There has been a deluge of articles, posts, comments, and general discussion about the topic of women being represented in games (and film, and television, etc.) in the recent months. Many of these have cried out for stronger or more prominent female characters. Some have been aimed at exposing over-sexualization. A few are even commentary on how some games try too hard and swing the opposite way and create a masculinized female character.
I wanted to weigh in on this subject. My opinion is just that, an opinion, but it comes from someone who raised her fist along with all the others when protesting that women have a place in games and gaming. I have fought to prove my competence in many areas where gender gave me an unfair disadvantage. Then I realized the trap that I was falling into.
I recently read an article written by Sophia McDougall (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters) talking about how she hates “Strong Female Characters” and what’s wrong with typecasting them in that way. Reading the article reinforced my own opinion about how all this feminist attention is hurting female roles in games nearly as much as keeping them out of games does. Let me explain…
Many game-makers think that by adding girls (women, females) to their games, they are being politically correct, and are pacifying their growing female audience. They wonder why their audience reacts negatively to their attempts. They put a kick-ass girl in the lead, surround her with guys and make her the boss, make her sexy but not too sexy, they give her what marketing said was the most socially accepted breast size, and she gets the same zingy one-liners that they gave their last male lead. Why can’t women just be happy with that?
Here’s an exercise in what’s wrong with that thinking. Get out of your chair, go to the window or out the door, look at the people that pass by you everyday. Is the world filled with a whole bunch of guys and a few kick-ass women? My guess is you see a whole bunch of diverse people, with about half of them being women. Most are ordinary and unmemorable. Some are memorable because they stick out. They mainly stick out because of personality anomalies.
So Add More Girls?
Well, obviously the ratio is wrong. We just need to put in an equal number of boys and girls, right? Then it’ll seem natural.
But the audience still isn’t satisfied. What gives? You’re doing everything they asked for, right? How many kick-ass females can you fit into a storyline before it starts to get vaguely uncomfortable and hovers around the “fetish” genres? Does this have something to do with women never being satisfied? I mean, whether you buy them flowers or not it’s always the wrong response and all that.
All joking aside, (and that last part was sarcastic, before the comments section rolls over) there really is truth behind the old adage that quantity doesn’t equal quality. Also, I’ve never seen it written anywhere that quality characters are defined by how kick-ass they are.
Fine. Then What Do I Do?
Having trouble getting female representation into your game? Step back and look at your life. Who are the female heroes in your life? What are their characteristics? Stop thinking about them as female characters and start thinking about them as people. That’s what the issue really is, after all. Women want to be people too, not accessories.
Every good writer knows that even the most outlandish fiction needs to resonate with the audience. There must be a common ground. Start with reality, then add personality. Unrealistic portrayals of women are confrontational to other women. Big boobs on female characters are disliked because all females are shown that way. Strong females are disliked when all are shown that way.
If you want a female character, put in a real female character, not a formula. Go ahead and put lots of females in your game, but make them people. Women are as varied as men, with just as many faults and just as many strengths. Remember, women are strong in different ways than men are.
The Common Sense
Finally, and here’s where I run the risk of the most criticism, women need to step back and realize what exactly it is that they want.
Women want women with character and depth. They want representation and recognition. They want to throw themselves into the game and be able to believe that they are the character. How many little boys pretended to be their favorite superheroes? How many little girls could do that? The grown women today had no (or very few) superheroines with personality in games. Many are starved for it and won’t ever be satisfied.
As women, we need to set aside the pitchforks and work alongside men to provide our little girls with positive role models to grow up with. I don’t want my daughter looking up to a “strong” woman who kicks the ass of any guy in her way. I want her to look up to a well adjusted heroine. Someone with depth and soul. Someone with an inner struggle that comes out on top.
I don’t want it to be about appearance. I want it to be about what’s inside. Did little boys get an inferiority complex when pretending to be Superman because they couldn’t fill the codpiece? No. Because there are more important things about Superman. Was there discussion about Batman’s junk being the baggage he had to carry around? No. It was his tragic backstory. But you know what? Their costumes left little to the imagination… but that wasn’t the point of the character.
Where We Stand
So where do we stand? Should we be upset about big-boobed bimbos? About scanty representation? About pigeonholing? Sure we should. Should we refuse to get down from the soapbox when the target audience (game-makers, in case I lost you) says “ok, let’s change some things” or should we smile and step off it and sit down beside them to help work it out?
Let me leave you with one last thought. I’m a writer, so I think in terms of writing. When I look back at literature I see a wealth of good female characterization. It may be under-represented in some periods, but it’s there. Take a lesson from those sources. Figure out why those women were great characters.
And girls… give them a hand. We all need to work at change.