Games, Noir and the 17%: Where Are the Women?

Games Features

I’ve ingested so much noir fiction and watched so many noir movies over the years that I try to stop myself from being attracted to men who smoke. And still, with all these old terms swirling around in my head from my obsessions—”Shamus”, “chopper squad”, “stooly”—a few days ago Emma Boyes at IGN managed to roundhouse me off my perch. I stumbled across her article about LA Noire. There are hardly any women in the 2011 Team Bondi videogame LA Noire, she pointed out. The ones that are there are dead, or have very few lines.

“None of the characters Cole works with or any of the major players in the game (bar his mistress, Elsa) are female.

However, the LAPD was in fact, the most progressive of the country’s police departments, and appointed the first female police officer in the US, Alice Stebbins Wells, in 1910. As a direct result of her appointment, other states followed suit. It wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for one of his partners to be a female officer—in fact it would have been incredibly interesting (and amusing) to see the interaction between them.”—Emma Boyes

Huh, I thought. Why didn’t I notice that? There are several reasons why a lack of women is unusual in noir fiction. And Boyes is right about the LAPD.

The IGN commenters are outraged that Emma has pointed this out. THAT’S HISTORY!!!! they scream, despite Emma’s explaining that during the Second World War women did a lot more of the menial jobs, the jobs that mostly men are shown doing in the game’s 1947 LA. SHUT UP THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED, they froth. And the whole time I’m just thinking of Howard Hawks’ masterpiece The Big Sleep, a noir film actually made in 1947. And I think of how little I remember the men in it. I think of how Lauren Bacall’s Viven looms from her perch, her face dominating the screen, her lips black, her eyes wide. How she has a whole section of the film in which to sing a molasses lullaby to a room of gone Los Angelinos, how she’s curt with Bogart’s Marlowe, how she instructs him, warns him, behaves as his equal. How her drug addict sister in the film, Carmen, collapses in a stupor in Marlowe’s arms. “You’re cute,” she says, echoing constantly through the film. “You’re cute.” But there are three other appearances that bug me most of all.


The truth is, in a culture where we now see vast amounts of people perform roles for us on stage or screen, we have come to expect women to take up only 17% of them, even though women are half the media-consuming population. In the games industry we tend to think of ourselves as being special in that we have this big consternation going on about how women are treated, but the reality is that we’re a little acorn on a rather big tree. The Annenberg School at the University of Southern California reports that of last year’s biggest movies, 28 percent of the speaking characters were female. That’s down from a third, five years ago. It’s going down. And that’s just speaking roles. The film actor Geena Davis has formed an Institute on Gender in Media and said to NPR:

“In family films and kids’ television shows, for every one female character, there are three male characters. But lest people think that it’s all bad news, we were able to see an increase in the percentage of female characters in family films such that, if we add female characters at the rate we have been for the past 20 years, we will achieve parity in 700 years. And my institute, we have dedicated ourselves to cutting that in half. And we will not rest until it’s only 350 years.”

Davis then laughs, as if it’s absurd. Because it is. She goes on:

“My theory is that since all anybody has seen, when they are growing up, is this big imbalance—that the movies that they’ve watched are about, let’s say, 5 to 1, as far as female presence is concerned—that’s what starts to look normal. And let’s think about—in different segments of society, 17 percent of cardiac surgeons are women; 17 percent of tenured professors are women. It just goes on and on. And isn’t that strange that that’s also the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies? What if we’re actually training people to see that ratio as normal so that when you’re an adult, you don’t notice?

“…We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.”

Furthermore, the small percentage of people of color in our media combined with the tiny percentage of women represented means that women of color are incredibly underserved by our media.

But how does this affect how women see themselves? Do we think we deserve less of a position in society? Do we think we are taking up too much space if we see a crowd with more than 33% women? The fact that I missed that one of my favorite games of 2011, LA Noire, severely lacked women with speaking parts at all, and that in the noir of the period this would be unusual, is actually my wake up call. As Geena Davis says, the media I consume trains me not to notice that I’m being marginalised. Imagine if all our media represented women and men equally, and then for some strange reason it flipped to be as it is now, the 17%? We’d all be extremely uncomfortable with it. It would be noticeable. But it’s happened so gradually that now our brains just automatically make excuses for the way it is. I often feel myself doing it. Whilst watching LA Confidential I’ll just be like, “Well this is a story about masculinity,” when pretty much all stories are “about” masculinity, because there’s hardly any women in the foreground or the background.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has already enacted some awareness campaigns in the movie business to address these issues, and has remarked on their promising findings in this enlightening document. Anita Sarkeesian’s research into women’s roles in videogames has to a certain extent expanded our awareness of the tropes and roles that we put women into, and also expanded our awareness of how few women characters get to have an active role in games. There’s still more the games industry could learn, however. For the movie business, Davis has recommended some very simple quick fixes:

“Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women—and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.”

