Tag: women

Writer Report: On Strong Women & Sharing Work

Courtesy Square Enix

There’s been a lot of talk back and forth about the trailer for the new Tomb Raider that came out of E3. Word has been that this new Lara Croft would be darker and grittier, just like everything else is in games and fiction in general these days. A beaten and desperate Lara has to fight, crawl, sneak, and struggle her way from setpiece to setpiece in the game, and through it all she gasps, grunts, screams, and cries. I, like Susan Arendt, admire Lara’s tenacity. I like that there’s a sense of realism to go along with all of the platforming and combat. What I don’t like is that this and this alone is meant to make her a “stronger” character.

Strong women are not devoid of emotions. I’m glad Square Enix gets that. But you’re a fool if you think the only means demonstrate the emotions they have is through the mediums of torture, tragedy, or the power of a magical healing (or cackling evil) dick. You may think it’s the height of drama to have a female character develop through a wince-inducing, heart-rending struggle to survive as she’s faced with evil malefactors at every turn, but just a moment’s examination should reveal how shallow this method is. If you want to make your story interesting, you do need to hurt your characters, but if all you do to your female characters is beat them down or sex them up, people are going to start asking questions.

So ask the questions yourself, first. Bounce ideas off of another human being. If you don’t have the good fortune to live with one who’s interested in your work, use the Internet to meet some. Solicit opinions in a coffee shop. Go to a library and make the librarian cross by asking random people about the inner workings of your fictional clandestine organization. You need to share your work, and you need to get feedback, even if it’s completely negative.

How else are you to face the fact that your work is incomplete? No manuscript bursts forth from the head of its author fully-formed and ready to top sales charts. They need to develop. They need to grow. Rampant growth needs to be cut down, plot points need to be clarified, and darlings need to be dragged out behind the shed and shot. If you think you can do every single step of that process on your own, I think you may be part of the problem. As it was explained to me, no writer thinks they’re a bad writer. Self-deprecating as I may be at times, there’s a part of me that thinks what I have to offer the written word is worth someone else reading. In some ways, I may be right, but in others, I’m definitely wrong. And I won’t know that for sure which is which until I let someone else have at my words.

Let’s circle back to Lara. As a character to drive a game about the exploration of ancient ruins, fighting off threats of both natural and man-made origins, and hunting down obscure and inexplicable artifacts of dubious power and desirability, we need to do more than just make her an Indiana Jones knock-off, as Uncharted already beat her to that. I’m not sure how much of her backstory is changing with this latest reboot, but Lara always struck me as a woman who did what she did out of a sense of adventure, shunning the life of upper-class aristocracy because it was too constraining. I’m left wondering who she left behind when she made this decision. Are any of her former friends still trendy and wealthy, now the subject of tabloid reporting? Does she ever see a familiar face on a magazine, happy at a wedding or with a child? How does that make her feel? If the same friend was seen after a nasty split with an abusive ex, what would her reaction be? Does she get lonely out in the wild? What lines does she draw between what she’ll do and what she won’t, and why? Any one of these questions, if answered differently from the previous games if at all, could make for an interesting story to be laid like a foundation under the structure of gameplay. All it would have taken was one person sharing the standing ideas with another, and that other person bringing up any of the above points.

But no. Let’s just break a few of her bones and threaten her with some unsolicited hard-ons. And this time, not just from her fans!

I could be making a mountain out of a molehill, here, but to me, if all the game does to develop Lara’s character is push her down multiple times just to watch her get back up, it will have failed miserably in making the character better. Brienne of Tarth is a formidable and towering slayer of men, but that isn’t all she is. Zoe Washburne is not just first mate of the Serenity. Alex Roivas went through a great deal in Eternal Darkness and was only directly threatened occasionally. Miriam Black is more than the sum of her trash-talk, hustling, sex drive, and special powers. Ripley doesn’t just slay angry penis-monsters from beyond the stars. All of them have histories. All of them have points of view. All of them have feelings beyond “Hey, ow, this hurts.”

Why should Lara Croft, or new characters written by me or another author, be any different?

The Women of Skyrim

Courtesy Bethesda
Pop quiz: is that a man, or a woman, slaying that dragon?

I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim lately, between shifts at the day job and stabs at the rewrite. Even when it’s not entirely on my brain, the experience lingers, reminding me of quests to finish and things to craft at my local friendly blacksmith’s forge. That may be why, when my brain was otherwise occupied with work-related minutae, I engaged in a brief Twitter debate about Skyrim’s women.

This may seem a bit like riding on the coattails of yesterday’s Jimquisition, but this actually began here. A little entry on an Escapist thread went over well enough that I thought it warranted Tumbling. A concerned young woman, seeing my tweet, responded with a picture of a ‘busty wench’ from the game. I responded with some pictures of my own, contending that while some of the women in Skyrim do wear bodices, the treatment and portrayal of the ‘fairer sex’ is a lot better than it has and could have been.

