I Am Diane Nguyen: Depression In Bojack Horseman

TW: Discussion of Depression

Spoiler Alert for all 3 Seasons of Bojack Horseman

I think it’s fair to say that none of us really saw Bojack Horseman coming. How could we? The initial premise, written down, is nothing short of ridiculous. A Netflix Original animation about a washed up 80s’ sitcom star who also happens to be a man-horse, living in a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals live and work alongside each other. It sounds like a piss-take, frankly.

Then we all watched it and realised that it was anything but. Three seasons in, and Bojack Horseman has revealed itself not only to be one of the funniest series in recent memory, but also one of the most poignant, insightful explorations of the nature of depression that I have ever seen. The writing is sharp is enough to draw blood, the characters are wonderful and thoroughly explored, and there’s this wonderful sense of unpredictability that I absolutely adore. (Seriously, the show goes some directions you just won’t see coming – not at all.) It’s also feminist as hell, so it ticks all the boxes for me.

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The real MVP

I won’t go into the whole plot because, frankly, I’m sure you all know it by now. Bojack is a consistent fuck-up, but he’s not the only fuck-up on that show by a long shot, because we’re all fuck-ups in way or another. That’s a truth that I really needed to hear, and I imagine there are a lot of people that feel the same way. Needless to say through, there will be some spoilers.

Note: If you haven’t watched Bojack Horseman yet, do yourself a favour and do it now. Just do it. You can thank me later.

The Comfort of Depression in Bojack Horseman

Depression is a big theme in Bojack Horseman, and how we try (and often fail) to navigate it. Bojack consistently makes terrible, terrible mistakes, and just when you think he’s finally going to learn from them and change for the better once and for all, he makes another terrible mistake and the cycle begins all over again.

As a person with depression, this show was the wake-up call I needed years ago. Because the thing is, the show is completely right. Bojack won’t change because he’s so steeped in self-loathing that he’s convinced himself there’s no way for him to be anything but a bad person. And I know that’s what’s happening, because I’ve been there myself. You hate yourself, so you tell yourself the rest of the world hates you too. And when the world hates you, you can’t help but hate yourself. Depression is insidious like that, and Bojack Horseman gets that in a way no other show ever has.

Granted, I never did anything that Bojack did. I never sabotaged my friends for my own comfort, or nearly committed statutory rape out of some misplaced desire to feel loved and wanted, never destroyed people’s lives that way Bojack has. Hell, Bojack’s selfishness literally gets someone killed in Season 3. But I have hurt people. My depression has led me to say terrible things, and to drive people away, to close myself off because I was convinced that no one could possibly understand, or care. Hell, it destroyed my relationship, the way it destroys Bojack’s.

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Bojack’s need to be loved is what drives people away

 

In season two, Bojack’s initially promising relationship with Olivia the Owl, and the two break up seemingly over nothing.

“What happened, Bojack?” she asks, baffled.

“The same thing that always happens,” Bojack replies in that gruff, eternally resigned voice. “You fell in love with me. And then you got to know me.”

Ouch. That hit a nerve. Then by the end of Season 3, after Todd discovers that Bojack slept with his business partner (which later compels her to leave the partnership out of guilt), he realises that this isn’t going to stop because Bojack refuses to. And Bojack refuses to change because he believes he can’t.

“I know – I know I screwed up…” Bojack begins yet another tired apology.

“Oh, here is comes,” Todd interrupts, arms up in the air with sheer frustration. “You can’t keep doing this. You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it OK. You need to be better.”

Bojack starts to apologise, but the apology is full of excuses. He was drunk. He was stressed from the Oscar campaign, but now everything will be better, he promises…

“No.” Todd says. “No, Bojack, just stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or the shitty things that happened to you during your career, or when you were a kid. It’s you. All right? It’s you.”

And then the big one. “Fuck, man. What else is there to say?”

Ouch again.

Fun fact: The word ‘Fuck’ is only used once per season in Bojack Horseman, and it’s always used by a person close to Bojack, and to Bojack. And, always after he tries to apologise for something where an apology simply will not do.

Season 1. Herb, a dying man who Bojack screwed over very very badly years before, tells Bojack: “Get the fuck out of my house.”

Season 2. Bojack’s old friend Charlotte, after she catches Bojack trying to sleep with her teenaged daughter, tells him: “If you contact me, or my family again, I will fucking kill you.”

Season 3. Todd: “Fuck, man. What else is there to say?”

They’re powerful moments, exceptionally executed, but Bojack never learns. All of these should be Bojack’s wake-up call, but they’re not. He won’t allow them to be. Some like to theorise that Bojack wanted to get caught in season 2, and that’s why he left the door unlocked. Sure, I could by that, but him getting caught doesn’t lead him to becoming a better person. If anything, it just drives his self-destructive thoughts more, because now he’s not just a fuck-up, he’s a fuck-up that might have inflicted serious psychological and emotional damage on someone else. Again.

