Strong Female Characters
I was not going to write a follow-up to yesterday’s post, but I came across another Kotaku post today titled “It’s Time for a Lady Hero in Grand Theft Auto.” I agree with the article, in that such a thing would be awesome, assuming they find a way to make it work. And by “work” I mean actually make the main character being a woman matter, as opposed to merely swapping gender models in a story written for a man (or gender neutral, which so often defaults to man anyway).
But then I got to thinking… is that not what typically occurs anyway, even with strong female characters?
In the comment section of that article, the following was posted:
Oh shit a female character? How am I supposed to relate to that?
BRB PLAYING METROID AND PORTAL.
The comment is obviously sarcastic, referring to the strong female characters of Samus Aran in Metroid and Chell in the Portal series. And yet, at what point does it matter in any meaningful sense that the protagonists are women? Don’t get me wrong, I love that they are. As I mentioned in the comments on Syl’s post:
I love strong women. I love the rich, dramatic narrative possibilities of balancing strength with femininity; “being a man” is almost always one-dimensional (i.e. strength == man) in contrast. It is why I almost always roll female toons in MMOs.
A woman slaughtering a bandit camp or slaying a dragon is automatically more interesting to me than a man doing the same. But if I am honest, it’s that way because I’m imagining more complex inner struggles into those events from the female side. I expect a man to slaughter a bandit camp or slay a dragon, because that is the cliche. To not do so would be a renunciation of “being a man.” Which, incidentally, is something I consider far more pernicious than any Objectification that goes on with scantily-clad women, but I may be biased. But when a woman slaughters a bandit camp, I envision a struggle against conformity, against despair, against a nature inclined to nurture, and so on. The Bene Gesserit of Dune and Aes Sedai of The Wheel of Time are more interesting groups of people because they are women; a mystical cabal of controlling men is almost too cliche to commit to paper.
Going back to the Metroid and Portal examples though, did it really matter in a narrative sense that they were female? I would say no. Samus and Chell could have been dudes and the game would have played out in the same way. If strong female characters can be replaced with males with zero narrative loss, are they really strong female characters? As I mentioned, them being dudes would have certainly diminished something from my play experience, but I’m struggling with the intellectual notion that the gender of the character model really makes that big a difference to me. Or is the fact that they could be replaced by men without a loss of narrative integrity actually a win? Gender equality and all that.
Perhaps silent protagonists are not the best examples. Final Fantasy 7 is my second favorite game of all time, and I consider Tifa one of the deepest characters in any RPG I have ever played, despite (and perhaps in spite of) some of her more obvious fanservice qualities. Tifa is strong, capable, independent and yet distinctly feminine at the same time. That being said, outside of taking care of Cloud during the whole Mako poisoning bit, and the pseudo love triangle thing, I could not really give examples of what I mean by “distinctly feminine” that does not have something to do with the way she looks or otherwise read like a laundry list of cliches. Maybe that’s okay, and those prior distinctions are enough?
So, good luck Rockstar. I cannot wait to see what they would do with a female lead in GTA.
P.S. While “researching” this post, I came across two excellent examples of What To Do when talking sexism in games, both in video format. The first is The Big Picture: Gender Games, and the second is Game Overthinker: Bayonetta. The former is rather brilliant with it’s “pose” argument, which is both intuitive and unassailable. The latter doesn’t focus on sexism explicitly, which makes its implicit argument all the more compelling when you realize what just happened by the end, i.e. you agreed with everything.
If you want to affect real change, you do it that way.