What the heck are “true female characters” anyway? A rant.

By the way, when male gamers talk about what they ought to do to make gaming more attractive to “females” (please imagine a Ferengi voice here) and how gamers must change and how gamers must act in order to get girls interested in playing videogames … Look. We’ve been here all along! We’ve been here longer than some of you have been alive, you … children. And we require no permission or support or approval from the kind of self-important kid who cannot even understand the simple fact that women play games for the same reason as men play games: for fun.

That is why I won’t even talk about this stupid video by the Youtube channel Extra Credits. I want to talk about that stupid video, about “True Female Characters” in videogames. I started watching this video yesterday because I was amused by the word “true” in the title (implying that there are also false female characters?) but I must admit that I lost interest pretty soon and watched ventriloquism videos instead. But I cannot properly complain about it unless I have taken in their entire argument, can I? So this morning, actually with the eponymous cup of coffee as fuel and support, I shall give it another try. If I won’t return, or if my next post is about the fascinating issue of power dynamics between ventriloquists and their dummies, you will know that I have failed …

(A while later …)

OK, I did it, and I’ll start off with this quote I scribbled down because it appeared as a summary in what was, to my ears, a confusing ramble:

So if you wanna create a truly great female character, you have to either be willing to brave those few issues which are truly unique to the feminine half of our species, or you have to give us a human being responding to ordinary societal pressures, perhaps under extraordinary circumstances, and coming to their own conclusions about how to integrate them.

But immediately afterwards:

A great character does not have to be defined by their gender, but gender and the pressures that society excerts on us because of it are a big part of who we are.

I agree with the second quote, because it talks about all of us as being influenced in some way by our gender. But then why does this vlog present the idea that only when writing a female character should a videogame explore how she relates to her gender? Shouldn’t the same apply to male characters, too? Because it’s just as relevant to them? Or is it not?

I really hate the belief that writing a female character is fundamentally different, and more difficult, than writing a male character. That to write a female character “well”, you must somehow address that she is female, LEST WE FORGET! OMG! That you have to make it part of her motivations and goals, somehow. That her gender is a problem for you to solve. That there are things ~uniquely female~, as this Extra Credits episode insists.

And yet what do they come up with as supposedly fundamentally female traits/roles? Being a mother. A self-sacrificial mother protecting her children in a hostile environment! Well, I guess the video is two years old and it’s just sweetly ironic that two of the most celebrated recent games – The Walking Dead and The Last Of Us – involve a man protecting a child in a hostile environment. Fundamentally female my ass. Not something male developers can relate to? How can you forget that while women can be mothers, men can be fathers? Protecting the weak, especially children, isn’t something only women are wont to do, but more or less all humans  and perhaps all living beings … Men are parents, too. Why is the ability to bear children supposedly so central to the female identity, why should videogames be required to explore it in order to do justice to women, while a man’s ability to father children supposedly isn’t something that has to be explored at all?

Honestly, I think it is true that a well-rounded character often operates (in whatever way) under societal expectations, rules, whatever, including but not limited to gender roles. (A good character relates to his or her environment, all aspects of it.) Take Guybrush Threepwood as an example! (I love him, OK?) His goal at the start of his debut game, The Secret of Monkey Island, is to become a pirate, essentially to get a status of respect, to be the man he thinks he should be. But Guybrush isn’t a “proper” pirate and is often ridiculed for it. He’s (literally, in the first two games) a boy playing pirate. Compared to him, Elaine has a higher status and a real position of power as governor. Even getting kidnapped cannot relegate her to a lesser role. She escapes on her own and by the time the sequel comes around, she’s not only no longer Guybrush’s girlfriend, but governor again – while Guybrush has already squandered the hero status he gained from defeating LeChuck in the first game and is back to being a loser who wants to prove himself by accomplishing something manly (find a treasure, another classic hero goal other than rescuing a girl or defeating a villain, which Guybrush already did/tried … with fleeting profit).

But there are plenty of scenarios, I think, where gender really does not matter at all, because there is something more urgent than wondering about societal expectations or fertility of all things. For example: not getting eaten by zombies. Is Jill Valentine a worse character than Chris Redfield because she never stops to wonder if she should have children?

One thing this Extra Credits episode is glaringly guilty of is treating men as the default, women as the variation. And THAT is what leads to writing bad female characters. The awkward attempt to construct them as alien creatures inherently different from men, who MUST be defined by these supposed differences. Who aren’t people, but girl people!

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