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The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Battling Rampaging Sex Monsters

While the Resident Evil series has its share of female protagonists, they tend to be less capable than their male counterparts. The female protagonist of RE1, for example, comes equipped with a designated male savior who assists her the entire game. This cycle of the main female protagonist needing to be saved at various points by men is reiterated throughout the series, notably appearing in RE3 and RE: Code Veronica. RE4 doesn't even feature a female protagonist and is instead based entirely around a male protagonist babysitting a helpless teenage girl.

Resident Evil 2, interestingly, doesn't feature any such devices and thus feels significantly less misogynistic than the rest of the series. Of RE2's four playable characters--Claire the biker, Ada the spy, Leon the cop, and Sherry the civilian--three of them are female, and two out of those three are not portrayed as being at all submissive or needing help (Sherry being the exception). The lone male playable character, Leon, is not particularly masculine. He has androgynous features, and his attempts to "take charge" get undercut repeatedly by the women in the story. Claire bosses him around most of the time, and Ada repeatedly ignores his advice. ("Why doesn't anyone listen to me?" he laments midway through the game.) Leon is not portrayed as a joke exactly, but he is certainly not a hyper-masculine hero. The rest of the men in RE2's story--sadistic Police Chief Irons, sleazy reporter Ben, and mad scientist William Birkin--are in general selfish, awful people who meet horrid ends.

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Chief Irons

It's significant, I think, that the antagonists in RE2 are predominantly male, while the protagonists pitted against them are predominantly female. I am not speaking of the zombies, of course, but the male characters who are the real villains of the story. The most significant of these is Dr. William Birkin, Sherry's father, who has been transformed into a rampaging mutant by a virus he engineered. Birkin spends the entire game chasing after his daughter in a effort to infect her with his virus, which he spreads by attacking people with his writhing, telescopic tentacles. This lingering threat--with its thinly veiled implications of incestual rape--is the real horror at the heart of Resident Evil 2, the horror Claire spends the whole game trying to save Sherry from, the horror that is, in certain ways, much scarier than a mere zombie apocalypse.

Dr. William Birkin

William Berkin is more or less portrayed as a rampaging sexual predator in RE2. Frustrated that he can't find his daughter, he chases down every other character over the course of the story and forces his tentacles down their screaming throats in an attempt to reproduce. The allusions to tentacle porn are obvious, although they become more complicated when one considers that Birkin's victims are almost exclusively male. These men (one of whom is Police Chief Irons, himself a rapist and murderer) are "incompatible" with his DNA and therefore explode as they give birth to new, unbelievably disgusting creatures. Birkin wants to impregnate Sherry because, as someone who shares his DNA, she won't reject the virus... but fuse with it and mutate, like he is. In the terms of the story, Birkin's monster rape rampage is not motivated by sexual desire. Yet from the player's perspective (and Claire's) the horror is obviously sexual. The fact that the over arching narrative is about saving a little girl from being impregnated by her own father is upsetting and impossible to shrug off.

I am not arguing that the sexual politics of RE2 are terribly progressive, only that they are effective. It's true that the goodness and strength of the women in the story is more or less confined to gendered behavior patterns: in Claire's maternal devotion to Sherry and in Ada's romantic devotion to Leon. But RE2 gets thematic and dramatic mileage out of these patterns in ways that other RE games don't. It recalls the effective use of gender and sexuality in the earlier Alien films, specifically Aliens. RE2 is obviously indebted to Aliens for the idea of a warrior woman protecting a little girl from a monsterous sexual threat. But it works in RE2 for pretty much the same reasons it works in Aliens, with the added, far more disturbing layer of actual incest. The fact that RE2 pits such likable anime archetypes against such genuine psychological distress is part of what makes it stand out against the trite garbage of later Resident Evil games.



Mr. Weise: This is a really great post and one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

As you point out, the tension in RE2 fantastically layered and the game does a great job using gender tensions to tell a compelling (and gleefully disturbing) story.

Here I would like to point to BioShock which less successfully attempts to deal with many of the same issues, falling short of creating any kind of intriguing gender dynamic within the game.

The relationship between the Big Daddy and the Little Sister in Bioshock is hinted at having some kind of pseudo-sexual connotation, while being deemed strange and perverse. Yet the interactions between the two are undeveloped and never built up throughout the narrative. The "helpless girl and big protector" theme is riffed on a bit (after all, the defenseless Little Sister isn't exactly so helpless in the end), but the tension between the two characters (not to mention the protagonist) never really escalates throughout the game.

Perhaps this underdevelopment lies in the fact that they are both NPC's. Regardless, the drama between them feels less like a crescendo and more like a bland manufacture, with the end goal simply being the player's presumed disturbance caused by the juxtaposition of small girl with large brute.

Back to RE2, where I will say that I certainly agree with your statement that the game owes much to the Alien films. I would also add that I think the game owes an equal amount to film noir and that RE2 cleverly inserts its other-worldly zombie theme into an established set of archetypes - (urban decay, detective and police procedure, protection for the seemingly innocent and of course, the femme fatale/woman who kicks a ton of ass).

Finally I must mention Polanski's Chinatown, itself a work that deals with many of the same themes as RE2, particularly the concept of a powerful few controlling the destiny of the masses (Noah Cross is to Umbrella as water is to pharmaceuticals?). You say that in RE2 "the over arching narrative is about saving a little girl from being impregnated by her own father is upsetting and impossible to shrug off." Well, I would say that there is an equally impossible chance of shrugging off the effects of witnessing Jake's final trip to Chinatown and revelations it brings...

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