Strong Female Character: Round 3!

(or, Battling a Culture of Appeasement)

As a woman and a feminist, I enjoy seeing female characters who are complex, empowered, intelligent, strong, and unafraid to reject societal roles and stereotypes to be true to themselves.  I admit that, realistically, not every woman embodies these ideals, but I still like a story better when they do.  Unfortunately, the desire, even demand, for such characters can create a certain trap that sometimes causes more problems than it addresses.  It’s difficult to describe and even more difficult to deal with, but bear with me a moment while I try to put this into words.

I’ve mentioned before how too often, storytellers will try to craft a “strong female character” simply by imbuing her with physical strength or putting a weapon in her hand.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the warrior woman archetype itself; the failing comes when the storyteller allows the character’s depth to end there or implies that the only measure of “strength” in a character is that which can be proven on the battlefield.  There are many, perhaps less obvious ways to craft a complex and compelling character, but they don’t get employed as often.  Why is this?

One potential reason is fairly simple: an author wants an ancillary female character or love interest for his male protagonist, and he doesn’t want to spark feminist uproar by having her be some stereotypical damsel in distress, so he makes her tough, or sassy, or otherwise outwardly and obviously “strong.”  Maybe this works within the context of the story, or maybe it sticks out awkwardly like hillbilly at an artisanal soap convention.  In those instances, it may be that the author only wrote his character that way because he felt like he had to in order to make his story passable to a modern audience.  Not understanding the underlying problem, these writers basically put a band-aid on a bullet wound.

Another reason is more complicated, and that is that some kinds of strong characters get dismissed as being “not progressive enough.”  A character who is simply a housewife and mother, for instance, might be expected to draw just as much feminist backlash as a meaningless sex object.  Thing is, such a character can exhibit tremendous depth, complexity, and strength even while existing within what is considered a traditional gender role.  Though a more rebellious individual might favor breaking with tradition and fighting for change, it does take a certain strength and ingenuity to make do with the situation in which you find yourself and thrive.  Some authors seem to fear that to present a woman who is not some kind of societal iconoclast is to invite the wrath of feminist readers.  And, in some cases, this proves to be the case.

Feminism is a tricky thing.  Defining it is like trying to define love, or memes: maybe there’s a perfect answer out there somewhere, but even if it exists, you can bet not everyone will agree with it.  The meaning invariably changes with the individual trying to define it, their personal beliefs and goals, their experiences and perception.  At its core, it’s about equality, but the message gets muddied as it travels.  The successful corporate crusader who’s dedicated her life to fighting for equal rank and equal pay may look at the stay-at-home mother and call her lazy, submissive, and backward.  That mother, who dedicates her life to raising daughters who are intelligent, well-rounded, and self-assured, may turn around to that businesswoman and call her selfish, arrogant, and power-hungry.  We look at sexually-liberated woman who revel in the trappings of beauty and pleasure and simultaneously praise them for taking charge of their sexuality and appearance and decry them as whores and slaves to objectification.  You find feminist women who describe themselves as equal to men, better than men, or separate from men entirely.  They may be straight women or gay women, promiscuous or prudish.  Or, they may not be women at all, but rather men who support the equality of their female counterparts.  And some storytellers, rather than focusing on crafting a strong story, are trying simply to do what will make them look the least offensive to this diverse and opinionated sector of society.

To appease everyone is impossible, and I don’t think that should be the goal.

In my own work, I have a personal goal to present female protagonists (and antagonists) who are true to themselves, complex, and believable, wherever that may lead.  I want my readers to admire, respect, and understand them as humans (or other sentient life forms) first, women second, because gender is just one part of an impossibly complex whole.  To me, the ultimate expression of gender equality is to give someone the freedom to do what they will how they will based on their own choices, not their gender.  Where biology comes into play, it’s simple enough to make minor adjustments to allow for equal opportunity, particularly when you’re dealing with fiction.  Rather than writing a character in to fill that checkmark next to “strong female character,” write a full cast of strong, developed, complex characters, some of whom happen to be female.  So long as you’ve put a full and honest effort into creating a deep and believable character, and you are true to the character you’ve built, I believe you’re doing the right thing.

