Play in Process: Is Ms. Splosion Man Sexist?

Each week in Play in Process, Richard Clark shares what he’s been playing and why it matters.

Ms. Splosion Man is a silly game – no one would argue otherwise. It stars a personified explosive substance, and in this case, that personification wears a bow. She likes shoes, shallow pop songs, and thinks everyone and everything is “cute”. She is, without being an actual woman, the stereotypical woman, for better or for worse.

According to Joshua Wise Michael Elliot at The Cross and The Controller, a fascinating and worthwhile blog that typically does a great job analyzing some of the deeper religious and ethical aspects of games, it’s for worse:

…at the end of the day all I came away with was a sore thumb and a sense that I had just endured a compilation of the worst parts of how our society sees women.  It’s embarrassing how this industry falls flat on its face again and again when trying to depict women.  While this game can be both fun and funny, especially when playing with friends, buyer beware: you might find yourself getting mugged for your self respect in the process.

I agree that Ms. Splosion Man‘s portrayal of this particular woman is less than flattering – but it is worth pointing out that in this case, the protagonist is absolutely without humanity in any meaningful sense. This is not a woman – it is a purposeful amalgamation of all of our tone-deaf concepts of what women should be. Ms. Splosion Man was born, both in the fiction of the game and in reality, as a creation of a group of men. In the game, it’s clear she was created by careless men, too absorbed in themselves to notice the error of their ways. It is this creation that ultimately destroys them.

The brilliance of the Splosion Man series in general is that it’s crafted specifically to represent some of the most tiresome and frustrating videogame and cultural stereotypes and missteps in a way that’s both humerous and fun. After playing the game, it’s simply impossible to take them seriously. No one leaves Ms. Splosion Man assuming that women must really like shoes – they leave thinking that such an assumption is hilarious. Everyone knows that one of the best ways to combat evil is to mock it – Ms. Splosion Man drops a nuclear bomb on the self-serious assumptions people make about women. Can’t we just point at that destruction and laugh, for once?

If you like, you can read my official review of Ms. Splosion Man at Kill Screen

About Richard Clark

Richard H. Clark is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. He has a Master of Arts in Theology and the Arts from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, Ky. He is also the managing editor of Gamechurch and a freelance writer for Unwinnable, Paste, and other outlets.
E-mail: clarkrichardh [at] gmail [dot] com.
Twitter: @deadyetliving

  • http://www.TheCrossAndTheController.com Joshua Wise

    Richard,

    I too was a little bit hesitant to take the same view of the game that Michael did. But when I gave it some thought I came to the point of thinking that if Splosion Man had been about a beer swilling, football watching, girly website browsing dude-bro, I would have found the Ms. Splosion Man portrayal way more palatable. But the whole thing seems a bit lopsided. Why is Splosion Man a blank slate who likes cake, and Ms. Splosion Man a wild stereotype?

    Now, I think your argument that she was accidentally made by silly men in lab coats who know probably next to nothing about women (the fictional scientists, not the good folks over at Twisted Pixel), is a good one.

    In the end, I more agree with your points than specifically with Michael’s point of view. But, as I’m sure is the policy of CaPC, I stand behind my reviewers even when we don’t have the same opinion.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    I dunno, I thought he was pretty stereotypical in the other direction. He was big on killing, action movies, explosions, etc. Also, that wasn’t called “Mr.” splosion man, so they had no reason to accentuate that fact. I’m not sure it matters that it’s “lopsided” – making that complaint is really just begging the question. You’re still making the assumption that women got a “worse” treatment than men. I’m saying that if anything was mocked or ridiculed it was sexism itself.

    Glad to see you standing behind your reviewers! I stand by them too! I don’t begrudge him for having his opinion, I just thought I would challenge it.

    In the end I just was sort of sad to read that kind of a review for a game I love and felt like was doing so drastically different than he interpreted it to do.

  • http://www.TheCrossAndTheController.com Joshua Wise

    I don’t know if those arguments really hold up. First, the game is Splosion Man…the “Ms.” bit is clearly a riff on it, but the first game is no less about a “Man.” Second, the fact that both he and she ‘Splode and kill a bunch of dudes cancels out. If him liking to ‘Splode was stereotypical of a male, how does it fit into her stereotype? I would ask the same question about action movies, as the same movies are reference in this game as well, are they not?

    As well, the difference between critique/satire and real actual offensiveness is that one comments in such a way as to draw attention to and to critique the thing it finds offensive. In what way can we distinguish between what Ms. Splosion Man is doing and actual sexism if in fact it is a critique of sexism? If, in your view, this game was really sexist, how would it look different than it does now?

    If you are going to lampoon something, it requires you to make the thing lampooned out to be ridiculous. That would require a sexist man to appear ridiculous, not a woman. By making a woman look ridiculous (admittedly once again, she’s not exactly a woman but some kind of woman-construct-thing) you are in fact lampooning women.

