Amazing Performers, Amazing Work in Breakdancing Shakespeare

 

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I’d never seen Romeo hit a B-Boy stance until I entered the practice studio for the Hartford Stage.

The unique combination of hip-hop inspired breakdancing and the Bard’s lyrical language are the core of the Hartford Stage’s Breakdancing Shakespeare program. As a celebration of its ten year anniversary, the program is going back to the play which started it all for them: Romeo and Juliet. Nina Pinchin, the director of the production and the Associate Director of Education at the Hartford Stage, recalls the conversation which led to the birth of Breakdancing Shakespeare.

“They [at the Hartford Stage] thought, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to take a piece like Romeo and Juliet, which has so much violence, and replace that with breakdancing?” she explained. “Breakdancing has a rich history here in Connecticut.” That thought led to the creation of the program, a six week paid internship for 15-20 high school students from the Greater Hartford area each summer which is funded through the Greater Hartford Arts Council. The actors and actresses work Monday through Friday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. In addition to the $100 stipend they receive every week, the actors and actresses also receive financial literacy training through the program.

Over the last ten years, Breakdancing Shakespeare has performed some of the best known plays in Western theater, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and Hamlet. One of the keys to the success of the program has been the level of consistency it maintains. Ms. Pinchin has directed eight out of the previous ten productions herself. The program also encourages former members to take on leadership roles in the program once they’ve graduated from high school.

One of those former students is Gina Salvatore, the Assistant Director for the production. Gina has been involved with Breakdancing Shakespeare for eight years, and began her career as an assistant director before she graduated from the program. “I love watching their process,” Ms. Salvatore says of the young actors and actresses. “Students come in confused and it’s wonderful to see them grow and gain the appreciation of theater and Shakespeare, and to watch the students learn sonnets and sonnets and lines and lines!” Ms. Salvatore brings her professional experience to the students and gives them insight into the world of a working actress. She has performed with the Professional Reperatoire Theater, the Newington Theater Company and the Wethersfield Theater Company among others.

Another former student is Brandon Couloute, the production’s choreographer. He has also been with Breakdancing Shakespeare for eight years, and has been the choreographer for the last five. He has danced for United Rhythm, the Michael Jackson Experience, and will be teaching a dance class at Trinity College this fall. For Mr. Couloute, Breakdancing Shakespeare is an excellent introduction into the world of working performers for young people. “Students learn professionalism. This isn’t a summer camp. When you’re here, you’re at work, and this is a serious art gig.”

While the adults help to put on the production, no one works harder than the young actors and actresses who perform on stage. Jahleah Harris, 16, plays Juliet. She is a student at Bloomfield High School and a star on the championship track and field team. Ms. Harris was cast in the lead role despite this being her first year in the program. “I’ve always liked theater, but I thought I would challenge myself with breakdancing because I’ve never tried it before,” she says about her decision to do Breakdancing Shakespeare. “It’s a very fun experience. The people are cool and welcoming. You can be the weirdest person and they’ll accept you.” Ms. Harris sees her participation in the program not only as exposure to the arts, but also as preparation for her life more broadly. “[The program] teaches you how you should be prepared for certain things in life, or they won’t come out the way you want. You have to be very mature…you have to go home and memorize by yourself.”

Jerry Hamilton, 15, plays Romeo. A student at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, this is also his first year in the Breakdancing Shakespeare program, although he has performed on stage before. “I’ve been interested in theater and dance and anything involving the performing arts my entire life,” he says. Mr. Hamilton has previously performed in musicals, and is excited to be in a Shakespearean production. “This is my first play, and the fact that it’s Shakespeare propels it to a whole new level. Being in this helps me to understand the language and what it represents. Shakespeare is a tool every actor must have.” Mr. Hamilton wants to pursue acting as a career path after high school, and his enthusiasm for the work bursts out of him. “I really, really, really enjoy this program. I’m so bored on the weekends and I ask myself, ‘Can I go back to rehearsal?’”

I was allowed to watch the group practice the first act of the play. They’d been rehearsing for just over a week, and already I was blown away by the quality of the work I saw. The actors and actresses disappeared into their roles. I didn’t see 16 year old Asaundra Hill before me when she spoke- I saw the Nurse. Marcus Infantas, one of the youngest performers in the group, embodied Paris with the confidence and energy of any veteran stage performer. Tamara Graham commanded my attention as Lady Capulet. And then there was the dancing. Mu Kue and Lili St. Amand displayed more rhythm, coordination and style in their dance than adults twice their age. All of the performers impressed me with their talent and hard work. They are a special group of young people.