But that, thankfully, is where my personal identification with Bojack’s story ends, because I got help. I started to learn my way out of those self-hating thoughts, and I won’t allow my depression to make a Bojack out of me.

And at the end of the day, I still like Bojack. That’s the kicker. He’s a well written and complex enough character that you actually want him to be better and so you feel heartbreak when he ruins everything for himself yet again. There is good in him, and decency, and he’s hilarious to boot, and he’s like every other person in this world that’s been hit with crippling depression in their lives. We are more than our depression, but it is still a part of who we are, and Bojack invites you to see that there are right ways and wrong ways to accept that.

There’s accepting your depression and letting it destroy you.

Then there’s accepting your depression and recognising that it is only a part of you, and not all.

Which brings me to Diane.

I Am Diane. And That’s Good.

First things first, I recommend this excellent article from the Mary Sue about Diane and ‘Situational Depression,’ for context.

Diane was a quick favourite for me just because she was so damn refreshing. Basically an adult, slightly less acerbic Daria, Diane is introduced as the author brought in to ghost write Bojack’s autobiography. Initially, it looks like Diane’s simply going to be a love interest, especially when the early conflict of her dating (and later marrying) Bojack’s clueless rival Mr Peanut Butter. But of course, Diane is a lot more than that. Everyone in Bojack Horseman gets their share of character development, another reason to love it.

Having had some time to fully digest the third season, I’ve come to realise that Diane and I have a lot in common. A frightening amount in common, actually. We’re both opinionated feminist writers who are simultaneously aimless yet driven by a vague need to do something. We don’t know what that something is, but we know we have to do it. Of course she became a favourite for me; I was subconsciously identifying with her in ways I’ve never identified with any other character on a show. (Don’t get me wrong, I see a little of myself in Princess Carolyn too, but only a little.)

The only way that we differ is our apparent taste in men, but even that’s questionable. I still don’t know if Mr Peanutbutter and Diane’s relationship is going to survive and in some ways it’s never felt as genuine as it should. Diane is so independent and principled that it seems strange she would end up with someone like Mr Peanutbutter, who is loyal and loving but has no strong opinions about anything or a desire to rock the status quo.

Personally I like a dog personality in a dog, not so much in a partner, but the thing is that Bojack Horseman is so good that even Mr Freaking Peanutbutter, an infuriating and eternally optimistic dog man who is literally dumber than rocks, has his moments of complexity and depth. Sometimes you can see what Diane might see in him, other times it’s just a bit baffling.

Diane is a person that wants to do good, but is conflicted as to why she wants to do good. She often struggles with the idea that she tries to do good for her own benefit, and ends up having a major identity crisis as a result. She puts herself in the line of fire for what she believes to be the right thing but ends up wondering if it was the right thing to do at all when society consistently turns against her for trying. Any feminist or half way decent human can relate.

So Diane’s depression manifests itself when she simply can’t take any more of that criticism. She can no longer accept people attacking her for wanting justice, or for questioning her beliefs. Hell, even her husband refuses to support her when she goes after Bill Cosby stand in Hank Hippopopolous because he’s his hero and he doesn’t want to disrupt the status quo. It doesn’t matter about the women Hippopopolous assaulted, only that people not discover the truth about their idol. Diane simply can’t believe it, and decides to go and work with the humanitarian worker Sebastian St.Clair in the hope that she can make a difference. St.Clair turns out to be nothing more than an opportunist, and Diane has a crisis of faith. She returns home, but instead of going back to her husband, she camps out at Bojack’s house and lets her life go to total shit. She won’t get dressed, she lies around watching Horsin’ Around, she drinks and smokes and doesn’t give a fuck anymore. Diane is done.

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Pretending to do something while doing nothing at all. Familiar?

And this is where you realise that Bojack isn’t the only character in this show that suffers from depression. Not by a long shot. Everyone does, but they all internalise it differently.

Bojack internalises his through self-destructive behaviour that ends up hurting others.

Princess Carolyn throws herself into work even though she knows it doesn’t make her happy and frequently sacrifices her own happiness and well-being for others that aren’t even grateful for her sacrifices. (Seriously, Bojack needs a fucking slap in the face for not seeing what she’s given up for him over the years)

Mr Peanutbutter denies difficult concepts like mortality in favour of his own comfort. He pretends to be happy all the time because the alternative is too frightening, and avoids conflict like the plague because he doesn’t like the boat being rocked.

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Mr Peanutbutter knows EXACTLY how miserable he should be

Todd sees himself as a failure because others do. This leads him to subconsciously destroy his own ideas and lets himself be treated badly as a result.

And Diane? When everything becomes too much for Diane in season 2, she runs away. She shuts down, lies to her husband, and goes into her own self-destructive spiral that leaves her unsure of who she really is. Diane’s depression spoke to me, because it was the same as mine.

