In this episode of Unfortunately, Required Reading hosts Amanda and Tori celebrate Amanda’s birth month by reading one of her favorite plays: Arsenic and Old Lace, drink some elderberry wine and discuss the merits of letting a mentally unstable person dig graves for you.
I started my video game journey in earnest with Pokemon back when I was a wee demon living in suburbia. Pokemon is well-known for its clueless NPCs and how invasive you can be in their lives. Now, let’s back up: an NPC is a non-playable character in a video game. Typically they hang out in the background and only provide things to move the plot along or are just random extras. Sometimes they’re given really fun lines but for the most part they are meant to let you continue on in your own quest for fame and in-game self-importance.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons has changed that for me in a way that I currently find unsettling and interesting. Animal Crossing is a game in which you (player and character) live on a land or island with villagers that are your neighbors and you help them out with mundane tasks and interact with them on a daily basis creating strange parasocial relationships with fictional characters. As stated, I started my journey with RPGs with Pokémon and for the most part the NPCs in any given region are pretty linear with their motivations and movements. Sure, they can walk around and move around but they rarely seem to exist outside of you. The houses don’t feel lived in, the parks don’t feel full, they are ghosts that fill a landscape for you: the hero of a Nietzschean wet dream. You walk into a house and rummage around the trash for goods and talk to someone, sometimes but for the most part, the unmoving digital eyes care little for your activities or actions. It’s perfectly normal within Pokémon to walk into someone’s home, steal their shit and leave.
Animal Crossing is not Pokemon and I didn’t think that fact would unnerve me until I tried to leave Rocco’s house without saying anything. I had entered in the hopes of giving him a gift to build clout, I mean because he deserved it for doing nothing, and when I found him working away at his workstation, I left without acknowledging him. I was shocked to see how he reacted to that. Of course he would react and not kindly but with confusion. I entered his home and said nothing; that’s deranged and rude. But Rocco was confused and that gave me pause for the first time in my decades of playing video games. NPCs are watching me. I never worried about that until recently. I never cared about how I dressed in-game or how I behaved but now playing Animal Crossing I feel like I have eyes on me all the time. Characters’ eyes follow me when I run around; when I enter their homes and greet them they are often interrupted from a previous task. When I don’t see them, they are disappointed and when I talk to them too much, they comment on that.
They have lives outside of me: something I rarely have had to think about for an NPC. I am part of their world, not a part of mine like most traditional narrative structure in games.My villagers are neighbors, on par and equal to me. While I am the main character, I am in many ways in service to them. I have to weed and water and pick up rocks and fill the museum and catch bugs and fish and keep the entire economy running by selling to a gaggle of capitalist tanuki.
It created along with it a strange short of shame to me that I rarely feel in video games: most games allow players to be shameless with their dress and actions. You are the ubermensch of this world and it bends to your will. So what if I break into someone’s house in Legend of Zelda. But in Animal Crossing the characters have a life outside of you. They leave their homes, they sleep, they fish, they do things where you don’t matter; where I don’t matter. I am as much an NPC to them as they are to me. They are people creatures who truthfully would probably be fine without me sans “missing” my character and things getting full of weed because someone has to do the damn work around here.
I’m a vain person, which is hilarious considering how low my self-esteem is. I’m image conscious even in games. I had this concern while playing Animal Crossing when Clyde, a horse I do not like, showed up on my island. I was told by friends that hitting him with my net and generally being a damn menace would encourage the horse to leave. I was fine with that, I’m used to being a sociopath in games and decided that I wanted to appropriate his land for my Japanese-themed garden on the island and proceeded to hunt the horse down mercilessly and hit him with my net repeatedly. I was then shocked to see the horse show visible frustration and sadness and when I spoke to him he said that his feelings were hurt and it was my fault.
This is a video game. This horse isn’t real. But I broke down over that. I hurt the horse’s feelings and hurt him. And while of course that makes sense because don’t hit random people with nets, for god’s sake, I was shocked that my actions had consequences. In video games, I am a lawless sociopath doing as I wish but here I did something that caused a reaction and one that was not positive. I was emotionally crushed in that moment (thanks, trauma) and I have left the horse alone for now to continue to mar my land with his existence but too afraid now to harm him.
