Batman: Arkham City and the Unexpected Triggering

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I liked Batman: Arkham Asylum. I liked Batman: Arkham City a good deal less. Long story short, it was a fun game but felt a little repetitive. Also, the plot. Somewhere Burt Ward is shouting, “Holy Plot Holes, Batman!”

But this isn’t really an Arkham City review. It isn’t really a review of the Catwoman DLC, though it centers on that. I won’t even talk about Selina’s costume, though a neckline a little closer to her actual neck makes more sense for stealing diamonds and fighting thugs. Trust me.

During Arkham City, I had an interesting revelation: I play so many male-led superhero video games because they make me feel empowered.

When I’m Batman, I’m no longer a woman navigating a landscape steeped in rape culture. I no longer rush to my car at night, keys in hand and pepper spray at the ready. I no longer worry that the men who call out to me will follow me home, and I no longer desperately search for local Krav Maga classes because I’ve been told time and again that protecting myself is my responsibility.

I no longer fear.

As Batman, I courageously prowl the streets because I am trained and armed. Furthermore, I am a white cis male and I have all the advantages of that status: yes, Batman will be attacked and possibly killed, but the chances of sexual assault against him are nearly none in these games. His gender certainly doesn’t factor in to your average thug’s decision to attack.

All of that changed for me when I played as Catwoman. At first I felt the same heady glee at kicking low life’s faces in, but now it was even better because whoo! Catwoman!

But soon the gendered slurs and all their violent implications against women came out.

Now, the occasional use of “bitch” would have annoyed me, but not been the end of the world. But it isn’t occasional. It’s nearly every time Catwoman takes on another opponent. I started to wonder if this was just bad writing. Can they really think of no other word to use? I certainly wasn’t the only person to notice this.

Then I realized that “bitch” is often combined with sexualized comments and a lewd tone that Batman does not receive. Example: “I’ll make you MEOW, bitch.”


Throughout the game, thugs taunt: “We’re gonna have FUN with you, Catwoman,” “You’re GONNA be MINE, Catwoman,” and “Nice OUTFIT, Catwoman,” among others. Again, the phrasing and tone leaves little to be imagined here.

Furthermore, the game never hides the fact that Selina is a sexualized character intentionally set up for the male gaze. From her first moment on-screen she sashays instead of walks, swinging her rear evocatively for the player. Her costume is cartoonishly low. She makes suggestive comments, like feeling “naked” without her gear. She is immediately and repeatedly equated with “sexual,” so it’s nearly impossible to separate the character from sex. Except now it becomes the flip side of consensual sex and a confident woman who enjoys it.


I stopped feeling empowered because there was another threat to Catwoman that Batman did not have: the threat of sexual violence. Given the nature of the insults hurled at Batman, none of those thugs wanted to rape him on top of humiliation, pain, and death. Furthermore, it was clear with Catwoman that this was to be a means to humiliation, pain, and death.

I live in a country where 1 out of every 6 women is the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her life. I live in a country where I have many times feared that I would be assaulted. I live in a country where I have been assaulted. This is a very, very real threat to women, and it’s one we live with every day of our lives.

To say this content was “triggering” is an under-statement.

More than anything, I’m disappointed that I couldn’t just enjoy an empowered, badass woman kicking some butt. Instead, I relived the fear of assault over and over while taking part in one of my usual safe havens. There wasn’t even an explicit warning accompanying the game.

Gamers shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of fear just to play a game, especially when it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It doesn’t further Selina’s story. It doesn’t even give us any insight into Batman. Why is it there? Just to prove that these thugs are bad guys?

Gee, I hadn’t figured that out. All this time I thought nice guys hung out with the mass-murdering Joker!

Women live with the fear of sexual assault outside of video games. Why do we need to live with it while playing video games?

Writer, knitter, firebrand. Likes superheroes, cats, and changing the world.


  1. Elyese

    September 16, 2013 at 12:11 PM

    Thank you for verbalizing the huge issues I have with this game – I had a hard time getting through AC: Liberation for similar reasons and the way you vocalize it is perfect. I know we’ve discussed this, but your comment about liking to play as Bruce because you don’t have to live in fear of assault still hits me really hard.

    The comment about how she’s not only sexualized but also essentially punished for it works really well for me too. Because, again, she’s not the one who chose to dress herself like that – the artist did. It’s always really hard for me to venture outside of the animated series and see what the current Selina is portrayed as because she was such a big part of my childhood. I really truly wanted to be her, and thought she was amazing, and in a really weird way it kind of hurts to see her dismissed and destroyed like this.

    • Kelly

      September 16, 2013 at 12:25 PM

      I had the same issue with AC: Liberation, but I’m still really thankful you warned me about it ahead of time so I was ready for it. Arkham City actually got me to seriously consider PVP because I realized NO reviews warned me ahead of time and the thought that other women might be triggered WITHOUT warning made me want to set up a site where people at least TRY to consider this stuff and tell others about it in their reviews.

      It hurts me, too. Also, it’s always so difficult to critically analyze female characters for the exact reason you pointed out: she didn’t choose to dress that way. The writer/artist/whomever chose it for her. It’s really hard to pinpoint where “the character embraces dressing this way because she loves it” becomes “actually it’s just for the satisfaction of male readers.”

      • Elyese

        September 16, 2013 at 12:34 PM

        I’m really grateful and it’s a really good reason – because like you said, no one warned me or told me about what happened in Liberation. I feel like I’m just sucking up in these comments, but really, that’s important that people know. It’s never considered but oh hey, my anxiety went haywire and I felt physically ill about it for days afterwards. But you know, totally not important to warn people or talk about it at all.

        With regards to costume: it bothers me so much when people use that excuse – because yeah this fictional character created 70 years ago totally dresses herself. Not the artist, not the writer, the character. It’s so hard to get a bead on it, too because for me the idea of being in control isn’t thought of, it’s always added as an afterthought/a way of covering up the actual issue or used against the person who pointed it out.

        • Kelly

          September 16, 2013 at 12:51 PM

          Yes! Most reviews just don’t consider these things. Maybe the author doesn’t have that issue — which is fine. But either we need more diversity in reviewers or people need to at least TRY and step outside their box. (spoiler: we need both) I still can’t believe all the DmC 2013 reviews I read that panned it but didn’t address any of its problematic issues.

          Yes! There’s always the defenders. “Oh no this gross costume is totally what the character wants to wear!” and…maybe sometimes it is? But you KNOW it isn’t, you KNOW what it is and why she’s positioned to emphasize her T&A. And then you have certain famous comic book artists proclaiming “SEX SELLS!” But you also don’t want to slut shame or degrade female characters that might genuinely love their bodies in this way.

        • Elyese

          September 16, 2013 at 1:39 PM

          I just stayed far away from DmC reviews for this reason, it would just be “ugh it’s stupid and dumb because Donte isn’t like the old one” instead of “Wow this is really shitty about women!”

          My favorite comment is still “THIS IS WHAT SHE WEARS TO DISTRACT THE ENEMY” okay but wouldn’t the enemy be “used” to this by now? That and, they do it regardless of whether the character would feel comfortable wearing it or would fit her. And you’re so right with regards to “don’t wanna slut shame” because that’s SUCH A FINE LINE, and it’s interesting to see this addressed with things like the redraws/redlines on escher girls, et all.

          The worst part is when you think about how series can have genuinely well designed female characters but still fail in a lot of other aspects (the Witcher is something that exemplifies this perfectly – though “well designed” refers mostly to the main female character and not NPCs.)

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