At the height of my depression, this is precisely what I went through. I shut down. I stopped talking to people. I hid away, because I was both ashamed and convinced that it was actually the best thing to do. It wasn’t. Diane becomes a slob. She stops caring. She gives up because she no longer has the energy to fight against the world. I became a slob. I stopped caring. I no longer had the energy to fight the world.

Been there, done thought, bought the t-shirt, wore it for months and then burned it.

But then Diane gets her wake-up call, and unlike Bojack, she responds to it. And starts to get better as a result.

So, Diane’s identity crisis hit a serious nerve for me, and the way she’s still kind of drifting leaves me hoping that she’ll be able to find herself again in season 4. But the seeds are there, I think, like the seeds are there for me. She’s getting her mojo back, the way we all get our mojo back eventually, and this is just as important to see as the full impact of Bojack’s particular brand of depression. You can let it drag you down or you can crawl your way back up. Bojack is one. Diane is the other. Bojack sinks while Diane floats.

Diane is a person trying to discover who they are after they were certain they already knew. We need more of that on television, because we all reach a point where we think “Am I the person I really think I am?” Most characters start not knowing who they are, but they realise eventually. That’s not realistic. We all think we know who we are, but then something will happen that questions that, and we have to let ourselves grow and change, and realise that we don’t have to be defined entirely by these very small aspects of ourselves.

At this point in my life, I’m pretty confident in how I am as a person. That person is Diane Nyguyen.

And I’m OK with that.

 

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Stage Two: Anger

It’s closer to three weeks than two, now. I have had one day where I haven’t cried.

So progress, I guess?

The crying thing is exhausting, frankly, and I’m sick to death of constantly breaking down. One minute I think I’m fine and then something triggers me and I’m sobbing like a child. The other day my cousin rang up and mum had to go into the other room to tell him what had happened, and I heard her talking about how we’d bought all of this stuff for the wedding literally the day before I got dumped (which my ex knew about and seemed pretty enthusiastic about – who the fuck knows) and I ended up bursting into tears at the kitchen table. It comes and goes like this. I had a pretty decent day today – I helped mum paint the fence, went for a walk, worked on my novel, did some gaming – but as soon as I went downstairs for some downtime I just cried again.

What triggered it this time? The fact that it’s a Friday night and I’m alone down here, with no one to cuddle me or chat on with me or tell me that they love me. The way he used to. Taking things day by day is OK in the short term, but sometimes you’re confronted by the enormity of forever, stretching on in front of you with nothing to comfort you, and it’s overwhelming and you can’t do anything but cry.

Because really, what else is there?

I have all of these thoughts running in tandem with each other and I can’t get them organised. I’m trying, and there are days when some things make more sense than others, but then there are days when none of it makes any sense at all. And I hate it. I hate feeling so lost and weak and confused all the time. I hate that he has done this to me.

There are days when I can do nothing but blame myself for all of it. And then there are days, like today, where I just feel angry.

I’m angry that he left me when I was at my lowest and didn’t even have the decency to talk it through with me in person.

I’m angry that he put me on some arbitrary time limit to ‘get myself fixed’ and then neglected to tell me what that arbitrary time limit was.

I’m angry that he decided that, because I have depression, that means that we were never going to be happy together, when all I was trying to do was get him to understand that the depression wasn’t just magically going to go away.

I’m angry that he blamed me for everything and then had the audacity to tell me not to fucking feel guilty. I’m angry that he doesn’t seem to give a shit at all.

I’m angry that he went along for six months telling me loved me and telling me he didn’t want to leave and acting the same way he always did and then told me it was my fault he did that. How do you go from telling a person that you love them one day to telling them you don’t love them enough the next?

And I’m angry because all of this feels so incredibly wrong and he won’t even come and speak to me in person so that I can move on. Because according to him ‘when people break up they don’t talk about it endlessly.’

Well, we didn’t break up. He dumped me. He broke our engagement and left me literally tearing my hair out in the flat we shared (really it’s a good job I cut most of it off and donated to charity because I wouldn’t have had any left otherwise). We then spoke on the phone once, where he decided we had left it amicably and hey I guess that’s just that.

I call bullshit on that. We were together for nearly seven years and were going to get married. You do not just get to walk away from that without having a few fucking conversations about what the hell went wrong.

But I’m most angry about the fact that, at the end of the day, I still love him. I love him more the anyone or anything.

And that just makes it all the harder.

Confronting the End

So.

I’m back, though I don’t know for how long. I am writing this in my bedroom back at my parents’ house, my old home, standing by an open window because the breeze that comes in reminds me that I am alive and that I can still feel.There’s a half constructed chest of drawers next to me; there was an error in the measurements for the dowels or something. But it’s sitting there, reminding me of what’s happened. My world and my parents’ worlds have been thrown into chaos.

