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Gaming and #SuperWomen: Female Protagonists Can’t Be Justified?

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It’s been a while since we’ve busted out the SuperWomen hashtag, folks, but a discussion this morning with my agent and another writer on Twitter made me think it was time to raise the banner once more.

The spark for the discussion was this: Chris Perna, the art director of Epic Games (which created the popular Gears of War franchise) said that it was unlikely they’d ever have a female protagonist for their games.

Why?

Because “if you look at what sells, it’s tough to justify something like that.”¹

Excuse me while I turn my head and cough.

What I hate the most about that kind of statement is that it’s a bit of a straw man. If you look at the gaming industry, it certainly looks male dominated. Just like the comic book industry looks male dominated. But if you look a little closer, you’ll find that women make up a huge portion of gamers and readers and enjoyers of these media. (Though admittedly the creation aspect is still overwhelmingly skewed toward men.)

For instance, 47% of gamers are, in fact, women. And female gamers OVER the age of 18 are one of the fastest-growing demographics in video games.²

Perna’s argument is a straw man because honestly, most major video gaming companies simply haven’t MADE a game in a major franchise that has a female protagonist, so they have nothing to actually compare it to. And if you look at the success of the long-running Resident Evil series (Capcom) and Tomb Raider (Core Design/Crystal Dynamics), you see that games with female protagonists can absolutely be hugely profitable and popular with the male demographic. If both of those franchises had flopped horribly (or rather, blipped into the waters of gamerdom without so much as a ripple), maybe his statement would have a teensy bit of merit from a fiscal standpoint.

But after multiple films, huge numbers of titles, and years of devoted fans — he comes off as more than a little naive and condescending. Perhaps he didn’t mean to sound like he was patting women on the head for feeling empowered when they go to cons and cosplay as Anya or Samantha (two characters in the Gears franchise), but it sure sounded that way.

You can’t say games with a female protagonist won’t sell because most of the games out there have male protagonists. Naturally those will sell more copies, because more of them exist.

Until one of the hugely-successful, popular franchises goes for it and produces a title in their series with a female protagonist, they really have nothing to compare it to besides the success of Resident Evil and Tomb Raider and the franchises that were built around a female leader in the first place. If you can point to a blockbuster gaming franchise that tanked as soon as it introduced a female protagonist, do tell.

Comments like Pernas’ are like saying women clearly don’t want to see superhero movies with female leads because Catwoman flopped. Hello. Catwoman flopped because it was an awful film, not because Halle Berry was the lead instead of Christian Bale. The point is this: make an awesome, well-written, exciting game and gamers will flock to it regardless of whether the protagonist has a dingle or a hoo-hah. But don’t try to tell me people won’t buy games with female protagonists (or rather that men won’t). They will.

To their credit, Epic Games seems to have gotten the point that they needed to minimize Perna’s words, because they issued a statement saying they would never rule out having a female protagonist for the Gears of War series, but that doesn’t mean much to me until there is one.

There are plenty of franchises (like my beloved Dragon Age and the Elder Scrolls) that offer gamers a choice. I love that option, and I think that Bioware did a good thing by giving gamers the opportunity to control much of their character from the outset, including the character’s sex.

This Thursday (21 February), I would like to bring back the #SuperWomen live chat to discuss geek girl culture and female gamers.

What: SuperWomen live chat on Twitter!
Topic: SuperWomen in gamer culture. Female protagonists, the female gamer demographic, and more.
When: Thursday, 21 February from 7-8 PM EST. (Don’t worry, I’ll let you out before The Vampire Diaries.)

Come hang out and discuss what YOU want to see in the video gaming industry.

¹Yep, he really said that. Here’s a link.

²Entertainment Software Association. See link.

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The Lot of the XX

Cover of "Rob Roy"

Cover of Rob Roy

Last night I began watching Rob Roy. It’s one of those movies I’ve meant to watch for quite a long time and simply hadn’t gotten around to. One thing I noticed was that Jessica Lange‘s performance was superb. Another thing I noticed was that there seems to be a trend in the treatment of women in these hero-legend films.

