Friday, 6 December 2013

Men At Large, Women In Prison - on gender in Silent Hill 2


Ever since I finished The Last of Us I've been looking for more videogames that challenge the concept of male agency. As I wrote for the New Statesman in July of this year, Joel's actions in The Last of Us, the ones driven by a traditional sense of masculinity, are detrimental to the game world and to other characters.  I see the game as an affront to the idea that male protagonists in games are always right, that their decision to take action against something always leads to resolution. With the example of The Last of Us in mind, I've been mentally working back through other games of the past decade. In hindsight, I feel the reason Call of Duty 4's nuke sequence shocked me was not because of the big explosion of the bomb, or the fact my character died, but because I failed the mission. My male character took action to rescue a downed pilot and didn't end up rescuing her.

The same can be said for Max Payne 3, where, in almost every level, Max fails his objective: He doesn't rescue Fabiana at the dock, he doesn't hand over the money at the stadium, he doesn't protect Rodrigo in his office, he doesn't catch Becker at the police station. Both of those examples, and plenty of others, are interesting to me because they show game men taking action, attempting to exercise their agency, and still failing. They represent impotence, displacement - they wrestle with the pervasive social idea that our world is a man's world. The strongest example of this I've come up with so far is Silent Hill 2, which not only undermines its male character's agency, but criticises it also, depicting, like The Last of Us, a male protagonist who makes things worse.

On gender roles

You've probably read elsewhere about the game's pervasive sexual imagery. James, our player character, has murdered his terminally ill wife because she was unable to have sex with him. Arriving in Silent Hill, his guilty psyche creates Pyramid Head - a rampaging, muscled figure with a gigantic knife - and the "mannequins" - creatures resembling two sets of female legs placed end on end.

Throughout the game, we see Pyramid Head rape and murder the mannequin creatures - in our initial encounter, he is sodomising two of them in the kitchen area of an apartment .

We also see the mannequins behave suggestively towards the player; when we approach them as James, they hold a fixed pose until we get very close, bending their womanly legs into alluring positions.

What we see are two different types of sexuality: Pyramid Head represents priapic male sexual agency, while the mannequins are submissive, subjugated females. Pyramid Head is more obvious. The way he lumbers around the game driving his big weapon into female bodies tells you all you need to know. The mannequins are more interesting. Their physical appearance and relationship with Pyramid Head identifies them as female, and the way they respond to James indicates sexual submissiveness.

They present themselves to the player, waiting with legs bent until he gets near. And it's only when he gets near that they start attacking - that they become something. These female shapes require a male presence before they are allowed to move - if you stay out of range, they will remain locked in a pose, totally still, waiting to jump you. Without James, a man, they have no agency.

They attract the player by remaining still. It's their lack of movement which makes us curious, makes us want to approach them in the first place to see what happens when we do. It smacks of stereotypical female servitude, the 1950s/Stepford Wives misconception that without a man in their lives, women serve no purpose. I find it fascinating that Pyramid Head is assaulting the two mannequins in a kitchen. He's trapped them there, in the area of the house most widely associated with domestic subservience, and now he's taking them for himself.

On locations

I want to move onto James, who is struggling with his maleness.

James is a man who will fight (and kill) for his sense masculinity but is also not secure in himself. He killed his wife because she wouldn't have sex with him, because she wouldn't (couldn't) fulfil the traditional wife role to his would-be traditional husband.

In his relationship with Mary, James could neither contain nor exercise his ardent male sexuality. Silent Hill, the town, is littered with places that speak to this, locations that are innately and recognisably male, but also difficult to negotiate. If James' mind really is creating Silent Hill around him, its his frustrated sexuality which has fashioned many of its buildings.

He begins the game in a men's toilet, a place which has "Men" literally written on the door.  But James and the player controlling him, this area is difficult to navigate. We can't see the door; we might run toward rather than away from the camera. The exit itself is hidden out of our view, behind a wall. It's takes fiddling and guesswork to get out of this room.

And this goes on. Neely's Bar is one of Silent Hill 2's most famous locales, home to that notorious line of graffiti: "There was a HOLE here. It's gone now. "

A quick word on bars themselves. Without wanting to pigeon-hole or generalise, bars are typical gathering points for men looking to meet women. The reverse, of course, is also true, but what we most commonly associate with bars is that they're places in which men go looking for casual sex. In films, books, TV shows and videogames, male characters hangout in bars to "pick up chicks." These are places for men to ply their sex.

Now that graffiti. It's invites several interpretations, all of which seem plausible. It might point to the town's amorphous architecture; Silent Hill is known for its frightening day/night pattern, whereby buildings and places change shape and appearance whenever the sun goes down, or comes back up again. Perhaps it's that - perhaps at night, there was a hole here, but it's daytime, and it's gone now.

