Away ye vile strumpet! And may I ne’er cast eyes upon thy form again!

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.

Ahhh. So good to be back. (source)
Ahhh. So good to be back. (source)

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.

(source)
There are words after this picture, by the way…. (source)

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.)

Day-um! Things just got real up in here. (source)
Things just got real up in…wait. Does the Brave Little Toaster have hands?! (source)

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.

And crazy ain't got nothin' on Gary Busey. (source)
And crazy bitches ain’t got nothin’ on Gary Busey. (source)

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.

6 thoughts on “Away ye vile strumpet! And may I ne’er cast eyes upon thy form again!”

  1. To your question about the new Tomb Raider and whether or not she is called nasty names, I do not think she ever is called a “bitch” or like term. I could be wrong, but I don’t really remember that and I think I would if it had happened because I would have been like “Oh no you didn’t!” and snapped my fingers in a Z pattern.

    Otherwise, I agree with simpleek and duckofindeed on this matter. I really couldn’t have said it much better than either of them. Context is always important, much like simpleek said I would expect criminals in Arkham City to call a woman a “bitch” because for all we know they are rapists and murderers with no respect for women. Though it’s never pleasant to be called names in a video game, whether the character be a male or female. While it’s getting better, there still is a real problem with women and sexism in video games themselves. Something that more developers should be working to overcome, like Crystal Dynamic has done with Tomb Raider. Other devs shouldn’t be afraid to create a strong, compelling female character that isn’t dressed like a harlot and trying to have *relations* with every man she sees.

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    1. Context, yes. I do agree that the language in Arkham City feels natural, like the kind of stuff you’d expect coming from the mouths of evil-doers. It doesn’t feel tacked on or tacky. Thanks for the note about Lara. I can only imagine all the “Oh no you didn’t”s that would have come from the gamerverse if she had been portrayed in a bad light! Though I’ve not played Tomb Raider yet, I’ve read enough to understand that the “new” Lara does represent a leap forward for female video game characters. Hopefully she’s a sign of things to come. (But she should be a sign of the way things were and are, really.)

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  2. Reading simpleek’s comment, perhaps they do just use the word so much because the characters seem like they would, but I still don’t like that women are often called names, but men are not. I almost never hear vile names directed at men, but maybe they just aren’t bothered by such things, so there’s no point in using the words. I don’t know. I do very much hate when I play a game that does seem to be made by sexist people. In some games, they are pretty good about the female characters, who may actually have important roles, don’t have giant…um…you know, and are not just there to walk around naked and be someone the main character can have a relationship with. That’s why I like “The Legend of Zelda” and “Ratchet and Clank” games. They have few female characters, but the ones that are there actually get to wear clothes, unless it’s a character that makes sense being a bit naughty, which, in that case, I don’t care. Courtney Gears should wear revealing clothes. She’s a pop singer. They do that.

    There are other games like “Jak and Daxter” that I love, but they are really bad about the women. They all have barely any clothes on, and one wears a revealing uniform when the men from her same group have full body armor. And one that makes me the most angry is how Keira is portrayed in “Jak X”. It’s hard to explain, but to give you an idea, the official game walkthrough said at the end of her description that she had become a “beautiful grown up woman worthy of Jak’s attention”. Is it just me or is that just terribly sexist? Jak would have never even gotten through his adventure in game 1 if it wasn’t for Keira’s knowledge, so why does she even need to be “worthy” of him looking at her?

    Sorry about the long rant. But, I have strong feelings about the topic.

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    1. Rant away! I don’t know Keira, and it’s terrible that I’m not even familiar with the Jak & Daxter games, but your description of her does sound very sexist. And it’s unfortunate that she was portrayed as such in the game; and calling her “worthy” of attention…eww…just eww. In this case, I don’t know that it’s safe to say that the writers didn’t mean to be sexist, because that really sounds pretty blatant to me.

      Also, the issue about male armor vs. female “armor,”…goodness, I don’t know if that’ll ever not be a thing in some games. I know that when I look for protection in the form of armor, it’d better be a full suit made out of metal, not a metallic bikini.

      But I do agree that female characters’ looks and clothes and attitudes should match whatever they are supposed to be. But when the overall tone/language in a game undermines any of the females’ good traits, that’s really disappointing.

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  3. I haven’t played Arkham City, but I do want to after my cousin showed me a little bit of the game when he came over my place one time. You bring up some interesting points about using the word “bitch” in games. I think the games I have played so far hasn’t really exposed me to a usage of the word that would be kind of alarming. The closest would be Saints Row 2 and 3 since I’m in the process of finishing both games as a female character.

    I would like to think the reason behind hearing the word thrown out there a lot in a game like Arkham City has more to do with the kind of secondary characters you encounter and less to do with the writers being sexist pigs. They are creating a tone in the game, and I can’t imagine hardened criminals saying something like, “You bad woman you,” or some bad variation in replacement of “bitch.” Like you mentioned in your post, the use of the word can also be because the delivery is powerful and it stirs up an emotion like anger. As Catwoman, if a bad guy called you a bitch, your first reaction is to get mad and then kick his ass. Teach him a lesson. In most cases, it does feel pretty good too!

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    1. I totally agree! Being called names, whether male or female, certainly makes the blood boil; and it’s great to deliver a little pain (video-game-wise) to the name caller! I also doubt that AC’s writers were riffing on chauvinism, as much as setting out to prove that the bad guys were bad. Just as in any other game. I find it interesting that I didn’t give the dialogue a second thought when I first played the game; but for some reason this time it’s bothersome. Maybe it’s because I know the characters and the game better. Or maybe I’m just going through a sensitive phase…I’m sure it’ll pass. 😉

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