Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes In Your Work: Gender and Sexuality [Part 2]
April 2, 2014 4 Comments
[A brief note before I start: this particular post has been many, many months in the making. I used TV Tropes extensively in putting together the outline for what I wanted to talk about. Thanks also to the following for their contributions and suggestions: Monica Speca, Arlene Medder, Laura Hamilton, Kira Scott, Josh Roby, Claudia Cangini, Elin Dalstal, Jason Morningstar, Ben Lehman, Alexis Siemon, and Chris Chinn. You were enormously helpful.
This was turning into a loooooong post, so I wound up splitting this into parts. This post will tackle awful gender and sexuality-related stereotypes. The next post will look at awful racist stereotypes, since that's probably going to wind up being as long as this already-extensive post. Also, a brief technical note - the new WordPress.com interface SUPER HATES captions. Sorry for the resulting ugly.
When you’re looking to write inclusive game material, actively avoiding offensive stereotypes is pretty much one of the most important things you can do, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s important for anyone looking to create a product with a broad appeal. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that when I see games that are riddled with sexist stereotypes, I almost always dismiss that game as “not for me”. There are exceptions, true. (I’m looking at you, BioWare!) But the exceptions have to be particularly exceptional in other areas. For the most part, games that are blatantly sexist are games that I don’t buy.
Secondly, it’s important for anyone looking to improve their craft as a writer. Stereotypes are easier than taking the time to craft a well-rounded, nuanced view of something (a person, a group of people, a society, etc). But that’s what makes stereotypes lazy writing. Anyone can mash a bunch of stereotypes together into an unoriginal pastiche. The writers who stand out are those who bring something new and different into their writing. Lastly, avoiding stereotypes is important simply from the angle of not being a shitty human being. Do you want to write a setting riddled with offensive stereotypes and hide behind “creative license”? (If you know, if you answered yes, then perhaps you’re not the target audience for this…) You could do that! After all, there’s certainly many game writers and developers out there who have blazed that trail for you. But consider that using harmful stereotypes of marginalized groups perpetuates cultural narratives that continue to damage members of those groups. But, wundergeek! How do I know what stereotypes to avoid? This stuff is hard, and I might be using something that I’m not even aware is a stereotype! Well, fictional internet writer. I’ve put together a collection just for you of shitty stereotypes to avoid in your game writing. All of these are stereotypes that are pretty common (and by pretty common I mean, I see them so often it makes me want to flip tables) in the game world, and all of these are troublesome. This isn’t intended to be a substitute for getting second opinions from people who don’t share your privilege (BECAUSE YOU SHOULD ALWAYS DO THAT), but it’s a good place to start. I will warn you now, this list is looooooong. SO. LONG. Because, surprise surprise, there are a lot of shitty stereotypes that are common in gaming. (Say it isn’t so!) So grab a drink (I’m partial to margaritas) and let’s get started.
Men are from Mars, women are from venus
Please, unless it is your intent to write something that is truly subversive with regard to commonly held gender roles, avoid falling into the trap of writing men and woman as being completely different species that are incapable of relating to one another. And even then, consider that the likelihood of actually succeeding in your work being read the way you want it to is vanishingly small. That well has been poisoned. You see this in pop culture all the time: women want romance while men only want sex, women want to talk about their feelings while men pretend not to have any, men are perverts and women are prudes. This stereotype is incredibly gender essentialist and doesn’t do justice to just how varied a spectrum gender really is. Subtype: Men are generic, women are special How many games have you played where the NPCs wandering around are all or mostly male? For that matter, how many games have you played where the cast of characters is entirely male except for “the chick”? Can we all agree that the implications of this kind of thing are creepy and horrible? If women are 50% of the population, why would you make a world in which almost none of the people who actually get to be in public doing things are women? That is some creepy awfulness right there, so please. Just don’t.
Straw feminists (so named because they are a common subset of the straw man) are stereotyped, two-dimensional characters that exist to mock feminists and feminist ideals. Straw feminists are usually depicted as rabidly man-hating, to the extent that they want to overthrow patriarchal society and establish a fascist male dictatorship in its place. Also, very often they are lesbians, because nothing says misandry like lesbianism AMIRITE LAYDEEZ?
[I will never get tired of blogging this panel from the Hark! A Vagrant! about straw feminists. Kate Beaton is brilliant, the end.]
This is a stereotype that is more commonly used than you’d think in gaming. Take, for example, Purna from Dead Island, who had a skill that let her do increased damage… only to men. And let’s not forget the shitstorm that erupted when it was revealed that this skill was called “Feminist Whore” in a test build. Charming.
