Devi Symmetra or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Inclusivity
Over the weekend, Overwatch became the center of a discussion regarding the use of Hindu imagery in commercial entertainment; one of the playable characters, the Indian support heroine Symmetra has a purchasable alternate skin titled Devi (and an alternate color of the same skin, Goddess) that is rife with imagery from various Hindu goddesses. On Saturday, US-based Hindu religious leader Rajan Zed issued a statement urging California-based Overwatch developer, Blizzard Entertainment, to remove the Devi and Goddess skins from the game, calling it “inappropriate” and claiming it “trivialized Hinduism's highly revered goddesses.” This ethical dilemma is just the latest in a long-standing discussion regarding the use of imagery and elements associated with other cultures in mass media, and the bottom line is that this is a complex issue without a simple answer.
“Hindus Urge Removal”
At the center of this particular debate is the issue of trivializing and confusing an important deity in the Hindu religion. Among the complaints, Zed claims “controlling and manipulating Devi with a joystick/ button/keyboard/mouse was denigration” and that “it was creating confusion in the minds of the community about Devi by misrepresentation.” Some background information: “Devi” is the Sanskrit word for “goddess”, and within Hinduism refers specifically to the Great Goddess, the mother of all the universe. While Devi has a particular image and role of her own, all Hindu goddesses may be viewed as different manifestations of Devi, and the distinctions between these events hold importance. In Overwatch, the Devi skin is not tied to the imagery of anyone goddess, instead utilizing many elements, like the skull necklace associated with the goddess of destruction Kali, and the blue skin related to all things infinite. The result is the ability to play as an Overwatch character dressed as an amalgamation of Hindu goddesses, using the name of their supreme goddess, thus creating a hodgepodge representation of many divine pieces of Hindu religion, all on a character who works for a corporation that “sent her on clandestine missions around the world to uphold its corporate interests”.
This is not the first time Rajan Zed has called out the media in its reference to or portrayal of Hindu lore; he has previously called for the removal of Hindu gods and goddesses as playable characters in the game Smite, which boasts a roster of playable deities from a variety of religions; he criticized a reference to Vishnu being an alien in Marvel's Agents of SHIELD; and he even criticized Mike Myers' thankfully failed comedy The Love Guru back in 2008. Now, notice a couple of things about this situation: Hinduism is a global religion with over 900 million adherents, which represents right about 12% of the total human population; Rajan Zed is based out of the United States, where as of 2015, Hindus account for approximately 0.7% of the US population. Despite belonging to the third largest religion in the world, Zed's experiences are based out of a country where his people are the vast minority and expertise all the lack of representation and general lack of understanding that implies. In 2007, Rajan Zed was invited by the U.S. Senate to open one of their sessions with a prayer; the 90-second prayer was protested heavily beforehand and then interrupted by Christians, making his the first Senate prayer since the Senate's formation in 1789 to be protested. This is the atmosphere he is coming from when he makes these complaints; his religion can be protested, misrepresented in the media, and associated with dead religions like Norse and Greek mythology when it is, in fact, one of the largest active religions in the world. The opinion that a commercial game like Overwatch is trivializing a revered Hindu imagery is a very valid one from people in Zed's position.
That said, Zed does not speak for all 900 million Hindus the world over. In an article posted to Tech2, writer Anirudh Regidi (who, as described in the article, has a background in the Hindu faith), claims “Zed’s objections are understandable and sensitive as the subject is, I think they’re mostly without merit”, citing the fact that nothing in the Hindu faith forbids the depiction of Hindu deities in the media, and that stories and play acting, which take the form of books, TV, movies, and even modern video games like Bal Ganesh or Ganesha Run are familiar and engaging. What they do point out, however, is that Blizzard, with a history of overtly sexualizing characters and a record of criticism regarding the depiction of female characters, in particular, are arguably guilty of trivializing Devi, particularly with the relative scantiness of the Devi costume. They also mention that Blizzard, like most western game and media companies, “will tread lightly when it comes to the Christian faith.” In a situation that revolves predominantly around mediating between the feelings of groups and the artistic rights of others, taking into consideration the varying of opinions is important.
Appropriation or Appreciation?
It's easy for some to look at the issue of cultural appropriation and see it as groups of people demanding that other teams not use their stuff, but on occasion, the different request can come into play. A lot of this has to do with representation and intent.
