So March is apparently Women’s History Month. Let’s capitalize on that…with yet another ill-advised discussion on gender politics in video games! Rejoice, sort of! Or, alternatively, despair!
There was an article on The Escapist a while ago that discussed the controversy surrounding a cover for a Spider-Woman comic. Put simply, the art is what you’d call “buttnomenal”. With the emphasis on the butt. It’s not exactly what I’d call the greatest art I’ve ever seen, but then again my comic book collection couldn’t even fill a shoebox. All I know is that I can respect the apparently-famous artist, but the art itself isn’t exactly something I can get behind. Apologies for the pun.
In any case, the article got me thinking. It actually mirrored a sentiment brought up by (the great) Jim Sterling once upon a time: the portrayal of both genders kind of sucks in video games. But the key idea is that there’s a difference: men in games -- and fiction in general, a lot of times -- tend to be idealized. And of course, women (sometimes literally) tend to be objectified. There’s a difference.
So imagine my reaction, reading that article and agreeing with the opinions there. It should go without saying, but making the fabled and elusive “strong female character” is something that means a lot to me. A WHOLE LOT, but I’ll explain that another day, maybe. In any case, I have my doubts that enacting some sort of sweeping change in the game industry is going to happen just by writing one measly little post, and debating the issue at hand in WAY to many words. But as a would-be writing hero, I would prefer to write good female characters instead of, you know, bad ones.
If you’ve read some of my other stuff, you know that I actually have a pretty lax opinion when it comes to female characters and their design. That’s not to say I don’t believe there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed (Mu-12 from BlazBlue comes to mind, because what the hell ArcSys), but as is usually the case, CONTEXT IS IMPORTANT. Just because a character is improbably buxom or wearing a skintight blue suit doesn’t automatically make them the worst thing ever. The issue -- for me, at least -- is that it’s going to be my duty to come up with that context. There has to be some thought put into the character’s particulars. And as such, I had a thought. “So male characters are idealized, and people tend to be okay with that,” I said to myself. “So maybe there’s something to be gained by doing the opposite.” And then I asked myself a question.
“Wait, how the hell do you idealize a female character?”
Now, let’s be real here. The obvious answer is
DO NOT TRY TO IDEALIZE CHARACTERS, MALE OR FEMALE.
Just make a character. Give him/her a solid personality. Give them strengths and weaknesses, physical and mental. Give them a chance to be more than just basic archetypes; let them do stuff, triumph, struggle, make mistakes, and more. I’ve always been under the impression that if a character is liked, it’s because an audience naturally decides “Wow, this is a pretty cool guy.”
Or to put it a different way: a “cool character”, in my opinion is someone a person would actually want to be around. Someone you’d want to hang out with, or meet in person. Could you do that with an idealized character? Sure, maybe. But (the great) Jim Sterling brought up Kratos as an idealized male -- and for all the fans he may have earned, I can’t imagine that there are too many people out there who’d want to spend more than five seconds around him. Or, you know, even stand in the same city-state.
But let’s get back to the matter at hand. Let’s go ahead and entertain the thought -- follow the line to its logical conclusion. How do you idealize a female character? That’s a question I’m hard-pressed to answer. I’ll be counting on those of you reading this to offer up some strong arguments of your own, but in the meantime, I figure I might as well try to stumble my way towards one possible answer. So bear with me for another few thousand words.
Like it or not, physical appearances are important -- in fiction and beyond. So a character’s look is definitely a factor that goes into the idealization process. But as many, many, many instances in the past have proven, it’s not enough to go MORE BOOBS, LESS CLOTHES and expect accolades. (It’s pretty much the opposite at this point, isn’t it?) So if creating an idealized male character -- who we’ll call IMC from here on -- is about creating a sense of power, then there has to be some sort of equivalent for an IFC, right?
It sounds reasonable enough. So what is it, then?
It’s no secret that I’ve been iffy about the concept of strength when applied to characters, because A) strength AND weakness is important to the process, and B) I’ve seen that quest to create a powerful character go awry all too many times. Sorting out those power dynamics makes a huge difference-- trust me, I know. But an IMC’s strength is likely different from an IFC’s. Strength for an IMC means power. Domination. Control. They’re ideal because of their ability to stand above others in terms of ability, physical or mental. (I’d put the emphasis on “physical”, though, because at least in terms of games, there’s usually a push to make the player feel powerful -- and there ain’t no book learnin’ that can do that. Not as well, at least.)
