We Can Do Better Than This

Warning: This post discusses violence, transphobia, mental illness, and sexual assault.

Every now and then, I ditch my plans for the day because I have something I need to talk about right now. Rainbows and Dance Parties! was written on a day like that. This post was written on a day like that, too, but for very different reasons.

I believe we have a responsibility to treat other human beings with respect and kindness. Everyone has the right to live a life of safety – one where they can reasonably expect not to be physically, verbally, or sexually assaulted, one where they can find housing and work and raise families without being afraid.

Transgender people are one of the most endangered populations in the United States. Transgender people are at extremely high risk for physical abuse, sexual abuse, workplace discrimination, and employment discrimination.

And yet, the Creepy Crossdresser trope (as TVTropes calls it, closely related to Sissy Villain and Eunuchs Are Evil) is extraordinarily popular. Men who dress in traditionally female clothing are reliably depicted as laughable, weird, and dangerous. (Mey of Autostraddle, who is a trans woman, wrote an excellent article about her personal experience with this trope.)

Am I claiming that all trans characters should be Shining Paragons of the Light? Hardly. Trans people are people, and they should be depicted as people are depicted – capable of heroism, villainy, and everything in between. The problem occurs when there is one and only one depiction of a trans person in a given work, and that person is a villain. (Or when there are multiple trans people, and all of them are villains – though this occurs more rarely.)

And it’s not enough to handwave frantically and say “Not all trans people!” while still depicting a villain who can be interpreted as trans. Consider Silence of the Lambs, which does exactly that. Does anyone remember Hannibal Lecter saying that Buffalo Bill isn’t really trans? Or do they just remember the voice calling down “It rubs the lotion on its skin!”?

When trans characters are depicted solely and exclusively as dangerous, that tells the audience: You should be afraid of trans people.

The flight or fight response is well-understood. People respond to fear with violence.

When trans characters are depicted solely and exclusively as dangerous, that encourages violence against trans people.

And that means that game designers (and writers, and filmmakers, and all other artists) have a responsibility to consider what message our work is sending with regards to minority populations. We can make a difference – but it’s up to us to determine what that difference will be.

The Creepy Crossdresser trope is a serious problem, and I’m discussing transphobia because this subject is particularly close to home for me. But this responsibility extends across all minorities, and it covers far more than simple villainy.

Is the only lesbian sociopathic?

Is the only gay man a pedophile?

Is the only Muslim a terrorist?

Is the only black man scary?

This doesn’t just apply to fear-inspiring tropes – many other minority stereotypes are extremely harmful. But I wanted to focus on fear-inspiring tropes for a reason.

There’s a recently-popular game that many people have interpreted as depicting mental illness – specifically, dissociative identity disorder, also called multiple personality disorder. Many people also interpret this game as not depicting DID – but the author’s intent is unclear.

Why are people interpreting the game this way, if the author’s intent is unclear? Because the trope of Insane Equals Violent has been used far more often than it’s been subverted. One study showed that, in primetime media depictions of characters with mental illness, 60% were depicted as committing crimes or acts of violence. From Psycho to Borderlands to Batman villains, this trope appears everywhere.

I’m fully aware that mental illness is confusing and alarming to most people. (I read Sybil too.) But people with mental illness are far more likely to be the target of violence than the perpetrators. A meta-analysis of various studies showed that one in four people with mental illness experiences violence in a given year, a rate 286% higher than that of people without a disability of any kind.

I reject these depictions. People with mental illness aren’t boogeymen, or monsters, or demons. They’re people. And presenting these people as boogeymen actively endangers them.

In 2013 and 2014 (and, hopefully, 2015), a group of game devs organized a 48-hour event called Asylum Jam. The point of Asylum Jam is to create horror games that do not involve negative portrayals of mental health, medical professionals, or medical institutes.

As they put it:

[Mental illness] is something a great deal of the world live and cope with, yet are increasingly hesitant to reveal due to negative stigmatization in media, compounded by lack of general awareness about the variance and truth of suffering from a mental illness.

