Ashley Graham is more realistically drawn in the remake than in the original Resident Evil 4. But what if she were closer to a real-world president’s daughter – like Ivanka Trump…?
You can see that Capcom has made an effort in Resident Evil 4 Remake to bring its characters in line with today’s more evolved approach to games writing, not to mention the way humans actually interact with each other. The cheesy vibe isn’t all gone – Leon still seems to be pulling lines from an 80s action-movie phrasebook – but it is toned down, and with that, thankfully, goes much of the sexual objectification of Ashley Graham.
Looking back at the original game, it isn’t only the Las Plagas parasites that come across as slimy predators, but Leon himself. The signs aren’t good when he first speaks to mission controller, Hunnigan, to confirm the details of his mission to rescue Ashley, and Hunnigan underscores that “she’s the daughter of the president, so try to behave yourself, okay?” Given that Leon’s never spoken to Hunnigan before, it makes you wonder what kind of reputation he has that she needs to warn him off like this. When Ashley later catches Leon staring up her skirt, you begin to form an idea.
Now, with such fumbled attempts to turn Leon into a James Bond-like ladies’ man excised, the gentle flirting that occurs between Leon and Ashley in the Remake feels more jokey and nervous, like an attempt to fake a sense of normality under terrifying conditions. It also helps massively that university student Ashley comes across as a little more adult this time, rather than a teenager pretending to be one. As such, she’s prepared to bat back Leon’s cringy icebreakers. “Seems this isn’t your first time running away from creeps,” he says after one encounter. “I can’t tell if that’s meant to be a compliment,” she responds.
Despite these forward nudges, however, Ashley still feels like a character made in 2005 rather than 2023. And that’s because she’s still modelled on our conceptions of a president’s daughter from that time, formed by Jenna and Barbara Bush when George W was in office, and Chelsea Clinton before them. As a character who seems so indelibly linked to that period, Ashley thus raises a question for the art of the remake. How should studios deal not only with the leap forward in technology between an original and its revival, and developments in game and narrative design, but also how the world has changed, socially and politically?
In short, Ashley is the product of a time when the president’s children were seen as just that, children. In 2005, many people had strong opinions about George W Bush and his War on Terror, but Jenna and Barbara were rarely of much concern. Like Chelsea Clinton, and even more so with Malia and Sasha Obama, they were too young to be political figures themselves. TV shows, films and games of the 1990s and early 2000s could then easily write the president’s daughter as an innocent young woman (although Barb and Jen did have a couple of underage drinking offences), and nobody would see that as unrealistic.
When it comes to Trump and then Biden, though – two significantly older presidents – the picture shifts. The kids of these presidents are grown-up career people, with financial and political interests of their own, connections, and media training. The only thing they have in common with Ashley is that Biden’s daughter happens to share her first name. For all the changes to 2023’s Ashley, she’s not like them. She’s still a young woman who needs rescuing by a man. She still keeps getting slung over bad guys’ shoulders and carried off screaming like she’s in a Popeye cartoon.
So what if instead, Remake’s version of Ashley Graham was loosely based on the most well-known presidential daughter of recent times, Ivanka Trump? She’d be older, of course, and with that, what? More savvy? Professional? Political? Self-assured? Self-interested? Ruthless?
In contrast, surely Ivanka-Ashley, suited CEO and political advisor, would take control of the situation. She wouldn’t be so impressed with Leon. She’d wonder why the hell he was sent in alone, rather than accompanied by a squad of green berets. She’d be more gung-ho and bloodthirsty, screaming, ‘Mess ‘em up, Leon!’ or snatching his hunting rifle to take dead-eye aim at the murderous villagers like she was executing a deer. Then again, as a staunch neoliberal, she’d probably want to negotiate a deal with Los Iluminados, and could even offer Leon up as collateral if it seemed like the best way out. Perhaps Salazar and co. would end up selling distribution rights for their killer parasites in the US.
Or, to put it in more serious terms, why shouldn’t a game like Resident Evil 4 in 2023 make Ashley Graham and her father’s politics central to the plot? Why can’t it, say, draw parallels between the outbreak of the ancient Las Plagas parasite and the spread of ultra-conservatism in today’s US? What if Ashley turned out to be someone you don’t feel very enthusiastic about saving, because of her ideology and shady dealings, but you have no choice but to complete the mission for a right-wing populist boss man?
If you think this version of Ashley would be beyond the scope of a remake, then, well, you’re probably right. Making Ramon Salazar look like Margaret Thatcher is all well and good, but it would require a whole new set of rules and mechanics to create that kind of relationship, not to mention changes to tone and story. The reality is that Ashley has been so hard-coded into the game as a damsel in distress, part of the game’s core is moulded around minding her and rescuing her.
Yet it’s hard to believe that Capcom would do much different even with a clean slate. After all, the traditional president’s daughter character is preferable precisely because she doesn’t come with political baggage. Ashley is more realistically written and drawn now, which shows how far games have come in the last 18 years, but also more detached from real-world events, which shows how far they haven’t.
It’s easy to say that Resident Evil 4 is merely an action game that needn’t have anything to do with politics. But any game that features a president’s daughter will assume a political position in the way it chooses to represent her. In this case, as so often in games, it’s one that’s chosen to irritate as few people as possible – a sort of capitalist populism. And in fact, as politics becomes more polarised, thanks in part to the likes of Ivanka’s dad, it seems likely that big budget games will become more conciliatory when it comes to overt political stances, not more. When even the decision to replace Ashley’s 2005 mini-skirt with a skort met with outrage from some quarters (individuals who feel desperately entitled to upskirt female game characters), you can see why few studios dare to rock the boat.
Still, we can but dream, imagining how big budget games could challenge their own tropes and become more relevant to the world we live in, and asking why they don’t. Until then, at least Leon no longer says “Hang on, sweetheart!” as he and Ashley escape from their hellish adventure on a jet ski. He did in 2005. Baby steps.