This is where I start to think about the game LA Noire in opposition to the 1947 film The Big Sleep again. To acknowledge the problems of these two fictions: Walter Mosley writes books about men and women of color in period Los Angeles and in comparison, these two noir fictions under discussion look dramatically whitewashed. There are also a host of acknowledged gender problems within noir tropes that have been recognised over and over—the passive/active female/male roles, the oversexualising of women, the fetishising of women, the suspicion of women, Laura Mulvey’s research et al. But above these recognised problems, I found that three characters really stand out to me in The Big Sleep:

1) A taxi driver who drives the main character, Philip Marlowe, around.
2) Two bookshop clerks on the same street that Marlowe investigates.

The first is a white woman taxi driver. In 1947, this woman got a job on a Howard Hawks film playing a taxi driver. I can’t remember the last time I saw a modern Hollywood film give the role of a taxi driver to any woman—not least one where the woman taxi driver went out of her way to aggressively flirt with a male passenger. It certainly hasn’t happened often. The two bookshop clerks, in different bookshops, were both women, both with well-written speaking parts. What are the chances of that happening in a film today? Marlowe goes into one bookshop, a front for gangsters, and finds a tall white woman clerk with a cold demeanor, who brushes him off. Then he leaves and goes across the street to another bookshop where another woman is front of house, converses with her a while, asks her questions, flirts with her. Yes, the women are meant to be eye candy—but like the women with leading roles, they are funny, interesting, intelligent, in charge of their environment. It’s actually normal to see women everywhere in this film.

Women were fulfilling the roles that Geena Davis recommends for fixing films at this time—the peripheral plumber, taxi driver, menial type jobs—though again, these roles seem to be largely only available for privileged white women. The reason these women have these non-traditional supporting roles in this 1947 film is largely because women were asked to do more of the jobs that men would have done before war broke out. What forced change during the war years was always the fact that there were less men around—women had to become more independent and were given more power outside the home. The LAPD was one of the most progressive institutions in the US in this respect. There was a redistribution of labor. So this was reflected in the media of the time.

But as I read Emma Boyes’ words on the 2011-released LA Noire I came to realize that maybe our storytelling has actually regressed in how it depicts gender roles since the 1940s. This game about the 1940s in particular suggests that none of this redistribution of labor ever happened. This is largely to do with the genre of noir itself lately regressing into being about male homosociality, as in James Ellroy’s novels, the inspiration for LA Noire. But this change in focus represents a bigger picture: a growing interest in presenting men as being more worthy of interest than women. As Boyes argued, LA Noire presents a revised history to make the world a less interesting or diverse place than is present in the one we see in The Big Sleep. This historical revisionism is done even with the games made of progressive movies—Aliens: Colonial Marines’ campaign mode has no female characters even though the Alien franchise is famous for its action heroine Ellen Ripley. Grand Theft Auto V is also content to carry this line of male homosociality. Regard even that old measure the Bechdel test: It’s impossible to consider applying it to games because I’m not sure I remember the last time there were two women NPCs in the same room together in a big budget game, let alone where they get to talk to each other. Women of color characters are even harder to find in videogames as a result of the crossover of discrimination. We are smug, satisfied and assume that equality is here now. All that 70s feminism and burning bras, yeah, those women did all the work. And we look back at history with a sneer, thinking, hah—we’re better than them. We’re all equal now. in a way people never were then. We can do what we like. Meanwhile, as Davis remarks, we are being brainwashed by almost all our media into thinking that a group comprised of 33% women is too many women.

We are wrong about assuming our superiority to 1940s gender politics. We are rewriting the history that took place so that our current failures to fix anything look better. We are attempting to gloss over the fact that women of all kinds are important to society, they always were important, and we are marginalizing their contributions by having five times the men in our media as women. This is a systemic problem that needs to be changed across all media in order to have people treated like equals—so that we don’t go through life having our sons think 33% girls in a group is a group dominated by girls, or so that our girls don’t feel like there is no place for them. We all have to start addressing it now, or as Davis says, we are going to wait 700 years until we see women actually be equal in our media. What are we going to do, wait for a third world war to shift our perspectives again?

This is so easy to remedy. There is much, much less of a reason for games, of all things—virtual worlds with virtual people—to have women characters only make up that measly 28 per cent, and my hunch is, that percentage is much smaller in games. And as long as you begin making a game with that in mind, it’s easily addressed. It all comes down to Davis’s practical solution: Just fix it. Just look at your character list and plan to make half of them a diverse group of women. “What’s wrong with games?” we might ask. Well, nothing we can’t fix.

Cara Ellison wishes very much that she could be Veronica Mars, but she has very poor deductive reasoning and terrible hair. She lives in the UK and writes about games for places like The Guardian, Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer.

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