This past weekend, I fired up Batman: Arkham City for some crime fighting action fun. It was the first time I played the game since our PS3 died, and though I had to start all over, I looked forward to spending some quality time again with Batman and the gang. After the stupidly long load time, I got started with Catwoman, and off into the wilds of Arkham I went.
I played for a highly enjoyable couple hours, swinging round the skyscrapers of the city, being all stealthy, meeting the Joker and Harley Quinn, and tying up thugs left and right. But something struck me this time round that I hadn’t noticed previously: the language. Specifically, the language the thugs used while talking amongst themselves. More specifically, their insanely frequent use of the work “bitch.”
Now, I’m not going to get all high and mighty here with the language used in games – it is what it is. Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s heavy-handed, and sometimes it’s completely ridiculous. I’m no saint, but I’m also not a sailor. If I’m not so keen on the words that are coming out of a character’s mouth, that’s my problem. And my problem with the use of the word “bitch” in Arkham City is how much it’s used to refer to the female characters, mostly Harley Quinn, or Catwoman in some instances. Nearly every time you encounter a group of thugs talking, there’s almost always a “that bitch…” line somewhere among the chatter. Fighting as Catwoman brings on similar taunts from the thugs.
Granted, these days the meaning of “bitch” has become a little mangled. It’s now a funny exclamation at the beginning or end of a sentence, or it’s often used in jest or in a maligned form. And I don’t have a problem with any of those uses – words evolve along with us, for better or worse. (And I won’t get into word ownership here, but that’s a thing too. Also when “bitch” is directed at me…well, it’s easy for me to shrug off, but that doesn’t mean I like it.)
But that all is a bit beside the point. The grand lexicon of the English language contains dozens of other words that can be used to refer to women when placing them in less than favorable lights. I’m not saying that Arkham City’s writers needed to consult Shakespeare (neither “trollop” nor “harlot” are commonly used among your typical hired thugs), but referring to them so singularly and so often as bitches is a little sexist, no? (For a better and more entertaining article specifically on this topic, check out this post at Film Crit Hulk.) I mean, they never call Batman anything so objective.
Let’s get rhetorical for a moment. If Batman and his pals were placed in a game with female thugs who repeatedly referred to the main women characters as bitches, would that be any different? Any better? How about if every time they talked about Batman, they called him a dick or a douchebag? (Trying to come up with names that fall within the game’s “Teen” rating is not as easy as it seems.) Would that irk any male gamers? In the end, the repeated slurs do make me, as the player, want to kick ass a little harder with an “oh yeah, who’s a bitch now!” sentiment, so I guess the writing succeeded on that level. But there are crazy bitches and there are “crazy” “bitches,” and the line separating the two seems to be getting finer and finer in general, not just in relation to games.
I see neither Catwoman nor Harley Quinn as “bitches,” strictly speaking. One woman is strong-willed, seductive, and manipulative, while the other is loyal, evil, and batshit crazy. And they are also women living in a predominantly male-driven world. Maybe that has something to do with it. Maybe my little rant here is pointless since talking about semantics usually doesn’t result in much. I’m not all that familiar with either woman’s backstory outside of the animated Batman series, the movies, and a few comics. So maybe I should just quit my bitching (haha). Or maybe I just want video game writers to see female characters beyond an overused, occasionally hurtful, one-dimensional word. When they do, those characters, those women, become more than the sum of their attitudes and body parts.
P. S. To anyone who’s played the new Tomb Raider, is Lara ever called a bitch or other bad name? Just curious.