May 22, 2012

Resident Evil 3: Jill Valentine vs. the Consumerist Sex Monster

Featured on Critical Distance and Gamasutra.
[All images from]

The outfit works.

Not realistic, the mini-skirt/tube top costuming of Resident Evil 3's Jill Valentine helps stress the already uncomfortable sexuality of the series to maximum heights.

It's ridiculous that any human being might try to escape a monster-infested city in that get up, of course, but realism is not for fictional mediums. Jill's outfit tells us, as any good character design should, information about both the character and the game it is in.
Horror and sexuality are not new bedfellows. Yet the specific sexuality of Resident Evil 3 probably went unnoticed by most fans and pundits, so usually well-attuned to spotting Silent Hill symbolism: by being so overt, it is almost better hidden.
Americana and evidence of consumerism
Jill's outfit puts her in a vulnerable position. That's what most people find ridiculous about it, right? Yet our minds process costume design even when we do not consciously do so. Our minds process that Jill is moving about her world in clothes more suitable to clubbing, and what that world happens to be should make us cringe for her.

Fires spill into the streets. Water soaks our virtual shoes. We can hear crows, wind, and screams. Maggots crawl out of corpses that require Jill to kneel or reach over them to pick up a shotgun and lighter fluid. Glass crunches under every boot fall. Visceral detailing of a hostile world out to take advantage of a disadvantaged player character.

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The opening monologue sets this game up as a personal tale about power and resistance to power. Umbrella vs. a city of people. Jill vs. the Umbrellafied city. Jill vs. the monster Umbrella sends. Like all monsters, he is a symbol.

Seven foot tall. Hundreds of pounds. Muscular, but Frankenstein-ed together and possessing tentacles where most people have veins. Carries a rocket launcher. Dresses like a card-carrying S&M club member, all buckles and black leather. 
Brad is pretty much feminized, if you couldn't guess.

Nemesis isn't “it.” Not like Birkin, who is often referred to as “it” or “that thing” in Resident Evil 2 (that was taking the familiar paternal figure and twisting into something scary and alien, so different deal there). No, Nemesis is repeatedly called “he.”

Nemesis is not fully “Otherized,” as most writers would do to a monster. He is strangely closer to humanity—in his ability to reason—and closer to a raw, human masculinity—in his build throughout his various stages—than Resident Evil 2's Birkin monster.

A walking rape symbol and caricature of masculine threat, he pursues Jill across the entire city with echoes of the T-800 chasing Sarah Connor. The end goal of his pursuit is a sharp tentacle delivered to the mouth or the chest, puncturing Jill's body in a scene that does not require erudition to "get."

Nemesis (literally, and figuratively) represents Umbrella and their power. Masculine but decaying, he is single-minded and near-unstoppable.

Nemesis links the concept of rape not just to a single figure, but to an entire corporation—to corporate culture—to crazy, out-of-control market forces. What else is Umbrella after? Their motive is constantly linked to profit

What Nemesis tries to do to Jill, Umbrella does do to Raccoon City and much of the world with its consumerism. It's surprisingly pertinent, given how recent times have been loaded with the outcome of such real life “evil” corporations power games: bailouts, pyramid schemes, class tension. That Resident Evil 3 goes so far as to have Raccoon City destroyed by tactical nukes as the result of corporate greed is just a literalization of what corporate practices have done to many American towns and what we, as a culture, may have just started to realize about these businesses.

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Other parts of Resident Evil 3 work to hammer home the link between the game's exaggerated form of corporate money greed, which Americans have witnessed in increasing numbers since the day Gordan Gecko uttered “Greed is good,” and the game's equally exaggerated approach to sex.

The first such encounter involves gender/power politics. Nicholai, an Umbrella stooge, offers up a snide appraisal of Jill when discussing what they must do to save their lives and escape what he must know is a town doomed to nuclear death. The dialogue is straight out of an office inequality PSA, but overlapped like this onto a deadly situation it makes the whole event absurd.

Rightly so: the game shames the corporate culture Umbrella represents by pointing out the lack of reason in Nicholai's point of view. As a high up mercenary (a literal form of free market capitalism if there ever was) for the company he represents it as much as Nemesis.

Nicholai and the Nemesis are linked, both stalking Jill. One seeks to destroy her, the other to manipulate her.

The second encounter is more exaggerated, but deals no less with gender/power politics. Later in the game, Jill crosses a graveyard. There, she must fight a vagina dentata penis monster, once again created, like Nemesis, by Umbrella virus. This time, it's an accidental creation, but key to note is that this glaringly obvious sex symbol monster all springs out of Umbrella's greed. Corporate greed and power hierarchy has gone so far as to corrupt nature.

Not only has nature been corrupted by Umbrella, but by viewing the first cutscene, we can see how corporate practices influence the entire town. Jill's narration frames Racoon City as being a corporate town where no one questioned Umbrella; the game shows us this in the architecture and puzzles, Umbrella-bought, that block Jill's progress at every turn. 

