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Michael Budhram (Thunderpants) : Representing Masculinity and Femininity in Video Games and Popular Media

April 10, 2012

By: Michael Budhram

Team Thunderpants

Representing Masculinity and Femininity in Video Games and Popular Media
In our discussions throughout the semester, we have demonstrated that men and women take on various archetypes that construct what masculinity and femininity represents and how we create meaning by applying them to symbols in society.  Through symbolic interactionism these shared meanings become the standard in which how to conduct ourselves.  In this blog, I link how archetypes are manifested through popular media and how they support hegemonic structures of masculinity and femininity.  Having messages sent through such a pervasive form of media can have a great impact on society, especially on young adolescents.  Video games allow people to assume roles that are unlike reality and provide an escape.  Fighting games with explicit violence gives you power and control over a character to exhibit behaviors that are socially unacceptable. According to Milestone and Meyer (2012), direct effects theory states that media messages containing “representations that are directly, uncritically, and passively absorbed by the audience” (pg. 152); meaning that people take on these messages to exhibit certain truths of acting in reality.  Also, with video games, there is a certain priming effect, in that when we see violent images, we have tendencies to relate to that violence. Fighting games have virtualized thousand year old traditions of fighting your opponent to the death, like the events in the Roman Coliseums.  Mortal Kombat is one such game, in which I go into greater detail.        

In the discussion of archetypes, the video game characters in Mortal Kombat that are created have direct commonalities in how they are represented in the game and how they are defined by Jungian Archetypes as well as through character archetypes.  To give an example, Liu Kang, the Defender of Earthrealm, would be classified as the willing hero, in that he accepts the responsibility of defending the Earth by winning multiple Mortal Kombat tournaments, which halts other realms from taking control over Earthrealm.  Raiden, the God of Thunder, would be classified as the mentor of Liu Kang, in that he is chosen as the champion of Earthrealm and guides him through his journey.  This dichotomous relationship between Liu Kang and Raiden can be seen most important in that it drives the main storyline; however, many more characters can exhibit these types of relationships, which make the game fun to play as well as interesting to assume certain roles.  To support my point, I attached a link to a YouTube video of one character, Johnny Cage, who could be seen as a fool and a willing hero.  He is a fool in the sense that he represents a human actor who is overconfident in his abilities that he provides comic relief in comparison to others, while at the same time seen as the willing hero because he follows Raiden’s cause.  However, his character represents hegemonic structures of masculinity, in that he has a physically fit body, seems to have the ability to take down all of his opponents, and still be able to ask out female fighter, Sonya Blade, out for dinner.          

 According to Milestone and Meyer (2012), they indicate that representations of masculinity rely heavily on strength and power as key characteristics.  To further support this point, they state:

“Physical strength derives from possessing a strong, large, and muscular body and a tough mental attitude, while social power is institutionalized through men’s financial income and independence and their position as head of the family and household”(pg. 114). 
In relation to Mortal Kombat, this quote directly speaks upon how playable characters are created.  In 1992, there were only seven playable characters, in which one was female.  The technologies to produce these characters were limited.  The company had to use live action actors to represent the characters.  At that time, definition of the body was difficult to represent.  In the present time, technology has evolved to such a level that actors are not needed and a multitude of characters can be produced through different software programming. When these characters are created, they seem, when compared to humans, exaggerated, and even disproportionate.  Male characters have bulging biceps and rock-hard abs, while female characters have large breasts and tiny waists.  Both male and female characters have become hyper sexualized.  However, the only commonality between all the characters is that their combat moves are brutal and their finishing moves (fatalities) are equally deadly and cruel.  This proves females can be just as violent and aggressive, but they have to be sexualized in the process.  In another link, I provide a clip from YouTube of the various fatalities that both male and female characters perform.  Such a clip goes back to the idea of direct effects theory and priming effect.  The audience consumes these messages subconsciously and even though they might not be prone to violence, those images are normalized and we make negotiations when we see someone that is beaten and dismembered in the context of the fight.     

Mortal Kombat is identified as leaving an endemic mark on the pop culture of video games.  First published in 1992, it changed how people played video games and how violence was portrayed in the media. Even today, this franchise still prevails as the ultimate fighting game, especially with the company’s (Midway Games) most recent reboot of the game, which was released in 2011.  The franchise became known for its bloody violence, especially offering the player to perform a fatality on the defeated opponent, which involves various ways of mutilation.  Such explicit acts of violence in video game media has contributed to the creation of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), which delineates how appropriate the content of the video game is for different age groups.  When children grow up playing with these games, it socializes them that it violence is acceptable in certain contexts.  Even though they might not exhibit such behavior, the idea has been cultivated.  Since boys, and a rising population of girls, are playing these video games, they are supporting hegemonic structures of masculinity and femininity, both in using aggressive behavior and questioning their body image.                   


 Milestone, K., Meyer, A. (2012). Gender & Popular Culture. United Kingdom: Polity Press. – Fatality Compilation, fast forward to 0:26 – Johnny Cage, Fight Dirty


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One Comment
  1. Jason Wolkon permalink

    I have played Mortal Kombat 1, 2, and a few of the newer installments in the series and definitely agree that the bodies have changed tremendously. In the original games the graphics were the best that technology could create at that time. The fighters had basic humanoid figures and were mainly distinguished from each other by their color scheme. In the first games I think some fighters actually had the same exact body with different colors to tell them apart. In the more recent games technology has improved and the fighters have become hyper masculine or feminine highlighting huge muscles for males and breasts and curves for females. This however is not only due to the improved technology of our age, but also the evolution of our society to value and view these hyper gendered and sexualized bodies as normal.

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