It’s been two weeks since my relationship ended and our engagement was broken. I’m not going into the details much because I don’t really think it helps anyone  Instead I’m just going to write about how I feel and what exactly this break up has done to me. Suffice to say, I really didn’t see it coming, and maybe that’s one of the reasons it fell apart.

If he were here with me, I would have so much to say. How much he has hurt me, how deeply his indifference has cut into me. But I would also tell him how much I love him and how much I miss him every minute of the day. I miss how he made me laugh and I miss that look he’d get his eye when we met each other’s eyes even after years of us being together. I miss him holding me and talking to me and geeking out with me. I miss him lying next to me as we sleep. I just miss him. He wasn’t just my boyfriend, my lover, my fiancee, he was my best friend. Losing him feels like losing a limb; it’s like a bit of me, some fundamental part of me, has been ripped away. And I wrote him this long angry letter along with the ring, the ring that I loved because so much thought and care in its design, the ring that I adored because it showed me that he knew who I was.But I had to give it up because it would only remind me of him. I’ve been told that I should have kept it but how could I? I can’t bear to be reminded of the love that I have lost.

I have been in a depressive state for a while. I’ve been on medication for just over a month now (and not sure if they’re really helping given the deluge of emotions that hit me daily. When the breakup happened, I decided to come off birth control, so that’s probably not helping the situation either. I do wonder if the pill I’ve been on has been contributing to the way I’ve been feeling in some way, but obviously I can’t really know until it’s worked its way out of my system. All I know is that I’m crying all the time and I can’t sleep at night without some kind of assistance. I got sleeping pills from the doctor and I have one left. After that I need to try and sleep naturally again.

But even that is hard, because at night I dream. Every night for two weeks, I have dreamed the most hopeless and awful dreams. And when I wake up I am sad to see the daylight, because time goes on regardless.

I am at fault in many ways in this, and I hate that my depression has clouded my ability to see past myself and really understand what was happening. I’ve had a hard few years emotionally; in the last six years, six people that meant something to me died. That’s a rather large amount of people in such a short space of time, wouldn’t you say? My grandparents died within six months of each other and I was incredibly close to the both of them. I had the chance to see my grandfather, who was wasting away in hospital, the week before he died. I decided not to go, because he had dementia and I was finding the visits upsetting, and I was spending the weekend with my boyfriend, who then became my fiancee and then not my fiancee anymore. Even though no one has ever held this against me, I’ve felt guilt over it since it happened.

Nana died less than six months later, as I said, and her last words to me were: “Kathy, I love you so much. Don’t cry.”

Then my Uncle, my kind and gentle Uncle Ronnie who was strong and honorable and decent, died of asbestos-related lung cancer. Over a period of months, I watched him waste away and suffer unimaginable pain. I had to tell my mum, his beloved sister, that he had one week left to live, because he understandably couldn’t bear to do it himself. It was the one kindness I could do for him. He died two years ago; the anniversary of his death was yesterday, the 7th of June. His death was hard. He should have been able to enjoy his retirement years, and to this day I hate that he wasn’t allowed to.

A friend I had online committed suicide because like so many of us he had struggled with him own difficulties. I didn’t know him very well, but I liked him and thought that he was a good person.

And then Katie, beautiful Katie who was a friend to so many people, Katie who was bright and sweet and full of life, died of a rare bone cancer. And she was so brave, so brave that I feel ashamed to be wallowing in my misery the way I am right now. Katie was the sort of person that made everyone else’s lives feel a little better, so when someone so wonderful is taken by such a horrible disease at such a young age, you can’t help but feel baffled at the cruelties of the universe.

These are the things that life throws at you, but after everything that’s happened in these few short years I’m starting to feel like someone’s taking the piss. I don’t mean to sound too woe-is-me, I know that I am lucky and privileged in many ways. My family is amazing and my parents are truly wonderful, I’ve had a good upbringing and have wanted for nothing. I have friends and I’m moderately intelligent and relatively good at some things, and yet I am plagued by self-hate. I know that it’s damaging and God knows I hate it when the people I care about slag themselves off, so I guess I can add hypocrisy to my list of qualities too.

But you know, losing people you love is always hard. My relationship was the one thing that I felt certain of.

I have tried my hardest to forge a career an there were some serious bumps along that road, and I got a good job eventually. Unfortunately I ended up feeling rather overworked and became very anxious about it. It seeped into my personal life; I just couldn’t stop fucking worrying about work and how I was going to get everything done. I was suddenly submerged in a high pressure situation which only contributed to my low mood. But I guess that I hoped these were just teething problems and that things would get better, but I’ve had to hand in my notice after only two months full-time (I was there part-time since October) because on the salary I couldn’t afford to live in Newcastle for a while. And obviously as I go through the healing process (which better hurry up) I need to be somewhere else.