Two more of Overwatch's alternate skins for the Egyptian offense heroine Pharah, Raindancer, and Thunderbird, are based on Native American art and mythology. Arguably, these skins could be considered even more inappropriate than Devi and Goddess skins; they blend art from multiple, distinct Pacific Northwestern tribes and are used on a regular Egyptian character, not on a Native American style. Considering the long history of mistreatment of Native Americans in the media (and in general), what has the response to these skins been?
In a rather heartbreaking post, Tumblr user Castleships, themselves descended from the Eyak tribe, one of the tribes whose artwork and mythology was used as inspiration for the skins, describes the state of Eyak culture: “The last Eyak fluent speaker died in 2008, her name was Chief Marie Smith Jones, and she was also the last full-blooded Eyak on Earth. The final. Please appreciate Eyak culture. It’s the only way it’s going to survive. There’s less than 500 of us remaining, and we’re scattered more and more every year. When I first saw the Thunderbird skin I cried, I cried for an hour. Because Overwatch is huge. It will live on for years if not decades. And there’s Pharah with her hair in braids I haven’t seen my mother wear in over a decade. Wearing the colors that remind me of a home I no longer have.”
Again, this person does not speak for all Eyak people (and they even say as much in the post), nor for the other tribes whose culture was used in the inspiration of these skins which again it should be noted are as a character who isn't even Native American (unless Blizzard confirms Native American blood on Pharah's unrevealed father's side). But this post does point to the rather blurry line between cultural appropriation on the part of a consumerist mass media and representation of underrepresented peoples within the media that makes up our current human culture.
This is all very similar to the events surrounding Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes character Speedy Gonzales in the late 90's. Created in the 50's from an obvious stereotype of Mexican speech and clothing, Speedy Gonzales would be easy to see as an offensive ethnic caricature. In 1999, when Cartoon Network gained exclusive rights to broadcast Looney Tunes cartoons, they shelved the Speedy Gonzales shorts over these concerns. The irony? Speedy Gonzales is very popular in Latin America and with Hispanic people in general. The Hispanic-American rights organization League of United Latin American Citizens named Speedy Gonzales a cultural icon and a fan campaign led to the Gonzales cartoons being aired on Cartoon Network in 2002.
The backdrop of Cartoon Network's initial decision is interesting; Hispanic-American rights groups were protesting the appropriation of Latin-American culture, and in the late 90's a protest campaign and boycott against Taco Bell led to the retiring of the Taco Bell chihuahua seen in their commercials. Cartoon Network saw this happening and made the decision to not air the Speedy Gonzales cartoons, however, what they failed to recognize was the inherent difference between the two properties. The chihuahua is a cultural symbol in Mexico, a dog breed so ingrained in the culture that it is named after one of the states of Mexico itself, and along with a stereotypical Hispanic accent that was mostly played for laughs. It was being used by an American company to hook Americanized Tex-Mex food to American audiences; this is the most basic definition of commercializing cultural appropriation, trivializing a whole group of people to make money. On the other hand, while Speedy Gonzales may have been based in part on stereotypes of Mexicans, he was also distinctly heroic; he was portrayed as intelligent, capable, noble, and charming, and was the “undermouse” protagonist of his cartoons. He was, essentially, the Hispanic lead that most American programming simply did not have. He was the representation that a whole group of American citizens was lacking.
And here's where we find an interesting point behind the motivation of some of the instances of action against cultural appropriation: sometimes, the people calling for action are not the people belonging to the culture being appropriated. In this particular example, it was an American company, Cartoon Network, making a decision to try actively to not appropriate Hispanic culture in an uncaring way, and it is good that they would make the effort to do that. But at the same time, these decisions were being carried out without the experience and context of the people they were trying not to offend (or the people they were seeking to protect themselves from, if you want to view the situation more cynically), and as a result they weren't entirely clear on what was offensive to members of the affected party and what was not. I believe Cartoon Network handled the situation very well because they made active efforts to do the right thing at the beginning, and when it became apparent due to a response from Hispanic viewers that their self-censorship was unnecessary, they reversed the decision. They based their actions on what people wanted and desired being expressed to them by the affected parties, which is good because it shows they were listening.