Horror is usually derived from the unknown and what we do not understand— and mental illness is one of these subjects where the general public lacks knowledge and insight. Many horror games use the negative portrayal of those who suffer from mental illness as extremely violent or sadistic, usually as the villain or antagonist, as an easy crutch to rest their story, characters and motivations on.

Asylum Jam is here to prove that we do not have to utilize a negative portrayal of mental health, medical professionals or medical institutes to create a good horror experience for a gamer!


People fear what they don’t understand. People commit violence as a response to fear. And the majority population of the United States does not reliably understand mental illness – or what it means to be non-white, non-heterosexual, gender atypical, on the autism spectrum, or physically disabled.

As human beings, we have a responsibility to treat other human beings with respect and kindness. As content creators, we have a responsibility to treat other human beings with respect and kindness.

Don’t create games – or books, or TV shows, or movies – that draw their villains from harmful minority tropes. Don’t create content that encourages a majority population to fear a minority population.

Because fear promotes violence – and we can do better than this.

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  1. Thank you Caroline. As someone who in long-term recovery from trauma-based mental health issues, I really appreciate this perspective. The truth is that mental health difficulties can be very scary for those on the inside as well as the outside. Sometimes we are driven towards behaviour that we and others might find challenging or unacceptable, BUT … though we may feel scared, and may sometimes inadvertently scare, we ourselves are NOT scary. Scary is not our identity.

    I am in the process of writing a game at the moment in which the protagonist suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is not the plot – this is the sub-text. I am trying to show how someone with PTSD will process things and respond to situations differently. This means that there are choices the player/protagonist can make that may raise the chance of a socially challenging or violent response. However, these are low possibility options. Slightly higher are the options that lead to the protagonist suffering a panic attack, and much higher are the options that lead to the protagonist experiencing but managing their fear.

    Anyway, thanks again for the post. It is good to see these issues being aired in the IF and gaming community.


  2. Funny, I never saw the defining characteristic of the killer in Silence of the Lambs as being trans, or something similar. It’s true that I watched the film before knowing anything about transsexuality, but what I saw was a very dangerous person who wanted to be someone he wasn’t, which is normal; and went about doing that murdering people and appropriating their skin, which I’m hoping isn’t.

    The fact that he wanted to be a woman wasn’t nearly as relevant to me as the fact that he wanted to be different than who he was; it just so happened that, to him, the issue was gender. So I never saw Silence of the Lambs as associating trans with villainy.

    • Based on the disclaimer built into both the film and the book, your interpretation was the author’s intention and the director’s as well. But the anti-trans message came through clearly, given that Buffalo Bill tucks his genitalia, wears makeup, that he was trying to get sex reassignment surgery, that he had a sexual encounter with a man, etc – characteristics often shared by male-assigned-at-birth trans women. (See http://www.thesociologicalcinema.com/blog/the-not-so-hidden-transphobia-in-silence-of-the-lambs for a more detailed discussion.)

      The director (Jonathan Demme) saw the criticism as valid and took it to heart. His next film was Philadelphia (the first big-budget Hollywood movie to tackle AIDS and homophobia). From a Demme interview (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/25/jonathan-demme-on-gaza-transphobia-in-the-silence-of-the-lambs-and-meryl-streep-as-a-rock-star.html):

      [When Silence of the Lambs] was accused of continuing a history of stereotypical negative portrayals of gay characters, that was a wake-up call for me as a filmmaker, and as a person. My gay friends who loved Silence of the Lambs, including my friend Juan Botas, who was one of the inspirations for Philadelphia, said, “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be a 12-year-old gay kid, and you go to the movies all the time and whenever you see a gay character, they’re either a ridiculous comic-relief caricature, or a demented killer. It’s very hard growing up gay and being exposed to all these stereotypes.”

  3. Great commentary. One thing I noted (in the case of both PSYCHO and SILENCE…) is that a potentially gender-unsure character does not have access to a welcoming community who can accept and understand them. They isolate themselves and act out harmfully due to the lack of appropriate socialization. Perhaps the “soul wronged for being benignly different takes revenge” trope can self-obsolesce when society no longer reflexively shuns a member of the community who might previously and unnecessarily have been thought of as “wrong” in some way.

