Defining White Male Privilege in L.A. Noire: Race, Gender, and National Identity.

The driving in L.A. Noire can be tedious, but I actually enjoy getting to know the city, so the complexity and realism of the game environment tends to outweigh having to obey traffic laws. Yes, you read that right: I have to stop at stoplights (I admit to running a few) or face penalties, such as really cutting remarks from my partner.

You don’t HAVE to drive recklessly

Why would the developers create such a detailed environment if we weren’t meant to tour around? I realize this is a convention of Rockstar games, in general, introduced in Grand Theft Auto and perhaps perfected in Red Dead Redemption, but let’s think about this for a second. Most of Rockstar’s games work from durable American genres that are what I like to call “landscape dependent.” That is, in the gangster/crime genre, western and noir fiction, land is plenty important. These genres are Rockstar’s bread and butter and in each, the lay of the land and the ability to CONTROL the land is crucial.

This is where knowing about frontier literature and its ideologies comes in handy.  Annette Kolodny’s The Land Before Her or even H.N. Smith’s The Virgin Land, lays down the importance of land/property in American literature and, by extension, culture.  In American literature, and by extension, culture, land is often equated with the female body and described as being penetrated or taken (among other sexual metaphors).  Spread the seed of God and be plentiful, to paraphrase Puritan leaders (like Cotton Mather and John Winthrop).  Sacvan Bercovitch argues that Puritan biblical rhetoric turned the geography of the Americas into a “Christianography” where “metaphor becomes fact, and fact, metaphor.”  I think it is hard to deny that American most certainly is a Christianography when President Barack Obama recently declared that “No just God would stand for what (ISIS) did yesterday [murder journalist James Foley] and what they do every single day.” The implication is that a just God is on the side of America, but I digress. The point is that the United States, as a land mass is mythologized/fantasized as a female:

Miss Columbia represented the virgin land of America. It is much easier to imagine conquest through gender lines, unfortunately.

While some historians claim that the metaphorical representation of America through the female body has declined, there are ongoing examples of this paradigmatic myth,  which is diffusely spread across the cultural field.

Video games like L.A. Noire make for excellent examples of how a certain type of national masculinity operates.  The metaphorical positioning of the land as a female, and, in turn, the American male as the rightful one who will possess her, take her, develop her and so forth has already been mapped out by Kolodny,  Nancy Cott, and Karen Sanchez-Eppler.  While we may have seen the “decline” of such representations of femininity in other forms of mass culture (although this is debatable), the use of literary genres that DEPEND on this kind of representation by game developers reconstitutes and spreads this gendered national metaphor/discourse/mythology.   Know why this matters? Because on a macro scale this is how the U.S., in part, maintains its illusory ranking as a superpower; on a “less macro” level, this representation of femininity positions women as passive bodies that require penetrating. This has to stop.

Over the next few posts, I will get into the ways in which the land-property-gender paradigm at work in American culture has informed and is informed by L.A. Noire; for the rest of this post, I am going to look at how “penetrative,” brutish masculinity operates in L.A. Noire (which, in turn, works as a case study – in other words, these types of male characters are widespread in video games).

Let’s turn to one of the authors that instituted this form of brutish masculinity: Raymond Chandler.  He famously says,

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this story must be such a man. He’s the hero. He’s everything. He must be a complete man and a common man, yet an unusual man…he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr. I think he might seduce a duchess, and I’m quite sure he would not spoil a virgin…”

Our frontier pundit, Richard Slotkin uses this quote to create a link between the frontiersman of the 18th and 19th centuries and the 20th century noir detective (as an aside, did you know Slotkin was Joss Whedon’s thesis advisor – everything Whedon does is informed by frontier mythologies).  Slotkin is not the only one to make such a link but he certainly is, in my opinion, one of the few to write such an extensive and compelling history of the transformation of the frontiersman into the hardboiled detective.

Cole Phelps is ALMOST a hardboiled detective

But is Phelps this kind of detective? Yes and no. He does live in a civilized zone that requires protection – Hal Himmelstein defines the popular myth of suburbia as a utopic space set between the frontier wilderness and urban squalor. When we are first introduced to Phelps, we see home leaving his suburban home and waving goodbye to his wife and kids as he sets out on the mean streets.  Phelps’ “frontier wilderness” is the crime and criminals he encounters that disrupts the “virgin land” of suburban promise.

Quick aside – it is vital to note that we are not dealing with a print text here. Video games, as I said in my previous post on methodology, are a bricolage of narrative forms and performativity. Video games are so powerful that they are used to enhance cognitive control in Alzheimer patients, among other medical uses.  Video games change minds, full stop, so when I say that certain video games are reviving longstanding national metaphors that oppress certain cultural groups, genders, and sexualities, we need to think about how to change the way video games are perceived and used. It’s not about censorship, my God, NO!  But we do need to think about how games are developed and for what purpose. Can we, for example, convince companies like Rockstar and EA to be much more ethical in their representations and remediation of durable literary genres? Aside finished.