It may also point to another interloper in Silent Hill.  Through conversations between James and the other characters in Silent Hill 2, we decipher that people see the town subjectively. James sees sexually suggestive monsters, whereas Laura, a little girl, sees nothing extraordinary at all. Perhaps that's what this is. Perhaps one visitor to Silent Hill found the diary of another and expected there to be a hole here, but he saw the town differently, and there wasn't.

I have an alternate interpretation which may seem a little overstretched, and is definitely more vulgar.

I've always been intrigued by the emphasis placed on "hole" - it's the only part of the graffiti spelt all in upper case. We've established James' forceful male sexuality and the fact that, with Mary, he was often denied it. Now he's in a bar, a place to pick up chicks and the HOLE - the yonic symbol, the vagina - is gone. Our frustrated, impotent male protagonist is once again frustrated, once again impotent. Despite the healthy sexual relationship marriage connotes, he was unable to have sex; despite the casual sexual encounters traditionally available in bars, the HOLE is gone now.

Finally, on Eddie

Eddie, whom James first meets in the apartment building near the start of the game and again, later, in a bowling alley, is a chubby, lazy man.

He represents inactivity, castration.

The bowling alley meeting is particularly important. When James finds Eddie, he's crouched over a table, eating pizza.

Laura, the little girl character, symbolic of archetypal female vulnerability, has just run off into Silent Hill alone. But Eddie refuses to go after her. James is outraged. He demands Eddie help him look for Laura, but Eddie would rather sit still and eat pizza. James calls him a coward and storms off.

Three things stand out here. Firstly, Eddie's refusal to help. We're used to game men - and men in broader media - enacting a plan to save other characters, especially female ones. The narrow gender roles that are commonly and socially accepted dictate that the men should do the work - they should find a job, buy a house and, if needs be, go to war. But Eddie won't fulfil his role. He isn't, in a myopic traditional sense, or in James's view, a real man.

Secondly, Eddie's in a bowling alley. In films like The Big Lebowski and Pleasantville, this is where long-term married men, or divorced men, come to hang out with their similarly married or divorced friends. And bowling is not, by general social estimation, a "real sport." It's derided as a game for people who want to feel like they're playing a sport. It's half-way. It's tame.

Thirdly, Eddie looks like James, albeit a fatter version. He has long blonde hair and light eyes. Even his facial features are similar, same mouth, same eyes:

In Neely's Bar, we're made to understand the impossible ultra-masculine standard James has set for himself. In the bowling alley, through Eddie, we see the kind of sub-male decrepitude he's fearful of and refuses to stoop to. Eddie is inert and scared. And he's sat in a place commonly associated with married men, men who, by dedicating themselves to a single woman have, in James's eyes, somehow given away their maleness by relinquishing their freedom to search for holes in bars.

Eddie represents what James fears he would have become had he stayed with Mary, had he allowed himself to be "contained" by their asexual marriage: Fat, inert, wimpy, unable to play proper sport, resigned to the company of other married men. He's chubby instead of muscular, frightened instead of responsible. He's the opposite side of the spectrum to Pyramid Head. Where Pyramid Head is a warning of what might become of James if he lets his priapic desires get the best of him, Eddie is a warning against becoming complacent, of letting masculinity and male agency slip away.

James's conflict in Silent Hill 2 is finding the middle between those two extreme poles. If you play the game well and get the best ending, James leaves Silent Hill with Laura as his new, adopted daughter. He becomes a father, a traditional male figure that doesn't carry any sexual or aggressive overtones. That, I think, is the balance he is looking for.


  1. Interesting article, yours was the first I've read that actually
    bothers to delve into many of the relationships between the town's
    locales, the monsters, and James as a character.

    One little quibble though: Is the reason James killed his wife
    truly as clear cut as "she was terminally ill [and] .. unable to have sex with him"?
    I don't recall from my own playthroughs many many years ago a moment in the game
    that made this immediately obvious (though I might've missed something).

    It seemed to me that it was more a combination of things leading him to this:
    frustration, loneliness, dis-ease, her dis-ease (disease!), and his utter and complete
    inability to do anything about it.

    Again, I'm not trying to claim that james's actions didn't ultimately come from
    a place of selfishness, I'm just trying to say that it was probably a spectrum of
    different things (sex being only one component) that led him to this. That is, his actions and their exact motivation still seems hazy and mysterious to me, like the rest of the game and the town itself.

    Again, great article and website, I've been enjoying it.

  2. I read the nurse article before I found this one. I've always wondered this about the game, thank you for taking the time to write your observations and thoughts down on it.