It’s a slippery slope, if you ask me. Sure, giving an IFC strength can help, but it has to be the right strength, and not at the expense of everything else. So yes, Final Fantasy 13’s Lightning may be a no-nonsense soldier that can take on all of the bad guys, but she’s such a terrible character that her awfulness -- which is never, ever discussed -- ends up causing nearly all of her trilogy’s problems. Even beyond that, what kind of statement is a reliance on strength making? “In order to be an ideal character, you have to have the ability to hurt others.” That doesn’t sit right with me.
I think that what’s important here isn’t just raw power (in the physical sense). Rather, it comes down to two things: agency and legitimacy. As gamers, we’re no strangers to the princesses, mages, and all-around girlfriends that need saving on a regular basis, and it’s a real problem that even now women are getting the shaft just so our games’ leads can have some sort of motivation. I won’t soon forget that Watch Dogs, claimed to be a major foray into the realm of “next-gen”, gave its leading man -- and I use that term lightly -- a push into action by killing off his niece and putting his sister in danger. Then again, I’m under the impression that Watch Dogs was made by a crack team of wombats, so that doesn’t count.
So the solution to the problem, at least a little bit, is to give the IFC agency. Make a character that doesn’t have to stand or hide behind anyone. It’s been done before with characters like Bayonetta and Juliet Starling, and while that does come coupled with their ass-stomping potential (their ASP, if you will), there’s enough to them so that they’re more than just vessels of power. They are people, even if they’re not exactly what you’d call realistic.
But what’s just as important -- maybe more so -- is the legitimacy of the character, in-universe and out of it. People still point to Ivy Valentine circa Soulcalibur IV as THE example of everything wrong with the portrayal of women in video games -- and they’re right to do so. There is absolutely no justification for that, given either by the character or the story (in SC4, Ivy wants nothing more than to die -- so why is she, a well-off aristocrat, alchemist, and maiden, running around dressed like that?).
Now, there are liberties that can be taken, but there’s always a limit. The IFC deserves to be considered as a legitimate character because of all the factors that comprise her -- words, actions, abilities, and yes, looks. Exaggeration of attributes is allowed -- how long are Bayonetta’s legs?! -- but every factor has to have its purpose. If we’re talking about “the ideal”, then everything has to lead to the IFC being someone that an audience member would want to be. They have to be the apotheosis.
So. Let’s beat a horse so dead, its zombified corpse is mush.
I’m going to be honest here. I actually like Zero Suit Samus’ alternate costume. I’m even not joking. I’ll admit that my perception at the time was altered (my dogs have a nasty habit of waking me up well before sunrise), but when I scrolled my way to her picture on the site, my first reaction -- the one that stopped every other thought cold -- was an unbridled “WHOA!” And the more I thought about it -- i.e. when my brain actually started working -- the more I came to my own personal conclusion. I think ZSS looks freakin’ hype. Not enough to play her, mind, but for me it works a lot better than it should.
Admittedly the curvature of her torso looks a little off in that screenshot, but I can look past that. (Darkstalkers and other 2D fighters mess with proportions all the time, in action or out of it; hell, Guy in Super Street Fighter 4 had his legs extended past the norm to get his look and motions right.) When I look at that version of ZSS, I don’t think “fanservice”. And I certainly don’t think of “betrayal” by Nintendo, or “disservice” to a legendary heroine. No, the first thing that comes to my mind is “strength”.
As others have pointed out, she looks like she’s ready for -- or just wrapping up -- a workout session. Coupled with a character renowned for her status as one of gaming’s greatest female icons, it’s a combination that leaves one hell of a strong impression. Does it give added emphasis to her femininity? Yes. Is that a bad thing? No. Are Nintendo, Sakurai, and Bandai Namco skirting a thin line? Yes. Are they out to devalue their character? No. If anything, I think they’re trying to enhance her.