As Mr. Couloute said, this is not a summer camp. The professionalism and dedication of the young actors and actresses was on full display during the rehearsal. Lines were memorized, dance moves were performed flawlessly, direction was taken with open ears and minds, and I was thoroughly entertained. All of this, after only one week of having the group together. I walked away from my time with the Breakdancing Shakespeare group ready to see more. I can’t wait until the production premieres on August 11th, so that the rest of Greater Hartford will get to enjoy what I’ve been so privileged to have a glimpse at. I already have my tickets. Do you?

American Boy

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Father’s Day strikes me as a silly holiday. Being a father is a duty and a privilege. Celebrating me for having the pleasure of spending time with someone who I love unconditionally seems a little odd. My son makes me laugh, and helps me to experience the wonder of the world through someone who is experiencing it all for the first time. Society shouldn’t be celebrating me on Sunday, it should be celebrating him.

How did I end up with this bundle of personality, mischievousness and love? Someone who looks like me, but looks like himself too? I don’t know how biology works in turning a zygote into someone with opinions. I don’t know if we have souls or not. I do know a thing or two about history, and when it comes to understanding where a person comes from, that’s as good of a place to start as any.

I’m African American. Not in the sense that I or my parents were born in Africa; I’m most likely the descendent of slaves brought primarily from Western Africa to the United States. Of course, like most descendents of slaves, my heritage is not exclusively from West Africa. The rape of slave women by their white masters was rampant and endemic to the institution, so although I couldn’t verify any Caucasian ancestry, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s in there somewhere. My family’s name comes from a plantation in Virginia. Two white boys were kidnapped from the island of Wales and sold into indentured servitude in Virginia. One of these boys was named Ragland. After he finished his time as an indentured servant, he married the plantation owner’s daughter and inherited the plantation. This man owned the slaves who would eventually give birth to my paternal grandfather, so let’s just say there’s a little Welch in there.  My paternal grandmother’s family is from Georgia, another slave-holding state. Her great grandmother was Cherokee. She took my grandmother’s father from Georgia to New York, and then to Hartford, where he settled. His eventual wife was also a migrant from Georgia. They had five children, including my grandmother, who had three children, including my father, who had five children, including me.

His mother is Puerto Rican and Palestinian. She was born in Puerto Rico; her mother was born there as well. Like most African Americans, Puerto Ricans are a mix of Caucasian, indigenous and African ancestry: West African slaves, the Spanish conquistadors which savaged much of the Caribbean and South America, and Tainos, the indigenous people the Spanish found there. My son’s maternal grandfather was an Arab living in Palestine when the nation of Israel was founded, and fled the country during the subsequent war. He chose to move to Puerto Rico in a particularly savvy move: it was difficult for him to enter the mainland United States directly from Palestine, but much easier to get into Puerto Rico. My son’s mother was their only child.

Throw all of those ingredients into the genetic lottery, and you get the boy you see above. But what does that make my son? After all, we live in a world of categories and censuses and boxes you check off for scholarship applications. I’ve always considered my son to be black. Other people have told me that he’s mixed, or biracial, or some other category. But I don’t know anything about those. Phenotypically, I am unmistakably black. Culturally and socially, I have lived a black experience.* I’ve had my name mispronounced, experienced racism in obvious and subtle ways, and can look forward to all the pleasures and pains of being black in America. I can say “nigga” all I want! So I don’t know what being biracial means. I know what it means to be black, and that’s the experience I communicate to my son. When I look at him, I see myself- a black child dealing with the same things I dealt with, that all black children deal with. I see the child who came home crying in the second grade because one of his white classmates told him he didn’t want to play with a black guy.

My ex-girlfriend did make a good point to me though. She said that although I may see Gabriel as black, he does have history and heritage that goes beyond that. She said it’s important for him to learn about Puerto Rico and Palestine and Arabs and Islam, the religion of his grandfather. And she’s absolutely right, because it is his heritage. Learning about all that is inside of him doesn’t deny his blackness. On the contrary, it strengthens it. He has the power and history of the Arab world behind him, and the Cherokee nation behind him, as much as the power and history of Africa.