But no matter what I feel, I had the chance for happiness, and I botched it. I was so lost in the depths of my own, petty fucking sadness to see that I was making the person I loved and still love unhappy. That is one of the worst feelings to experience in the midst of a bitter and unexpected life event like your fiancee no longer loving you enough to put up with your self recriminations and shitty attitude and leaving you dazed and confused in the flat that you’d shared together.

And then I realised that I made him snap, that I acted like a total bitch at over that weekend because he didn’t text me back and now I hate myself and am trying so hard to stop blaming myself for everything but can’t. I just can’t.

I never wanted to be selfish, but I fear that my depression has made feel selfish. I never wanted to hurt the ones I love, but I did anyway. I don’t like it and I know that I have to fight it, but I’m so scared that I will fail, and I mistakenly counted on another person to bear me up when I should have been bearing myself up. I feel like I have been weak and self-pitying and too sensitive. I think about what this is doing to everyone else in my life, my friends and my family – especially my family – and hate myself even more. Even though no one else thinks that I should hate myself. Vicious cycle and all that.

I want to be strong and happy, and I wanted to find happiness with him, and only him. I was only ever him. I didn’t want him to leave, but at the same time I had this twisted logic that it would be better for him if he did. I didn’t want him to suffer because I didn’t know what the future held for me. I was at the lowest I’d been in a long time and I made him feel unhappy and I am so, so sorry that I did,  This is what I couldn’t tell him, and it’s what I should have told him. But I didn’t, did I?

No, I didn’t.

Great Female Characters in Video Games Part Two: Alice Liddell

Alice: A history

 

“Into the hole again, we hurried along our way, into a once-glorious garden now steeped in dark decay.” – Alice, American McGee’s Alice

 

Alice Liddell is not quite the innocent, inquisitive girl that you remember from the ubiquitous Lewis Carroll novels in which she originally starred. In American McGee’s Alice, the first installment, we see that her story didn’t end as happily as we would have liked. After an unexplained fire kills her mother, father and sister, a horrifically burned Alice is the only one to escape, and swiftly falls into a catatonic state that lasts well into her adulthood. Trapped in a typically awful Victorian Asylum, Alice is one day called back to Wonderland by her precious toy rabbit, the only thing that survived the fire with her.

Unfortunately, falling down the rabbit hole this time hardly provides the same comfort. She quickly discovers that Wonderland has gone very, very wrong while she’s been away. No longer the beautiful, dreamlike landscape she loved, this is a place that she hardly recognises; a terrifying, twisted landscape kept under the thumb by her old nemesis, the Red Queen, and filled with vicious enemies out for her blood. Armed with the Vorpal Blade, Alice must encounter old friends and enemies, end the Red Queen’s reign of terror, reclaim Wonderland and her take her sanity back once and for all. Which, of course, she does, though not after spilling several buckets of blood and wreaking havoc across the Red Queen’s new and awful world.

 

The original Alice

In the sequel, Madness Returns, Alice finds herself out of the asylum and in the care of one Doctor Angus Bumby, whose therapy has been working to repress Alice’s memories of the fire and Wonderland, trying to make her forget everything negative in her life so that she can begin to heal in earnest. Alice is still struggling with her survivor’s guilt, and it’s clear that the road to recovery will be a long one. When she is called to Wonderland this time, it’s seemingly for a different purpose.  The Infernal Train, a locomotive of Alice’s own creation, is destroying Wonderland and polluting the world with monsters borne from the oil and smoke. Not only that, but there’s talk of a ‘Dollmaker,’ a being that’s managed to even repress the power of the Red Queen.

Throughout her journey through the realms of Wonderland and London, Alice starts to uncover her memories and realises that Dr Bumby has played a larger part in her life than she initially realised: driven by desire for her indifferent sister Lizzie and angered by her rejection of him, it was Bumby that caused the fire in the Liddell house, but not before raping Alice’s sister and locking her in her room to perish. Alice discovers that not only did Bumby cause her to forget that she had seen him that night, but he has also been running a child prostitution ring and exploiting the wards in his care, with plans to make Alice his ‘greatest work.’ Alice has been subconsciously ignoring the suffering of the children around her because she is unable to come to terms with her own grief.

She confronts Bumby, both the man and the monster in her own mind, and defeats him by pushing him in front of the train and ending his horrible existence for good. Now, Alice wanders the world that lies between the real and the fantasy; her Wonderland has bled into the city of London and transformed it into ‘Londerland.’

 

Alice: Appearance

 

“And you’ve picked up a bit of an attitude. Still curious and willing to learn I hope?” – Cheshire Cat, American McGee’s Alice.

