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Feminspire | April 18, 2014

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How the Greatest Female Game Character Reveals the Problems in Female Representation

How the Greatest Female Game Character Reveals the Problems in Female Representation

Quick: Name as many female video game characters as you can. Got them? Okay! Now name as many female video game characters as you can who are the playable protagonists.

There are only a small handful of female protagonists in video games, and the most visible ones, such as Lara Croft and Samus Aran, are hypersexualized.

The reasoning for the lack of adequate female representation in gaming has been attributed to the assertion that the culture of gaming itself is predominantly male. But recently, it has become clear the women make up nearly half of the number of all so-called “regular gamers.” Yet with each passing year, more and more titles continue to feature only men. Last year’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, for example, allowed you to play as Catwoman for only about ten percent of the game, and even then, she was dressed head to toe in impractical clothing and was heavily sexualized.

Thus far, the only studio that seems to really be making strides in terms of female representation in gaming is Bioware. The Canadian company has been responsible for several highly praised RPGs, such as 2003’s Game of the Year Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect. In all three series, the game allows you to choose the sex of your playable character, and the events that follow throughout the games are tailored to fit that choice. Although I am saddened by the fact that there seem to be no games in which wonderful, multi-faceted female protagonists are the default option or the only option, I sincerely applaud Bioware’s efforts to open up the experiences of their series to both sexes.

Of series mentioned above, I have found Mass Effect to be the most engaging. It is a multi-dimensional science fiction odyssey featuring the exploits of Commander Shepard and her or his fight against the threat of the mysterious, ancient beings known as the Reapers.

Jennifer Hale, one of the eminent voice actors of this generation, has given life to what I feel is the most well-rounded, engaging, and frankly inspiring characters in video game history. She gives the Female Shepard (FemShep) both the gentle side of a human being and the rough edge of a soldier. Her performance is so engaging that I find it difficult to imagine that the “Default” Shepard is actually male.

And therein lies the problem. Although FemShep is as equally valid and option as Male Shepard (BroShep), the latter is seen as the so-called “default” option. He is also presented that way by EA Games, which splatters BroShep on all of their marketing. Only with the release of Mass Effect 3 earlier this year did they even create advertisements with FemShep; even then, the box comes with BroShep on the front, with the option of taking the sleeve out of the box and turning it around to feature FemShep.

Bioware and EA had an enormous opportunity to present a fantastic female character and break new ground. They had a game with a truly inspiring character, and they built on that. But I feel that all that good work came undone when EA decided to fall back on old marketing habits and feature the male option as the centerpiece of the series. Even worse, a film version of the Mass Effect series is in development, and they have already announced that Shepard will without a doubt be male.

Mass Effect is a game built on the fact that the player creates her or his experience for herself or himself. Just interacting with other players online has shown me how different an experience just a handful of people can have with the same game. As such, the idea of a film being made of the series is preposterous. We will, in effect, be told that Movie Shepard’s choices were the “right” ones: who to romance (when there are over fourteen different characters you can romance over the course of the three games), whether or not to play as a Paragon or a Renegade, and much more. Most of all, we are being told that while those choices are being carefully chosen “to reflect the journey of Commander Shepard,” it has already been decided that Shepard is to be male. In effect, we are being told that BroShep is the “right” Shepard.

My experience with Mass Effect was dependent on a badass female warrior with a heart of gold saving the galaxy when men could not. She epitomized strength and courage, and fought to bring alien species together to fight a galactic threat. When a man does that in media, I feel that it is more or less a cliché of the “adventure” story. Men have brought cultures together to fight an insurmountable force countless times in hundreds of movies, books, and games before. But for a woman to do so is especially poignant, and that, I feel, is why I feel such a great attachment to the Mass Effect series.

I am now being told by some that Mass Effect is really just another science fiction adventure story, and that FemShep was included merely to appease the “small group of women who actually play sci-fi games” and to allow male players to engage in a lesbian romance with Liara, the female Asari who is romanceable for both FemShep and BroShep.

Bioware, more than any other video game studio working today, is paving the way for broader representation in games. The number of problems they encounter in their efforts to do so is not necessarily indicative of misogyny, but of the main issue in gaming today: the continued lack of female presence in the development of the games themselves. As we have seen time and time again, it is men who primarily create media; as such, their efforts to represent women is impeded by the fact that they cannot truly get inside a woman’s mind, understand their struggles, or comprehend their viewpoint.

For all my complaining, I have to say that I really believe that the Mass Effect series is a truly phenomenal epic. And as I have said, FemShep is, to me, the greatest video game character of all time. I can only hope that, next time, someone like her is the main protagonist of a game, not just an option for a playable character.