Samus means a lot to plenty of gamers. Even when she was just a mass of pixels, her space adventures left an impression -- as did her reveal. Not being much in the way of Metroid, I can’t comment too much about what kind of character she might be. But what I can say, based on my inferences, is that the separate traits -- the perceived masculine and the perceived feminine -- don’t have to exist behind walls as high as mountains. In the absence of a game that satisfactorily advances either the Metroid canon or Samus’ character, all we have to go by for now are visuals. What can she tell us with her looks? Her moves? Her stances, her strategies, everything? And right now, the message that I’m getting is that she’s still the badass bounty hunter everyone envisioned, no matter what she’s wearing.
She’s just super-proud of her body, that’s all. Given the option, wouldn’t you be? I know I would.
I can’t shake the feeling that the “trap” that comes with creating a female character -- ideal or otherwise -- is that it’s a concept entangled with creating the perfect woman. Going back to FF13, it’s a long-standing joke that the director of The Lightning Saga treats its leading lady as his waifu. (I say joke, but it’s only funny because it’s partly true.) That’s the sort of thing that can cause one million billion problems for a creator and his work -- but the reason I bring it up is because it highlights the disparity.
Lightning is less than ideal for me; I’ve made that clear time and time again. And the same lack of appeal goes to others. But at the same time, even if I’m a guy who doesn’t mind the HD-boosted ZSS, there are those who have every right to believe that her alternate costume -- or even her main one -- is a step backward. It’s hard to come to, or even get a sense for the consensus. Is the IFC a warrior, or a protector? A thinker, a fighter, or a nurturer? Striking in appearance, or more down-to-earth? Muscular, or waifish? Tall? Short? Outgoing, or reserved? Shattering gender roles and expectations, conforming to them, or twisting them as needed?
Even someone like Katniss takes heat as well as praise. Is she good? Is she bad? All I know for sure is that she’s popular. But popular or otherwise, she’s not the definitive answer to the question.
There is no definitive answer, because as long as the execution of the character is on-point, they can ALL be viable answers…just not for everyone. Because of that, I suspect that this problem -- the debates that crop up, over and over and over again -- will keep resurfacing every time there’s a new screenshot or some new art.
There’s no definitive answer -- because there have been very few, if any, in the gaming canon that can or will provide one.
Hold your horses. And your comments. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
My gut instinct is that it’s easier to settle on (and accept) an IMC because the route there is a lot more well-defined. It’s true that Kratos in God of War 1 had some juice to him besides just being Anger McMuscles, but what’s the grand summation of the character right now, and what will it be years down the line? That he’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of giving in to desire, ambition, and fury? Or that he kills lots of monsters, screws plenty of ladies (guess he got over his late wife), and gets to be a god just by being the toughest guy in the room?
Conversely, the route to being an IFC is likely much more complex; even one step down a fork in the road -- a use of one of any number of factors, like the ones I mentioned earlier -- can lead to a dead end. Is Bayonetta as a character universally respected? Or are there those who, justifiably, take issue with her being Sexyhair Q. Crotchsplayer? (The less said about how a female character has to flaunt her body to star in a character action game, the better.)
Bemoaning the lack of female characters -- ideal or otherwise -- is pretty much part and parcel with being a gamer these days. That’s a shame. That’s not the way it should be. But I have absolutely no problems understanding why putting them in the game is perceived as such a big risk. No one has the perfect, one-to-one guide on creating an IFC. No one.
I’d like to think that the problem could be solved if developers would ask what sort of character women might want, or at least trying to keep a pulse on the matter. Understanding the needs of an audience is important, especially when said audience makes up a good half of the planet. But on the other hand, I was under the impression that caving to demands and “giving the people what they want” is what gave us such memorable titles like Fuse.
Let’s get serious for a minute. Like I’ve said before, I’ve always thought that creators were supposed to bear the responsibility. That is, if they’re out for true success, they can’t just “give the people what they want”. They have to give the people something that they never even knew they wanted. The only way to do that is by tapping into their namesake -- by using their creativity, ingenuity, skill, and wit to offer up something that can please others. Maybe not everyone under the sun, sure, but more than enough people. You know, give them something for them to unite under.
Granted we live in a world where there are four -- and soon to be five -- Transformers movies by Michael Bay, so who knows at this stage. Still, that’s no reason to refuse to put in effort. It’s been done before, and it can be done again. It’s all in service of the fans. If you’re looking to entertain, then you’d damn well better do your best to entertain. No exceptions.