My son is the amalgamation of a great swath of the world in his little almost-nine year old body. His existence could only happen in a place like the United States, where so many people have come together, both voluntarily and against their will. He holds within himself the hope of a Palestinian coming to find refuge, the injustice of Africans held in bondage, the cruelties of European conquerors and the remnants of an indigenous culture destroyed by genocide. He is an amazing child created by amazing forces, and he will be with me on Father’s Day.

*This is a super loaded term, but unpacking it would completely derail this essay. Perhaps another time.

The Rock and the Hard Place

 

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I get my hair cut once a year or so. I’m lazy and I’m cheap, so I don’t place a high priority on going to the barber shop. When I do, it turns into an event, with several hours dedicated to picking the right haircut and the right barber. My son is sometimes with me on these occasions, and he joins in. Amber, my son and I were looking through potential hairstyles, and he showed me this one.

“You can’t get your hair cut like that,” I said to him. “Your hair is too curly.”

“But I want my hair to look like that,” he said. That led to a conversation about how he feels about his appearance. He wants straight, blond hair and lighter skin. He thinks white people are more attractive than black people. He wants to be white.

The last time I heard a child say this, I was eighteen years old. I was sitting at a picnic table near my grandfather’s house reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, coincidentally enough. There was a group of little girls standing near me, going through a Toys R Us sales flyer and looking at princess dolls. As they leafed through the pages, one of the girls said, “I wish I was white.”

Before that, my brother said something similar. I was watching a Michael Jackson concert with both of my brothers and my mother. It was my first exposure to the King of Pop, and I was quite young. I asked my mother, “Who is that white woman singing on the stage?” After my mother explained the racial and gender ambiguity of Michael Jackson, my brother declared, “I want to be white too!” My mother jokingly informed him that if he was white, he couldn’t be a part of our family anymore, because he wouldn’t look like us. “But I’ll be a white friend!” he said.

Google “beauty.” Google “doctor.” Google “rich.” You know what? It makes perfect fucking sense for black children to wish that they were white. Why wouldn’t you choose to be part of that which you’re constantly being told is the best? They say it out loud because they haven’t yet learned that openly acknowledging that the weight of American culture, society and history makes you feel bad about yourself is a treasonous offense; you can only do it in private with your closest friends or in overanalyzed thinkpieces like this.

Unfortunately, we’re caught between the rock and the hard place on this issue. Becoming white is impossible (skin-lightening doesn’t accomplish this either, because they still remember who you used to be and there’s no escaping that), while ending the social conditions that puts whiteness above blackness seems unlikely to ever happen. Instead, I hugged my son and kissed him on the forehead and told him that he’s beautiful, that he’s unique, that all of his features make him who he is, that his curly hair is special. And after he left my arms, he returned to a world which doesn’t agree.

Labor Pains

I’d never cried before over not getting a job. I’ve been rejected from jobs in the past- getting that call that they’ve decided to go in another direction, sending out resumes and perfectly crafted cover letters and never hearing back-just like everyone else. I didn’t worry about it too much though. Even in my most desperate time, the summer after I graduated from college, with my rent two months overdue and my internet cut off and living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cereal, I shrugged off the fifty resumes I’d sent out and the two interviews that hadn’t panned out. It was all part of the job hunt. There’s always one more place to apply. Something will work out.

So I’m not exactly sure what was different about this latest rejection. It had the same language every other rejection contained (“Going in another direction” is basically the “we’re not hiring you” euphemism of choice). I was warned in the interview that while they really liked me and I was almost exactly what they were lookingan there were no guarantees. But they found exactly what they were looking for, and I found myself the odd one out. The rejection email came in at 8:15 AM, on my way to my temp job. I called Amber, and told her about how sad and frustrated I felt. She gave me all the support I could ask for, and I went into work, feeling okay I thought. Before I knew it, I was weeping at my desk while my supervisor was consoling me.

