So, last time I posted about Androcentrism I discussed how the male gender being considered the neutral, unmarked gender by society encourages an uneven gender representation in videogames. Mixed-sex groups in videogames will usually surround the women with a plurality of men, and female characters often have a specific justification for their inclusion that takes their gender into account. This sometimes results in a particular character archetype I sometimes think of as the ‘girl-guy’.
The presence of only one woman on a team full of men is often dubbed the ‘Smurfette Principle’, a term coined by Katha Pollitt in a 1991 New York Times article. There is also the connotation of that character’s dominant descriptive trait simply being that she is female.
If you’re unaware of what Smurfette is, here’s the brief. The Smurfs was a children’s comic book featuring a race of little blue men whose names were all ‘Smurf’ with a descriptive prefix. Brainy Smurf, Handy Smurf, Lazy Smurf… etc. They had no female smurfs until an evil wizard created a female Smurf-golem out of clay like a little blue Galatea with the intention to sow discord among the smurfs and called her Smurfette. Unfortunately, since the wizard was a shitty wizard as well as an evil one, she wasn’t hot enough to sow any real discord. Papa Smurf, the Smurf patriarch, took pity on Smurfette and changed her into a real smurf with a magical machine. The effects of the machine suggest that it was a precursor to the Dragulator. Her short dark hair became long and blond, her eyelashes grew longer, and her clunky shoes changed into high heels and now everyone liked her.
Smurfette’s makeoker, before and after
This is pretty much the worst life lesson you could teach a little girl. Thanks for the comic book, Dad!
Anyway, in addition to being an excellent advertisement for plastic surgery, Smurfette was unlike the other Smurfs because she had no modifier to describe her. She never became a Doctor Smurfette or a Poet Smurfette or a Disgruntled Smurfette, despite the fact that she had an excellent case for becoming the latter. Being female isn’t just Smurfette’s gender, it’s also her personality.
A similar trend sometimes occurs in videogames, particularly with ensemble groups of player characters or villains. It’s uncommon for women to outnumber men on a team, and frequently the one woman in the group’s personality will revolve around being feminine. One of the classic examples of this in other genres is the ‘sentai’ style team common in 80s cartoons. These would generally be composed of a heroic leader, his sarcastic rival, a nerdy guy, a hefty guy… and a girl guy.
So what is a ‘girl-guy’? And what isn’t a ‘girl-guy’?
Rochelle : Not a “Girl-Guy”
Rochelle from Left 4 Dead 2 is the only woman on a four person team. Similarly, Zoey from the original Left 4 Dead is the only woman. However, neither of these women have a different playstyle from their male counterparts. They’re both wearing pink, which could be considered ‘feminine’ but their clothing is casual and practical and their dialogue isn’t written to underscore their gender. Left 4 Dead is an action game and leaves most character background up to the imagination, but all we’re told about Rochelle is that she had a low-level job at a news organization and likes Depeche Mode. Zoey is a college student who enjoys horror movies. None of those traits are gender-specific.
So, while it’s a little frustrating that 1 woman to 3 men seems to be considered the acceptable balance for a Left 4 Dead game, there’s nothing troubling about Rochelle or Zoey as characters. They’re also consistently posed like their male counterparts, with the entire team being either cautiously relaxed or ready to fire.
Lilith from Borderlands is unfortunately another matter entirely.
When I first saw her design, I actually liked it. It’s sexy, but not in a tortured, excessive way. But the more information about the game and more screenshots and images were released they less I liked the direction they were taking with her. She was consistently posed as passive and pretty compared to the male characters, sometimes literally blowing kisses at the viewer.
FISTS! GRUNGE! POW! …pink?
She’s also a ‘Siren’ a member of an all-female group of beings enhanced with alien technology to possess psychic powers. There are only 6 of them, and it’s specifically noted that Sirens are born with their powers. Every other character is described as a sort of self-made man, training themselves to obtain the skills they fight with. And speaking of those skills, Lilith’s Controller Tree is loaded with cutesy feminine skill names, just in case you needed to be constantly reminded you were playing as a woman. “Diva” “Girl Power” “Hard to Get” “Inner Glow”… and the ultimate power on that skill tree “Mind Games”.