At their core purpose, feminists fight for a noble cause and aim to do good things for humanity.  As with any faction of society, there is discord, there are extremists, and there are stereotypes both exemplified and refuted.  To lump all feminists together and single them out as a group that is to be appeased and quieted by some literary trope in order to push your sales figures is ridiculous and dismissive, even offensive.  But, as always, there is progress, and there is hope.  Even the fact that authors would abandon the frail, silent female tropes in favor of combative, feisty ones is a kind of progress.  These characters have gained voice and presence.  Now we just need to give them depth, agency, and meaning.  And after that, we just need to make this something that happens naturally.  When your characters are speaking and acting from their own unique and fully-developed voices, living out their lives on paper or on the screen as wholly-realized individuals with their own motivations and beliefs, it may be that fewer people will feel the need to nitpick, lost in the wonderful tale the characters have to tell.

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In Defense of Girl Gamers

(or, Why Aisha Tyler May Be My Newest Hero)

I admit, I wasn’t always a gamer.  As a very young child with an all-pink bedroom and more stuffed unicorns than any sane person could imagine, I was told by society that video games were for boys.  Yet whenever I was visiting friends or cousins and the boys broke away to play their games, I always wanted to watch, even if it meant bailing on the dress-up sessions and playing house, earning me the momentary scorn of my female companions.  But I was a girl; the boys usually wouldn’t let me play, and no one got game systems for me for Christmases and birthdays.  Luckily, my sister went through a full-on tomboy stage during the SNES era, and through her constant begging, pleading, and demanding, we finally ended up with a system of our own.  That was when the obsession took hold in earnest.

I loved to play video games, and I was very good at many of them.  Unfortunately, I had almost no friends who played at the time and my sister’s interest wasn’t as ravenous as my own, so I had very little guidance in finding and playing the gems of that era.  It wasn’t until high school, when my circles of friends expanded and I started doing more research on my own, that I really became game savvy.  Though it affected how “current” my gaming experiences were by starting a trend of going back to play old games I’d missed at the time of their release, I was never entirely out of the loop.  By my senior year, I was even employed at a video game retailer, surrounded by games and news and experienced players and soaking up all the delicious video game exposure I could.

For the most part, my being female elicited positive or neutral reactions from people who learned I was a gamer.  My guy friends thought it was cool, some of my female friends were able to share their own closeted love of video games, and guys who saw me working at the game store would react with anything from indifference to ecstatic surprise.  There were a few detractors here and there, as I mentioned in my last article, but for the most part I felt like my supposedly rare identity as a girl gamer was considered a good thing.  Rather than being ostracized by other girls for liking non-girly things, as I moved from high school through college, I found myself surrounded by people who embraced my geekdom and thought positively about me because of it.  It felt wonderful.

Of course, there have always been people who rag on geeks in general; male or female, gamer or bookworm, sci-fi geek or fantasy buff.  That strange desire of human beings to tease and ostracize people with different looks, beliefs, interests, and so forth always crops up in one form or another.  In the eyes of a self-defined “normal,” there’s often no difference between a gamer who plays passionately as a part of their normal life and a hikikomori who locks themselves away with their games, replacing all normal social interaction with their fantasy worlds.  Gamers have to fight hard against the stigma that society has built up against them even as games have become more and more mainstream.

