A Silent Hill Queer-y

With a recent run of lackluster titles, it may be time for the Silent Hill series to look into alternative spaces for design inspiration - to that end, what might a Silent Hill game that explores queer identity look like?

Originally posted 24 May 2013 @ GayGamer.net.

Trigger warnings for discussion of sexual abuse from here on out.
Spoiler warnings for the main themes of Silent Hill 3, as well as bosses in Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill: Homecoming.

(Note: this article also uses a lot of terminology that I now disagree with and wouldn't use, such as "trans*" or "male-bodied" and similar; I'm hoping to write a follow-up with more expansive and useful terminology that avoids the biological-essentialism that I fell into before. I'm massively sorry for not realising it sooner!

Introduction

What would a queer Silent Hill look like?

It’s probably a pretty odd question, but it’s one I kept brushing up against while I was brushing up on my Francis Bacon know-how for a previous article on Silent Hill over on GayGamer.Net. Bacon had a massive influence on the artistic direction of Silent Hill, and his work often contained themes of sexuality and/or violence. As a gay man, however, most of the paintings that were explicitly sexual in Bacon’s work were focused on the male form – but as a whole, the Silent Hill series is very much a negative heterosexual male perspective on sexuality (particularly female sexuality).

This may not necessarily be as oppressive as it might sound, given that the narrative of Silent Hill goes to great pains to demonstrate that its protagonists have very problematic, negative ideas about sexuality. In fact, the narrative makes it pretty clear that any representation of human life the player comes up against (from sexuality to family, from guilt to being teased at school) are by definition the protagonist’s own profoundly negative ideas.

That doesn’t change the fact that most of Silent Hill‘s representations of sexuality come from straight male characters and their attitudes to female sexuality, whose perspectives can pretty much be summed up with “women’s bodies are mysterious and foreign and sexy and scary.”

Given that this attitude is already prevalent in both the real world (exemplified by white Republicans’ misinformed ideas about rape, pregnancy and abortion) as well as across fiction (the Abort Gigyas theory of Mother, the revelation about Darkspawn Broodmothers in Dragon Age, the male gaze that’s encoded in scores of games fromDead or Alive to Mass Effect 2), the most horrific element may be that games are still going on about how weirdly “Other” women are, as though men are the default, standard sex, and any deviation from such is so rife with horror that it will be incorporated into the game’s monsters, environment, or heck, it might even become the entire premise of the game.

There is such a focus on the alienness of female anatomy, of exclusively female body horror, but the fact is, male-assigned sexual organs (both primary and secondary) are equally weird. Testes are literally wee egg things suspended in a fleshy bag suspended from someone’s groin! Semen is a sticky goo that’s one-half of a magic baby-making formula! The prostate is a magic pleasure button hidden up the backside! There’s even a wee skin-hood that some folk like to cut off for various medical or religious reasons! These elements are so absent from games that it becomes dubious and suspect to even bring them up, but it’s apparently banal to the point of unremarable that we play games with monsters that have glowing, techno-organic nipples (noticeably absent from their male counterparts), formerly dual-breasted folk growing rows of swollen breasts, or even have a boss battle taking place in what’s rumoured to be a cosmic uterus.

When the “monstrous feminine” is included in Silent Hill, they are almost invariably reduced to two things: tits and vag. The nurses are buxom; the Mannekins are bare, slender legs; Asphyxia and Scarlett have prominent breasts (despite the humans they’re based on both being at the younger side of adolescence); Closers have vaginal openings on three of their appendages; Amnion is a heavily pregnant woman; Needler is heavily suggestive of childbirth; Siam’s female side is on her back with her legs spread and flailing in the air, the Doll is a woman with half her face missing dressed in a very short, low-cut dress…

Not that any of these things may be problematic in and of themselves – in fact, including monstrous femininity (or female-ness) in a game that heavily implies its characters are sexually repressed or frustrated makes sense. It’s just that it must be acknowledged that Silent Hill’s focus on sexuality is explicitly male heterosexuality, and that its representation of women comes almost exclusively from the position of “women’s bodies are mysterious and foreign and sexy and scary”, regardless of whether the narrative justifies this by saying it’s the protagonist’s own repressed ideas of sex.

Even Heather – the only female protagonist of the main Silent Hill series – comes up against this in Silent Hill 3, which could be summed up, if reductively and simplistically, as the Mystical Pregnancy trope embodied in a game. Her nightmarish otherworld is filled with manifestations of her (and Alessa’s) fears about pregnancy: Valtiel is her midwife; the nurses represent pregnancy; the Closer represents abuse and pregnancy, the Pendulum may stand for the pain of birth… Silent Hill‘s only female protagonist – a teenage girl, no less – apparently has no overtly sexual frustrations, only those of the biological process of birth held by her “dark half”, Alessa. Heather’s nightmare world is neutered and reduced to the final outcome of sex – maternity and birth, the woman as a vessel for something else – rather than sex itself. Again, it’s justified in the narrative since Heather is slated to be the vessel for God, hence the game’s core theme is all about pregnancy and maternity, but again, women’s bodies are reduced to the biological function of pregnancy, whereas the visibly male monsters can represent just about anything else.