Now, you remember how I said there aren’t a lot of examples of an IFC? That’s true -- to an extent. But there is one that I feel like I have to bring up. No, it’s not Alyx Vance. No, it’s not Jade. No, it’s not Elizabeth. No, it’s not Ellie. No, it’s not whoever you’re thinking of right now, so please stop guessing.
It’s Milla. Milla Maxwell.
Tales of Xillia’s leading lady is an interesting case -- because as it so happens, she’s idealizing herself. Relatively speaking (it’s complicated, and full of spoilers), she’s the god of Xillia’s world; her thought processes and concepts are miles past the norm. As it so happens, she mentions candidly in a conversation that she chose that form -- that of “a busty twenty-year-old”, as one party member puts it -- because she thought it would be appealing to men.
I’ll be blunt. You have no idea how much it means to me to have a character explain their looks in-universe. If you compare Milla to every other character in the game, you’ll notice that her waist is tiny, even taking the anime affect into consideration. And why? Because that’s what she thinks looks best. That’s her way of making herself ideal. Not to mention her personal tastes.
But it goes beyond looks (and that hair, which probably weighs more than the rest of her body put together). She’s a god who lays claim to the ideal form of power, i.e. using summon spirits to guide her -- and when she loses them in the game’s opening hour, she’s left damn near winded just by walking. She seeks the ideal knowledge by reading all the books she can get her hands on. So in theory, she should be well-adjusted, right?
Nope. In practice, there’s a big tradeoff. She’s isolated herself from humans, and as a result lacking in practical applications of her knowledge. Moreover, for a hefty swath of the game she sees humans as toddlers she can laugh at, coddle, or punish as needed. Her virtues and her very status are ideal -- but when the big reveals come and go, she’s left with everything she’s known challenged…though surprisingly, she handles everything like a pro. Up to and including a brief sequence where she’s paralyzed from the waist down.
Milla’s a strange character -- with her voice pretty much sealing the deal on her otherworldliness -- but I’d argue she gets pretty damn close to reaching the optimal state. She’s an IFC in the conventional sense; de-powered or otherwise, she’s a magic swordswoman who can wallop any enemies that come her way, so physical ability isn’t an issue (once she learns how to walk and swim and eat, of course).
Her looks might raise an eyebrow or two, but that’s counterbalanced by her strong personality and development; she’s a decidedly-mature character who stands firm in the face of adversity. And while there is a romance element to both the character and the game at large, it’s done without any hand-wringing moments. Hell, Jude’s the one who’s pining for her, and trying to reach her level; Milla doesn’t have to suddenly get degraded just so Jude can swoop in and catch her in his arms. (Interestingly, Milla is taller than Jude -- officially by a couple of inches, but I swear the game and several art pieces exaggerate the difference.) So at the basest, you can say that she’s got the agency and legitimacy bits down.
But I guess it’s worth adding a third point to the list: originality. This one could easily be the clincher; it’s one thing to try and make an ideal character, but without that spark to call their own -- by just banking on the basic outlines and expectations -- there’s going to be a pretty big gap if you look any deeper than the surface level.
Considering Milla, she’s in a surprisingly good place; she has a unique perspective on the world, she’s got plenty of character (humor or otherwise), she meshes well with the rest of the cast, she has struggles that no one else in the game can have, and…well, it’s not every day you get to experience a story like hers. In a lot of ways, maybe that’s what it means to be ideal: being a character whose life you want to see unfold, however briefly.
…Shit, did I just answer my post’s own question? Then again, you could argue I did that by making Black Widow the header image.
Well, I could be wrong on some accounts -- or maybe all of them. I hope it doesn’t come to that by way of some intrepid commenter, but that’s a possibility I can live with. What’s important now is that I get some insights from anyone who had the courage to see this post through to its end. (One day I’ll learn how to write something with a reasonable length. One day.)
So let’s hear it, then. What’s your take? How do you idealize female characters? Is there a secret to it? Some shining exemplar? Is it even worth it, or just a fool’s errand? Say whatever’s on your mind. And don’t think too hard on the fact that I’m purposely avoiding talking about some of my female characters. Just assume that they’re all based on fighting game archetypes, and you’ll be fine. Ish. Assuming you’re okay with grapplers.
Also? EVERYBODY GO PLAY SOME TALES GAMES. THEY’RE SO GODLIKE.