Not only is representation of women in the game world horrific, but representation of women of color is far worse, as Becci pointed out in her recent article. The industry has some serious work to do when it comes to making strides for gender and racial inclusivity, which we will be discussing more in our subsequent articles in this series.

As you wait for part two, let us know: What do you think of FemShep and other women characters in games, and how can the industry begin to improve? Join the discussion in the comments below!

Written by Taylor Morgan 

  • Karen G R

    I’m a woman, and while I greatly enjoy playing as F!Shep, I actually prefer to play M!Shep. Oddly enough, my husband prefers F!Shep to M!Shep. Although I agree at the loss of an opportunity in the marketing department. I do appreciate the strides they’ve made concerning female characters in general. I stayed away from a lot of modern gaming for years because of it. I’ll admit, I had no desire to play as an oversexualized Lara Croft. My gateway game to modern gaming was Uncharted, and I loved how natural it was to have Elena and Chloe as team members, even though they were not actually playable.

    TL;DR, I like the direction Bioware has pointed games, and I hope that they continues to make strides towards more gaming equality.

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  • Cluisanna

    RPGs are usually better in giving character options; I have spent 200+ hours on Skyrim with a female Dragonborn :)

  • Nils Bolle

    Good article. As far as I’m concerned, femshep is the best shep.
    Another fantastic Bioware game in which you can play as a female is Jade Empire, where there isn’t really a ‘default’ protagonist (you can play as a male too, it’s all up to you). While the female PC’s are also sexualized to a certain degree, they actually bothered to explain why in the in-game lore, which at the time I thought was great.
    As a male, I actually prefer playing with female protagonists. If given the option, I usually go with a female character, like in KotOR, KotOR2 (where the female protagonist is actually the canon one, being the Jedi Exile; I read in another comment that this was insulting, but I don’t really see how or why), Fable 2 & 3 (where the female protagonist is as sexualized as you want her to be), Elder Scrolls games, Saint’s Row 1/2, Borderlands, etc. I don’t know why but it’s simply more fun.
    I have to admit though, I don’t think games like Bayonetta would have been as successful as they were if the main character wasn’t hypersexualized. But there are others too, where it doesn’t really matter, like Faith in Mirror’s Edge or Rubi Malone in Wet.
    All in all, I don’t think there’s much wrong with female representation in video games, but it’s possible I’m biased. Keep in mind, there are male stereotypes too, but I don’t think anyone minds those (James Vega, for one; and most of the characters in Gears of War). But they are in the minority, I’ll admit.

  • Honoke

    Wait, how is Samus hypersexualized?

  • Nina

    Good article, but some some sentences made me stop in my tracks. I agree with the previous poster, for example (Honoke). Also this one:

    “it is men who primarily create media as such” [Yes, I'm with you]

    “their efforts to represent women is impeded by the fact that they cannot truly get inside a woman’s mind, understand their struggles, or comprehend their
    viewpoint.” [Er... really?]

  • HannahJ

    Interestingly, I was discussing gaming with my boyfriend the other day, and the way it overtly hypersexualises female characters. His defense was that Zelda is the best game ever made, ad that she is the man character. I’m not a massive gamer, but to my mind, Zelda is a ‘damsel in distress’, whom the gamer must try to rescue throughout the game. Am I right? Can a female character exist without either being overtly sexual in appearance, or unable to survive without the help of a man?

    • Ame

      I’ll have to disagree with Zelda being a “damsel in distress”. Though it appeared that way in some of the games, Zelda herself is often doing her own things and helping Link out in the games–and most of the time it’s to save the kingdom, not her.

    • undercontrol86

      Zelda isn’t the main character, just the titular character. The main character is Link, and through most Zelda games the titular princess is strictly a damsel in distress. The exceptions that I’m aware of are Ocarina, where she disguises herself as a man and helps Link with clues and ninja magic, and Wind Waker, where she spends most of the game as a badass pirate and only gets kidnapped after discovering she’s a royal descendant.

      It’s entirely physically possible, in a universe of infinite capacity, that a female character COULD exist without either being overtly sexual in appearance or unable to survive without the help of a man… it’s just not very likely until women start being the majority purchasers of triple-A games. There are indie games with strong female protagonists, but the mainstream will be dominated by strong dudes and hot chicks so long as that’s what the audience is buying. You can’t blame game developers for not writing independent female leads when the boy half of the market attacks them for ruining their hobby and the girl half of the market attacks them for not doing it right the first time, i.e. the new Tomb Raider debacle.