An NPC’s gaze can be powerful, more so than I ever assumed before. Now, I am paranoid, anxious and scared with so many virtual eyes on me. It has affected how I dress, act and move in-game and now has me wondering if I’ll ever view NPCs the way I used to again.
It was male gaze that made me realize that I was not entirely straight and not entirely female. My attention given to women and female-presenting people was always more hungry and carnal than the way more sapphic cis women did. I always appreciated the female body in a way that felt more masculine, more male, more physical and that was when I started to understand male gaze. I didn’t want to write poetry about women, I wanted to be with women. That was how I started to understand male gaze.
Male gaze is something that not many enjoy talking about and the ones that do like to talk about it tend to only approach it from the stance of “it’s bad”. Well, sure it is, but it’s complicated. Male gaze like most things is neutral but has a negative connotation. It is, in short, the way cameras and media tend to leer, frame and discuss the female body; often sexualizing things that are not inherently sexual or lingering on a frame or part of the body. Male gaze is best seen on film either from cameras or motion pictures and there are notable examples like Michael Bay and his determination to shoot women like cars (his background was in music videos and ads) or the way swimsuit magazines even exist.
Female gaze would be the feminist and female counterpart and not to say women don’t sexualize the female form or the male form, for that matter. But female gaze tends to be more nuanced, far more subtle and less focused on sexualizing the mundane. Female gaze is interesting and could really be its own topic but I was pretty sure I understood what male gaze was; I could throw it around like the very best of postmodern media critics. I thought I understood male gaze because I have seen a Michael Bay Transformers movie. But no, I was wrong. It was a music video that really helped me understand male gaze.
Call on Me is a song I’ve heard plenty of times but have never seen the music video that accompanied the song. Not that I’m from the generation that aged out of music videos, this one just somehow managed to slide under my radar for many years. What immediately struck me to the point of nearly delirious laughter was just how horny this video was. And by horny I mostly just mean the choices made. Every shot is an extreme closeup or perfectly framed around a female human form. It’s also a male power fantasy in that of course there’s only one man in this incredibly sensual dancercise class. Each shot is just…good, lord. I think the first time I watched I was just sorta stunned. I’ve seen the video a few times now and each time over, I’m still struck by how many choices were made that made what should just be an aerobic dance class into a voyeuristic orgy.
It’s a choice and if I was the director, not a choice I think I’d make. But it is indeed a choice.
And that’s the perfect encapsulation of male gaze. It’s easy to see why these decisions are made by directors: I’m still thinking about and talking about this music video in the way that we love to jeer and mock Transformers and still give Michael Bay money for some reason. It was a choice to film women the way the director did, a choice to time each hip thrust, each close up on breasts and each legging-clad woman’s ass. It was a choice to make something like exercise, something that human beings just do, incredibly sexy for no reason at all. There was no point making the video the way they did outside of a very tantalizing reason; one more tempting than the promise of sex despite being an inadequate man who doesn’t deserve the women who give him attention: money.
The female body still sells, sex still sells and even in a world that is trying its damndest to embrace a more gender neutral world and one that focuses more on women as equals; a woman’s body still brings in capital. Now, I do know this video is a few years old but the sentiment and feelings behind it haven’t changed much. The same ideas that went into making this video are the same ones that allow modern movies and music videos to be made and be profitable. And sadly, it works. When we still view women as a commodity and sex as a product, it works and I’m giving more attention to a music video that realistically could and should just fade into the background hum of the universe.
This month, we’re going to be talking more about gaze and while we won’t be discussing male gaze next time, I don’t want you all to forget the power and potency of male gaze. None of us are immune as even though we like to think we are beyond that in film and advertising, we are far from so evolved to not be swayed by the siren’s call of male gaze. The way cameras linger and leer on the female body and encourage you to follow its stare and the way women are put into clothes that can barely be described as; the fetishization of school girls, youth and why it’s gross to have your hair in a ponytail: all of that is an aspect of male gaze and it leeches in pervasive ways into day to day life.
I hope that you came away from this little discussion with a better understanding of male gaze; it’s a word I see thrown around a lot and like many of the Tumblr criticism terms is not one that is often defined correctly. Like people can get about half way there to a compelling argument about male gaze and then they take a wrong turn at toxic masculinity and the whole thing goes to hell.
Stay learned, dear reader.