The Question of Representation
In the world of games as we know it - where female characters are still, for the most part, either brainless beauties or nonexistent - a genre like survival horror stands out from the crowd. The constructive, in-game representation of women has always been an important issue in the fight toward gender equality in the video game industry. It's no surprise that female gamers often seek out titles that present strong, independent women. That this search, however, has brought to light survival horror games as prolific breeding grounds for such characters perhaps comes less expected. In these games, whose goal is the production of fear, gamers often play not as men but as gun-wielding, female protagonists.
By the numbers, it would seem that survival horror, as far as gender representation goes, has a leg up on other genres - that perhaps here women can find the role models lacking from many other areas of the market. Yet real representation isn't as simple as counting characters.
In order to fully understand the portrait of the feminine painted by survival horror, we need to look at the implications of the roles, the archetypal images, it presents. This evaluation does more than simply teach us about the qualities of one genre. It uncovers larger male perceptions of women, both in the games industry and society itself.
Viewed through this lens, the beautiful damsel transforms into a doll, and the traditional heroine risks losing her power. We are thus forced to search for new role models outside the expectations of male-dominated culture, in the realm of the monstrous.
Damsels, Heroines and Monsters: Exploring Feminine Roles
Female characters in survival horror games are typically cast in one of three roles: damsels, heroines or monsters. A woman of the first category is one who is in danger, who requires the help of a man in order to save her from certain demise. She exerts almost no active force, except as the attractive bait that entices the main character to fight his way against terrifying odds, with the hope of chivalrously saving her (and, in all fairness, himself).
For example, take Ashley in Resident Evil 4, who, for the majority of the game, does little more than shout, "Leon, help!" while bouncing around in a tight sweater and a schoolgirl skirt. Moreover, she's the president's daughter; talk about a damsel in distress. Look at Eileen from Silent Hill 4: The Room, the cute, blond next door neighbor, who, like Ashley, ends up as a tag-along, non-playable character whom the strong male protagonist must watch over and keep alive.
This role is a common representation of women in historical storytelling, if not in survival horror games. Here, as elsewhere, it reinforces stereotypical gender expectations. When danger arrives, men will act bravely and women will need saving. The world has yet to see a horror title that features a bold female character forced to drag around a weak, whimpering male NPC. The image of the damsel, of course, has implications for the perceived role of women within our larger culture. But it also reflects on the industry's lack of awareness and respect for the female gamer, who, in order to identify with a character, must either strip herself of her femininity and subsume her gender with the masculine, or in retaining her sex assume the position society has prescribed for her, that of the helpless damsel - or simply refuse to identify, and exist in an identity-ambiguous middle ground.
More uplifting, perhaps, are the female characters who fill the role of the heroine. Survival horror remains unique in that, within the genre, women protagonists are not a noted exception. If they can't be called the norm, they are at least normal. Jill Valentine, of Resident Evil fame, comes to mind as a classic example. She's tightly clothed, but not outrageously so, and she can shoot herself a mean zombie. Alexandra from Eternal Darkness is another tough, well-grounded lady who fights her way through the forces of creepiness, albeit with the help of a lot of male relatives. True, she isn't sporting what most of us would consider ideal monster-battling attire, but if I were her, my insanity meter would have been off the charts, and for that I have to give her credit. The meeker, though still effective Mio of Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, armed with only a camera, rounds off the sampler of heroines.