(Note- this essay was written before Ubisoft indicated that the figure was Asian with dyed blond hair and that he was a villain. I feel that my greater point on perception and South Asian representation still stands.)
Last week Ubisoft unveiled the cover art of the latest game in their Far Cry franchise, and the outcry was immediate and widespread. The image of an ostensibly blond haired white man with his hand on the head of a kneeling Nepali or Indian man with a grenade in his hands conjured up accusations of racism, colonialism, and general tone-deafness. And frankly, those readings are correct. After 200 years of being servants of the British Crown, South Asians viewing this cover can’t help but recall a litany of horrors brought on by years of colonial abuse. Just look up the Sepoy Mutinies, or the British theft of the royal jewels, or what they did to Somnath Temple. Not to mention Rudyard Kipling’s Burden.
My own personal history is full of proud, high caste men who knelt at the feet of the stooges of Victoria, hoping that this year the tax burden might allow their villages to keep some grain. People who were forced to harvest cotton for the brits, but only wear clothing made in manchester out of that cotton. People, by virtue of their birth, tasked with forcing their fellow men to serve the white man as indentured overseers. An entire set of nations and kingdoms exploited for the wealth of the second and third sons of some island nation far away, given only pain and hardship in return.
From just one image, all of this.
But when I saw this cover, all of the above was far from my mind. What took my breath away, simply by the audacity of it, was the fact that the central figure, the white man, was sitting on the lap of a desecrated statue of the Buddha, casually resting his foot on the Buddha’s head, a detail that went entirely unremarked upon in the ensuing internet firestorm.
You have to understand that to a Hindu or Buddhist, touching something with your feet is just about as offensive an action as can be taken. It shows utter and complete contempt for the target, and an explicit lowering of their status. We’re talking offensive to the point that even casually brushing someone with your feet calls for an immediate apology, head bowed, hand on heart, everything. Touching books with your feet elicits the same response, because books represent the Goddess Saraswati, the embodiment of knowledge. kicking a book, then, is the same as kicking the goddess.
And here he was, our picture's focus, casually resting his foot on Buddha’s face, as if the god himself were only good enough to be a footrest.
I was not expecting the visceral reaction that overcame me. I’m a religious guy; on the weekends I even function as a lay priest for Hindus, doing various and sundry rituals, and my home is full of statues of the Buddha from around the world. He’s effectively my patron deity. (and yes, in Buddhism proper, he is not a deity, but in Hinduism he is). And just to see the lord so casually, flippantly disrespected…it hurt.
Mind you, I’m not a fundamentalist, nor am I a missionary expecting everyone to follow my faith, or even respect it. Freedom of expression means that nothing is universally sacred, and everyone is free to do what they like in art. That central figure may well be looking at the statue as a piece of loot to sell to a museum or some black market collector, and nothing more.
In-world, the image is entirely irrelevant, and gets across Ubisoft’s point, that this is a Bad Guy.
But I don’t live in-world. I’m not a character in this game, and I’m not the proprietor of the temple being looted, nor the buyer of said statue. I’m just a guy in the real world, who sees on the cover of a game that someone thinks so very little of him and his people that they’d choose this as their advertisement to the world.
Cause that’s what this is about- respect. What this image says is that South Asians, Hindus and Buddhists alike, aren’t as important as getting a ‘cool’ image to show off how bad a dude is. Ubi, we get it, this guy is bad. But him being a terrible person in game doesn’t mean that your art team, marketing team, and chains of approval also have to be terrible. Context is deeply important. You can write it off as ‘oh, it’s just in game, it doesn’t mean anything, and it’s not offensive’ but that’s just wrong. It DOES mean something. It means that to a billion people, you are saying that they are less than dirt to you, and their feelings and attitudes are irrelevant in the face of your commercial gain. And having worked in the industry, and been in the process of cover art approval, I know exactly how many stamps it takes to get from concept to reveal.
In essence, the British colonials have returned, with just as much loving concern as before.
That one foot encapsulates the Hindu immigrant experience so effectively that it brought a flood of unpleasant memories rushing back. Being a hungry child at a school pizza party told to just ‘pick off the meat’. Being a high schooler laughed at because he shares a name with a half naked ice summon in Final Fantasy. Being rejected from multiple publishers as an adult because the audience just doesn’t want Indian themed games, and I’d have better luck if there were a few white people for folks to relate to.
Having no one to relate to myself, over 20 years of fantasy tabletop games, video games, or novels.
That’s what this cover says- You, brown man, are so unimportant to me that not only is your simulacrum kneeling at my feet, but that deity that you dedicate your life to is so pathetic that its only purpose is to let me kick back and relax.
It’s a famed stage and screen actor from India being hired as unnamed terrorist #3, or convenience store guy. Certainly never as a the main character.
Earlier I said that this was about respect. It is. Not respect of faith or traditions, but respect of the fact that all humans belong on an equal level with each other. This image displays no concern for that. Contextually it may be different. He could be some central asian guy with dyed blond hair or whatever, and maybe he’s been fighting a lifelong war against the evils of religious oppression. But if I walk into a Target or Best Buy and just spy that cover across the way, what will I see? A white dude lording it over a terrorist with a smug look on his face.
When this cover first appeared last week, the following set of tweets (paraphased) pretty much encapsulated exactly what I figured would happen:
Tweeter A- This image is racist!
Tweeter B- No way! Terrorist scum should be made to kneel!
Tweeter A- How do you know which one is the terrorist?
Thus what happens when one group does not respect another. When all of the representations in media are single focused, and pull from only one specific stereotype.
Looking at that cover doesn’t make me think that the white dude is a bad guy. it makes me think that the artists, directors, marketers and advertisers don’t care about me at all, except as a stock image to exploit. And that hurts.