That is something I can accept, even if it is senseless and degrading.  The thing I have a harder time accepting is something I’ve only noticed in the last several years: the “hardcore” geeks and gamers turning against the rest.  I was guilty of this myself once, harboring resentment toward “casual” gamers for causing the proliferation of simple, gimmick-based games while grander projects and RPG opuses seemed to be languishing.  However, I soon learned that my reasons for disliking them were foolish.  A casual gamer could easily be introduced in stronger titles over time.  Little browser games and mobile apps can be like gateway drugs to more serious games, assuming we take all the negative connotations of that analogy and completely disregard them for the sake of me making a positive point.  As such, since I love games and want to share that love, there should be no reason why I would want to discourage or detest the playing of casual games just because they’re not to my taste.  If it shows someone, particularly someone who thinks negatively of video games in general, that games can be fun, where’s the harm in that?  Besides, with the money that some casual games make, their developers can afford to take on bigger projects and produce new, exciting, and more in-depth gaming experiences rather than Farmville and Bejeweled clones.

Unfortunately, some people aren’t learning similar lessons.  As geekdom and gaming have become more mainstream, there has been a lot of pushback from people who “were gamers before it was cool” or some such nonsense.  I see a constant struggle to establish “nerd cred” that not only alienates people with new-found or casual interest, but also reflects even more negatively on the people whose nerd cred is established, given the persisting stigma.  A strange cycle emerged where game publishers and similar organizations hire beautiful women to talk about and advertise their media in order to target a male audience, but in turn, real women and girls who love games, comics, and so on get labeled as fake and brushed aside.  Yes, there are some few women out there who capitalize on the trendiness of geekdom, but they do it for their jobs, to make money.  What reason does a girl have to claim she loves video games in her everyday existence except if she genuinely loves games?  Now, I love my gamer guys, but I can say from experience that those who tout their nerd cred as a sign of their soaring superiority are likely not as great a catch as they think they are.  A self-respecting girl or woman is not going to fake her interests just to get with them, and if she does, they should be respectful of the fact that she likes them so much that she wants to, heavens forbid, learn to share their interests.

It’s insulting and perplexing to me how this bias has developed.  How female gamers are subjected to derision and rage by their male peers rather than being accepted and loved for what they are.  It saddens me too, because even in a case where someone may not be as into or knowledgeable about something as you, there is so much potential for good times and bonding as you teach each other, good times you’ll never have if you just accuse the girl of being fake and move on to bask alone in your self-glory.

This is where Aisha Tyler comes in.  If you don’t know who she is, she’s a comedian, a gamer, a feminist, and an all-around awesome lady.  Last year, she was a host at E3, and for some strange reason, that earned her a lot of ridiculous hate.  Her response to this hatred, however, was brilliant.  This excerpt shows her point beautifully:

“I go to E3 each year because I love video games.
Because new titles still get me high.
Because I still love getting swag.
Love wearing my gamer pride on my sleeve.
People ask me what console I play.
Motherfucker, ALL of them.

I get invited to E3 because real gamers know I’m a gamer.
I don’t do it for the money.
I have plenty of money.
I don’t do it for the fame.
Fuck fame.
I do it because I love video games.

[…]
I don’t give a shit what you think about my gamerscore.
I don’t play to prove a point.
I don’t play to be the best.
I play because I love it.”

It all comes back to love, and we need more of it, both in the gaming community and the geekosphere as a whole.  We label ourselves as gamers because we love games, not because we crave status (at least, that’s true for most of us).  We are girl gamers, and we are here to stay, because we love games.

For one last affirmation of why Ms. Tyler is awesome, read this interview here where she discusses the post-E3 incident and sexual harassment in gaming.

Girls, keep gaming!  Keep talking about games, keep trying to get jobs making games, and keep trying to make games better!  I think it won’t be too long before we have brilliant female game developers standing alongside their male peers and making games so spectacular we could hardly imagine them now.  And remember when some  insecure hater out there tries to belittle or objectify you, you need only be true to yourself, nerd cred is meaningless, they are totally and unjustifiably in the wrong, and their judgments do not matter.  Stay strong, and do what you love.

A Matter of Perspective

(or, When Did Game Publishers Forget That Women Are People Too?)

