Booth Babes, Why They Make Me Feel Uncomfortable and PrivilegePosted by Phoebe on 14th June, 2012
Auth Note: This started off as a shorter post on tumblr spawned from a discussion with Mat and @djhsecondnature. Subsequent conversation ended in me writing two more huge tumblr posts. The following is a rewritten version of all three posts and stops being specifically about booth babes about half way through when it turns into a giant essay on privilege.
Booth babes are, I think it is safe to say, something mainly seen at male dominated events such as video game and comic conventions. Even without booth babes at these events, I’m already part of a minority which is often viewed as not a “real” part of the audience, as less important than the male audience, by both the creators of content and a large number of consumers (for examples of the harassment female gamers have to put up with on a daily basis check out fat, ugly or slutty). So we’re coming at the booth babes situation from the starting point of women already being marginalised and objectified, both by society as a whole and by the gaming and the gaming industry in particular with regards to booth babes.
So lets say I’m at some hypothetical gaming convention. Maybe I’m already feeling a little uncomfortable in this giant crowd of guys. After all, any one of them could be schrodinger’s rapist, and almost any woman who’s done much online gaming will be able to tell you a lot of male gamers don’t exactly see the need to treat women as real human beings who are worthy of respect (check out that fat ugly or slutty link back in the last paragraph). I’m certainly not trying to say all or most of the guys there are like this, or that this applies to male gamers as a group or anything like that. I’m just saying, there will be some rapists there (how do I know this? The article I linked makes the point that a conservative estimate would put the number of rapists in a randomly selected group of males at about 1 in 60. So chances are there will be a few rapists at a reasonably sized games convention). There will be some guys who don’t view women as an equal and important part of the gaming community and as you can’t tell someone’s personality just by looking at them, it could be anyone. Again, really trying not to generalise. I’m saying it’s a thing that happens. It’s a problem. Not saying it’s all male gamers, just that this is something female gamers have to deal with.
Any female characters I’m likely to see are probably hyper sexualised and objectified, all boobs and no waist and impractical armor (or some other kind of context inappropriate revealing clothing). I’m already in a situation where women’s value is intrinsically tied to their “attractiveness” (i.e. how skinny, white, big boobed and skimpily dressed they are). And yes, male characters are often unrealistic too, but the difference is that in society as a whole there are a lot more roles that men are “allowed” to fill, whereas the roles women are “allowed” are a lot more limited. (This also sucks. I’m not saying I like this, just that this is how it is).
Booth babes just add a whole new level to the women as decoration/men as participants dynamic. Just as games/films/comics/any-mainstream-media-you-care-to-mention largely feature men as active (rescuing, adventuring, wooing ladies) and women as passive (being rescued, waiting for men to return from adventures, being wooed), booths with booth babes further reinforce this paradigm as generally the only women on the booth will be the booth babes (passive, decorative, there to be stared at and take photos of) and men on the booth will be there in the role of actually knowing stuff, demoing the game, being creators of content etc. For more on how sexualised and objectifying images of women affect how their agency and competency is viewed check this out.
This makes me uncomfortable. I often can’t relate to the characters in video games, as they’re designed to appeal to straight, white, cis, able bodied men. Not always intentionally, often this is just because that demographic is precisely who is making these games, and it is much easier to make games targeted at the audience with which you are the most familiar. And now I have yet another reminder that as a woman I’m only really valued for my body. And you can protest that you don’t think like that, that you value women for things other than their bodies all you like. I’m sure that’s true. But a lot of people don’t think like that. Trust me on this one. I’ve lived it for the past 20 years. I am complimented on my looks much more often than I am on my achievements, something that I have noticed seems to happen a lot less often to my male acquaintences. If you try and tell me it’s because I’ve achieved less then I might have to scream. There is a cultural narrative that you can’t be pretty and clever.
So yes. Booth babes make me uncomfortable. Them being there is basically a giant sign telling everyone that this is an event for straight guys who like to stare at boobs, not anybody else. You want to harrass the women at the event, stare at boobs and generally objectify women? Thats cool. You’re a woman who’s here to look at/exhibit games? You’ll have to put up with people constantly telling you how impressive it is that you’re doing something difficult (something I get told as a computer science student all the time, something I never got told studying spanish – a more “girly” subject), people assuming you don’t know anything because everyone knows the women are just there as decoration, and constant reminders that you’re just not as important as the male audience.
- This is the point where this post pretty much stops being about booth babes and starts being about privilege.
So why is it problematic for a male reader of this to go “but I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with male booth babes”? Because sexism. Is the short answer.
Long answer: so there’s this thing we call privilege. Men have it over women. Straight people have it over non-straight people. Cis people have it over trans* people. White people have it over black people. And so on. It basically means that society tends to value some attribute you have (whiteness, straightness, maleness) over the different ways that attribute can be manifest in other people (not being white, straight, male…).
