The Santa Barbara Killer Is a Product of Our Culture, and We Shouldn't Hide From That Fact
Editorial: It's important to understand what we consume.
Near the University of California Santa Barbara on Friday night, one man took part in a murderous spree in which seven people died and many more were injured. It was a shocking tragedy, one that makes us draw closer to those we love, mourn those who were affected, and try to figure out how such a terrible event could possibly happen. Although the killer died in the attack, we do have a glimpse at what he was thinking beforehand, and what could have led him to commit such atrocities; he blamed the women who shunned him for his aching loneliness. "All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me," he wrote in a document titled My Twisted World.
It was women the shooter blamed. "Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men," he said, "but never to me." There's a feeling of entitlement in his words, that he expects women to be close to him, that he's owed their companionship. It's a troubling thought--one that dehumanizes women as objects to be enjoyed rather than people capable of making rational decisions--and one that was echoed in the game I spent the weekend playing.
Killer Is Dead finally made its way to the PC on Friday, many months after it had come to consoles, and considering how much I've enjoyed previous games from Grasshopper Studios, I happily downloaded it to see what Suda 51 had concocted this time. Sadly, there is questionable treatment of women in this stylish adventure. Amid the standard stages are side missions dubbed Gigolo mode, in which you ogle women at a bar until your confidence grows to an acceptable level. Sneaking peeks at their underwear gives you the courage to present gifts, and by doling out some perfume or a fancy stone, you earn their love. They are objectives to complete, prizes waiting to be won, whose presence follows you even when you're not actively courting them. The women call to you mid-mission, urging you to come back to join them, as you brush off their pleas because you're busy with more pressing matters.
There's a feeling of entitlement in his words, that he expects women to be close to him, that he's owed their companionship.
Drawing even a tenuous link between games such as Killer Is Dead and the motivations of the Santa Barbara killer is unfair. No one piece of fiction could possibly change the ideology of a person--even one who is easily influenced--so I am not pointing my finger toward any one thing in an attempt to take blame away from the individual and shift it onto an inanimate object. A person who could commit such a horrific act is troubled in a way that I cannot possibly understand. His actions are his responsibility, and his alone, but we should still look at the world that he existed in, and the cultural influences that are all around us.
It's not likely that one game would be able to change the thought process of a person. What we should consider, though, is that Killer Is Dead is not alone in its treatment of women. There are countless other games in which this philosophy exists--many of which have achieved far more popularity than this niche hack-and-slasher could ever reach--and it's hard to avoid this message if you play games as much as I do.
Mass Effect, for instance, is one of the most engaging adventures I've played in recent years, handling difficult subjects such as genocide with aplomb, and yet establishing a relationship with a woman requires no more than answering multiple-choice questions correctly before you get to bed her. You can also court men as a female Shepard in Mass Effect, though it's a false equivalency to treat those two situations as equal because the women are so much more sexualized. The same stripped-down approach to love was found in Persona 4: Golden, a game with fascinating characters that still resorted to in-game rewards and a shallow courting process to win the hearts of your female friends. There are much more glaring examples of objectification in games, but it's important to notice that even smart, progressive games such as these fall into the same traps.
Games aren't the only place in which this mentality is ever present, and when I think about the recent media I've consumed, I can't ignore how often men dominate the women in their lives. Just a note, the following examples don't glamorize the dehumanizing of woman, but they do showcase the supreme dominance of men. In Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood, Toru is an incredibly selfish character who struggles to deal with women who don't bend to his every whim. He expects the women in his life to please him whenever he wishes, and becomes discouraged and frustrated when they refuse to give him what he desires. In the television series Masters of Sex, the men demand that their wives quit their jobs, work at home, and obey them without question, and balk whenever a woman dares to strive for independence.
The movie Under the Skin examines one woman's search for her identity. It's a sobering journey in which the protagonist must escape from a man who desires her, and finds that she can't fight against those who are so much stronger than she is. I see this theme repeated over and over again, showing women in a place of weakness, men as the dominating force, and justice being forsaken for primal pleasure. This is the world in which we live, the media that shapes our point of view, and something that we shouldn't ignore.
Where this gets so difficult for me is that I enjoy everything that I've written about so far. Killer Is Dead isn't nearly as interesting as Suda 51's previous games--such as Killer 7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, or even Lollipop Chainsaw--but I was riveted by its violent, sexy exploits nonetheless. The visual design is so expertly constructed, the combat so dynamically satisfying, that I plunged deeper into the adventure even though I couldn't ignore the objectification of every woman I met. I cannot deny my love for Mass Effect, either, and Persona 4: Golden is one of the finest games I've ever played. Norwegian Wood is a deft exploration of the selfish desires of a young man, and Masters of Sex creates sobering conflicts in which I hoped against hope that the characters would do the right thing. And Under the Skin, well, I can't remember the last time I saw a movie this affecting. It's a masterpiece, and one that I haven't been able to get out of my head for the past two months.
This is the world in which we live, the media that shapes our point of view, and something that we shouldn't ignore.
Women are often treated poorly in popular culture, but searching for an easy solution to this problem is a lost cause. Our society has been infected by these ideas for so long, and we can't change the way people think at the drop of a hat. If there were an obvious scapegoat we could point to, something that clearly triggered the tragedy in Santa Barbara, we would have a strong place to start, but such a thing doesn't exist. For the government, there are policies that need to be examined, the same issues that seem to surface whenever such an event occurs. For instance, the discussion around the availability of guns is once again going to take place, as is our relationship to mental health care. But those matters have to be settled by our lawmakers. The government does not dictate culture, though, so it's our responsibility to examine the media we create and consume.
Artists should be able to express themselves without fear that their work is going to be banned. But just because there aren't any rules dictating what kind of ideas authors, directors, and game developers can explore, they still have a responsibility to themselves and the world at large that shouldn't be ignored. Media does not force people to commit violent acts, and to imply that's the case is dangerous and unfair. Still, creators have to be cognizant of what messages they are sending out there. If they continue to demean a certain segment of the population, if they dehumanize our friends and loved ones, then it may be worth reexamining those beliefs.
We, as consumers, have our own role in this healing process. We have to accept that the media we hold near to our hearts can still have troubling messages. To hide from this fact is disingenuous. Admit that major themes may be damaging, that you understand and respect that others feel uncomfortable, and yet still celebrate the elements that you enjoy. Our voices are important. It doesn't help anyone to stick our heads in the sand, to pretend that everything is all right even when so many people think otherwise. There's nothing wrong with liking media that others find disgusting. Yes, I am a little embarrassed to say that I enjoyed Killer Is Dead amid the controversy that surrounded its release, but at the same time, I can't hide who I am, and I am fully aware of what kind of messaging it has. So don't stop playing the games you love, or watching the movies that speak to you. But don't brush off the criticisms directed toward them, either.
Video games are supposed to be an escape. They're where I go when I want to relax for a few hours, or to visit a world very different from my own. I recognize that games are power fantasies, fictional endeavors in which I can jump higher than real gravity would allow, withstand bullets without dying, and dunk a basketball from the three-point line. Those power fantasies are what often draw me into games. But it's when those fantasies shift from exaggerating my own physical strengths to turning women into mere objects that things stop being fun. We have to recognize the cultural impact of our artistic expression. Only by talking openly about what we're enjoying, and examining how it affects the world at large, can we better understand how a person like the Santa Barbara killer could have such troubling ideas about women to begin with.