbalance, they are just the matter within the video games, it is just a second dimensional world for people to play and experiences, which do not affect or relate to the reality. Yet, it is not true, a French postmodernist, Michel Foucault, who has been deeply influence the shaping of the understanding of power. He defined the power as an intermediary that affect the thinking of people and construct our social system. Foucault express his idea that power is wielded by people or groups by the way of ‘sovereign’ or ‘ episodic’ acts of ruling or domination, and viewing it as dispersed and pervasive. Foucault stated, “Power is everywhere and come from everywhere, so in this sense is neither an agency nor a structure.” (1998:63). Therefore, video games is a kind of power undoubtedly. The key point about Foucault ‘s idea of power is that it surmounts politics and views power as a daily, socialized and embodied phenomenon, and the power is what makes us what we are. Rather than it is a kind of ‘metapower’ or ‘ regime of truth’ that permeate the society, and which is in constant stream and negotiation. Foucault uses the term ‘power or knowledge’ to indicate that power is formed up through accepted kinds of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth’. And Foucault has his interpretation of the truth, “Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned: the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault. in Rabinow 1991).

Furthermore, Foucault believed that power is a main source of social discipline and conformity. Apart from the “sovereign and “episodic”, and focus on the traditionally core in feudal states to force their subjects, Foucault instructed the “disciplinary power”, which is a new ideology that could be observed in the administrative systems and social services in the 18th century, for instance, prisons, schools and mental hospitals, etc. The systems of surveillance and assessment are not required force or violence, as people learned to discipline themselves and behave in the expected ways. Therefore, we can see that how the ideology of power help people to construct the society and affect the behavior of them. Besides, Foucault is one of the few writers comment on power whose admit that power is not just a negative, coercive or repressive thing that affect the thinking and behavior of people, but also can be a necessary and positive force in the society. Foucault said, “ We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production” (1991:194). Thus, the video games is also a kind of power as Foucault definition of power, what happen in the video games is affecting and related to our daily life, no matter it is positive or negative.


According to Negrin in “ Feminism and Fashion”, “Admired for their (women) looks rather than for their achievements, women became passive objects for the male gaze.” (2008:36). With what mentioned above, the male gaze, patriarchal system and the ideology of Foucault. To testimony those literature theory, a video game – “Grand Theft Auto 5” will be used as a key example to evidence that the video gaming have a perfusion of patriarchy and gender imbalance, and those elements of the video game is even informs and normalizes the cultural position of our society. But first of all, people may ask why the “Grand Theft Auto 5” should be used as the key example. The reason for choosing the “Grand Theft Auto 5” is really obvious and simple, because of its extremely high popularity. According to the Take – Two CEO Strauss Zelnick, with the Grand Theft Auto 5, they have recorded an extraordinary sales revenue, which totally sold 32.5m units in to date. Besides, the “Grand Theft Auto 5” has garnered numerous accolades since its launch last fall, including the Best Video Game in Time’s 25 Best Video Games of 2013 and the Game of the Year in 5th Annual Inside Gaming Awards, also it breaks the record for hitting $1 billion in sales in just three days. Including this sales record, the Grand Theft Auto 5 broke six more Guinness World Records and has also been praised for the work put into its soundtrack. Furthermore, this game published several versions on different consoles, including Play Station, Xbox and PC version. Therefore, the Grand Theft Auto will be the best example due to its popularity and acceptability. Moreover, due to Alan Mckee stated in his book, the “Textual Analysis: A Beginner’s Guide”, “Textual analysis is a way for researchers to gather information about how other human beings make sense of the world. It is a methodology – a data-gathering process – for those researchers who want to understand the ways in which members of various cultures and subcultures make sense of who they are, and of how they fit into the world in which they live. Textual analysis is useful for researchers working in cultural studies, media studies, in mass communication, and perhaps even in sociology and philosophy.” (2003:1) Therefore, before dig into the discussion of the game, we need to make it clear that what we should find out during the case study, or we can say what the patriarchy or male gaze will look like in the grand Theft Auto 5. As the patriarchy is talking about the male domination, attributes of power, control, and extreme competitiveness for the men, and however, women can only be the position that is more subordinate. Therefore, aimed to probe the status of female characters in the game, we need to compare the importance between the male and female characters. Besides, within the patriarchal structure, women have a disproportionately lower reward than the men for the same position, so the treatment of the female characters in the game will also be the investigate target.

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