Let me clarify. I don’t mean treatment in regards to people’s behavior toward them (though that is a by-product of what I mean). I mean the portrayal of them. Their roles. The words that come out of their mouths and the way the writers decide what is going to happen to them. I’ve noticed a couple specific common threads:

1. Family focus: Most of these hero-legends involve some real or perceived threat to the wider scope of the protagonist’s life. The woman is the one who says, “No, your priority is your family.” To which the hero says something about duty and honor yadda yadda, which leads directly into…

2. Sexual violence: Murron in Braveheart is nearly raped by a particularly disgusting English soldier. Mary in Rob Roy is raped pretty brutally by Archibald Cunningham. This is usually used as a plot device to push the hero into the Big Bad Conflict with the antagonist. Murron is killed for even trying to fight back, and Mary screams at Rob Roy’s friend when he says his honor requires him to tell Robert MacGregor, “If I can bear it happening, you can bear the silence!”

Historians doubt the veracity of these claims — whether or not Marion Wallace (renamed Murron for the film) or Mary MacGregor were raped — and to that I would say that I think many people would prefer to think of the past as having some honor, to hope that rape would not have been as commonplace as I think it must have been. They may have dubbed it “ravishment,” but if it’s as common as it is in a time where women can vote, work, and hold public office, I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that it would have been a much more normal occurrence in a time where women were thought to have little intelligence and hardly any rights over their person and livelihood.

3. Martyrs: The women in these hero-legends are often depicted as martyrs. The Princess in Braveheart is a good example — she’s forced to marry Edward the II against her will, and her little form of rebellion is to sleep with Wallace. Murron flat out dies, and Mary has to bear her rapist’s child — yet the men (who generally also die) are considered the heroes and go to their graves only to have history make legends out of them.

The women are made into bait, martyrs, or even stumbling blocks for the heroes. You tell me what is more heroic: leaving your home open to raiders with no protection or being violated and then choosing to bear it in silence to prevent additional violence and the destruction of everything you love. The problem is, the latter doesn’t make for a spectacular film in the Hollywood rite.

This isn’t to say I dislike William Wallace or the legend of Rob Roy MacGregor, only the portrayal of the women in the films about them. We all know that Hollywood takes license with stories that have any basis in history, and it’s that I take issue with.

I would like to see a film where the women are not beaten, raped, and made into martyrs when the heroes are portrayed almost equally in a negative light because of their utter selfishness that destroys their women in its blindness. William Wallace refused to wait to marry Murron against her family’s wishes (which were for the decent reason of wanting to make sure Murron wouldn’t be widowed at an early age due to the rising tension in Scotland), and his carefree amorous glances drew the English’s attention. Rob Roy refused to listen to his wife and protect his home, leaving it open and unguarded when Cunningham arrived to burn it down and violate his wife.

These are both rather poor decisions, but the women bear the retaliation for their folly.

And this is why, since we’re on the topic of Scotland and legends, that I cannot wait for the movie Brave.

Some brilliant person in the Pixar world got the idea (or optioned the rights from a Ray Ban shaded author who is forever too cool for school) to turn the entire above stereotype on its head. Young Merida gets to be the one who wants to change her lot in life — and in her ignorance sparks a curse and has to undo it herself. The formula of a hero not listening to family and thus endangering everyone, then having to fix it? This time Merida isn’t the bait or the martyr, she’s the hero.

Bravo, Pixar. Bravo.

What this post really means, what these stereotypes of women in period films really say, is that growing up I looked around to see female heroes in my movies and TV shows and books and found very few. It was only men being the ones to save the world. In the past twenty years, this has begun to change. Buffy opened the door to it, but it’s really the creators of art that have control over where it goes from here. Having Joss Whedon in charge of The Avengers made me happy — Black Widow was in all ways a superhero — but the Wonder Woman movie couldn’t even get off the ground. It tried, but it ended up flailing around like a little kid in a cape. What does that tell us?

It doesn’t tell us that there’s no story there — it says Hollywood doesn’t think it can sell a female superhero.

So here’s to all of us who write — it’s our duty to show young women female heroes who are complex, strong, and flawed. It’s our job to show them that women are more than martyrs, that our lives have value beyond how we handle sexual violence, and that our voices matter. If we keep writing it, eventually we’ll see it happen.

Let’s change the lot of the XX.

Check out the Brave trailer:

 

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