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How Homophobia Has Negatively Affected Male Character Design
While the video game industry’s struggle with sexism continues, another important and similar issue has reared its ugly head. However, instead of serving to the detriment of women, the spotlight for this issue is on men. I speak not of homophobia present in games, but of the fact that homophobia itself seems to dictate the image of male protagonists.
A recent example can be seen in the hero of Azure Striker Gunvolt on the Nintendo 3DS. In 2014 the protagonist received a design change for the North American version, altering details for the western market. The changes were made due to research about what was appealing to boys, but this sacrifice of creativity for mainstream mediocrity begs the question: is this where the games industry is heading for the design of male characters?
Boys are highly influenced when being brought up. Boys in the western world are largely influenced by characters in comics, cartoons, movies, TV, and video games that have been created in a largely homophobic society. These children often adopt the status quo of what action heroes should and shouldn’t look like and what types of outfits and hairstyles heroes should wear. There is something very wrong about the way boys are brought up in western society; while tomboys are often accepted and sometimes encouraged, the opposite is true with males. They are expected to like and be involved in sports, drink beer, and be “manly,” rarely expressing their emotions, instead bottling it up inside. Anyone that is outside the norm will often be treated with outright hostility.
This extends to characters in popular western culture. The picture above depicts Master Chief (Halo) and Marcus Fenix (Gears of War), possibly two of the most masculine characters out there. I love the Halo series, and while I don’t have anything against these characters, they are prime examples of what other developers seem to be mimicking. While characters in Japanese culture are often depicted as less macho and more “feminine,” their western counterparts are usually short-haired, gruff-voiced, and armored up (or have clothes that cover every inch of skin except for their hands or face). In fact, of the male protagonists in western video games released in the past few years at least, few of them do not fit at least one of these cliches.
So what is the issue here? Western culture has a vastly different image for male protagonists than eastern culture. The problem is that western culture, influenced by homophobia, is not only making almost every hero cut from the same cloth (sometimes literally), but is influencing developers to change their characters to appeal to the “manlier” western market, therefore compromising the character’s original image. In response to the changes made to Gunvolt, fans of the character were not pleased.
As to the changes themselves, there were two. Most male heroes in western popular culture have short hair. This style for men is typical in real life, so boys are usually surrounded by other males with short hair and are subconsciously influenced by it. There are few well-known male protagonists with long hair—the first one that comes to mind is Thor. In a homophobic society, long hair on men has been associated with being girly or, in some cases, homosexual. Thor is certainly not girly or homosexual, but the short-haired male action hero is slammed into young boys’ faces so much and so often that they might find it too bizarre to have a male hero with long hair. In the case of Gunvolt, he has a braid. Personally I found this awesome, as you don’t see many male characters with a braid, but taking that away just for the western market is ridiculous, and makes Gunvolt fit into the short-haired category. Shortly after the outcry, Gunvolt’s braid was restored.
Gunvolt also has a bare midriff in his original design. This is seen as effeminate, so it’s unsurprising that young boys brought up in a homophobic society would feel it’s not right for male heroes to wear such clothing. Claims that the outfit wouldn’t be practical and so forth are not justified: as someone who needs to move quickly and use his joints, there is no reason why Gunvolt can’t blend aesthetics with practicality. In addition, Gunvolt lies in the realm of science fiction, so naturally fashion styles will be different. However, black skintights underneath the armor that covers Gunvolt’s midriff would still allow freedom of movement and silence detractors, so unfortunately they didn’t keep the bare midriff.
Male characters featuring bare midriffs is not new. Japanese male video game characters have often been designed with more aesthetic clothing. Sothe, a character in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, has a significantly different outfit from his previous incarnation in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. The new look has been slammed by many gamers and stirred a mild wave of controversy. Given that ultimately a game should be judged by its gameplay and not its characters’ fashion senses, situations such as these just seem to be a step backwards for the industry.
So what does this mean for the design of male characters in the video game industry? Homophobia forces designers to take a look at their character and decide whether it looks too homosexual. Outfits for male characters are all covering and hairstyles are invariably short and, to be honest, terribly bland. This in turn suppresses character designs and limits creativity and individuality. This is wrong, and this mentality needs to change. Introducing more variety in clothes and hairstyles for male characters would only be a good thing for the industry and help cure our society of homosexual prejudices.