Emma Boyes of IGN wrote an opinion piece talking about the question of whether or not LA Noire is sexist. Her argument essentially stated that the roles of women are relegated to housewives, shopgirls, shallow love interest, and murder victim. Boyes mentions the case of Alice Stebbins Wells, the US’s first American-born female police officer (Boyes makes a mistake and overlooks the Irish-born Marie Owens, who was indeed the first female police officer in the US), who was sworn into the LAPD in 1910 and opened the doors for female officers across the country. She talks about contemporary works which feature strong female lead characters. Essentially, she states that it’s irresponsible for the game to marginalize women in the way it does–that it can be historically accurate and still feature more modern values of equality.
Predictably, the comments of the article are a cesspool of “That’s how it was back then and it’s okay that the game is that way!” I don’t begrudge the comments that–comments sections on internet articles are where you go if you want to lose faith in humanity. (I especially love the comment which states “who wrote this article? – a women [sic]”, as if the writer’s gender completely invalidates her entire argument–in fact many of these comments have a creepy “get back in the kitchen, bitch” vibe to them). But I found out about this piece from Ben Paddon’s blog, and while around here we’re not remotely his biggest fans, he really should know better.
“As, unfortunately, was the case in the US circa 1947. Honestly, it’s almost as if these people ask stupid questions without putting in any forethought, nor bothering to do any actual research!” is Paddon’s take on the piece. I find this fairly ironic because the quote he pulls comes from a paragraph a quarter of the way into the article–when the author is just finishing her introduction–just before she begins to discuss her research. Boyes’s article isn’t the most hard-hitting piece of journalism I’ve ever read, certainly, it’s a quick opinion piece, but she isn’t simply navel gazing, and Paddon’s shrill comment implies that he didn’t read the full article.
But more than that is the implication that because a work is set in a particular time period, it must therefore espouse all of the values of that particular time period. That is an extremely incorrect assumption because the writers of LA Noire do not live in 1947–they live today. To take Paddon’s argument to its logical conclusion, if I were to write a novel taking place in Mississippi in 1850, that novel would have to wholeheartedly embrace a pro-slavery agenda. Certainly the pro-slavery viewpoint would be depicted–I can’t deny that the climate existed–but a work which even tacitly accepted the system of slavery would be irresponsible because I view slavery as morally reprehensible. (We all should. Please never visit this site again if you don’t.)
LA Noire not only depicts a world where women are more peripheral, it doesn’t question this status. Women genuinely are relegated to the background. I guess what made this the most obvious to me was the Homicide arc, where every single victim is a woman, and every single death is sexualized. The women are naked, raped, beaten, violently killed. One rape/murder is an aberration, a violent crime which must be brought to justice. I don’t mind a gritty detective story which features that as a case. However, when every single case features the same MO, it gets a little…unnerving. After I examined the third body of a mutilated woman, I began to suspect that the game possibly had some agenda against women. After the fifth, I was sure of it.
Ultimately the game decides that all of the homicide cases are connected, and that the murderer of the Black Dahlia is responsible. The Black Dahlia is kind of the Jack the Ripper of LA in the 40s–a Holy Grail of an unsolvable crime. The game gives an in-universe explanation of why the crime remains unsolved in real life, it allows you to bring the killer to justice–but there’s something unseemly about the whole thing. I guess it’s a question of choice. The developers chose to take the real-life rape and murder of a woman and turn it into a random lashing-out by a violent cat-and-mouse cliche of a serial killing. And the developers chose to drop the bodies of five women created solely that they could be signposts on the way to this confrontation. And all throughout the game there’s the implication, only vaguely acknowledged by the game itself, that you’re solving these cases not out of any sense of justice or duty or desire to avenge the fallen, but because the Homicide desk is a stepping stone in your career. It’s another level to be completed.
I think about the novels of James Ellroy, stories that LA Noire unabashedly takes inspiration from, a man who himself treated the story of the Black Dahlia in a novel. The main characters in The Black Dahlia are tortured by the thought of this crime, are horrified by how Elizabeth Short died, and obsess over its solution. She is not one anonymous body out of a half-dozen, a psychopath’s random leaving, but an actual woman who was murdered–someone with a history and a family. Solving the crime in this case involves not a simple treasure-hunt of clues–with a background character popping up at the end and gloating HA HA IT WAS ME, THE LEAST LIKELY SUSPECT, THE WHOLE TIME! and getting off scot-free due to a hastily-explained handwave, but a deep, intimate understanding of who all of the major players are.
Or LA Confidential, which is more of a direct influence. Boyes does acknowledge that the women are “relegated to the role of prostitutes”, but I do disagree that this is all they are, particularly in the novel. The character of Lynn Bracken, who is indeed a prostitute, refuses to be limited to that role–who explicitly acknowledges, in the film, that she loves one of the characters because he “treats me like Lynn Bracken and not some Veronica Lake look-alike who fucks for money”. Or the novel-only character of Inez Soto, a double minority–a Mexican woman–who is all-too-aware of her place in society and is savvy enough to use that status in order to manipulate other characters for her own ends. Ellroy depicts a society which has marginalized women–but he refuses to accept that society’s values. He is writing with the values of a man who lives in a society that takes the equality of the sexes for granted.
Or something even more contemporary–the show Mad Men, which takes place at a time when these attitudes towards women were just beginning to shift. Particularly in the early seasons, the male characters are rampantly sexist. They objectify women left and right, treating their wives as accessories and status symbols akin to fancy cars and big houses. This was accurate for the time. However, the writers and creators are very aware of the fact that such attitudes are unacceptable in this day and age. And so the female characters are well-rounded. They bristle against the way they’re treated. It shows sexism and objectification occurring in a historically-accurate way, but through a modern lens of condemnation. Any time a woman is treated as a piece of meat and nothing more, is treated as having the capacity of being a secretary or housewife and nothing more, it’s with the intent of eliciting an uncomfortable reaction. It is a work set in the early 1960s but one that does not espouse traditional values–it is one which is made with a decidedly modern sensibility.
I guess my point is that yes, Los Angeles in 1947 may not have been a paradise of feminism, that women and men were not equal. However, we’re not in 1947. We’re in 2011. We’ve gone through several waves of the feminist movement. We cannot create a work which ignores this. Paddon and the commenters seem to think that depiction is enough. They’re wrong. In its passive acceptance of the roles of women, LA Noire is a morally irresponsible work.
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