I’ll start off by admitting that I have a massive backlog of articles and videos in my browser tabs and bookmarks that make great, salient points about sexism and video games.  I’ll probably write about or link to many of them, old and new, over time, because this is something that matters to me very much.  Today, I want to talk about this:

 

Long ago, I worked my very first job as a sales associate at an EB Games.  One day, a guy came in looking for recommendations.  He didn’t seem entirely pleased that I was the only one available to help him, but he asked anyway.  At that time, I had just finished playing Beyond Good & Evil: to this day one of my favorite games and one for which I am still waiting on a long-promised sequel.  I began describing the game as I went to find its case on the shelves, saying, “You play as a photographer who is helping to uncover a military conspiracy.  A large part of the gameplay is stealth-based, but there is combat and strategy and even racing as well.”  However, by this time I had reached the case and handed it to the young man.  He immediately interrupted with, “Whoa, wait … is this a girl game?”

I wanted to say, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” but I was a consummate professional, so instead I replied with, “The main character is female, if that’s what you’re asking.  Other than that, there’s nothing inherently girly about it.”  He just said, “Never mind,” and wandered off without so much as a “Thanks for your time.”  As I’m sure you’ve gathered, it was memorably irksome.

I knew that there has always been a degree of resistance against featuring strong, complex, fully-developed and humanized female characters in games, but the statements highlighted in this video show a degree of misogynistic immaturity that I find deeply disturbing.  This isn’t to say the sentiment is universal by any means.  There are a lot of good people out there making and talking about games, promoting women’s equality both as gamers and as game characters.  Unfortunately, many of the clueless folks seem to have meandered their way up to the top rungs of the corporate ladders, controlling the publishing titans that determine whether or not many games ever see the light of day.  That is not ok.  When the most powerful voices in game publishing are motivated by money, and they believe that money comes in the form of testosterone-laden protagonists and women as sex objects, there’s a problem.

As a lady gamer, I’m completely accustomed to playing through male avatars in my games.  With precious few admirable female protagonists taking lead roles (Jade from Beyond Good & Evil being one of them) and only slightly more games giving you the option of making your character female if you really really have to (Skyrim included, as my deft Bosmeri archer lass can attest to), sometimes there’s not really much choice.  Playing as a male character who interacts with female love interests has never made me uncomfortable or insecure, either, unless she’s being thrown at me like a hunk of meat.  In fact, if that female is also a strong, developed, or otherwise likable character, I can appreciate why the male character might be drawn to her, and I want to see them happily together.  I don’t understand why it would be the expectation that a reasonable male with even the slightest bit of maturity could get freaked out by playing as a female who likes men.  How do the game publishers so grossly underestimate the cognitive and emotional capacities of their audience?

Yes, there are bad examples out there, as there are in any sub-group of humanity.  But I know a lot of men who are able to appreciate a character and a story as just that without feeling the need to be pandered to with manly avatars and fan service.  To say that making a man play as a female character would make him feel “weird” is to imply that he has such a fragile ego stretching thin over his vast chasm of personal insecurities that to call his masculinity into question in any way could cause him to implode into an inconsolable fit of identity crisis, and more often than not, this is not the case.  The injustice and insult being committed here is not just to women, but to men as well.  No one comes out of this situation looking good.

The good news is that things are always slowly getting better, one baby step at a time (even when some jerk comes along to bring us two steps back).  More women are playing, talking about, and working to develop games than in the past, and more people love and care about games enough to push them to be better than they were.  Sexism in games will probably never go away entirely, but one day it could be the exception rather than the norm.  While playing Skyrim as a female, I encountered a woman in Whiterun who told me, “It’s not easy being a woman in Skyrim, I know. But stay strong, men will come to respect you, and maybe even fear you.”  It’s a little thing, that inconsequential line of dialogue, but it keeps me hopeful.  We will stay strong, and we will be respected, and that will show in the medium we love.