Maybe it’s because it comes on the heels of other devastating failures. I left my job in January to start at a new position, one which offered me more responsibility and more pay. And I completely flamed out. My former boss is a wonderful woman who I’m still friends with, but the job itself was diametrically opposed to who I am. The stress was so high and the atmosphere was so oppressive, despite everyone around me being genuinely kind and helpful. It was the jump from the laid-back world of academia to the pressure-cooker of corporate America at the highest levels, and it boiled me. I lasted two months before my boss offered me a parachute, a way to leave without shame or recrimination, and I took it. I took it because I thought I was walking into another job. It was the job I’d been dreaming of, where I would be paid to write. I interviewed twice for that job, and heard that it would be a few weeks before anything was finalized, but that I was basically in there. So I waited. And waited. And waited, until it became apparent that my dream job had evaporated. By the time I heard that the position had been filled internally, two months had passed and it served only to confirm what I already knew: no one would be paying me to write full time. Those decisions- to leave job after job- made sense at the time, and they all look completely insane in retrospect. I find myself in my temp job because of those choices, making just enough money to constantly be at the end of my rope.

This was on top of the resumes and cover letters I’d begun mass-producing again. Not a single call back. I know this is something that many job-seekers experience, but I began to wonder. Why is no one calling me back? A few weeks ago, I heard a story on NPR about racism in Airbnb, where people with distinctly African-American sounding names had a harder time renting a room than people with white-sounding names. That made me think about the studies I’d seen which discussed this phenomenon when it comes to job applications and resumes as well. I once made a joke about this name issue. My professor had invited me and two of my classmates to his home for dinner. They were both white, and we were standing next to each other. He offhandedly introduced us to his wife by saying, “This is Max, Jamil and Blake.” She said, “Thanks, but can you tell me who is who?” I replied, while pointing at my white classmate, “Yeah, because his name is Jamil.” I have a name that immediately identifies me as nonwhite, but I never thought about what that actually meant for me until this latest round of applications vanished. I think about all of the resumes I’ve sent out since 2013, and now I ask myself how many of those went into the garbage as soon as they saw Jamil R. Ragland in bold at the top.

Maybe it’s because I really, really wanted this job. I’d worked with the organization in a freelance capacity before. I absolutely loved it. If I couldn’t be a writer, then I wanted to do this. I wanted to be in that building and to be around those people full-time. I was sure, so sure, that my history with the organization gave me an inside track on the job. I’d been told by more than one person in the organization to apply for the job. I’m given to exaggeration for the sake of a good story, but when I tell you that I knocked that interview out of the park, I sent it into McCovey Cove. All of which made this more than just another rejection. It crushed me. I told my brother after the interview, “I don’t want to get my hopes up, but I feel like this job was made for me. The only way that I don’t get this job is if they find someone they like as much as me, but who has better skills than me. Short of that, I’m in there.” And that’s literally what happened.

Or maybe it’s because it all feels fucking pointless. After spending ten years and a small fortune in grants, loans and my own money, my college degree is supposed to mean something, right? No one told me that employers don’t give a damn about your GPA, or your department awards, or your status as an honors graduate. What they’re looking for are skills. As a friend of mine put it recently, I “kicked school’s ass” and came out of it with no skills that mean anything to anyone. All those jobs I worked during my undergrad years to have the time to go to school-the shit jobs in gas stations and grocery stores and on campus-don’t mean anything to anyone either. My resume essentially doesn’t start until 2013 as far as any place I’d like to work is concerned.

Those networks they tell you to build? You know, the ones where you make connections with professional people and hand out your business card and you take theirs and click the “Add” button on LinkedIn and exchange pleasantries about the weather at networking events because you have nothing in common with anyone in that room? As it turns out, those are worth zero when it’s hiring time. They get you a phone call or a personalized email when the axe falls, and a lot of compliments thrown your way. They don’t get you a job. Those skills you didn’t learn in your overpriced liberal arts college, THOSE are what get you a job.

And in the end, that’s my fault. No one told me to fuck up and go to a college I couldn’t afford when I was 17. No one told me to have a son at 21. It’s no one’s fault but my own that my resume is full of low-skill work, the work I had to do to provide for my son, instead of unpaid internships and summer excursions. I should have known better than to get a degree in some academic bullshit where, whenever someone asks, I have to explain what it is because it’s not readily apparent what my major means, not even to me sometimes. I should have my masters by now. Or my PhD. I should have realized that the only place for someone like me is in a school somewhere, peddling esoteric nonsense at the 300 level or giving the lie to a bunch of high school kids that being smart and having knowledge matters or is a qualification for anything later in your life.