    Now, if there is a character in the game that is in fact a strong, intelligent, non-lyric spouting, non-shoe adoring, woman that can be juxtaposed to this weird idea made by silly scientists, then I can get totally behind your interpretation. However, unless that exists I think the burden of proof is on those who call this satire instead of sexism.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Wait, so who’s making these rules of lampooning? I don’t know, I think in this case the intention of the developers is relatively obvious. You might argue that the humor seems off-base, or muddled – I wouldn’t necessarily agree. But to call it outright sexist seems to go way too far.

    How is it not possible to lampoon a concept – in this case, general sexism?

    And obviously, to ask for a strong, intelligent, non-lyric spouting women to be present in the game is obviously asking too much of a game like this – I suspect you knew that while mentioning it.

    The same movies are referenced, but not directly by Ms. Splosion Man – they’re contextual gags, tied in with bosses and interactions with the scientists. They make the case even stronger that nothing is meant to be taken too seriously in this world.

    Again, I think keeping the creation of Ms. Splosion Man in mind is an important point, though you have downplayed it. It’s the key to understanding that she is in fact not the norm, but an exception.

  • http://www.TheCrossAndTheController.com Joshua Wise

    Well, I’ll say this and then I’ll let you have the last word if you like.

    Lampooning something is in fact pretty standard. If you want to make fun of something, you make fun of the thing, person, or concept. Show how it is ridiculous. To simply take a female and make her ridiculous is lampooning a woman, not lampooning sexism. To lampoon sexism, one must show how ridiculous sexism is, by portraying it and mocking it somehow. I’m not making that up, that’s just what it means. One need only consider Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to see how it is done.

    The same movies being referenced, the explosions, all remove weight from the idea that the first game featured a stereotypical male being lampooned.

    Second, you’ve declined my challenge. What would be different about the game if in fact it were sexist?

    The creation of the character takes perhaps 10 seconds in the game? And as well, it is fully accidental, not like the men are pouring in their ideas of what a woman would be like. It’s not as if some bumbling scientists were trying to make a woman and came up with this creature. She’s purely accidental, meaning that her stereotypes can’t really be attributed to their muddle-headed minds.

    It is humor, of course, and the game might be extremely fun, but unless we can show how it is lampooning instead of sexism, I just don’t see the grounds on which the satire/lampoon idea is based. I’m happy to see it if it’s there, but I just don’t know that you can exegetically pull that from the game. I understand how the idea “i like this game, it’s silly fun, let’s not take it too seriously” can eisegetically put that idea in there, but unless there is some real grounding within the “text” of the game, I remain unconvinced.

    As I’ve said above, I’ll let you have the last word. I love Twisted Pixel games, and was a staunch supporter of Comic Jumper when some others had major problems with that game. So this isn’t some vendetta against them. But I think Michael’s ground is pretty sure footing on this, even if I might have played the game and overlooked it personally.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    aaaaaand… end bold.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Hey no fair editing people ^_^

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    :-)

  • Ben Bartlett

    A couple thoughts guys;

    First, I was struck by this quote; “if there is a character in the game that is in fact a strong, intelligent, non-lyric spouting, non-shoe adoring, woman that can be juxtaposed to this weird idea made by silly scientists, then I can get totally behind your interpretation.”

    This suggests that sexism is present anytime you use stereotypes for any reason, and that combating sexism requires a “strong, intelligent” woman character to be present at all times. That’s really sorta silly. It’s like saying that a rom-com with a smart girl and a dumb guy is inherently sexist unless they ALSO portray a strong, intelligent, responsible male figure to combat the inherent sexism.

    Second, do we really want to go the route of saying presentation of stereotypes in a ridiculous setting constitutes sexism? This means Mario is racist, as is Street Fighter.

    Ms. Splosion is a cartoon… an extreme character designed to be over-the-top on purpose. She’s a GI Joe, a Pokemon, a Smurf, a CareBear, a Samurai Jack. She’s fun because she’s too much. She’s NOT a commentary on the frivolities of women’s interests.

    We’re really getting to a bad place if the only “allowable” characters in a game about exploding science creations are strong, intelligent women who dislike shoe shopping and aren’t afraid of gaining weight.

  • http://www.TheCrossAndTheController.com Joshua Wise

    Other fighters have entered the right…rules change…I’m not done!

    :)

    Ben,

    Portraying a weakness in any character is not by default prejudice. Portraying stereotypical weaknesses one on top of another without some significant context is. As well, the standard of video games in our modern age is that of sexism against women. This is not a matter of being oversensitive about a small issue, but looking around what we do in video games and seeing Ms. Splosion Man as continuous with the standard practice of subliminating women to one gender stereotype or another.

    Yes, Mario is a stereotype (not racist however, as Italian is not a race) and there certainly are stereotypical characters in Street Fighter. One’s argument does not increase in strength because we have overlooked other instances of the same problem. However, in my experience with Mario, the stereotyping extends only to an accent, not to a bunch of well known prejudices against Italians. Ms. Splosion Man does in fact play on several well known prejudices.