And on the subject of censorship, this is where we get into another major issue:
The Limitations of the Freedom of Speech
One of the biggest criticisms against the whole concept of cultural appropriation is that art needs to have the freedom of expression. 'No one owns culture, it belongs to the world; art should not censor itself for the sake of those easily offended' some may cry; and as vitriolic as some people saying this can come across, to a degree, they have a point. Art is an expression of individuals, and that expression should not be stifled. At least in the United States and many other countries, the freedom of speech is a guaranteed right and people can believe and say what they feel, even in situations where what they think and say downright terrible (this does not protect them from criticism, criticism of what people say is also freedom of speech, but that's its topic). Art, similarly should be able to express an artist freely, and if an artist wants to discuss, reference, criticize, or even just entertain by using elements of any given culture, that is the prerogative of the artist, and their freedom to express that work should be protected.
Except, that's not exactly what's happening in many cases of cultural appropriation. For starters, as mentioned before, there's an imbalance. Smite, a multiplayer online video game that allows users to play as various deities from different pantheons, has been criticized by Zed for including Hindu gods and goddesses. One could argue that Smite deserves the freedom of expression when it comes to which gods and goddesses it should be allowed to use. But, it is worth mentioning that while Smite exercises that freedom to use figures from the Hindu pantheon, it does not exercise that freedom to use figures from Christian or Hebrew lore; there is no playable Jesus, Trinity, Yahweh or any number of angels. They have not limited themselves to (more or less) dead pantheons, but the pantheons that are still being widely worshiped today are more worshiped primarily in countries outside of the U.S., where the game's developer, Hi-Rez Studios, is based. The primary religions in the countries of origin where Smite is made are being granted a level of respect that the major beliefs of other nations and cultures are not.
Secondly, games like Overwatch are actively seeking to recognize and represent other cultures and nationalities. Overwatch has gone to great lengths to feature characters from many different countries of origin, age, race, and even body type. This level of inclusive is relatively rare in the video game industry and has been one of the top reasons audiences are attracted to Overwatch in the first place. So with that level of respectful presentation in play, it would be odd for Blizzard to completely overlook criticisms of cultural appropriation when it is not wanted by the people whose culture is being represented (if that is, in fact, the opinion of a substantial group within that culture). If respect is what you're going for, you need to be able to stick with it.
And that leads to point number three, that there is a monetary benefit to this sense of respect. When Taco Bell retired the chihuahua in its commercials, it didn't just do it when some people got mad; they did it when same-store sales dropped 6% in the second quarter of 2000, the largest decline of its kind in Taco Bell history. This was in part due to boycotts organized by Hispanic advocacy groups, who spoke their opinions in the way big businesses understand best: money. And this is what we sometimes forget in this conversation. As much as we talk about artistic freedom, most of the art being accused of cultural appropriation is not the work of some auteur expressing their opinions; it is commercial mass audience entertainment. Overwatch, Smite, The Love Guru even were crafted for mass audiences, with the intention that massive amounts of people pay to be entertained by this piece of media. When you're trying to get lots of people to pay for your product, it makes sense not to piss off huge portions of them. Now, for products marketed to American audiences, the demographics are skewed in their unique way, and entertainers can frequently get away with marketing towards one particular demographic and not need to worry about the opinions of niche audiences. But as the entertainment industry becomes an increasingly global market, new demographics of viewers need to be taken into consideration if pieces of media are going to find their audience without alienating it. Yes, they still have freedom of speech, but appealing to fans is a priority that frequently trumps artistic expression.
Just Be Respectful
The bottom line is that this is a very complex issue that by necessity does not and cannot have rules that apply in every situation. Artists, entertainers, and entertainment businesses are going to have to use their best judgment to figure out what's right in any given situation. Obviously, listening to what people of various backgrounds have to say is good; responding respectfully and thoughtfully to criticisms as they come up is also good; employing people of varied backgrounds is very, very good when it comes to heading off these issues at the pass. Mistakes will be made, but if the atmosphere surrounding them is respectful and empathetic, criticisms will frequently be more constructive. People who do not want their culture being appropriated are not just here to ruin everyone else's fun; they want in on this fun, too, and they can't do that when they feel like their culture is being disrespected. This is where the answer is simple: be respectful, so we can all have fun together.