I cried when that job passed over me, not just because of the job itself. I cried because my son wants to play baseball. It’s been hard for me to find something that he’s interested in besides videogames, but he asks me on the weekends if we can go outside and play baseball. I grab the wiffle ball and bat, and we play, with bases and ghost runners and his eight year old way of running outside the imaginary baselines to avoid getting tagged out. He’s going to be nine in less than two months. It’s time to put the little kid stuff away and get him a glove and a real bat. I cried because I can’t do that now, and I was so certain that in two or three weeks, with my first paycheck from this job I knew I had, a glove was going to be one of the first things I was going to buy. If I ask, his mother will get him the glove. But he didn’t tell her he wanted to play baseball. He told me. And now I have to tell him, “Just wait a little longer.” It’s only a glove- he still eats and has clothes and has a roof over his head. But it’s one more thing I can’t do for him, or for Amber, or for the other people that I care about. That fucking sucks.

The March to the Abyss

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I was talking politics with my Uber driver last week, and he said something to me that I hadn’t considered. He was a white man, and he said, “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but alot of white people saw the black uprisings last summer, and while they didn’t come out and say it, they thought to themselves, ‘I don’t like this.’ Then Donald Trump announced his candidacy, and started using all of the standard white people dog whistles , and here we are today.” I hadn’t thought of Trump’s political success as a direct result of the Black Lives Matter summer last year, but the timing makes alot of sense. Still, that may be a bit narrow. Trump supporters aren’t only responding to BLM, they’re responding to every demographic, economic and social trend of the last twenty five years.

Here’s the thing though. Trump hasn’t just been whistling at the dog. He’s been screaming at it.

He hasn’t used the coded language of NIMBY or “local control” or “securing the borders” or any of the other secret phrases that Republicans (and some Democrats) use to let white voters know that the politicians are on their side. He’s flat out called Mexican immigrants drug dealers and murderers; he’s outright accused black people of murdering the vast majority of white people; he’s openly called for preventing Muslims from entering the country. Pundits and the Republican establishment have said over and over that a racist, misogynist businessman with no political experience could not win the Republican nomination, while completely ignoring that that’s what the people want. In our hopeful naivete, we forgot about the entirely predictable backlash that a more pluralistic American society would cause. The pushback was inevitable, and now it has arrived in the seemingly impossible: Donald Trump is the Republican nominee BECAUSE he is a racist and a misogynist, not despite it.

The title for this blog is taken from the first chapter in a book I used to have about World War II. The chapter describes how the world went down the path to overtly racist authoritarian states, and how that led to the most destructive war in history. Everyone keeps saying that Trump will get blown out in the general election by Hillary Clinton, but everyone also said that Trump would never win the Republican nomination. The Black Lives Matter blowback is real; the negative reaction to the first African American president is real; the anti-woman sentiment against Hillary Clinton is real; the xenophobia against immigrants is real; the hatred of Muslims is real. I have the terrible feeling that we’re going to find out just how real those things are this November.

The Harlem Shakedown

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I was having a conversation about criminal justice reform with a friend last week. With voices as disparate as Michelle Alexander and Charles Koch speaking about the need for change, there seems to be a critical mass in place to roll back some of the draconian drug laws which have devastated black and brown communities over the last forty years and led to the problem of mass incarceration.. However, my friend and I were less enthusiastic. Mass incarceration has generated huge profits for corporations and individuals, from the for-profit prisons which house the convicted to the dozens of tangentially related companies which provide services for exploding prison populations. We reasoned that criminal justice reform could only occur if monied interests allowed it, and they’d only allow it if they’d found another way to make money. Indeed, they have: the privatization of education. Journalists and activists have been writing for years about the money being generated by charter schools, but the educational “saviors” continue to be hucksters looking to make a buck off of black and brown communities in a new way.

Case in point: Yesterday, the media trumpeted the announcement that Sean “Diddy” Combs is opening a charter school in Harlem. Named the Capital Preparatory Harlem Charter School, the school is being overseen by Steve Perry, the founder and former principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, CT. Diddy is known for his varied business pursuits, including music, clothing and alcohol. Perry was everywhere in the national media for a time, showing up regularly on CNN as a contributor, and even having his own painfully exploitative show for a time, “Save my Son.” Put together a ruthless businessman and an education charlatan, and you have the perfect scheme to steal public money from parents who desperately want a better education for their children.