You see, the women of Skyrim are varied characters from all walks of life, from warriors to mages, from miners to barmaids. I’m about 30 hours into the game and I have yet to see one being shown in an objectifying or demeaning manner. No dancing girls, no slaves to a male figure, not even a prostitute in sight. And the women who take up arms do so practically. They don’t squeak when they get hit and most of them wear armor that actually provides some protection, instead of wearing a couple of iron goblets over their nipples held in place by fine silver chains and magic.

There is, to me, a huge difference between characters like these and other ‘strong females’. Skyrim is closer to Eternal Darkness or Beyond Good & Evil than it is Heavenly Sword or any fighting game you care to name. Let’s face it: a barmaid in a bodice is no Mai Shiranui.

Courtesy Bethesda & SDK
One of these things is not like the other.

Now, I understand that barmaids are often dressed or dress themselves in a certain way to attract the male gaze and thus increase their tips for an evening’s work. And I know this isn’t necessary in a video game but can be exploited for a bit of that “peep show” thing game designers like to pull off. But, in this case, I don’t think Skyrim is doing this intentionally. Rather, it is set in a particular place with a particular aesthetic (namely, medieval Europe) and the ladies who made a living waiting tables in taverns had many of the same concerns and ways of addressing same that women working at Hooters do, only I doubt the owners of the Bannered Mare insist on booty shorts and tight, lung-restricting t-shirts. And nobody is expecting a barmaid to get into a one-on-one fight with someone – though if they did, most of them would kick our asses, you have to be tough in that business. Mai, on the other hand, is a competitor in the King of Fighters tournament, and dresses… well, you get the idea.

See, the reason I think Skyrim is succeeding where other games fail, at least in terms of aethetics, is that it’s only occasionally we see something like the barmaid above. For the most part, the women of Skyrim are dressed for the weather and their work. Furs, practical armor, hell – I met a woman north of Riften who works in a mine, and she’s doing it in a very plain shirt & trousers. That doesn’t stop me from considering her a potential bride for my hard-working spell-sword Breton Dovahkiin. My point is that these ladies are attractive without having to stop and pose like they know somebody’s watching them. And when you create your own female, the options are much more varied than they are in, say, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Which I’ll talk about soon.

Unfortunately, they aren’t delivering so much in the personality department. The voice acting and motion of the characters is much improved over Oblivion, but some of the limited dialogue options and repetition that happens in certain situations – following me, being my housecarl, etc – pierce the illusion that these are more the sort of female characters (or NPCs at least) many in the community are looking for. Still, from where I sit, it’s just another thing about Skyrim that marks it as an impressive feat and well worth all its hype. Even if it’s just a small move in the right direction, hampered by the lack of personality the way one of us is hampered by our shoelaces getting tied together, a little movement is better than none at all.

There Is No Sex

Schroedinger
Art courtesy Lucian

Once again I’ve provided a provocative title to try and get your attention. Is it working? Is it?

Yesterday’s post on females in fiction has generated some feedback, but thoughts from one of my friends got me thinking. He said, “Why not disregard gender entirely? Why not just write characters?” This is something worth consideration. Tyrande, the Baroness, Hit-Girl… they’re characters no more or less valid than Brann Bronzebeard, Destro or Kick-Ass. They all have interesting angles, they all exemplify parts of ourselves and they call can be used and abused at the hands of different writers. There are differences in character much deeper and more nuanced than their disparate gonads. So why do gonads come into it at all?

Is there, in fact, no sex? Or more to the point, no genders?

Proceeding with Lucian‘s intriguing line of thought, consider the following. While this is not a direct quotation from the conversation we had, it’s still thinking outside of myself, hence it gets the blockquote treatment.

The purpose of gender existing is to help us construct schema for social situations. A schema is a semi-conscious pre-evaluation of a situation based on how things are “meant” to work. Driving’s a good example. Driving has a tight schema: we expect people to drive on a certain side of the road, stop at red lights, etc.

Gender works like that for social situations. You see a person, evaluate male/female, and pre-judge how they will act based on gender stereotypes. The problem is, stereotypes hardly ever really hold true,
and they are usually reinforced into place by social expectation. Not to mention, they are harmful and insulting to “both” genders.

That is how gender works and why it exists.

And why it is very, very boring.

From the perspective of the writer, at least when it comes to fiction, the goal should be to write compelling characters, regardless of their gender. Now, this doesn’t mean that the newsboy on the corner should have as much depth or development as John Dillinger. But the characters we do spend time with should have some dimension to them, things for the audience to discover.

