Anita Sarkeesian and her team at Feminist Frequency have spent the last few years discussing “representations of women in pop culture narratives,” particularly through a series of great videos documenting a range of tropes and other sexist trends, particularly in video games. I love these videos and, while they are very compelling, somehow I always thought “yeah, there are some creeps out there, but most people aren’t THAT bad.”
Then I found myself watching Conan.
I don’t usually watch Conan, but the rabbit hole that is YouTube led me to the show’s “Clueless Gamer” segments. In these segments, the show’s host Conan O’Brien “reviews” new video games with a friend/staffer and occasionally a special guest or two. The segments are basically product placements, but since Conan isn’t a gamer, his reactions to the games add a “humorous” entertainment factor. Unfortunately, what was intended as light entertainment left me feeling very creeped out as a female viewer. After pretending that the segments’ rampant sexist comedy was fine, I have decided to document the phenomenon in damning detail. I have included YouTube links (with start times) for nearly all my examples, so enjoy the creepy sexism in full!
Documenting the Sexism
As of this writing, there are 29 Clueless Gamer segments. Not all games lend themselves to sexist comedy and (thankfully) 13 of the segments (Michael Phelps: Push the Limit, Atari 2600, PC Horror Games, WWE 2K14, AT&T Stadium, Watch Dogs, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, Mortal Kombat X, Halo 5: Guardians, Doom, Far Cry Primal, UFC 2, and Mario Kart 8) are basically free of sexist material (but not free of sickly violent material). Keeping the Mario Kart 8 review free from sexism is a low standard however. Actually, the Mario Kart review involved the losers having penises drawn on their faces, so fail I guess. . . Penis-drawing aside, Conan still managed to introduce sexist material into reviews for several games you’d think would be safe:
- Conan finds a female non-player character (NPC) in a leadership role intriguingly attractive but “a little bitchy” in his Kinect Star Wars review.
- Conan closes out the Minecraft review with some homophobic humor.
- Conan suggests that Batman would be emasculated by his loss to Wonder Woman in the Injustice: Gods Among Us review. (Bonus points for feminizing the co-host with a lacy satin eye mask for comic effect).
- Conan finds humor in invading women’s personal space in the Resident Evil 6 review.
While I might describe these preceding examples as casual sexism, Conan’s video game reviews also demonstrate larger trends discussed by Anita Sarkeesian and Feminist Frequency. For example, several of the reviews demonstrate the Women as Reward trope when Conan expects to earn sexual rewards after completing in-game tasks. After killing a bunch of zombies surrounding the female NPC in Resident Evil 6, he argues, “I just saved her life, right? You’d think she’d sleep with me.” Similarly, in the Skyrim Elder Scrolls review, he starts a quest hoping for a sexual rewards and is clearly disappointed when the NPC doesn’t lead him to the bedroom. When she offers to teach him about trading instead (the point of the quest) his crestfallen response is, “That’s not what I wanted.” He then complains about how unreasonable and unfair women are when it comes to providing sex. Finally, after spending most of his The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review trying to have in-game sex (more on this below), he is practically orgasmic when finally winning graphic sexual rewards for in-game quest and boss-battle successes.
But perhaps the most common forms of sexism found in Conan’s reviews are those that assume that women characters exist only to meet the needs, demands, and fantasies of presumed straight male players. In essence, females exist for the player to ogle, fondle, or have sex with. For more on this issue see Feminist Frequency’s Women as Background Decoration videos Part 1 and Part 2, their Body Language & The Male Gaze video, and their Strategic Butt Coverings video.
Conan does not disappoint. He is dismayed to discover that a female NPC is a “terrifying” elderly lady, not the “hot” sex toy he expected from Skyrim Elder Scrolls. In his Super Smash Bros review, he clearly prefers the sexy, “improved” Zero-Suit Samus character to the armored Samus character (although he’d rather meet “birthday suit Samus.” Classy!). After seeing a showering woman in the opening credits for Hitman Absolution, he wonders how to make the game “just be that.” When his co-host sheepishly replies that its part of the game, Conan lewdly responds, “If that’s the game, I’m ready to play.” Even in his Halo 4 review he can’t get beyond the AI Cortana’s sexy design and potential for providing sexual services. This results in controller licking and Cortana’s appearance ultimately represents the game’s high point for him.
Then there are all the female characters that, according to Conan, must exist either for having sex with (the adopted sister in Assassin’s Creed Unity; the protagonist’s wife, a restaurant patron, and a random stranger in Fallout 4) or as part of the player’s past sexual exploits (a colleague in Splinter Cell: Blacklist)
What about strippers you ask? Well, Conan makes not one but two trips to fondle the topless strippers in his Grand Theft Auto 5 review (9.9 million views). Conan and his guest even wonder, “Where’s the hooker strip?” in their Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 review (extra bonus points for the Skate Move or Sexual Position? game).