I don’t know Diddy, but I do know Steve Perry. I was in his Upward Bound program from 2001-2003, where the claim originated that his program sent 100% of the students who enrolled to four year colleges. He achieved this feat by cherry-picking high achieving students, shunning students with academic or behavioral difficulties which could have jeopardized his golden statistic, and literally kicking students out of the program who he felt weren’t going to a four-year school, or dared to express interest in a different path. I know the students who were kicked out of his program, because they were my friends. I know the students who were pushed out of the original Capital Prep, because they were my neighbors. I know the teachers who used to work for him, such as Ebony Murphy-Root, an English teacher at the elite Thacher School in Ojai, CA, because we bonded over our experiences with him.  Perry has been given so many passes by a corporate media machine looking for a black face to sell their agenda of school privatization, despite his comically inflated graduation rates and his abusive Twitter tirades. Even a cursory glance at the way he has conducted business during his time as an educator shows blatant disregard for the students, staff, and communities he claims to serve.

And in the end, that’s what it’s all about: conducting business.

Perry has been angling to turn his school in Hartford into a franchise for years. Jonathan Pelto of the Wait, What? blog has documented his process, although it hasn’t been a secret at all. When Perry stepped down from the leadership of the first Capital Prep, it was well known that he was doing so to expand his business. His first attempt was to bring another Hartford public school under his private business’s control. He then moved on to greener pastures in Bridgeport, CT , and has landed this third, new school in Harlem, thanks in no small part to Diddy’s lobbying. Yet Diddy is not entering the realm of education because he has a desire to improve education for students in Harlem. Diddy is a businessman, first and foremost. Like so many other business people, Diddy sees the profits that can be made by exploiting poor communities of color who want better education for their children. The partnership between Perry and Diddy is exactly why the phrase “deal with the devil” was coined, except in this case, it’s hard to tell who’s really the Prince of Darkness. Diddy gets the Capital Prep brand to front his school, and Perry gets the star power and support of big business to expand his franchise. All the while, the taxpayers of Harlem will be paying the kinds of gross management fees that are common in charter school scenarios, and watch as public funding is siphoned into a private enterprise for the profit of a handful of people, Perry and Diddy included. It’s a symbiotic relationship that is corrupt to its core.

Steve Perry has been one of the loudest voices in the push to privatize public education, with constant attacks on teachers and their unions (remarks start at 00:01:21), vocal support for vouchers and the other tools of the trade for school privatizers. He helped to create the space which Diddy is stepping into now, where moguls and celebrities can cash in on the latest wave of government money being funneled to private contractors. His reward is an educational franchise built on the exploitation of teachers, students and their families. He will undoubtedly collect a hefty paycheck as the CEO of Capital Preparatory Harlem School, at the taxpayer’s expense. The privatization train rolls forward, and Harlem parents will soon be left holding Diddy’s and Perry’s bag.

 

Regression to the Mean

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Have you ever been embarrassed while sitting in a room by yourself?

A few years ago, I had just finished downloading a game called Skullgirls. I’ve been a fan of fighting videogames and the community (the fighting game community, abbreviated as the FGC)  for a long time, and the idea of a game created by community member Mike Zamont (aka MikeZ) was one that I wanted to support. I slapped down my $15, powered up my PS3 and began playing the game, which featured an all-female cast. There were characters like Valentine:

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Cerebella:

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and Parasoul, among others:

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After the tenth or eleventh panty shot in the game, I became so embarrassed that I turned the game off. Videogames have never been a bastion of progressive gender roles or healthy sexuality, but those were from older developers living out repressed fantasies. Surely, as the genre matured, new people entered the industry, and society became more compassionate in general, videogames, specifically fighting videogames, would begin to express a new vision of women as something other than bouncing breasts to be ogled, right?

Wrong. Completely and totally wrong.

In fact, as videogame technology has improved, new games have used the increased graphical power and HD resolutions to render increasingly impossible women. Take the recently released Street Fighter V as an example. Street Fighter has been in existence since the first game in the series was released in 1987. As the series has progressed, what we’ve seen isn’t a reevaluation of the presentation of women characters, but instead the consistent growth of character’s proportions and the fidelity with which they are rendered. We’ve gone from Street Fighter II Chun Li to Street Fighter V Chun Li; same ridiculous dress, but now in glorious HD. The same holds true for Cammy then and now. Perhaps most egregious though is the rebirth of R. Mika, a character who made her debut in Street Fighter Alpha 3 in 1998.Her design wasn’t particularly modest:

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Almost twenty years later, would a new generation of game developers think to redesign her in a way that wasn’t such obvious pandering? Nah.

