What’s happening to female characters in video games? They’ve been around forever and they’ve seen the changes of growing technology and differing trends, but it never felt like they ever truly lost anything. They simply grew with the stories and games, maybe became a little more numerous as games started including more characters and options. Recently though, they have changed. Not due to the natural evolution of the medium, but seemingly due to this idea rooted in the stereotype that only dudes game, and because only dudes game, the only way we can view female characters is through the eyes of guys. And thus while male characters are perfectly allowed to remain muscle-bound, stoic, and badass, women must be “realistic” because otherwise guys might get the wrong idea.
Now, aside from the fact that this is pretty insulting to the intelligence and motivations of men, it’s a little bizarre for the same people who want more women in the industry and enjoying video games to perpetually only address things from a strictly male perspective. A purely negative perspective at that, assuming only the very worst outlook from male gamers. Never have I seen from the arguments saying female characters need to change any reference to what women want in female characters. Which is a shame, because if we did, those characters wouldn’t change much. Because, objectively, there is enough diversity in how female characters present themselves that I believe most of the women who play are happy with it.
The argument has already been made that men tend to be just as sexy and unrealistic as women when it comes to video games. And the usual rebuttal is “That’s just a male power fantasy.” Consider, maybe, that the sexy but deadly female heroine might be just as much a female power fantasy. Or the not-so-sexy but kind and passionate young girl who always strives to improve the lives of others. Or the badass female space marine fighting for her home. Has it occurred to no one making the argument against sexy characters that women have just as much of a need to fantasize—to become someone who is so unlike them, and yet, seems to hold the same values? Or even to become someone completely different from them just to unwind and forget life for a few hours?
Speaking as a woman, I don’t play games for their realism. I don’t mind if a game embraces a little realism, as long as they’re still clearly rooted in fiction. I am especially partial to fantasy, and whether it’s a character I have made completely from scratch for a pen and paper roleplay, or a character in a story driven game whose backstory and appearance are pre-selected, I can say with the utmost confidence: they’re never realistic. I’m not looking to play a carbon copy of my boring self because I play that game every hour I’m not playing video games. I already am me, and I don’t need my temporary avatar to also be me. That defeats the purpose.
A few things to keep in mind here. First, women want to be sexy sometimes. Not for the sake of men, or society, or anyone else. They want to be sexy because hey, sometimes you just want to because it makes you feel nice. Sometimes you want to be frilly and feminine because you like to feel cute. I work strictly with women and children, no male coworkers to speak of really. I’ll still occasionally wear something cute (not sexy, not just because I work at a school but because I’m more into cute usually). Why? Because I like to feel cute sometimes, and there’s really not much else to it.
It’s the same thing in video games. Sometimes women go into them and want to play a sexy character just because, for a few fleeting hours, they want to wear a cat suit and high heels and become someone unrealistically gorgeous while mowing down the bad guy of the week. Is that wrong? Of course not. Unless men apparently enjoy it, but why put whether or not men enjoy it (and the irrational fear that this will somehow cause deviancy) above whether women enjoy it? Since when should a woman not be allowed to want to be Bayonetta just because, somewhere, a guy is ogling her ass (if such a guy even actually exists and isn’t more focused on the task at hand)?
Second, the traits some people claim are “sexist” are pretty often traits women actually value and enjoy seeing in characters. The one realistic thing people want is to play heroes who may have superpowers, bulging muscles, impossible boobs, but have principles that mirror our own. I relate most to female characters who may be sarcastic and have a temper, but who are always acting on compassion and for the protection of others.
It’s why I really liked Ciri from The Witcher 3. She wasn’t as sexy, especially compared to the other main female protagonists (or even the male protagonists). But she was kind and protective and hated the idea of the people she cared about dying for her sake, because in her eyes, she was the one to protect them. It was a sort of motherly instinct, which is rare to see in characters like Ciri who are young and seen by the rest of the cast as the one who needs protecting. That isn’t something women just blankly accept because of societal norms. That is something many women cherish—and playing that character in a video game is almost like a form of wish fulfillment. In a video game you often can actually protect people, where in real life you more often can’t, because of your own limitations. Ciri isn’t a fully playable character in The Witcher 3, but I was always looking forward to her segments, because I loved being her for even a moment.
And this is where female characters almost have an advantage over male characters. Maybe it’s harder to see if you’re not a guy, but it seems like women in games are allowed to have a far greater spread of characteristics and motivations than male characters. Even the ones who still fit into a category are fairly different. Ciri is similar to Aeris from Final Fantasy VII in a lot of ways, both with a desire to help the world and protect those they care about, both possessing extraordinary power, but where Aeris was poised and graceful, Ciri is stubborn and can be assertive and forward. There are so many different values and expressive personalities, and a lot of that can get lost when you become too focused on just making sure the character isn’t “offensive.”
Ironically, when you go about making characters too realistic, it means you often make them less realistic. Take some of the characters who have been the center of the “too sexy” or “too sexist” argument—most are sexy because that is simply part of their character, and how they express themselves. Mika from Street Fighter V, Bayonetta, even less sexy characters like Princess Peach, who gets dismissed as a “damsel in distress.” Take away the “sexist” traits and honestly, what are you left with? Taking away those traits that are supposedly sexist kind of removes any personality or uniqueness in these characters. So you can try recreating them, but making a character who is perfectly inoffensive in every way is not only hard, it is goddamn boring.
Which leads to the third point: even if you give women the option, they’ll likely still make “sexist” characters. They’ll still make motherly characters. They’ll still make sexy characters. They’ll still make the damsel in distress. They might mix it up, but in the end not much will have changed. Because that is what women want in their female characters. That is their power fantasy. Put a woman in a pen and paper roleplay game, and they are never in a hundred years going to make a mage that is “normal looking” and adamantly inoffensive at every turn (they might make a character who tries to be inoffensive, but if that character doesn’t mess up at some point, then they’re in an actual parallel universe). The majority are going to make characters who are attractive, who are femme fatales, who are instinctively protective of children and animals.