A town mayor, the game suggests, was paid off by Umbrella; his statue near the clock tower contains a puzzle that gives up a battery that powers necessary functions of the city. Jill's narration goes so far as to state that the outbreak occurred due to people listening to Umbrella and taking their money, resulting in every soul in town turning into a “zombie.” (You know, a mindless horde?) It's brute force symbolism on Capcom's part, but the imagery is there; deploying zombies as satire for consumerism has a storied history in all media, and Resident Evil 3 should join that rank.

Like many other Resident Evil titles, 3 presents a capitalism where the end product is a deranged, all-encompassing need for domination and money. (After all, we know Racoon City is doomed in 2 due to the police chief's bribery and Doctor Birkin wanting to sell the virus.) Human costs are not important to this consumerism.

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If the the game builds up an unflattering portrayal of corporations and capitalism as moral and physical destroyers, then it is more interesting to note how it all concludes.

The entire final battle is structured like one of those Blaxploitation flicks from the 70s that Quentin Tarantino frequently quotes. Replace Jill with Foxy Brown, and you're there. In other words, the boss battle reads as an empowerment fantasy.

The end boss battle is beside the point from the standpoint of a literal plot reading, as Racoon City is about to be bombed into a crater. Jill could easily run around for a few minutes or just leave. She doesn't.

Instead, we get the increasingly sexualized Nemesis (his head is now both a phallus and a vagina!) crawling after us while we charge an absurdly oversized military railgun that rips him clean in half.

Nemesis: final form.
Never one to leave things understated, Capcom finishes off with tube-topped Jill intentionally refusing to leave when she has a clear path out of the factory, hefting up a magnum pistol, and with a sassy one-liner emptying the entire chamber into the monster's head. It couldn't possibly get more sex-referential.

In fact, the conclusion brings to mind the factory finale of The Terminator, another personal tale about a woman fending for herself against an unstoppable masculine monster that represents social forces.

Just as in The Terminator ending, Jill is taking the power back from both Nemesis and Umbrella. It's why the game places such an emphasis on her being a woman, on how this is her “last escape” and “final chance” and all the lines about a “wheel of judgment” set in motion on the people of the town. We the players knew that this would not be it for her even back in 1999, so the drama of her “last escape” is in power struggle between Umbrella and Jill, Nemesis and Jill, captialism and Jill.

The game puts us in her shoes.

The game puts us in a victim's shoes, then lets us stop being a victim.

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The costuming, design, and structure of Resident Evil 3 show us these things. Shows us that it is not enough to merely congratulate or deride something based on its appearance—we, the critics, must congratulate and deride based on how appearance functions in the narrative.

In Resident Evil 3, the outfit works.


xombiemistress said...

Wow. Amazingly well written and well thought out.

Andrew Lavigne said...

Thank you, xombiemistress. I try.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you blew plenty of things out of proportion or are actually getting at something. Whether this is excessively biased or based on fact.

I don't think the costume necessarily means anything. She had a costume change since Spencer Mansion in RE1. Why they picked Jill? Well between Jill and Chris, people preferred her for multiple reasons, 8 vs 6 inventory lots, a lockpick, she needs to be toughened up, she was excessively wimpy/pathetic in virtually all cutscenes in any version of re1. So yeah, she needed to have some character development.

Consumerism is in almost every game. Yes, its almost always a thing in books, movies and games. I'm not surprised.

Giant sex monsters? Okay, I think you're being a little absurd or are you just making yourself see that? Yeah, okay, in RE1 the Plant 42 (I think) me and my friend laughed a little because its a Japanese game (originally/still is) and it is a tentacle monster, that was funny. But really? A worm. Must be a sex monster. Nemesis. Must be a sex monster. I think you have very little merit for this.

And sex struggle? Well I refer back to the whole "she needed to have character development and become a badass" and still in 3 the term "badass" is used loosely.

Unknown said...

I like your comment :)

Donovan Jenkins said...

I like your comment :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with you and I like your comment, except that in Resident evil 1, Jill wasn't wimpy at all!
Furthermore she was smarter than Chris: She suspected Barry and Wesker to be traitors since the beginning, but Chris suspected Wesker only in the end.
Also she had a better scenario than Chris, so it is why many people prefered to play with her.

About this article: Jill explained her grief and sorrow only one time in the whole resident evil series. It was at the beginning of resident evil 3.
Does that mean she feels she's a victim? On the contrary, she needs nobody to save herself. She's a very strong character.
To say she plays as a victim is thus nonsense!

Nicholai is probably the more realistic antagonist of these videogames:
After all he is only a mercenary who wants to make a lot of money, that makes sense. On the contrary, Wesker, with his own personal feud with Chris in Veronica and in Resident evil 5, was a pathetic character.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous March, 1 2015:
See my comments below.
It is for you.

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