As if all that wasn’t enough, three of the Clueless Gamer segments stand in a sexist world of their own. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Tomb Raider review is essentially 5 minutes of Conan lustily creeping around behind a woman in tight pants (5 million views). You must watch this video to appreciate its overwhelmingly creepy, sexist glory. He was even asked by his producers to “tone it down with the pervy stuff” (to no avail). There are so many sexist moments it isn’t even worth me pulling out highlights. (Note: there are some shockingly graphic moments in this video/game. I would recommend stopping before 5:40 in particular.)
The same can be said for Conan’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review. Again, you should just watch the whole nearly 11 minute video. I can tell you that he spends the whole review trying to have in-game sex, but you will not appreciate just what was unleashed on the world in the name of product advertising (6.3 million views). Here is a sampling:
- Conan is faked out by sexy feet in a bathtub only to discover they are his own character’s (male) feet. [2:03-2:22]
- Conan is super excited to see a naked woman (“Woah! Look at that! Oh my God! Look at that! . . . “What’s happening?! Make it freeze! Make it freeze!”) but is disappointed when he can’t immediately have sex with her. [2:22-3:30]
- “I think at this point, what’s fueling me is that it’s clear that you can have sex with a woman in this game. I want to do whatever it takes to make that happen.” [3:32-3:40]
- “Lets go to Sex Island! I want an erotic adventure!” [4:22-4:27]
- While looking through the protagonist’s inventory menu: “Where is his sex finder? Does he have a sex finder?” [6:00-6:06]
- Conan develops an alternative script where the protagonist settles for sex with a water hag. [6:32-7:06]
- Co-host: “you wanna see some naked girls.” Conan: “YES!” Skip to a “sexy bath house” full of naked women but no sex. Only one thing to do! Kill Everybody! “This guy is so sexually frustrated, you know what’s coming out of his hands [a fire skill]? His backed up semen.” [7:08-8:10]
- Fed up with the lack of in-game sex, Conan threatens his co-host: “You get me to some sex. Soon or you’re dead!” [8:10-8:15]
- Winning the prize: “Having sex on a stuffed unicorn!” [9:20-9:58]
I want to laugh at this list but it’s so juvenile it’s almost sad. As of this writing, the review has over 6 million views.
Finally, I conclude this sexism inventory with the most recent Overwatch review (May 2016, 4.4 million views). While this review does not come close to the Tomb Raider or The Witcher 3 reviews in sexist content, the circumstances surrounding this review and its resulting sexist moments blow my mind. Consider, first, that this is the 29th Clueless Gamer video. They have been making these since June 2012. Second, this review contains two special guests, Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey from Game of Thrones. Note that one of these guests is a woman. Third, Overwatch is a team shooter game along the lines of Call of Duty. Given this context, how could Conan introduce sexist content into this review?
Well . . . there is a curvy female character option with a prominent shiny butt!! We should definitely take some time to check out all the angles. But you know what would be better? Playing a match with 8 of these shiny butts making orgasmic noises! It’s totally okay to do that with a woman sitting right next to you. What can I say?
When I first watched these horrible pieces of “entertainment” I felt super creeped out but was sufficiently conditioned to accept this crap that I excused Conan and his staff. Conan seems like a nice guy, I thought, and this is just dumb product placement that he doesn’t want to be doing anyway. Whatever, it doesn’t matter.
But as I thought about it more, I got angrier. One sexist joke I can let slide. Maybe two. But when there are more than three I start to wonder whether you can say so many sexist things and somehow not “be sexist.” When does lazy comedy become institutional sexism? For goodness sake, more than half the 29 Clueless Gamer segments include substantial sexist material. This is particularly damning considering how short the segments are. Conan and his co-host probably record an hour or more of footage to populate a 5-10 minute segment. They couldn’t find enough humorous material to avoid including 30 seconds or more of cringe-worthy sexist material? Clearly Conan and his producers are actively choosing to include his unending female objectification in these “reviews.”
How is this okay on television!? Yes, Conan’s show is on late night cable, but don’t tell me it’s edgy, boundary-pushing, or sophisticated social commentary. No, it’s lazy comedy meant to sell awful games to juvenile males at the expense of everyone else in our society (not just poor Lena Headey in that Overwatch segment, jeez).
I, the viewer, am uncomfortable. The co-host is often clearly uncomfortable. The producers of the Tomb Raider segment even had to tell Conan to tone down the pervy-ness, although it all ended up in the segment anyway! This is not cool! Why do we put up with this?!
In conclusion: Conan, you’re a sexist creep. Hopefully our granddaughters will be aghast that we lived with this kind of puerile entertainment.