How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

And now, W!F continues its tradition of timeliness with this post about Gears of War 2, which came out six months ago.

Recently I happened to watch the notorious tear-jerking scene in Gears of War 2 where one of the main heroes, Dom, is finally reunited with his wife, Maria, after she’s been tortured by the Locust for ten years, and then he shoots her in the head.

Okay, it’s not quite like that. But it’s close enough that it made me fairly angry. From what I see, it looks like Dom thinks he’s found his beautiful wife, but when it turns out she’s not so beautiful anymore, he decides the best course of action is a “mercy killing”. This all plays out in about a minute. He takes ONE MINUTE to make the decision to KILL HIS WIFE. Instead of, you know, getting her some medical attention at least. That’s just ridiculous.

I had a short conversation on Twitter with Mr Ryan Gan of the JPAG where he came up with some possible explanations, but when it comes down to it, the in-game reasoning doesn’t matter much. I was completely missing the point when I criticized that aspect of the scene. Even if the in-game reasoning were completely solid and logical, the game still utilizes the tired and sexist Women in Refrigerators trope; it is still part of a bigger and disturbing pattern of entertainment where female characters are killed off in order to develop or provide motivation for a male character. It’s not only lazy writing but lazy game design [relevant part is after the spoiler warning].

Getting lost in sorting out in-game justifications for sexism or racism or homophobia or transphobia and so on muddles the issue: just because there is an in-game explanation for something doesn’t mean it’s not offensive. Of course the people who created the thing are going to have some kind of flimsy rationale for it existing!

We saw this a lot with the Resident Evil 5 controversy. When critics expressed shock that RE5 contained African zombies actually wearing grass skirts and wielding spears, some responded that this was all explained in the game; the residents of Kiujuju regressed to a more primitive state as a side effect of the zombie virus.

Great, so there’s an in-game explanation for it. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s still a blatant racist caricature. In addition, why is a certain way of dressing considered “regressing” to a “more primitive state”? The thinking behind this design choice is ignorant and lazy at best. (Once again, N’Gai Croal has the answers.)

Now, this does not mean in-game explanations are completely irrelevant when criticizing games. The explanation for why something is a certain way or why a character does something can have important affects on the meaning of that thing or a person’s interpretation of the game. But these explanations cannot excuse lazy or ignorant writing, and/or helping to perpetuate institutionalized oppression. It’s something that generally needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis, but here’s a hint: if the criticism has to do with racism, transphobia, and/or other oppressions, then the in-game rationale isn’t going to matter very much.

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6 thoughts on “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

  1. Pingback: Twitted by elenielstorm

    • Thanks for linking those! I haven’t played either Gears game so your insight to other aspects of the games are really helpful.

  2. Thanks for stopping by my site, Alex! And it was a pleasure to spend two hours with y’all talkin’ about gender/race and games the other night.

    I saw this conversation pop up in your Twitter feed the other week, but I didn’t comment because I didn’t want it to come off as disagreeing with you (and it’s hard to explain things fully on Twitter). My initial caveat on the mercy killing was that a male character named Tai commits suicide earlier in the game after being tortured in (roughly) the same way as Maria (though we can assume she was raped as well as any other offense that the Locusts committed against Tai). This doesn’t let Epic off the hook, though: following the instrumental use of Maria as a false motivator for game action, the only other character tortured by the Locusts happens to be a Maori that we see for about 15 minutes before he gets captured and offed. This means that, once again, Epic shows itself to hold a position of ignorance on gender AND race representation (following, of course, the Cole Train).

    I’m glad y’all taught me about the Women and Refrigerators trope, because I’d always looked for a way to describe the phenomenon before and didn’t know how. The first time I ever encountered it was when I watched Julie Taymor’s filmic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. In the film (and play) Titus has a daughter who gets raped and tortured. In the end, he slits her throat to spare her the shame and then kills her rapists (cutting them up into meat pie and serving them to their mother)… it’s considered one of the worst of Shakespeare’s plays and is a major contributor to the idea that there isn’t one person who was “Shakespeare.” In short, the idea of a male having the right to mercy-kill his wife or daughter is a really effing archaic idea that goes back to antiquity (when women weren’t allowed outside their homes).

    • “In short, the idea of a male having the right to mercy-kill his wife or daughter is a really effing archaic idea that goes back to antiquity (when women weren’t allowed outside their homes).”

      Yesss, that is the other thing that was bothering me about this that I couldn’t describe, beyond the WIR thing. Mercy killings, especially of a woman by a male family member, are totally squicky! That whole aspect of him owning her and thus being able to decide when her life should end. Like, doesn’t she have a mom, or a sister, or other family that should at least have a say? They might be willing to take care of her if Dom wasn’t! Argh.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • “They might be willing to take care of her if Dom wasn’t! Argh.”

        This reminded me that the whole time that scene was going on I was saying to myself: “Come on Dom, just leave Marcus to fend for himself and try to get your wife out of here. You’ve already proven that you’re willing to derail your mission out of love for your wife, so follow through with it and try to nurture her back to health or something.” I guess it succeeded at manipulating me emotionally in that way… making me freaking angry at the character (which it probably wasn’t trying to do).

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