      Complex, complex problems.

  • Ame

    It’s certainly good to see that female playable protagonists are slowly becoming a thing, and that too ones that aren’t hypersexualized. That said, I think it’s unfair to count out other female characters in games that while may not be completely playable are still very good characters–progress is progress, right?

    From my own experience, I automatically think of Elika from Prince of Persia (the 2008 game). She wasn’t the main character being played but you could control her to some extent, and she wasn’t sexualized at all and a very strong character. The gaming manual even described her as “A practical and intelligent woman in a patriarchal society.”

  • airwave16

    “when men could not.”

    really? that’s what you got out of the game? that shepard got shit done specifically because she’s female?

    check yourself.

    • Taylor Morgan

      In my playthrough of the game, Shepard was able to get things done that other men in the Alliance could not. It wasn’t about her gender; she was just able to do all of those things and happened to be a woman, which is the point. She didn’t get it done specifically because of her gender; I said the exact opposite.

  • Bruce

    lara croft has nothing on the girls in Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball – they are so sexy

  • undercontrol86

    It’s interesting to me how you say that male writers “cannot truly get inside a woman’s mind, understand their struggles, or comprehend their viewpoint”, and yet your “greatest female game character” is written to be genderless. The dialogue is the same for FemShep and BroShep, with the exception of gender pronouns. It seems to me like writing a female character is a lot like writing any interesting and well-rounded character, regardless of gender.

    • Taylor Morgan

      Trying to write a specifically female character is something men cannot truly do properly; Shepard works because she/he is written as genderless. The problem that emerges comes from men writing women specifically.

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  • p b

    lol female protagonist are not about appealing to women.. they are just about appealing to the male population who prefer to play female characters.

    confession: i am male, and in any game that gives me the choice i play female character, from the first time as chun li to my breton mage in skyrim.

    • Taylor Morgan

      And that is the problem, to me, in gaming. It completely erases from the gaming community the large population of female gamers who deserve representation. It’s nice to know that there are male gamers who play female characters for more than just their bodies!

  • Hydra

    Worth mentioning that in Valve’s game Half Life 2, there was a protagonist female (although unplayable) named Alyx who was very capable/badass. Also she was cute without being hypersexualized. She had clothes that made sense and covered her up in the sort of post-apocalyptic universe. Her hair was pushed back with a bandana, and she had no make up on. She was also of mixed-race (black and white). She wasn’t presented as a love-interest, although she subtly became one towards the end of the game. Her character was amazing in its normality to real-life, and super refreshing to me as a female-gamer who is often complaining about the lack of “realistic” women in games.

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  • Bryn Strahan

    I like reading articles like this, it makes me stop and think about the games I’ve played and the characters I’ve played as well. I’ve just watched ‘Tropes vs Women in Video Games’ on youtube, and I was looking for lists of strong female characters, playable ones most specifically. The are some, and some are quite well portrayed, some others are simply avatars for our own personalities, such as older RPG games that allowed a choice of gender for your characters, but less of a specific characterization, often due to tech constraints or style of game.

    As another comment said, I enjoy playing female characters, they are the ones I feel most comfortable playing, romance-wise I have played straight characters, I have played gay characters, it has never matter to me, as long as I could enjoy the interaction between the two characters. That point aside, I feel much the same about FemShep, she is the real Shep to me, always will be, regardless of what others may say. Bioware has done a fantastic job with Shepard, they created a character you could truly become attached to, which I found to be something of a problem in Dragon Age, where I certainly enjoyed the game, but did not really connect with my character like I did with Shepard.

    I was thinking back to a previous Bioware game, KOTOR, and thinking of the way the female characters were treated there, while certainly your character can be strong and powerful, etc, Bastila and Juhani often seem to be somewhat hopeless without you, though they show their strength as often, if not more often, Bastila’s instances of Damsel in Distress really do feel unfortunate though.

    I’m very interested to get a more detailed look at the new Tomb Raider, the redesign looks very good to me, and seems to retain Lara’s positive traits of independence and not needing anyone else (as far as I’ve seen thus far anyways).

    I am always happy to see a new strong female character in a game, especially if they’re a/the protagonist, the dual-gendered/genderless examples can often be quite well done, though still lean towards the standard of the male version is the advertised one, the ‘real’ one, unfortunate. We could use more strong characters like Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, tough, independent and ready to take on a huge responsibility, or Jennifer Tate from Primal, turning the “normal” rescue sequence on it’s head to rescue her boyfriend.

    I’m going to stop here, this post is getting far too long.

    Thank you for writing this article, it was a very good read.

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