Say what you want about the stories in the Mass Effect universe, but many of the characters we encounter have depth and nuance divorced from their gender. Would Wrex be any less interesting if it turned out he was female? How about Tali’s fans – would they still exist in their large numbers (with me among them) if Tali was a male Quarian? I’d still want to hang with Tali if he were a guy, for the record. I’d also like to believe that Miranda would be just as smug and Jack just as caustic if they were men. Sure, their character models would undertake radical changes and Miranda probably wouldn’t be called Miranda, but that’s beside my point.

Under those layers with varying degrees of curvature and color that we call “bodies,” the characters we create that carry our stories should be interesting, thoughtful, compelling – human. “Human” means more than gender. It applies to our lives, and I think it should apply to our fiction as well.

How important is gender, when you get right down to it? When it comes to what’s really important about our characters – motivation, outlook, goals and fears – is there, in fact, no sex?

Doing Girls Right

Courtesy Blizzard

Women in fiction can be tricky things for writers, especially male ones. Every individual, regardless of gender, is a creature of nuance, and unless you want your work to be regarded as lacking substance, easily disposable and the sort of thing no publishing house will get near with a ten foot pole, your ladies are going to need just as much development as the gentlemen. But there is definitely a wrong way of doing it. Or them, if you want your discussion to become kinky.

Gracing the top of today’s post is the feral and beautiful face of Tyrande Whisperwind, from the Warcraft universe. When she and her people were first introduced in Warcraft III, they were depicted as a semi-Amazonian society, where the females hunted, fought and provided for settlements while the men healed, dealt in the arts and acted as spiritual guides, when they weren’t hibernating. Tyrande, a high priestess, rode a giant tiger into battle and, despite being mated to the world’s most powerful druid, wasn’t the sort to be pushed around. To this day, the quote that will always define her for me is “Only the Goddess can forbid me anything, Malfurion!”

Unfortunately, this depiction of a strong female leader didn’t hold up over time. Richard Knaak has, through several of his novels, chosen to take Tyrande down a slightly different path, that of a somewhat meek woman not entirely comfortable in her own skin whose identity is completely entwined with that of her husband. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, that fact that night elves do not marry – they choose mates privately and don’t make a big deal out of it. According to Knaak, Tyrande’s more of a “teenybopper”, either waiting to be rescued from one peril or another, or wringing her hands shyly while the men (more than likely Rhonin and a couple others) sort out how to fix the issues of the day. This isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of role-players take their night elf females in exactly this same direction, watering down the uniqueness and draw of their entire race as far as I’m concerned.

This is starting to sound a bit like that complaint I had about the Baroness.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The thing that really irked me about the Baroness’ derailment in the G.I. Joe movie was the apparent necessity to not only have her secretly being a “girl in love” but also mind controlled. First of all, just because you have a female character doesn’t mean they need to be defined by a relationship to a male. Tyrande suffers from this at Knaak’s hands, as I mentioned, but I see it everywhere, even in good works like Inception. Granted, in that work, Mal is actually a projection of Cobb’s unresolved feelings and guilt over the loss of his wife, so it’s more a case of him being defined by his relationship with her, but it can be interpreted as this sort of problem as well.

G.I. Joe, though, has no wiggle room. Everything that made the Baroness interesting, clever and fun to watch was never real to begin with because (a) she never stopped loving that unemotive dull-surprise-faced Duke for whatever reason and (b) she was being manipulated and brainwashed by Cobra’s malevolent doctor. The worst part is that for most of the film this was barely eluded to, even if eagle-eyed viewers could see the penny on the rails long before her character’s train hit it. It was going in a cool direction before it jumped the tracks. She wasn’t uninteresting, meek, submissive and just waiting for a male to take her away, unlike other supposed “heroines” I could mention. But after the changeover she might as well have been walking next to Edward Cullen instead of Duke.

So let’s take a look at a girl done right.

ourtesy LionsGate Entertainment

Kick-Ass introduces us to Hit-Girl. Instead of being defined by her relationship with her father, she turns it around and defines that relationship herself. And when she’s on her own, she doesn’t fall apart. You won’t catch her wringing her hands in dismay or wondering what to do next. She takes action. She does the best she can with what she’s got. And she does her own way, woe be to anybody stupid enough to be between her and what she’s after.

I hesitate to call her a “role model” due to the violent, foul-mouthed way she goes about doing things, but once you get past the bloodshed, there really is a lot to admire about Hit-Girl. As a male writer, I often find myself struggling to ensure I deal with female characters fairly, neither watering them down to the point of being uninteresting or inflammatory to potential female readers, nor amping up their sexuality to sell more words. I mean, I like a good-looking woman as much as the next red-blooded straight guy, but when it comes to works of fiction as well as real relationships, there’s got to be more to her or I’m likely to lose interest. You enjoy eating cheesecake in the moment, but how often do you remember eating it a week or a month later, unless it was really, really good?

