Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Plea for More Monstrous Ladies

When discussing the treatment of women in gaming circles, I often come back to the designs of the characters themselves. I feel as though a lot of the sexist harassment experienced by players in game is often backed-up by the portrayals of the women characters in the game. In games where very few women even exist in the world, it may be simply under-representation that creates these tensions resulting in male players feeling like they are in a "boys only club". In games where women characters are rather prominent, however, representations take on more layers and complexities. Reading this blog post, I was especially struck by the reaction that this woman received when attempting to ask for more reasonable outfits for many of World of Warcraft's most prominent lore characters.

She has an excellent point, many of WoW's key characters are powerful women, including the Dragon Aspects. That being said their outfits are in many cases bikinis-- creating confusion when compared to their often heavily armored and certainly more covered male counterparts.

For some examples take a look at Alexstrasza, the Life-Bringer and leader of the Dragon Aspects compared to Kalecgos, the youngest Dragon Aspect. She's much more powerful than him-- in charge of life itself-- and yet her outfit appears to be right out of a Victoria's Secret catalog, as the woman at BlizzCon noted.

Dragon Aspects
Need more convincing? How about two Forsaken lore characters. Both are undead (zombies essentially). Sylvannas, the leader of the Forsaken and an extremely powerful character has the bikini on, while Putris, a male Forsaken gets an awesome mask and full body coverage plus bones showing, displaying that he is actually undead and frankly, creepy. An archer and leader with an exposed stomach? This just doesn't make a lot of sense.
Sylvanas and Putris
What ends up happening is that powerful and complex characters like Sylvannas are reduced to sexual objects. Sylvanas is downright diabolical. She has a tragic backstory. She controls a legion of undead forsaken, many of whom worship her. And yet, as many male players will comment in-game, she is just portrayed as sexy. This kind of representation, degrading even powerful women to sexual objects to be ogled, creates an environment where it is okay to call female players "sluts" and "bitches".

These representations extend into the playable race models for each gender. The sexual dimorphism between male and female models of the playable races is very apparent, and it is clear that the female variations must a) be clearly and without a doubt "female" and b) be sexy, with clear focus on thinness, breasts, and behinds.

The draenei and the worgen are good examples of this. Both are "monster" humanoids. The draenei are a race of aliens  and the worgen are werewolves, cursed with transformative powers. However, the female characters are less "monstrous" and more sexualized. The draenei women are clearly designed to fit a supermodel ideal and the lady worgen are a lot less menacing than their male counterparts. As a female player, I felt especially downtrodden when the worgen models were released. It seemed like the developers felt they had to try to balance "monster" with "clearly female/sexy" and the model that resulted was a disappointment-- particularly in comparison to the very menacing male.

In addition to these tensions in design, there are only 3 or 4 humanoid mobs in the game (besides established playable race models) that are female. This means that there are almost no monstrous and dangerous ladies to kill as an adventurer in the World of Warcraft. Even the Naga, which have prominent female mobs, have clear sexual dimorphism favoring a "prettier" lady monster. (I mean, just compare the female and male faces!)
Naga Models
So what does this all mean? For one, these trends mean that WoW players aren't seeing powerful ladies that aren't bikini-clad or super-model pretty. Whether it's a playable character, a mob or a pivotal lore character, the females consistently stand out as being sexualized and made "pretty" even in a world torn by violence, war and adventure. This leaves female players with a sense that even in a virtual place where their heroism is needed, it is still very important-- if not most important-- that they are pretty, that they are sexy, and that they appeal to heterosexual male sensibilities. Not only does this focus re-enforce the media socialization that women and girls are constantly bombarded with, it allows male players to focus on these attributes of women as well. If the game developers see many women as merely sexual objects, why wouldn't the players immersed in that world feel justified in feeling the same? Ultimately video games are just another type of media and there is a clear focus on attractiveness in the most conventional sense. Being sexy isn't bad, but when sexiness is the focus and one of the only options, it sure is discouraging.

So lets have less focus on attractiveness. I want more monstrous ladies!


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