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Damsel No More: A Brief Look at Positive Presentations of Women in Video Games

The latest episode of Anna Sarkeesian’s controversial Tropes Versus Women series has recently been released, and this got me thinking about the portrayal of women in video games. Sarkeesian tends to focus on the negative portrayal that has become commonplace in the medium, such as the ‘damsel in distress’ characterisation of many early Princess characters. While this kind of analysis is certainly necessary in order to improve the medium as a whole, I believe that there is also a place for commending games which do get female characters right. To this end, I intend to take a short look at two more positive approaches to female characters that have been successfully pulled off, while still assessing the limitations of that success.

The first, and most common, approach to creating a positively presented female character is that of the ‘Action Girl‘ trope. TV tropes defines this kind of character as follows: “The Action Girl is a female Badass who can go toe to toe with her male counterparts without breaking a sweat. Damsel in Distress? Not for this babe. She doesn’t sit around waiting to be rescued. She’s headbutting her jailer and breaking herself out, if they even manage to kidnap her in the first place. She proves, with her very being, that girls aren’t only not helpless, they kick ass.” This concept will be familiar to everyone, as prominent games series such as Tomb Raider and Bayonetta feature Action Girl protagonists (in fact the image used to represent the trope in the site is Lara Croft). The reason this is a positive representation of women should be similarly obvious. In essence the statement of the character is that ‘women can do everything men can do’ – demonstrated by the Action Girl’s ability to do traditionally masculine things such as fighting. There are innumerable action girls in gaming, from Gears of War to Halo and beyond and while this is a step in the right direction, it is far from perfect.

Bayonetta

The issue with characters of this type is that, as much as they tear down traditional perceptions of female ability, they still reinforce the message that masculine values are paramount. To see why, we have only to consider more carefully the message that an Action Girl creates. By glorifying the fact that ‘even a woman’ can participate in masculine activities like big business, fighting, sport etc. we are at the same time glorifying those same activities. In other words we are saying only those masculine activities are valuable, and by extension the feminine activities the Action Girl is not doing are de facto of less or no value. This is a serious issue which does not exist by each character alone (after all there less of an issue with the odd tomboy) but becomes an issue when the market becomes saturated, as it has, with this kind of female character. When the only female characters to choose from being either Action Girls or ‘Damsels in Distress’ we inevitably enforce the idea that femaleness itself is a negative thing and that women can only be accepted if they make an effort to be more masculine. Indeed the recent Tomb Raider reboot can be seen as in part a reaction to this kind of anti-feminine reinforcement.

So what is the solution? I believe there are two primarily: positive feminine characters or gender neutral characters (as far as character traits go rather than literal gender). The first of these, the female character who is feminine and positively represented is somewhat of an enigma when it comes to gaming. With the aforementioned proliferation of action girls and damsels it can be hard to find a purely femininely focused character that is well conceived. As a result I would like to turn to an example which is mainly feminine, but which has hints of action girl: Leliana from Dragon Age: Origins. Leliana is a uniquely feminine character inasmuch as her femininity is not demonised. Instead it is allowed to flourish and encompass a large majority of her traits. She is of Orlesian (Read: French) descent, from the Dragon Age equivalent of Paris, and thus holds fashion in high regard. She has a penchant for shoes, as well as for singing and poetry but none of these things are presented negatively. Instead her dialogue comes across naturally, as one excitedly explaining her interests, with no prejudices whatever. She is also allowed to be an action girl who is not at the same time butch, she is an able fighter, but she uses finesse with daggers rather than raw strength. Similarly even in combat her mood remains that of flirtatious prankster and never defaults to a more masculine ‘toughness’ as with other characters of this trope. Thus Leliana exemplifies, to a limited extent, the value in traditionally feminine activities and is presented as valuable due to them and not only because of her more masculine ability to fight.

Leliana and Rarity

Though this kind of character is few and far between in gaming it has already had great success in TV with the work of Lauren Faust on popular shows like The Powerpuff Girls and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic –  which feature prominently female characters of this kind (as well as Action Girls). As has been eloquently argued elsewhere, the Brony movement – a large community of adult male (and some female) fans of Faust’s My Little Pony – demonstrate the effectiveness that creating such characters can have, both by sending a positive message and by creating detailed, interesting characters. Indeed Leliana is in many ways similar to Rarity, a main character in Friendship is Magic, due to their shared love of fashion and commitment to being a lady balanced by the fact that they will drop these interests if a compromise is needed with a friend, and both use intelligence and finesse if they must resort to fighting. If characters of this kind can have such popularity in TV, hopefully the same can soon be said for video games.