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“But Jamil,” you might say. “Karin came from Street Fighter Alpha 3 as well, and she’s in Street Fighter V too, and her design is exactly the same now as it was then! They’re just doing it for consistency!” Fine. It’s a ridiculous argument which ignores that other male characters have been redesigned, but fine. What about new characters then? R. Mika and Chun Li come from decades ago, and maybe we’ve learned something about women, their bodies and how to actually include women in gaming without making them twisted visions of male fantasy.

Or not. Here’s Laura, one of the new fighters in Street Fighter V:

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Not enough T&A for you? Well, you could always use her alternate costume:

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Needless to say, fighting games have not improved their depictions of women over the years. From the Dead or Alive franchise (or its more crass spinoff, which does away with any pretentions and gets straight to the sexual exploitation of its characters) to Tekken, from The King of Fighters  to BlazBlue, the new “golden era” of fighting games are riddled with women designed to titillate and gratify male gamers. Even as gaming companies claim that they wish to “grow the community” and reach a mainstream audience which has eluded them, they continue to alienate the majority of gamers by catering to a minority which defines itself in narrow, misogynistic ways.

The one refuge from apparently-13-year-old game developers was the Super Smash Bros. series. The original game featured twelve characters, including Samus Aran:

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Many gamers didn’t even know that Samus was a woman. The trend of treating women characters as actual people instead of oversexed objects continued in Super Smash Bros. Melee, which introduced several new female characters to the cast: Peach, Zelda, Sheik, and the female Ice Climber. Melee continues to be one of the most popular fighting games in the world, consistently drawing hundreds of people to major tournaments.

But all good things must come to an end, and the same is true for positive gender representation in the Smash Bros. series. It began with the third game in the series, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Samus shed her armor for that game, becoming a different character known as Zero Suit Samus:

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Gone was the gender-neutral armor of the Chozo which she used to hunt bounties across the galaxy, replaced with a svelte catsuit. This character design is based on Samus’ appearance in the ending of Metroid: Zero Mission, where she is presented armorless as a reward for completing certain gameplay conditions.

Next she appeared again as Zero Suit Samus in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS/WiiU. She also received an alternate costume which is much more revealing than her standard Zero Suit (also derived from a Metroid: Zero Mission ending image):

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Smash Bros. had joined its other fighting game brethren in the race to the bottom. But it would not reach the bottom until one more character was added: Bayonetta.

Bayonetta comes from her self-titled game, well-known for its over the top sexuality. When she was added to the cast for Super Smash Bros., this ridiculousness was left intact. The image at the top of the page (here in case you forgot) is Bayonetta’s win pose, her rear VERY suggestively raised in the air. Her other win pose also places the emphasis sqaurely on her ass. Compare her crouching animation to other characters.

King Dedede:

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Rosalina and Luigi:

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Wii Fit Trainer and Pikachu:

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And finally, Bayonetta:

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As I hope I’ve demonstrated, the depiction of women in fighting games has not improved at all over the years. To the contrary, it has actually regressed, with Super Smash Bros. perhaps being the clearest example of problematic character design appearing in places we otherwise might not expect it.

“But Jamil,” you might say again, “Bayonetta is sexualized in her source game! Doesn’t Smash Bros. have to remain faithful to that source material?”

NO. 

No, it does not. Videogame design is a series of choices and decisions. None of the women in these games were born; they were designed, drawn and animated in specific ways to appeal to specific people. Oversexualizing Bayonetta in her own game was a choice, and so was carrying over the sexuality, but not the violence which also characterizes her game. That’s a decision, and that decision needs to be examined. There are consequences when we portray women as sex objects, whether we do so in games, movies, television or advertisement. Unlike those other passive forms of entertainment, gaming actively reinforces associations with action- press this button, and watch this buxom character bounce around and pose specifically for you.

Different decisions can be, and must be, made. Otherwise, someone else may be writing this same essay again in twenty year’s time.