Tropes vs Women: Ms Male Character

So, now we move on to a new topic, that of the Ms. Male Character, and the related trope The Smurfette Principle. The Ms. Male Character trope is where a male character is “reskinned” into a female character, with very similar mechanics and a feminized — sometimes hyper-feminized — set of visual characteristics. So a character is turned/wears pink, wears a bow, wears high heels, and so on, but there’s not much difference between them and the usually original male character. The Smurfette Principle is where there is one female character in the group of main characters, and her role and personality is essentially defined around being a female character, which ties into its associated trope The Chick. It’s these tropes that Sarkeesian is mostly taking on this time, falling into the standard idea that men are seen as the default and women are not, so women have to be marked visually while men don’t.

While this may or may not be true, I don’t think that this is what gives rise to these tropes in games. It seems to me that these tropes get invoked when game designers — and producers of all other media, for that matter — get the idea into their heads that they need to have a female character in their work, whether that is to appeal to the female audience or appease those who complain about the lack of female characters in games. No matter what the origin, what they do is create a character whose main defining trait is that they are female. That defines their character design, personality, backstory, goals and, well, pretty much everything about them. Small wonder, then, that as characters they end up being nothing more than a female character.

This explains all of the uses and tropes we see above. Why is it that their main role in the story is to be the female? Because they were created that way. Why is it that they don’t actually have any sort of personality beyond the stereotypical female personality traits? Because they have to represent all girls and women, and so can’t have more personality than that. Why is their character design so stereotypically and often hyper-feminine? Because again it has to represent all women, and as a character meant to represent and appeal to the female audience it has to be obvious that they’re a female character. At the end of the day, then, the push for inclusion from people like Sarkeesian risks producing exactly these sorts of tokenized representations that she argues against here.

This also shows why her example of a good way to do female characters doesn’t work:

Claire is a simple blue cube and one of the more memorable characters from the indie game Thomas Was Alone. We know she is female because of her name, her narrative and the pronouns used during gameplay. Claire’s gender presentation doesn’t reduce her to her gender or separate her from the rest of the cast.

Sarkeesian has talked in a number of places about how one should only distinguish male from female with names and pronouns. The problem with doing it by name is that it stops you from using gender-neutral names. So, no “Chris Lightfellow” from Suikoden III. I also know a man and a woman named “Darcy”, and “Blair” is a name that can be used for both men and women. This, then, illegitimately restricts the names you can use if you want the audience to know that a character is female. This also causes problems for works that span cultures, or are inspired by other cultures. I used to work with a lot of contractors in India, and when meeting people for the first time — usually through E-mail — I had no idea what gender was associated with what name. So a game based on Indian culture would not be able to distinguish by name. But the worst problem is that games are, in fact, critically a visual medium. The reason that game designers hyper-feminize these characters is to make it obvious from the outset that these are, indeed, female characters. In line with Sarkeesian’s comments, if they can’t tell by sight whether or not the character is a female character, then there is no point in putting in the female character at all because the players are likely to consider it a male character. Since their goal is to get female representation into the game, this rather defeats the purpose.

And getting female representations into games is pretty much what Sarkeesian wants, so that means that she’s going to have to accept some sort of visual cues that make it clear which characters are male and which are female. Fortunately, with the increase in graphics ability — even on small, hand-held gaming systems and phones — it’s easier to make a more defined character image that then can show the relevant … attributes clearly, without having to overemphasize them. This should eliminate the need to “go big” on the feminine qualities, so you won’t have to have female characters with very long hair or wearing bright pink to signal that, hey, this is a female character.

But what we really need to do is stop putting female characters into games as female characters, but instead on adding characters into games that happen to be female. I think that Bioware typically does this well, and I think part of why it does it is because it adds romance options. Even if you start from a male default, if you are going to add more than one romance options — and RPG gamers really want more than one romance option — then you have to start thinking about creating romance options characters as characters. Not only do they have to be a character that the main character can fall in love with given the wide variety of personalities that players can foist upon it, the romance options also have to be significantly different as characters so that the player feels that there’s actually a choice there. So it can’t be just a choice between the hot blonde, the hot brunette, and the hot redhead, but instead between the aggressive and evil woman, the paragon of purity, and the shy, bookish woman. The more complex you make the main character, then, the more complicated the romance options have to be so that you can find someone who can appeal to the character the player is creating, from evil vs good, to lawful vs chaotic, to intelligent vs stupid, to intellectual vs physical, etc, etc, etc. Starting from that point gets you creating characters that happen to be female — and in this case, have to be female — but who are defined as being characters.

But Bioware goes further than this by building a team of “companions”, not all of which are going to be romanced or romanceable. This means that they have to fit roles in combat, as well as roles as even just “friends” to the main character, where the main character is a diverse character defined pretty much by the player, and can be male or female. So the characters have to be ones that can be romanced by the appropriate characters, but also ones that characters that don’t want to romance them can like or dislike, and given the complexity of companion backstories that Bioware loves have to be characters that the player wants to find out more about. Essentially, by creating interesting characters and then fitting them into a gender, Bioware dodges these issues and ends up creating characters that are always more than just “The Chick”, which also allows them to subvert the expectations as well.

Now, people have criticized Sarkeesian for complaining about gendered presentation while herself presenting in a gendered way, with her earrings and hair and other ways in which she dresses, calling her a hypocrite. I don’t think calling her a hypocrite is valid, but I do think that it highlights a problem with her argument: a lot of the things that are considered gendered are, in fact, things that women in the real world actually wear. You can criticize their inclusion as being inappropriate in some cases, but some of her examples — the bows on the armour, for example — are unfair because women are allowed to and often do add such feminine touches as she herself does. The solution to this is to, again, create more female characters so that we can have a diversity of such representations, so that we don’t see female characters as “the ones who wear pink/high heels” but instead see them as female characters who happen to wear pink or high heels or whatever … or not.

Ultimately, it is people like Sarkeesian herself who drive the Ms. Male Character and Smurfette Principle tropes, by counting female characters and pushing for female representation without making a push for quality over quantity, and instead arguing that the representation is lacking based solely on the numbers. What we need to push for are better characters in general, and thus female characters instead of characters that are female.


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