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?


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.


Posted on December 16, 2011, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. You are
    Aware that both of those shows are made by the same person? Doesn’t change the message, or me agreeing to it, but just thought you should know


  2. I think we’re on the same wave length this week …which is odd, we’re never on the same page with anything :)

    I’m just poking fun. But I did edit an article a week ago on the topic of sexualization, though it’s not scheduled to post until the week before xmas (gotta get ahead on the holidays). Anyway, I love the questions posed here. What makes a male vs. a female character?

    I think games haven’t even begun to really address this. Sure, there’s examples out there like the ones you cited where an actual unique female character, whose narrative is such that a male could not be simply swapped in without destroying something integral to the game. I think in many cases it is as you said: the sex makes almost no difference.

    I almost never play female avatars for this reason. They aren’t different enough from the males to make them an interesting pic. I don’t have the good fortune to be one of the gamer guys who has a preference for staring at a female avatar as opposed to male. Call me vain :)

    Most interesting though is that you imagine all sorts of …odd …things about your female avatars. I should make my next post a research article about you …


    • The irony is that while I prefer playing female toons, I really cannot do so in narrative-driven games like the ones from BioWare. Why not? Romance options. Seducing Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins was one of the most painfully awkward moments in videogaming for me (nevermind that I was a dwarf, which had its own disturbing implications). So while Mass Effect 1 & 2 is in my Steam queue, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about FemShep, the whole romance thing is the one area of gameplay that is likely to keep me playing the default Shepard. I’m sure I could simply skip the whole romance minigames, but I do actually find them extremely entertaining.


  3. Main question is: Are male and female human beings equal in every sense of how they think, feel, morally behave – then you can swap male and female characters within a game without differences and extra programming effort, because both are the very same human being (or better, robotic being.)

    If not, you have to either build a cliche version of a male and a female being, which then does not reflect reality and will be the center of wild discussions or let the player choose every aspect of the inner being themselves – and then have the game react differently according to them:

    You cannot wield that 2handed sword because you are a rather small and skinny female warrior, you cannot squeeze through in this cave, because you are a very bulky male barbarian, you cannot kill 10 rats, because you love small animals, you don’t help the villagers, because you are not very empathic and there is no reward in it, you weep for hours after raiding that bandit camp since they did not want to sit down and talk it out, and did not leave you another option, etc.
    The more details (that matter) you put into a character, the more restricted and complex a game gets, up to a ridiculous point where you don’t want to play it anymore.

    I think the only way to go in games is to make male and female characters as equal as possible, because they themselves have no soul/thoughts/feelings/ethos. How the characters behave, how much they think and care while slaying a dragon should be a decision made by the actualy human behind the screen.

    Where I can fully agree is the No Bikini and Panty restriction in games. I play female characters more than 50% of the time and my playing experience is just inconsistent if I have to charge that hill giant with my bathing suit instead of full scale armour.
    On the other hand, I rarely show helmets in game, because face/hair/ears/horns/tusks is how I identify myself with the character most.


    • I don’t find plate bikinis (or the more common bare midriff/cleavage window) particularly inconsistent for the simple fact that visual armor in these games is mechanically irrelevant. Full scale armor doesn’t impede movement, doesn’t make swimming or jumping any more difficult, and there is no locational damage anyway. Until and unless armor behaves like armor (with all the mechanical drawbacks), then it clearly doesn’t matter that female characters have more vulnerable bits exposed.

      I’m more sympathetic to the argument that Red Scale Mail should not magically develop a skirt and cleavage window when you unequip a dude and equip a lady.

      But otherwise? Armor is clearly all style and no substance.


      • There’s this thing called “immersion” you’re discarding in your last argument Azuriel. By your logic, none of the game make sense to do the way it is done. Style is developed in order to enhance immersion. Like it or not, plate bikinis break that immersion. I’m not sure how you conclude it doesn’t. It’s not a matter of functionality in mechanics, but functionality within the setting. No one goes to combat in a plate bikini armor.


      • No one goes to combat in a plate bikini armor.

        What a curious argument. Who is “no one?” No one IRL? No one within the setting of the game? Clearly people do go into combat with bikini armor in the game, else we would not even be having this discussion. And I’m not talking about just players here, I’m talking about major lore characters, including the otherwise chaste Jaina Proudmoore who sports a bare midriff in her wizard robes. Nevermind the dragon aspects, many enemy mobs, and so on.

        Do I think it’s believable within the setting of Warcraft for highly stylized (aka barely there) armor? Yes. If it breaks your “immersion,” it is only because you have a highly, highly selective concept of what “makes sense” in that universe. If I can swim in the ocean in full plate just as easily as without it equipped, what’s a cleavage window matter? This is the same game where you can use rolling pins and dead fish as weapons, for god’s sake.

        Generally speaking, I consider “immersion” to be analogous to “suspension of disbelief.” And in a genre predicated on getting eaten, blown up, set on fire, pierced by frozen shards, skewered a thousand times, etc, and only lose -2000 hp, it takes a LOT to get me un-immersed.


  4. If the basic gameplay is exactly the same, and you have no real choices, then gender is meaningless.
    I have not played GTA, but I have seen my boyfriend play it. It’s all about killing people, stealing cars/other vehicles, and well, that is about it, isn’t it? Same for Resident Evil – kill zombies, save some npcs (usually women or children), and kill the end boss or set off the A bomb.
    In such games, is there any need to be male or female? Games like Halo or Doom that do not have a character model on the screen, but rather have you looking from the first person, show the irrelevance of gender in such games. The Master Chief could just as easily be female as male. It would make me laugh to see an end of game cut scene where the Master Chief takes off his helmet and is revealed to be a woman!
    In Dragon Age Origins, yes you get to choose male or female, but are the choices you make in-game any different, bar which npcs you are romantically attached to? I don’t think so.
    As far as strong female leads in films or fantasy/SF books, this often means women who swear a lot, and can arm wrestle just as well as any man. Does that make them strong? Is Ripley a strong character in Aliens because she can point a gun and use it, or is she strong because she is unwilling to give up on Mouse, and goes back for her? Isn’t it just as likely or even more stereotypical for the man to be going back to rescue the child/helpless woman?


    • Indeed. I do think a number of things were added to the Aliens franchise for Ripley being female – the “queen vs queen” undercurrent in Aliens, and how Ripley came off as a believable strong female when contrasted against the stereotypically butch Pvt. Jenette Vasquez.

      But Samus and Chell? Simple style decisions, IMO. While that doesn’t particularly advance “the cause” per se, I suppose they at least don’t detract from it either. At least, not until the Zero Suit shenanigans.


  5. I generally dislike discussions on gaming and gender since they all seem to assume on some level that women as a whole feel unwelcome in the gaming community. I have issues relating to those arguments since in reality, the gaming community is where I feel most at home. As such, it is quite refreshing to read your perspective (both in this post an in others) about gender in-game and in the gaming community side by side with what is coming out of other mass-consumed venues like Kotaku. I think you have a pretty solid take on the whole discussion, and if you were to write more about it at a later date I would enjoy seeing what more you had to say.


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