I get bored with the consistency that the female character in a group is the ‘magical’ or ‘psychic’ woman, because lord knows how could a woman just train herself to kick some conventional ass? That’s just ridiculous. A gun that fires healing bullets is perfectly reasonable, but a woman needs magical justification to put her on equal footing with the menfolk? That interpretation is up for debate, but I think it’s undeniable that Lilith’s identity revolves around being a femme-fatale, which also means it revolve around her gender. She’s even named after Christianity’s archetypal femme-fatale, and her class name is one of the Ancient Greek’s archetypal femme-fatales. And if that’s all too subtle for you, there’s something just a little off about her wanted poster…
So you have someone who’s identity is being a soldier, a hunter, a huge violent bruiser and then you have the siren. She’s defined not really by what she does, but by what she inherently is, and what she is has an intrinsic link to her gender. This didn’t have to be the case. Even keeping Lilith as the petite psychic, calling her, lets say “Judith” and naming her class the “Assassin” would relieve a good chunk of the problematic tension. Changing her backstory so that she has some agency in developing her powers and remove the flirty skill names and things removes even more. Pose her as aggressively as the men in the press shots and then… guess what? You can even KEEP the little joke about the wanted poster focusing on her breasts because now it’s actually a joke about a horny guy making wanted posters and not depressingly consistent with the overall presentation of that character being all about having breasts!
So in my opinion, Lilith is a girl-guy. Another girl-guy appears in the anatgonists of Prince of Persia 4.
Prince of Persia 4 was disappointing in many ways. The lush art style was wasted on a dull story and a smarmy, unlikeable protagonist who was pitted against 4 individuals who were corrupted by evil. The Warrior, the Hunter, the Alchemist, and The Concubine. Wow, this is starting to sound a little familiar already, isn’t it? The Concubine is described as a master political manipulator who fell in love with a man who rejected her and accepted corruption in exchange for being able to assume the form of any woman to seduce any man. As a contrast, the Warrior accepted his corruption to save his besieged city, The Alchemist wanted eternal life to continue his experiments, and the Hunter wanted to be able to pursue the most dangerous and exciting prey. That last one is pretty stupid because everyone knows man is the most dangerous game and you don’t need to make a deal with the devil to try that out, but they’re still a far cry from how pathetic the Concubine’s motivations were.
The concubine is also contrasted against the virginal Elika, who frequently comments on what a bitch the Concubine is. It’s particularly pointed because Elika seems to feel some form of pity for the other corrupted, lamenting the fate of the Warrior and praising the intellect and skill of the Alchemist and the Hunter. Where the Concubine is concerned, there’s no sympathy or respect, just a heaping helping of slut-shaming. The Concubine herself oozes one-dimensional skankiness from every inky pore, purring innuendo and attempting to seduce the hero in unoriginal femme-fatale format. There’s nothing to her besides being a manipulative sex object.
We can draw a few obvious parallels between Lilith and the Concubine. They’re both given pink color schemes. They’re both given loaded names that immediately identify them with sensuality. They have mind-controlling powers, and they’re both the odd woman out in teams of men who are identified with skilled occupations instead of seduction. As girl-guys go, the Concubine’s design is far worse and more insulting than Lilith’s, since Lilith’s backstory doesn’t revolve around a man and whereas Lilith is only a seductress symbolically the Concubine is literally just going around seducing people.
Next! Shannon from God Hand!
This one is a little trickier than it appears. On the surface, Shannon is everything the Concubine is. She’s seductive, she’s wearing all pink and she uses manipulative magic to charm people. Both of them even have magic staffs and fight with a dominatrix vibe in their boss battles. But Godhand is essentially a parody of beat-em-up games. Shannon’s design is a self-aware adoption of this trend. At the same time, despite the fact that Shannon is supposed to be a tongue in cheek exaggeration, she isn’t a significant departure from many characters that were not designed with satirical intent.
There’s also something else I want to point out with this image. As I said, the girl-guy phenomenon shows up frequently in ensemble groups of villains. For an ensemble group, the designer wants the characters to ‘match’ while still being distinct as their own design. One way to accomplish this is to exaggerate the differences between the characters. So if a character is larger than the others, make him very large. If he’s thinner, very thin. If he’s older, very old.
But now we have a problem… because we’ve been telling ourselves that only one type of woman is acceptable in videogames. A woman who is young, beautiful and slender. With those parameters, we sometimes allow our designers variations in height or body shape, but not so much that it would form a dramatic difference in silhouette. The corrupted enemies from Prince of Persia all have figures that are gravely distorted from an average human, but the Concubine is essentially a supermodel with hooves and a tail. The 4 devas from God Hand consist of an ideal man, an elderly man, a fat man, and an ideal woman. The borderlands cast features a huge guy, a normal guy, a skinny guy, and a pretty girl. Designers clearly fear that straying too far from beauty when designing a woman and that imposes serious limitations.