Phelps certainly fulfills  Chandler’s idea of a hard-boiled detective. Chandler says that the hardboiled detective is an honourable man who is honourable in all things; he is a common man, he is a lonely man (despite his seduction skills) – I mean, this is quite a list and the “neither-nor” phrases place this detective as a liminal character, which is what Slotkin builds on, using a copia of evidence to show that the hard-boiled detective is both “policeman and outlaw” – a frontiersman, in other words,a man who recognizes the drawbacks of civilization and authority, but will still “fight the good fight.” In this light, Phelps is a good little hard-boiled detective, except that Phelps is also ambitious and intellectual, two traits that do not fit with of the kind of rugged individualism and de-evolutionary masculinity that defines the hardboiled detective. John Pettegrew explains in Brutes in Suits that U.S. culture privileges a fantastical form of atavistic masculinity that devalues intellectualism and overvalues brute force, conquest, and aggressiveness. Of course, I have to add that this form of masculinity is all too often tied to white privilege, particularly in terms of frontier ideology. While Phelps does ultimately fail as the hardboiled detective (partly because he uses his thinker just a little too much), he is our main protagonist for almost a third of the game, so his male prowess on the urban frontier must be established. His positioning as the possessor of white male power and privilege is achieved through control of the raced male body (control of the female body occurs in force later in the game -privileged white masculinity has a body count in this game, and that’s just fine, apparently).

Edward Kalou is our first bad guy, whose olive skin and shifty demeanor identify him as Other.

Ed Kalou highlights Phelps white privilege

He is identified as Jewish, and his faith and race are foregrounded at every opportunity.  It is interesting that he is the first character we interrogate or “read,”  since interrogation in L.A. Noire is all about learning to read identities – this is a crucial skill. When we are performing as interrogator, we have expected to read facial expressions and choose whether we doubt the suspect, believe him, or accuse him of lying. In other words, through our positioning as a member of the Repressive State Apparatus, we have the power to judge the speech acts of others as felicitous or not. Of course, we, in turn, are under the power of the script and code. If we choose to believe Kalou, we lose points, if we accuse him properly, we win. The rewards of the game are directly tied to our ability to position Kalou as the untrustworthy, irrational Other.

Once we apprehend Kalou, we hear the voice-over explain that there is “the case that makes yah and the case that breaks yah.”  This is the one that makes Phelps’ career, because he is given the opportunity to  conduct the interrogation. The (Irish stereotype) Chief praises Phelps for being a war hero, who sent “the heathens back to where they came from.”  The tone is set: Phelps is on the side of God and now he will go and interview a suspected murderer: a person of Jewish faith no less. Kalou’s purpose is to do more than teach us about interrogation, he is there to be a foil for Phelps. Where Kalou is a coward, who runs away and surrenders with no resistance at all; Phelps chases his man and apprehends him at great personal risk (we encounter this fact when we complete the requisite side missions before encountering Kalou). Where Kalou smokes nervously and swears; Phelps is cool, calm, and clean.

During the interrogation, Phelps implies that Kalou killed Everett Gage because for religious reasons. Kalou asserts that his faith and ethnicity are his business in an apparently free country: “this isn’t Germany,” he yells.  This is not an irrational response in the least; after all, the U.S. Constitution guarantees Kalou’s right to expression and religious freedom, but it is Kalou’s performance of masculinity that pegs him as “un-American.”  For example, when Phelps implies he is Communist, Kalou loses it, calling Phelps a “goy pud-snatcher.” In fact, 99% of the Yiddish Kalou uses is expletives, indicating to the player that not only is he irrational and hyperbolic, his “ethnic” language is vulgar. He is, therefore, not a “good” man.  The game makes clear that he is outside the American symbolic that values Phelps’ performance over Kalou’s (the worm turns later in the game).

Kalou makes it clear that he was harassed by Gage who called him “kike” and tried to run him out of business, which gives us insight into the hierarchical order of race in the game. Phelps is somewhat sympathetic, but makes it clear that Kalou must pay. Phelps’ sympathy plays into white liberal sentimentalism that acknowledges  racism is wrong, but also makes it clear that white power structures will solve the problem of racial strife. That is, Phelps – in this section of the game – is the paragon of white masculinity: rational, stoic, loyal, and strong, which is all verified through Kalou as the oppositional Other. This binary positioning of Phelps (white = right)  and Kalou (ethnicity = wrong) works to negate Kalou’s complaints. Clearly,  he cannot handle bad white people, he needs to leave that up to the best white people, which is Phelps (actually, it’s Kelso but we aren’t to that part of the game yet).

Jack Kelso is our real hardboiled detective – he has a strong fan following, including a Tumblr site called “JackMotherFuckingKelso.”
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