Gender-Flipping Dante: what a meme tells us about gamers and poets

This article on the importance of the gender-flipping meme* may seem a little off my stated topics, but gender-flipping, or at least, a gendered role-reversal represents the main problem I have Dante’s Inferno as reinterpreted by Visceral Games.
I have no qualms at all with it becoming a video game, in fact, I think that Dante’s level based hell has been crying out to become a game since games have had level. Sure, there are some problems of interpretation – how do you turn what is essentially a contemplative (if unsettling and potentially terrifying) guided tour through the underworld into something with engaging game play?

The answer? Dante fights his way through the various monsters and reinterpreted damned souls to get to Satan, the ultimate end boss. Obviously, huge liberties have been taken in this department (I don’t remember anything in the text about demon babies), but even this doesn’t send me rushing for the smelling salts, as it seems to be the logical transition from the textual to the game idiom, a sort of media translation.

If I’m happy with all of that, though, what am I griping about? In a word, Beatrice.

Beatrice, Dante’s beloved (in the chaste, courtly sense) and later the agent of his salvation (as she becomes a Christ-like presence in the poet’s life, an intercessor for his sins). I use the term agent intentionally, because if there’s one thing Beatrice doesn’t lack, it’s agency. Yes, she conforms to certain tropes of idealised and inherently patriarchal representation of women in literature, but she doesn’t lack power. And I’m not just talking about the power to grant or deny love (and/or sex).

Beatrice’s power stems from the fact that, after her death, when Dante has gone astray (his ‘diritta via era smarrita’, the straight path was temporarily lost), she takes pity on her earthly admirer and intervenes to save him from himself and from damnation. Virgil, may be Dante’s guide in hell, but don’t forget who sent him:

‘”Set out, and with your polished words

and whatever else is needed for his safety,

go to his aid, that I may be consoled.

I who bid you go am Beatrice.”‘

(Inferno II, 67-70, translation by Robert and Jean Hollander)

In the poem Beatrice is a major player, but in the video game she is reduced to supporting cast. In the Divine Comedy she is instrumental in saving the wayward Dante from his failings, in the game she is the one who has to be rescued. Let’s just pause on that for a second.
In Dante’s text, the only redeeming force more powerful than Beatrice is God himself.
In Visceral’s game she is little more than damsel in distress.
In the game it is Dante’s responsibility to free Beatrice from hell so she can take up her place in Heaven.

And here we get to the gender flipping; understandably Dante is the battling protagonist, but why must he rescue Beatrice? There’s already a narrative thread in the game whereby Dante is trying to absolve himself of some (fairly fictive) sins by fighting his way to Beatrice and out of the underworld. Surely the plot arc would have made more sense if he battled through his Inferno in order to be reunited with Beatrice beyond the bounds of hell (it might even have left easier space for a sequel, but I’m not sure I want to think about what they’d to Purgatorio). So my problem is this: Why does the female rescuer have to become the rescued? Why does the almost lost Dante have to become the dominant force? Are 21st century gamers really more uncomfortable with the idea of salvation by a woman with agency than a 13th century poet was?

I hope not, but I fear that for some it might be true and that’s why the kind of social mirror provided by the meme where this conversation began is so important.

* taking representations of women and applying them directly to representations of men and vice versa to highlight the sexism of imagery, e.g. the Hawkeye initiative.

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