There’s one massive exception to the rule of female = sex, male = anything else in the Silent Hill series, and its our old friend, that Red Pyramid Thing; Pyramid Head is overtly masculine, and even partially symbolises male sexuality – but the sexuality linked with Pyramid Head is not anything to do with his inherent maleness, but the fact that he suggestively wrangles with a pair of overtly feminine Mannekins. His sexuality is derived from what he does to the women and female monsters in the game, rather than what he is. In contrast, the sexual symbolism of the Mannekins is due to their innate, inherent femaleness (slender female legs kicking and flailing about, often sexualised through male gaze), the symbolism of the Nurses is their inherent femaleness (miniskirts and exposed, pushed-up cleavage, again, sexualised by male onlookers) rather than anything they explicitly do. This is echoed in Silent Hill 0rigin’s Butcher, who similarly seems to delight in eviscerating female monsters.

A quick aside to mention one potentially glaring omission in the form of Silent Hill 2‘s Abstract Daddy, Angela’s monstrous incarnation of her father’s sexual abuse. There’re very little overtly male/masculine traits to Abstract Daddy, but this makes a great deal of sense: rape is sexual violence after all, and having Angela’s rapist take on overtly sexual characteristics would occlude the fact that sexual violence is violence first and foremost.

So, were Silent Hill to take a new direction, what would it look like?

Queering Silent Hill

Let’s first consider how Silent Hill would be altered if the only thing we changed was the character’s sexuality, from hetero to homo. Instantly we can write off the buxom nurses, vaginal passageways, and themes of maternity: the “fear of the feminine” is a preoccupation of straight men, not gay men, and it’s an archaic misconception that men “go gay” because of some unresolved discomfort around vaginas. It’s the other way around. That’s not to say that gay men are absolved of sexist or misogynist attitudes, however, which we’ll talk about later.

Maleness will be likely overt and apparent: male physique, male anatomy, all the way down to the plumbing. Would the sight of swinging appendages and dangly bits make gaming’s most privileged and catered-to demographic – young white men – feel uncomfortable? We can only hope. In all likelihood, though, that discomfort would be mitigated with dick jokes and angry internet commenters starting sentences with “I’m fine with gays, but…” Well, too bad. If they don’t like even vaguely suggestions of male sexuality, they’ll find something else to play, like the remarkably heterosexual Gears of War series, or even the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, well-known for having an exclusively male cast of main characters. (I like those odds.)

The protagonists of Silent Hill often bring their sexual hangups with them, and there’s a vast slew that can be drawn upon within the well-documented history of gay male identity to create new monsters based on sexual anxiety. Anonymous gloryhole monsters hiding in musty, secluded bathrooms. Indistinct, writhing forms occluded by clouds of steam in the sauna, punctuated by the far-off squeal of rusted valves turning. A virus that hangs overhead, casting a shadow over bugchasers and giftgivers. Discreet glimpses of shuddering flesh in the ex-gay ministry.

The non-sexual aspects of gay male identity are themselves fraught with potential for people to become negatively obsessed over them – hellhouses in particular would be apropos for the Silent Hill setting, as would the very real fear of gay-bashing.

Maleness may well be overt and explicit, especially considering how many gay men have to come to terms with where they fit in a culture that’s often dominated by oppressive, patriarchal attitudes towards manliness, machismo and masculinity. In a culture where anything “feminine” is seen as anything from inferior to downright weak, “effeminate” men are often targeted for abuse by other men; this has lead to the glorification of being “straight-acting” and the demonisation of being camp or effeminate among gay men, a kind of subcultural internalised homophobia (and, in a sense, a kind of misdirected misogyny – hating the things associated with female-ness). This brings with it yet more fodder for the repressed, oppressive monsters living inside the gay psyche.

With a gay male protagonist, perhaps we would finally be more comfortable with tackling something that is rarely addressed in games: male sexual abuse. This isn’t a gay issue, or even a queer issue – male-on-male sexual abuse is neither exclusively perpetrated by gay men, or suffered by gay men, and it’s a dangerous fallacy to assume that the rape of men by other men is predicated on gay identity. To wit, it’s interesting that Silent Hill Downpour‘s Murphy Pendleton, who has apparently spent time inside a violent prison, has to fend off against monsters that represent the physical violence he witnessed (and perhaps took part in) while in the prison system, and even has to fight one creature that symbolises the sexual frustration he felt while in prison; and yet, he doesn’t seem to experience any anxieties regarding sexual coercion, abuse and rape, which is frighteningly prevalent in the U.S. prison system – a study of Midwestern prisons suggests that 1 in 5 inmates experience some form of sexual coercion or abuse in prisons.