 

I genuinely think that Alice is one of the more complex female characters I’ve come across throughout my gaming career. In fact, when I got the first game as a wee person, I’d never come across anything like her before and it was a bit of an eye-opener for me. The menu for the first game has one of the most haunting images I’d ever seen at that point in my life: A bedraggled Alice sitting in her cell, clutching at her old rabbit doll and staring at nothing with blank eyes. It thoroughly creeped me out at the time and I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I’d shut the PC down. From then on, I was a fan girl obsessed.

 

Alice in the Asylum

So I admit that I’m being incredibly biased here. My initial appreciation for Alice was that she was gothic and wore an awesome dress and a pair of boots I’d still kill for today, but that appreciation has thankfully evolved with me and become something a bit more nuanced. I still like the aesthetic and I’m a complete dork for the concept at the heart of the games.

Part of my interest in Alice is her appearance. I have the art book for Madness Returns (which I highly recommend if you’re into concept art in any way), and Chapter 2 is called ‘Alice and her Dresses’. In it, I found this quote:

“Part of the problem was that her anatomic style needed to be tied with the art style of the whole game, which was also being debated. The months ticked by, and patience wore thin as we argued over style and anorexia and Angelina Jolie (…) I think the only aspect we agreed on was that we didn’t want Alice to have oversized breasts.”

Later it also became clear that Alice was not to have skimpy outfits either, with American vetoing dress designs that he found to be too revealing. He and his creative team very emphatically did not want Alice to be exploited, and I absolutely love him for that. It shows a real understanding that Alice’s character is the most important thing, and that we should be following her on her journey because we want her to reach her goals, not because we just love to watch her ass as she runs.

Of course I don’t have a problem with big breasted video game characters or skimpy outfits, but lord knows a bit of diversity never goes amiss. Alice’s body type is distinctly atypical and nonconformist when it comes to female characters. Her breasts are almost flat, her frame distinctly underfed, and with her oversized head and spooky eyes she makes for a more frail and waifish figure than the hulking amazons and curvy sex machines that we’re so used to seeing. Her iconic dress remains with a few adjustments, none of which have been done to make her appear more sexy or alluring. If anything, her outfit leans towards ‘disturbing’ rather than ‘sexy,’ with the blood splatters and symbols on her apron and her now iconic Omega necklace. I’m grateful for this simplu because it’s en pointe for her character. Alice is disturbed; you’re not supposed to look at her and think ‘damn, I’d hit that.’ I appreciate that the creative team didn’t go into the design process with exploitation in mind. Really, we need more attitudes like that in the video game industry.

Alice and the Vorpal Blade

Alice: Character

 

“I fear nothing” – Alice, American McGee’s Alice

 

“You’ve used me and abused me, but you will not destroy me!” – Alice to Dr. Bumby, Madness Returns

 

As you might have guessed, Alice is really not your typical video game heroine. That’s a good start in my book. The game developers were smart enough to ensure that her weak appearance belies her incredible determination and strength, creating “the juxtaposition of outward calm and inner turmoil” that makes her so intriguing. As a Victorian woman she is both typical of the era and very much ahead of her time all at once. Though she looks frail and her voice is suitably prim and proper, she’s quick to take charge and get shit done; the vastness of her own imagination is both a blessing and a curse and her capacity for violence might surprise some. She’s a woman on a spirit quest of sorts, all happening in her own head.

And that’s precisely what the Alice stories are about. On a fundamental level, it’s a journey of self-realisation and self-actualisation in the face of horrific tragedy, and how our minds aren’t always the refuges that we depend on in hard times. The first game sees Alice reclaim her sanity by conquering the Red Queen, the personification of her survivor’s guilt that has dominated Wonderland, her psychological landscape. By doing this, she’s able to bring herself out of the catatonic state she’s been trapped in for years and leave the asylum to start a new life.

In Madness Returns, Alice has to confront repressed memories and piece them together to finally get the whole, horrid picture (collecting scattered memories throughout Wonderland is a part of the game play). Though the game ends with her having committed murder and wandering the hybrid of London and Wonderland, it’s clear that she has finally been able to let go and become the Alice that she truly is.

I have to commend the sequel in particular for continuing Alice’s story so well. The first game came out back in 2000 and the second installment came out eleven years later, a significant gap that would certainly give cause for wariness if it was a film sequel, for example. And though I have to admit that Madness Returns does seem depressingly rushed in places and was clearly hurried together to meet a deadline in terms of game play and level design, I really can’t fault it from a storytelling perspective. It not only helped to continue Alice’s journey without feeling like a re-tread, but it was also able to flawlessly integrate it with the plot line from the first game and interlink the two without seeming tacked on. The sequel also does a great job of reminding us that recovery is neither simple nor easy. It’s clear that Alice has been struggling with some serious thoughts and feelings since leaving the asylum, and the threat of having to return there hangs over her throughout the game

Establishing that Alice and Wonderland are inextricably connected is something that’s been done before, but it’s something that I find quite fascinating and was naturally drawn to a darker interpretation of that idea. Making it clear that everything in Wonderland is part of Alice puts her firmly in charge of her own story. It gives her agency and power, something that many female video game characters are sadly lacking in.