The second kind of character that gets around the issues presented by the action girl, is the gender neutral character. This is the kind of character who rises above the gender debate entirely by being characterised by something that has no gendered connotations or which is given none by the way the character is written. The best example of this, as has been expressed in the past, is Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II (spoilers for KOTOR II to follow). Kreia is a remarkable female character in that she is neither particularly feminine nor masculine. A Jedi Historian and teacher, she was exiled by the Jedi and eventually became a Sith Lord. However she was also soon betrayed by her fellow Sith and became an outcast from both rival schools, instead deciding to focus her efforts on destroying the force itself, since as she reasoned it was the determining factor that had caused her to be betrayed and alone. To this end, she carefully schemes throughout the game, subtly manipulating the characters points of view to her side of things. Tell me, in this description did you think of a man or a woman or simply a person? Her character is denoted by something deeper than gender politics, it is her philosophy of life that defines her and her spiritual and tragic tale is one that anyone could relate to regardless of gender. Add to this that she is an ugly, blind old woman and she has not even got feminine sexuality to emphasise her gender, as is the case in so many other, erroneously proportioned female video game characters.

kreia2

The only issue with characters of this kind is that by foregoing the gender related character traits they rob themselves of many interesting building blocks for the creation of compelling characters. Perhaps then, the best way forward is a variety of these different approaches to female characters so that they might balance each other out. Better yet, we should encourage characters who encapsulate this vaiety of character types within themselves, such as Leliana who is both an Action Girl and a girly girl and by being both demonstrates the equality of both kinds of women. If I can leave you with one then, it is this: there are many ways besides fighting ability to make a great female character, and all these approaches should be embraced, so that eventually a positive overall view of women can be achieved throughout the entire medium.

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Hi all! I am the newest member of the Palace of Wisdom team. I have a strong background in Philosophy, English Literature and, of course, Games. As a result my favourite games combine all three of these interests. Some examples include: Bioshock, Mass Effect and Deus Ex.

9 Comments

  1. The issue I have with your examples of more varied characters is that they’re all characters that the player doesn’t actually control. Which is fine! Varied NPC’s are what make a story in a game richer. But most of the time when there’s things that need to be done the player is the one who will want to do it, and since (in most games we play nowadays) that involves violence in some fashion or another, how exactly are we going to make more varied actions for the characters that we as the player control?

    Keep in mind that as I say this I find Ms. Sarkeesian’s videos to be over-hyped, poorly researched, and full of nothing but examples from an era when we couldn’t innovate our characters and storylines nearly as much as we can now. I mean really, attacking Ms Pacman? In a time where our characters were literally 8 pixels high? Not much room for leeway there lady.

    • To answer you first point, that is an interesting consideration I had not thought of. You are right that who the player controls often has the most impact. Fortunately however, the player can take control of both Kreia and Leliana due to the way those games are made.

      As regards Ms. Sarkeesian, I agree that I dislike her use of very old games but I think it is a stretch to discount her on this alone. Even if she only concerned herself with such games her points are still valid as criticisms of them. As it stands I believe there are many modern examples of the tropes she identifies which should be thought of when assessing the medium. For example Samantha and the other female cogs from gears of war are very much ‘Ms Male characters’.

      Additionally she was right to point out the issues with Bioware’s add campaign for Mass Effect reinforcing the masculine portrayal of his character (even if this was not the developers’ decision).

  2. Very thoughtful and compelling article. I admit that you had me as soon as you mentioned Kreia, with MLPFiM and Leliana being very appreciated additions, but regardless of you playing perfectly to many of the things I love most, this was a very good article

    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  3. I do not understand the problem with ‘Action Girl’.

    I think activies like ‘big business, fighting, sport’ are not masculine or feminine, so when I see a women doing them in a game, this is not “glorifying the fact that ‘even a woman’ can participate in masculine activities”.

    If and only if a game actively presents the ‘glorifying’ view (eg. through dialogue) then that game is “reinforce(ing) the message that masculine values are paramount”.

    Often it is the bias of the player (not the game) that makes ‘action girl’ somehow harmful.

  4. I do like this article, but I can’t help but think that leaving out how games normally deal with conflict was a bit of a mistake.

    A story works off of a conflict, it’s drama. Video games, due to how you interact with them, almost always use violence as the narrative push. In this vain, almost any protagonist created will be some sort of brawler, fighter, combatant, etc. regardless of gender, because that’s how you solve problems in games.

    I don’t know if I’d really proclaim that there is a saturation of female protagonists with masculine values, but that there are simply too many games that tend towards masculine solutions to problems.

    So now the question seems to be: How do you create an enjoyable game where the center conflict is not violence, since that seems to be associated with masculinity…

    …Might this issue be about how we, as individuals, view what masculinity and femininity is?

    It’s my hope we don’t go around trying to find problems but rather find the underlying motives that cause us to have a problem with something in the first place. Looking at it in this light, we can tell the issue, in which people tend to have at it’s core, is about the lack of diversity in games, not whether a female character is portrayed “properly”.

    • PS: Rarity is very much a badass, btw. :3

  5. Personally, I find Anna Sarkeesian’s videos rather simple and patronizing

  6. One issue is simply that she re-contextualizes the markings of Ms. Male to imply that it actually does reinforce the stereotype, whether consciously or unconsciously. Many of her examples are post-moderns uses to reflect the commonly accepted design language to identify female characters and I would argue don’t carry the baggage of binary gender demarcation she claims happens.

    I can understand the objectification of Ms. Pacman in 82 but to claim that similar things happen to Ms. Splosion Man seems disingenuous and relies on (unless there’s data out there I haven’t seen) the false correlation that because males play video games and are not generally gender sensitive that Ms. Splosion Man is playing to their sensibilities the way Ms. Pac Man did in 82.

    I believe culture wars ultimately have to rely on meaningful statistical analysis in tandem with observation and not just stories that sound compelling. That’s why I find these critiques so frustrating, the cause and effect is largely conjectural and plays to the assumed attitudes of gender in general, which apparently is becoming a trope in of itself.

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