Give me a few more examples of either extreme. Lay on me what sort of things you’d like to see girls in fiction saying, doing and being. What’s overdone? What isn’t done enough? I just want to ensure that, in my hands, girls are done right.

When it comes to writing, of course.

*ahem*

Girls in Gaming

I touched on this subject yesterday, and it’s something that I’d like to expand upon. Basically, there’s a tendency among both game designers and game players to marginalize, sexualize or downright denigrate the role of women both in the games and playing games. It’s a stupid, misogynistic and shockingly accepted behavior, and I really wish it’d stop.

Courtesy Ninja Theory
Nice job empowering young girls out there, Christie.

Now, don’t get me wrong. As a red-blooded mostly-heterosexual male who still has a pulse, I can appreciate a curvaceous woman who’s unashamed of her body. But really, how you can take the female fighters from Dead or Alive, stick them in a game that has them frolicking around on a beach in skimpy swimwear and not call it objectification? I mean to have strong women in a fighting game is one thing, but to take them from that context and stick them in another where all they do is flail around at one another, roll around on a sandy beach and pose provocatively for the player is quite another. At one point in DOAXBV 2, Christie does a pole dance. It’s just absolutely shameless exploitation of her sexuality. On top of the unfortunate social message this sends, the engine’s “jiggle physics” makes things unrealistic to the point of hilarity. Sure, somebody’s somewhere getting off on it as I write this, but I could say the same thing about a picture of a particularly woolly sheep.

Courtesy Daily Mail UK
Somewhere out there, somebody’s picturing Victa here on a pole.

Even when taking a lead role in a game, it’s difficult to find a pre-determined female protagonist who isn’t meant more to titillate than inspire. I haven’t been able to take Lara Croft seriously for some time now, for example. Bayonetta is a pretty blatant example of female protagonist exploitation, but at least she’s aware of it and is willing to laugh at how pathetic her exploiters can be. For the ultimate tongue-in-cheek gamer prick “taking the piss” experience, I’d love to see her saunter into a future No More Heroes title.

Courtesy Sega
Seriously. This babe, teamed up with Travis Touchdown. Think about it.

It’s not all bad news, though. Yesterday I talked about Alyx Vance, from Half-Life 2 and its episodes. While she isn’t the main character, she gets a lot more characterization and personality than Gordon does, other than what’s projected onto him by the player. She’s probably still number one on my list of female sidekicks, though Farah from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is a very close second. And when it comes to protagonists, positive ones are certainly out there. Alex Roivas from Eternal Darkness comes to mind, as does Jade from Beyond Good and Evil. But I think it’d be very difficult for me to find a girl gamer who doesn’t consider Samus Aran a very positive role model.

Courtesy Nintendo
Looking this good and kicking galactic-scale ass is a tough job.

Now, recent titles seem to depict Samus’ Zero Suit as having been sprayed on by some unknown Chozo technology. However, it still makes sense, as an environmental layer between her and her armor that still provides a layer of protection. In addition, she doesn’t need to look as good as she does, never relies upon her looks to survive, functions independently and projects a motherly instinct from time to time. She’s a well-rounded, positive character that blows the crap out of alien pirates who cross her. Female Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect games is another good example. It’s no coincidence that they’re both voiced by Jennifer Hale, if you ask me.

Women in games continue to struggle to be taken seriously. The players, too, have a lot of misogyny and prejudice to deal with. A good chunk of the gaming population seems to think that girls who play games are limited to Farmville or Cooking Mama or Little Big Planet. That’s such a complete load of immature misinformed crap. Face it, kids, women play games too, and not just the aforementioned “casual” titles. (And really, what makes those games “casual”? A lack of gunfire? No swearing? Not enough achievements to swell your virtual penis gamerscore?) There are entire organizations out there like the PMS Clan dedicated to reinforcing the notion that women who get behind the keyboard or controller are just as capable of racking up kills, scoring points and talking smack as the boys, if not moreso.

Ladies, don’t let those underdeveloped wisecracking jerkoffs keep you from playing games you love and demanding a better representation for women. They’re not better than you are and they don’t have any right to say that you don’t have a place on their servers or in their games. And what’s more, deep down, they know it, and it scares the hell out of ’em. I think I’ve said more than enough on the subject, so let me close by reiterating something I’ve come to believe about pretty much any endeavor I or any of my peers undertake.

The only thing that’s really capable of stopping you from making the most of the opportunities out there, in gaming or any other walk of life, is you.

EDIT: The conversations started by this post over on the Escapist have gotten VERY heated. Watch the fireworks from here, but bring an umbrella, as the forecast predicts a 75% chance of bullshit.

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