One thing about privilege is your stories and experiences are valued over those of less privileged people. So a straight white guy, for example, has the privilege of having many and varied representations of men like him in the media. We have shows with geeky guys, funny guys, attractive guys, shallow guys, loving guys, guys with friends, guys with no friends, guys with girlfriends, guys without girlfriends etc etc etc. Representations of women in the media are much more limited, especially in video games and comics, where we are often, as I have said, objectified and sexualised to an extent men are not. This means that men, whose stories are valued and told much more than women’s, who are used to being valued for their brains and achievements and not just for their bodies, might find it difficult to understand how the objectification inherent in the practice of employing booth babes might make women uncomfortable.
It is often difficult to recognise your own privilege, precisely because society is set up so that those with privilege don’t have to notice it. It is only the privilege you don’t have that is easy to notice. It’s something that society puts on you, much like gender roles. Pretty much everyone has at least some kind of privilege. You can’t help having it, and nobody is blaming your for having it, but what you can do is recognise your privilege and try to avoid using it against people – for example if you’re a man, making sure you don’t try and speak for women or tell them how they feel – if you’re white, a similar thing applies in conversations with or about people of colour.
As the male experience is the dominant narrative, it is often difficult for men to imagine how women experience life. All that advertising aimed at us telling us to diet, get rid of wrinkles, buy more makeup and beauty products and clothes and so on ad infinitum or we’ll never be happy/married/loved (strange how being single and happy seem to be mutually exclusive in these adverts) tends to soar right over the heads of the male viewers that it isn’t aimed at. But let me tell you, it can get pretty wearing being constantly told by the media and society that unless I make myself attractive in just the way they tell me I’m going to die miserable and alone. Of course, there is stupid stereotypical advertising directed towards men as well. I will say with regards to that simply that there are a greater variety of stereotypes that men are “allowed” to fulfill, whereas women have a much more narrowly defined gender role. This all sucks and I am definitely not saying I think that the sexist adverts aimed at men are a good thing. I am all about getting rid of stupid gender roles and people just doing their own thing.
Another point to make is that I am not saying that those with privilege are responsible for how society is set up. This all started way before we were all born. But that is how society is, and recognising your privilege is the first step to changing that. One way you can help combat the effect your privilege has on others is by listening to and believing them when they talk about their experience. So listen to and believe me when I say booth babes make me feel uncomfortable, unwelcome and objectified. And instead of telling me how YOU would feel in that situation, and once more valuing your experience over mine, think about what I have said for a bit. Just because society values your voice over mine, doesn’t mean you have to tell me how you think you would feel if you were in my place.
I know all this may seem like I’m saying men’s voices don’t matter. But the thing is, we need to push women’s voices to the forefront when talking about women’s issues, just like we do with any underprivileged group when talking about the problems that group faces.
Women are the ones who are experienced in this field, as we are the ones who live the daily reality of objectification and sexualisation. However part of male privilege is that society sees male as the default and female as “other”, which leads to the false assumption that the male perspective on a situation is more objective and thus more valuable. Society also tends to value male voices over female voices, meaning it is very easy for women to get shouted down in discussions. (There was a study which showed that in mixed sex conversations, men tend to speak more and interrupt more. The study is Zimmerman, D.H. and West, C. (1975) ‘Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversation’ in Thorne, B. and Henly, N. Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance, 105-29. Newbury: Rowley, and I talk about it in this essay. All part of the same culture).
This means that when I ask you to listen to what I say rather than immediately jumping in with your own opinion, I’m not saying your opinion is less important than mine or that you can’t have an opinion. I’m saying it’s not automatically more important and you don’t need to immediately assume that your opinion needs to be added to the discourse. I’m asking you to try and take away some of your privilege, and that can feel really uncomfortable. I know it does because I try to do the same thing when talking to people that I have privilege over, and it can be difficult. But it makes all the difference in discussions like these because it’s really difficult to talk and listen at the same time, and if you’re the one with priviliege it is so easy to end up shouting down and silencing the people you’re trying to have a discourse with.
To put it another way, lets say I wanted to know if homophobia was a problem. Who should I ask, a straight person or a gay person? Obviously I should ask the gay person, as a straight person is much less likely to have experienced homophobia in their life. (Side note: I was once told by a straight person that homophobia didn’t exist any more and I must be imagining it, because they had never experienced it. If you can’t see why this is stupid I might have to cry).
Looking at the booth babes situation in particular, this is something that affects the women involved a lot more than the men involved. The guys might find it annoying or patronizing or whatever, but for the women who like video games this kind of thing can be really excluding and difficult to deal with. Speaking up about sexism in the games industry is hard enough as it is (here is one example of the harassment that can occur if we do) without also having to contend with (well meaning) guys effectively speaking over the top of us.
Now it may feel like I’m making this all about gender. The thing is, it is all about gender! I’m certainly not saying that I like that your gender colours the experiences you will have in life (I don’t like it, it sucks), but the fact is it does, and burying our heads in the sand, as tempting as it might be, doesn’t help that. We need to get rid of gender inequality first, and then we can stop talking about experiences through the lens of gender. And maybe we’ll get some mainstream video games with nuanced and interesting female characters.