In Madness Returns, the advancement of the graphics means that the designers could create some great visual contrasts that lend to Alice’s character without the need for dialogue. For instance, it becomes clear that Wonderland is a place where Alice perceives herself differently to how she perceives herself in the real world. In London, her hair is choppy and her demeanor is skittish and defensive, and it’s not hard to see why. She’s an orphaned young woman living in the most unpleasant of circumstances, trying to cope with the fragile grasp she has on reality while still suffering from feelings of guilt over the death of her family. In Wonderland however, she appears beautiful and fierce, her iconic dress, striped stockings and gothic boots always present. Her hair is long and flowing, her eyes subtly shaded with makeup. She stands taller, speaks more confidently, runs with purpose and fights with certainty. Real life Alice and Wonderland Alice are two parts of one whole, and by the time the story closes that bedraggled, nervous Alice gives way to the bold, warrior woman that she sees herself as in her own head. The changes are small but they make a notable difference, and it’s infinitely refreshing to know that Alice’s vision of herself empowered doesn’t involve her being pointlessly sexualised. If anything, her classic Wonderland dress is ever so slightly more conservative than the clothes she wears in the real world. It’s a little reminder that ‘strong female character’ doesn’t have to automatically equate to ‘sexy badass.’

 

Wonderland Alice and Real World Alice

In all kinds of media women so rarely get meaty, introspective roles like this. Alice doesn’t need a man to save her from herself, and Wonderland is her inconstant domain to traverse. She is Wonderland’s God, and so her actions shape its appearance. Sure, the Cheshire Cat will provide her with cryptic hints every now and then, but the Cheshire Cat is a part of Alice’s psyche like all the other denizens of Wonderland, and it remains that she’s the one that has to get her hands dirty every time. There is no one that can save her but herself, and this is a theme that runs throughout the games. Alice is a fully autonomous and flawed human being that learns to take responsibility for her creations and to take responsibility for her own well being over the course of the games. By the end of the Madness Returns, you know that she will never allow anyone to try and control her again. She will never let anyone try and tell her how to live her life or what even counts as ‘sane’ or ‘insane.’ She will be herself, and she will be proud. If that’s not empowerment, I don’t know what is.

I could go on for another couple thousand words about Alice as a character. Hell, I could make a dissertation of it, but I won’t.  I love Alice Liddell because she’s been through some serious shit and come out stronger for it. I love how glib and sarcastic she is in the face of danger and adore her surprising pragmatism and practicality. I love that she’s independent and driven to solve her own problems, and I love that she’s a complete badass without needing to shake it like a Polaroid picture. She’s one of the few female characters I’ve come across in video games that haven’t been designed to pander to the straight male demographic; it felt like she’d been made for girls like me. She gets to be the hero of her own story all the way through, from the very first minute to the very last.

More of this please.

 

Great Female Characters in Video Games Part One: The Necessary Preamble

Sexism in video games.

It feels like the topic has reached saturation point in online discussion. It feels kind of like throwing pieces of cooked spaghetti at a wall, where it sticks and remains forever with all the others to grow dry and stale and crusty. So many people have an opinion on the subject and most of those opinions are conflicting in some way; there are those that say sexism in video games is a pervasive, persistent problem that needs to be tackled head on, there are those the legitimately think that a bit of sexism in a video game is no big deal, and there are those that seem to think any form of criticism against the medium that they love is a personal attack of sorts, that somehow their precious boobs and blood and battles are going to be taken away from them by humourless, whiny feminazi bitches who are clearly seeing a problem that just isn’t there. But then you knew this already; you’ve all heard of Anita Sarkeesian and how much she’s pissed off the fedora-wearing dudebros of the internet, and how they maturely and rationally responded to her criticism by hacking her website and threatening her with rape and death, all for the crime of having an opinion that they feel a woman has no business having. This isn’t really the point though.

I am a gamer and have been since I was old enough to hold the controls. I am also female. This does not make me a girl gamer. It makes me a gamer, and one with a long history to boot. Do I think there’s a problem with sexism in video games? Absolutely. Really I think the only way you can draw any other conclusion is by having lived in a hole for your entire life with your eyes and ears closed to what’s actually happening around you, but then that’s how I feel about sexism and misogyny in general; it baffles me that anyone can deny its existence. There’s about as much sexism in video games as there is in all other forms of media: unrealistic body proportions, exploitation of the male and female form, reducing female characters to personality-free prizes for the hero, the list goes on. Most of the games in my own collection feature some form of sexism towards women however mild, though I’m happy to say that there’s a few that I can call exceptions. Of course, most of these games are over ten years old but hey ho, you take what you can get.