So, lacking in ways to exaggerate a female characters, the easiest exaggeration becomes how female she is compared to the men. This is why the girl-guy exists. And this contributes to the trend of there only being room for one woman on a small team, because it becomes difficult to contrast a woman against another woman within such narrow parameters. In some games it’s possible to contrast a female child with a grown woman, but this is rare outside of very fanciful settings. There’s already a wide range of acceptable physiques for male characters, so it comes much more naturally to a designer. Designing a team of 3 men and 1 women comes fairly naturally to a skilled designer, but the inverse requires more thought if the goal is distinct visual differences that aren’t derived just from costumes and hairstyles.
It’s a frustrating conundrum. Big budget videogames are so expensive that designers and producers can be timid about taking risks. Character designers draw inspiration from a rich visual history and draw on particular visual signifiers to allow their audience to ‘read’ a design as fast as possible, but that visual history has conspicuous gaps and is tainted with sexist and racism, not to mention a host of other -isms.
It’s also frustrating because it becomes awkward when the same pattern appears in a justified form. Castlevania : Lords of Shadow had Carmilla, a character who… well, just look at her. Also look at how the male characters are posed in nearly identical and aggressive stances and Carmilla is just chilling, because it’s sort of hilarious.
But Carmilla has HISTORY. Carmilla predates Dracula as a classic vampire in gothic literature, and the interpretation of her as a seductive femme fatale is completely appropriate. She also understands proportions. If you’re going to flash so much cleavage that you’re in danger of skimming your pubes, cover the legs and shoulders. Nice work Carmilla, you’re an “in”.
Let’s see some more “outs”, all from the Diablo series. It’s worth mentioning that as far as player characters go, the playable female characters have always actually been fairly egalitarian. In the original Diablo one in three playable characters was female, which isn’t too shabby a ratio. Three out of seven Diablo 2 characters were female, so that’s very nearly half. Diablo 3 went even further and made the welcome choice of allowing the player to choose either gender for all five classes. The female clothing may err a bit on the skimpier side compared to the male clothing in every title, but otherwise the women were never depicted as less capable warriors, nor did they suffer from gendered skill titles or gendered treatment within the game world.
Okay, maybe that one time when they hid behind a pillar looking sexy while the menfolk fought Diablo
So, on the protagonist side, Diablo is looking good! Unfortunately the rest of the key players fare less well. Out of seven important demons, only one is female, and she’s one of the four ‘lesser’ evils.
Andariel, the maiden of anguish is also noticeably humanoid and female compared to her monstrous and grotesque counterparts. It would take a great stretch of the imagination to call her lesser evil compatriots ‘sexy’, but Andariel struts her stuff with goat legs and monster claws accenting a sexy nearly naked body. Diablo 3 would see another female demon, not a part of the main pantheon but appearing as Azmodan’s consort, Cydea the Maiden of Lust. Once again she’s beautiful welded onto monstrous rather than flat out grotesque.
Out of five angels on the Angiris council, only one is female.
Auriel is the angel of ‘Hope’ and is famed for her gentle temperment. Her armor highlights her feminine qualities and she’s distinctively passive compared to her male counterparts, requiring rescue by the hero to restore her to her important position as heaven’s ‘morale booster’.
I want to let you know that in fact-checking this post I inadvertently laid eyes on some ‘plot’ from the Diablo ‘novels’ and even some ‘writing’ from those ‘novels’. I suffered for you dear reader. Oh how I suffered. But I digress…
Lets get to the mercenaries.
So, we have the Templar, Scoundrel, and Enchantress. Notice the pointless gendering of ‘Enchanter’ and ‘Mistress’. We have the pink clothing, the focus on ‘charming magic’, and her plotline all involves serving a male prophet with a group of young and beautiful women who entombed themselves on his advice to wake up thousands of years later and serve your character. Girl-guy.
(By the way, you think I’m picking on Diablo a lot on this blog there’s a simple reason for that. I’ve played a lot of Diablo so I have to do less research. You’ll also notice I rarely discuss Japanese rpgs… yeah sorry I don’t love you enough to subject myself to a lot of that.)
So, how do we address the girl-guy? If you find yourself creating an ensemble team with only one woman, ask yourself if it’s really necessary. Think about switching another male character to a female and what it would change about them. Sometimes it’s surprisingly little. If you wind up with only one woman on a team,try to determine if you’re revolving her character around a ‘feminine’ characteristic such as her sensuality or her gentleness. If you are, consider whether or not you have a reasonable justification for doing so, and why your first instinct was to design the character that way. If you find that you’re modeling her on other designs you’ve liked that fall into this trend, consider doing something more unique and fresh.
And if you’re trying to forge bold new territory in female silhouettes, excellent! But please remember…
You don’t need to go this far:
Bloody hell, Gearbox. You can make a ‘nonstandard’ female character without making them look like the punchline to a joke about a post-apocalyptic Wal-mart.