    My point about the strong woman figure was that if, even for a minute, a character like that showed up and shook her head at the whole lot of scientists and Ms. Splosion man, without mocking the strong woman character as some kind of shrew or feminist nazi, then the whole thing could fit very comfortably within the context of satire. But I once again ask what the difference is between Ms. Splosion Man and real sexism if it is satire.

    When you look at a game like Farenheit, one of the two cops is very clearly a stereotyped African American male, from the way he walks, to the way he dresses and talks, and even to the music that plays in the background. Dead Block also plays on another version of the African American stereotype by making the female in the game a black woman named Foxy who carries a gun. Should we simply say “there’s no supernatural wizard making the world colder, it’s a ridiculous situation, so the character in Farenheit is fine?” Or “There are no zombies, so the character in Dead Block is fine?” Or even…Archaeology doesn’t really work the way video games portray it, so the over-sexualization of Lara Croft is fine?

    The reality is that there are well known stereotypes that conscientiousness people will avoid, unless for the purpose of satire, or comedy. My point has been that if Splosion Man had been as stereotypical about men, I wouldn’t be bothered. My reviewer Michael disagrees with my stance on that. I’m fine with stereotyping for comedy’s sake, as long as you’re fair about it. Make fun of everyone, not just one group. If you have three normal people in a story and one stereotype, the stereotype is no longer funny, he or she is hurtful.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Josh,

    I think the big thing you’re missing here is regarding what art or media does in our hearts and minds. Your reviewer felt uncomfortable with the game and that’s fine, he doesn’t have to play. But if Ms. Splosion makes him uncomfortable, a more stereotypical Mr. Splosion wouldn’t have somehow made him MORE comfortable.

    You ask what the difference between a sexist Ms. Splosion and a satirical Ms. Splosion would be. The difference is that a sexist Ms. Splosion would encourage people to look down on women in general, and a satirical one would would be amusing without real offense.

    To be quite frank, I think your reviewer’s perspective is fine for him but it is also unique to him (which is a bit of a problem in a review designed for wider consumption). The vast majority of people who play Ms. Splosion, I would venture, are amused but not encouraged to look down on women.

    I think a further mistake is made when you suggest that stacking stereotypes is prejudicial. A movie like Legally Blonde goes out of its way to stack all sorts of stereotypes, but doing so introduces an absurdist element that makes it clear they are having fun rather than being derogatory. I think Ms. Splosion is similar in that regard.

    It’s no problem if you guys want to stick to your guns on this one. But I feel like there might be better hills to die on out there.

  • Joshua wise

    The idea tha reviews are subjective is certainly true, but a majority opinion does not indicate whether or not a thing is good or bad. There are plenty of movies that were made when wildly blatant racism was prevalent in cinema that would have used the same excuses that you are offering.

    Also. The satement I made about the comparison between the first and second games is purely about my perspective, not Michael’s.

    Further, if you google, Ms. Splosion Man and sexism you will in fact find other reviews discussing the issue, which negates the point that the perspective is unique to him. Even if it was, that fact alone does not make his argument wrong.

    The “you don’t have to play it” argument is utterly invalid if we are playing games to, admittedly subjectively, inform people of their content.

  • observer

    great convo, guys. and way to keep it clean. that’s pretty much an anomaly in internet comment threads.

  • Ben

    Josh,

    I didn’t suggest majority opinion makes something right, let’s not be silly. I’m suggesting the fact that Ms. Splosion isn’t encouraging people to look down on women is one good indicator that her character isn’t sexist.

    Also, movies that encourage people to look down on other races fit my model perfectly… they are racist because they encourage those wrong perceptions, which is nothing like what Ms. Splosion does.

    Your reviewer’s discomfort is an example of the conflict between characters designed for amusement and political correctness. But it is not sexism… if HE’s not looking down on women as a result of the character, and people on OUR side of the discussion are not looking down on women as a result of the game, what exactly is the issue?

    Now, I’ll certainly give you this. If Ms. Splosion was designed to be an easier game because she’s a female and therefore too dumb to take on the first game, or if her character was slower because women are weak, THAT would be sexism.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Not having any experience of either this game or its predecessor, I can only speak to the issue broadly. There is a problem with looking at product that contains only a single example from a potentially stigmatized social group and drawing a conclusion from the instance of that particular example.

    The difficulty lies in this: does the character instance bear certain stereotyped traits (negative or otherwise) because those happen to be the traits of that individual character or does the character have those same traits due some degree of prejudice in the character’s author. With only a single example from the social group, its an exceedingly difficult question to answer. Duke Nukem’s treatment of women is pretty clearly sexist despite being humourously (vaguely) presented because all the women in the game serve pretty much a single sexist function. Even Marvel/DC treatment of female heroes can be analyzed somewhat because though a book might only feature one prominent woman, one can survey the entire landscape of the publishers’ product.

    Ms. Splosion Man (or is it just Ms. Splosion?), who I gather is unflatteringly portrayed, may betray the sexist inclinations of her creators (not just in-game) or she may just be an unflattering character not meant to be seen as representative of her developers’ vision of women. Unless the devs have a history of portraying women similarly, it seems a bit premature to declare in one way or another.


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