 

The real question is: do I let this sexism affect my enjoyment of these games? For the most part, no, and the reason why is simple. I’m capable of acknowledging a product’s flaws and understanding whether those flaws are problematic or not whilst thoroughly enjoying the experience of playing the game. In many ways, this is where critics of the world’s Anita Sarkeesians fall down. You need to realise the games that you’re desperately trying to defend are not perfect, far from it in fact. You need to realise that a woman’s criticism of video games is valid, whether she’s a hardcore gamer or not, because her experience is not the same as yours and the whole world is made up of differing experiences and ideas. You need to appreciate that if you are a straight, white male that enjoys video games, then you have been catered and pandered to at the exclusion of minorities since video games first became a thing and that simply isn’t fair. We have the right to call for change. A call for change is not a call for censorship. Female gamers like myself, along with everyone else that’s been continually side-lined and ignored by developers, would simply like to see more diversity and representation in the games that we pay money for; why is the money of a straight white man seen as more valuable than the money of a female gamer or a gay gamer or a black gamer? As consumers, we have the power to shift the goal posts and make the gaming world a more vibrant, interesting place. Really, most of us are just sick to death of being excluded from the exclusive gamers’ club when we’ve been investing just much time and effort into it as the audience that the developers insist on sucking up to. I don’t want to be forced to play a male character because some men out there can’t handle the idea of playing as a female. Quite frankly, it’s pathetic, it’s not fair to me or anyone else that might take issue with some things in the industry. Our opinion is just as equal as yours.

But most importantly, you need to realise that it’s actually ok to like these games that are being criticised and commented on, just as much as it’s ok for someone to point out that games unsavoury aspects. I am a feminist that owns most of Eminem’s albums. One of my favourite games is Dante’s Inferno, which features a scene where the damsel-in-distress character, Beatrice, is brutally murdered. But she’s not just brutally murdered; her breasts flop out of her dress when the sword pierces her body, and it’s for no other reason than ‘hey boobs lol.’ Do I think there’s some sexism at work here? Fuck yes I do, but I still enjoy that game enormously because, and repeat after me, critical thinking and nuance is your friend. It is possible to love something and be aware of its flaws. Nothing is perfect.

Here’s the thing. Nobody’s going to think that you’re sexist for enjoying something like, say ‘Duke Nukem Forever,’(slap dem asses!) but they might call you a sexist when you start frothing at the mouth and trying to defend some of its more indefensible aspects just because you can’t stand to hear a bad word against it. If you are personally not a sexist person then you really have no reason to go on the defensive like that; after all, it’s not a personal attack on you. Basically it’s ok to like the whole product, but it’s not really ok to try and act like the shitty things it features actually aren’t that shitty. The same goes for GTAV and any game of that ilk. I get that sexism is the ‘ism’ that society at large doesn’t care about, but if you would react in anger to a racist or homophobic feature in a game, then you should be doing the same thing with sexism. It’s a form of discrimination, therefore it is not acceptable. We have the right to challenge the status quo, especially when the status quo is effectively excluding half the population and more besides. Sorry to piss on your strawberries.

But let me say this: it’s not all bad. I mentioned that I had a few pleasingly non-sexist games in my collection, like ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ and some of the Final Fantasy games (IV being a stellar example of that – lots of female characters with DIMENSIONS), and it occurred to me that we could all do with a bit of positivity in regards to this very thorny subject.  Instead of criticising all the sexist things that I’ve encountered in my history as a gamer, I decided it’d fun to spotlight some of my favourite female video game characters and how they go against the grain of persistent tropes and stereotypes, starting with an in-depth discussion about Alice from the American McGee games of the same name.

While I’d love to get to the nitty gritty now, this post has already gone on for quite a while and I had to get the necessary rant out of the way so it wouldn’t bleed into things later and ruin the fun. So that’s going to be part two. Looking forward to seeing you all there; I’ll bring snacks.

Quick Update

Been a while, huh?

A lot of things have changed in my life that unfortunately left this blog at the wayside somewhat. I now work from home as a Freelance Copywriter (success has been mixed but I press on regardless) so most of my time has been devoted to getting that ball rolling. I also got engaged in November last year and have myself a big ass wedding to plan (Pinterest is the greatest thing ever for this, I’m convinced) for October 2015.

There have been other spanners thrown in my works, of course. My uncle died of lung cancer, depression set in; I’ve only really been half alive for the last six months and there really is nothing like depression to kill your motivation. I just haven’t had the heart to give this blog the time it deserves. Hell, I barely even make videos anymore thanks to the overwhelming amount of abuse I’ve had to put up with for daring to express an opinion. When you’re feeling low, that sort of thing is never the top of one’s priority list.

So I’m sorry. I’m sorry I just up and left and didn’t even leave a note. But I’m hoping to make a return soon. After all, there’s been a lot of shit going on in the world and I honestly have too much anger to just let it all pass my by.

Until then.