That isn’t at all to suggest that the inclusion of male sexual assault or rape in the Silent Hill series would make the series “better” – as it stands, male rape (especially prison rape) is often glossed over, joked about and otherwise ignored, effectively silencing survivors of male sexual abuse from talking about their experiences and finding the help they need to overcome the issues that the abuse may have created. There are a million and one very good reasons not to include “rape as backstory” – but the fact that it wasn’t included despite the series unflinchingly including other motifs of female sexual abuse from its inception is proof-positive of the game’s heteronormativity; and, for those men who may be horrified at the idea of a game alluding to male rape, consider that Silent Hill franchise is a horror game (with horrific elements being par for the course), and that female players are already having to adjust to the fact that the game includes heavy allusions to women being sexually objectified, abused, or raped – Alessa’s “incubus”, the mannikins, Angela Orosco’s entire backstory, the nurses…

As a gay cis man, I can only really speak about how Silent Hill and gay cisgender male identity could intersect – but having had to come to terms with my own queer identity means I can at least briefly suggest how I think other non-male, non-het and non-cis identities could be tackled by the series.

What was previously said about the straight male perspective on female sexuality brings up an interesting point once we consider what a non-male, non-heterosexual Silent Hill would look like; would a lesbian protagonist in Silent Hill create similarly sexualised female creatures? Odds are, they probably would – and that would make for a very interesting discussion point. As mentiond before, the focus on the “monstrous feminine” can be problematic because women are inappropriately sexualised, demonised and objectified by male onlookers, but there’s a struggle that women who are attracted to women have to go through, especially living in a culture that encourages people to objectify women, facing the dichotomy of feeling passionately that women should not be sexually objectified, but still being fed narratives that say “It’s okay, all men do it, you can do it too, why shouldn’t you be allowed a turn?” Silent Hill could well end up making this psychological battle manifest in the form of overtly sexual female monsters in keeping with the series monster designs to date, but with a far more knowing, challenging concept behind them – sexual objectification of women by women. Although it’s also pertinent to mention that there hasn’t historically been widespread systematic and institutional sexual oppression of women by women across vast swathes of societies and cultures on every continent at all points in history, so, really, perhaps these things aren’t quite as comparable as they may seem.

Again though, we can raise the issue of aggressors – both male and female – when it comes to sexual abuse. Women the world over have to adopt defense mechanisms because they cannot be certain that a given man won’t sexually assault them; but how do you talk about female sexual abuse in a misogynist, queerphobic culture that can easily latch onto someone’s experience of female sexual abuse by a female aggressor and turn it into a story about locking up your daughters for fear of predatory lesbians?

Coming to terms with trans* identity in modern society also brings with it the possibility that a trans* protagonist would manifest their fears and anxieties in the form of monsters. The worry of conforming to the gender binary to be accepted by society could result in monsters that span the gender spectrum. The dichotomy of a body that is physically one sex, but with a psychology that is wholly another. There are also anxieties that come with sex reassignment surgery – when is flesh “male enough” or “female enough?” Does it even need to be either of those things? And what about intersex or genderqueer protagonists? All too often, identities that fit under the trans* umbrella have to be read into characters, rather than having their identities explicitly stated.

There’s a wealth of other non-heteronormative sexual and gender identities not even covered here, such as asexuality, third-gender (in its myriad forms around the world – Two-Spirit people would be especially a propos, considering Silent Hill’s connections to North-Eastern Native American peoples settling in the area).

Were a queer character to take their first steps onto the foggy streets of Silent Hill, it would likely give the series the edge that it seems to have lost recently; after all, the series’ hallmark is the fear of the unknown, and the territory that the series has covered from Silent Hill: The Room onwards is known territory. We already know our protagonist will be most likely be white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, and has probably done something heinous in their murky past that they think they need punished for. For many people, gender and sexual identity is a massive unknown, purely because they’ve never had to think about it for very long; perhaps it’s about time we had a foray into Silent Hill through the eyes of a character who is not like the previous protagonists – not white, not young, not male, not heterosexual, not cisgender and hell, maybe not guilty, despite living in a society that blames them for everything that happens to them. Maybe that glimpse into the terrifying and threatening territory of navigating your own identity in an environment that’s hostile to you may clear the foggy misconception that anything that isn’t white, male, heterosexual and cisgender is to be feared.

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