  4. I heavily agree with a lot of this. I suddenly got a flashback to reading Silence of the Lambs as a late teen very-scared-and-confused gay youth, and it seemed to project a lot of what I then read more as anti-gay ideas on quite a few levels.* (There were several gay characters in it, and all negative!)

    So I’d just like to add three points. (1) These sort of lazy tropes are lazy and often boring too. (2) These sort of lazy tropes don’t just cause harm by feeding ignorant prejudice but they cause harm by seeming to validate that prejudice in a way that those affected by them (who are often vulnerable — e.g. teenage closet gay me in the late 1980s, trans youth, gay youth, people with mental health issues) will take to heart maybe more than you think. (3) It’s therefore also hugely important to present alternative (I don’t mean candyfloss positive, I mean realistic positive) images. The term “role model” is much too much bandied about, but quite a lot of us who fall into the sort of minorities you mention really crave, at some points in our life, for role models, and will find them in odd places, including in artistic places, and I think that’s a burden authors may need to keep in mind.

    This last point is maybe especially important for authors who are in a good position from personal knowledge or experience to write “realistic” minority characters and minded to do so. One thing they/we have to keep in mind maybe is that as well as the lazy “villain” tropes there are also some lazy “victim” tropes, and they can actually be quite damaging too. As it happens Philadelphia is a film that I’m pretty conflicted about along exactly those lines because it seemed to me at the time (it’s years since I saw it) to belong to a sort of “Miserable Gay has Grim Life and Early Death” trope that, however well-meaning and even rooted in the terrible reality of the late 1980s/early 1990s, had some issues of its own. I can certainly say that I was *at least* as terrified by the thought that my sexuality condemned me to either perpetual virginity or loveless debauchery and early death as I was by the idea that I might end up a serial killer — and there was a big strand of gay- and gay-allied literature around at the time which seemed to suggest that this was exactly where my life was going. These ideas (which cast minorities as “victims” not as villains) can be just as oppressive, and can be appropriated (thoughtlessly or otherwise) for oppressive purposes, and that needs to be watched too.

    Maybe that all seems a bit whiny and lacking in a sense of proportion. But isolated people often do lack exactly that.

    I’m not asking minority writers to gloss over problems. It can’t all be rainbows and dance parties (though thanks for that!). But let’s not kid ourselves: a grimly realistic portrayal of — say — insufferable violence against a trans child or homophobic rejection by religious parents may do harm too. If you take the effect of art seriously it gets morally complicated, and avoiding pandering to common prejudice is only part of the problem. Showing how people can confront and *deal* with the mess of life and make some sort of sense of it is important.

    [* At that time I didn’t read the book as anti trans: I read it as making a link that was totally common then between gayness and the feminine: “Real men aren’t …” a ploy which effectively turned cis-male gender identity/transphobia into a stick to beat gays. In retrospect that was actually using transphobia as a homophobic weapon, which I don’t think makes it better.]

  5. I’ve just heard on the radio: In Columbia University, sexually abused students refused to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, because it’s triggers their remembrance of sexual abuse. This is someone like this. I don’t think we have to tell people what should do and what not when they produce a cultural or artistic creation. Back to the Asylum Jam-thing: I think it’s a bit hypocritical, beacause the theme is horror, so murder and torture are allowed, but the hurting of mentally ill persons are disallowed. I have paranoid schizophrenia, and we are highly stigmatized, not by cultural productions, but via media and by some people, who heard something about us from an acquintance of an acquintance, mostly terrible and fearful things. By all means it’s a very interesting post that inspired me to reply, even though we don’t agree in 100%. Anyway, I also deal with games, I participated on Twiny Jam with a shortened form and translation of my game The 4 Edith, and also wrote the O.H.RPG.C.E game called Death in the Psych Ward, which is not yet translated to English, but it is planned.

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