Or how about the Drow? They tick pretty much every straw feminist box and still have plenty of fail left over. The Drow are a matriarchal society (check) that hate men (check) and enforce the status of men as second class citizens (check). Naturally, because they are ostensibly a “feminist” culture, they are all evil. Really evil. Like worshipping an evil spider god evil. (Check, check, and check.) Oh, and let’s not forget that despite the fact that they hate men, they still all dress sexy…. for men? Because the only matriarchy worth writing about is a sexy matriarchy? And all of this isn’t even touching on the race fail wrapped up in the Drow. (We’ll come back to that.) So don’t ever write the Drow. Or anything like the Drow. Basically, if anything you’ve written looks even a little bit like the Drow, nuke it and start over.
Femininity is Evil
This is one of the most over-used stereotypes in gaming. Fantasy games are especially guilty of this, but non-fantasy games use this stereotype heavily as well. It’s rooted deeply in the patriarchal belief that female sexuality is evil. Any woman who is not pure and virginal is necessarily dirty and evil. The idea that femininity is itself evil is just a logical (if depressing) extension of that assumption. So women who show any hint of sexuality are evil, and women in general are evil, and men who are gender-nonconforming with feminine traits are especially evil. Because, you know, cooties. You can see this at work when you see evil eunuchs (a man without a penis? EVIL!), or super-beautiful women being sneaky (because super-beautiful = super-feminine = sneaky. EVIL!), or queens who are always evil (a woman in charge? EVIL!). And let’s not forget the “femme fatale” – a stereotype with many of it’s own sub-cliches, all of which I wish would die in a fire. Like the sexy evil sorceress, or the sexy evil queen, or the sexy thief, or the sexy spy. All of these are characters who use sex to get what they want, which of course makes them evil. Because, as we know, women who have sex are evil, and women who have lots of sex are really evil. And women who have lots of sex and ENJOY it? Well shit. They might as well be Satan. /headdesk The most screwed up example of this, however, is the vagina dentata stereotype – the most extreme extension of “the female is more deadly than the male”: monsters who literally consume their prey with their evil evil ladybits. (Fair warning, that link is pretty gross.)
Women as property
[TV Tropes calls this stereotype “Entitled to Have You”, but I’m not a fan of the gender-neutral phrasing as this is a heavily gendered stereotype that almost 100% applies to women.] All too often in games, women get to be plot devices, not people. And sometimes, even when they are depicted as people, they’re people without any real agency or freedom. There are many ways that this stereotype gets written into games, like the MacGuffin Girl – the woman who is herself the goal that must be attained. Or the female love interest who is nothing more than an extension of the hero because her most defining trait is being “owned” by the hero. And especially the “woman as standard hero reward” that you see in just about everything. One of the many reasons I have always hated Princess Peach is that she manages to hit all three of these.
Congratulations! You have just saved the village /castle/ kingdom/ nation / planet / galaxy / universe! Here is a beautiful woman as your reward! It’s like a slot machine that dispenses women, only more fucked up.
If you’re going to write a romance in your game, make it between two people with feelings, desires, and agency. Don’t write a romance between a male hero and a woman-shaped object. And if your hero hooks up at the end of the story, make it the result of a developing relationship between two characters, not as an auto-reward for saving the day. That kind of “insert coin, receive woman” plot device is kind of horrifying.
Women are only important because of their relationships with men
This is technically a subset of the “woman as property” stereotype, but is so unbelievably, massively endemic that it deserves to be expanded upon. All too often, female characters are depicted as only being significant to the story in so far as they are important to the story’s lead male characters. This has a whole host of problematic implications (women aren’t “real” people, women can’t be heroes, the only people whose stories matter are men, just to name a few. And the outcomes that this sort of thinking leads to are even worse. Starting with the least awful, when your writing adheres to this stereotype, you’re going to wind up with a cast of characters that is overwhelmingly male. Any women present are likely to be either a “lone macho chick” (the only woman on a team of men who is competent by completely divorcing herself from traditional femininity), a “team mom” (the female member of the team who coddles male egos and devotes herself to their best interests), or a “Smurfette” (a character who serves no purpose other than decoration). This sort of thing is both awful and stupefyingly boring. If your game’s story is nothing more than The Masculine Adventures of Manly Men, I’m going to find something else to play, because been there, done that. Despite that Gears of War is a game I’d probably enjoy in terms of gameplay, I’m not ever going to play it. When I want to play a fun third-person tactical shooter, I’ll load up Mass Effect instead and enjoy killing things in the face with my awesome LadyShepard. Of course, the much more awful cousin of the Smurfette is the “disposable female”, or – as Gail Simone has popularized the concept – “women in refrigerators”. All too often, the few female characters that exist are written out of the story – killed, brainwashed, maimed, etc – for the sake of giving a male character “tragic motivation” to come after the villain and emerge triumphant. See Kerrigan in StarCraft II, Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, Marian in Double Dragon II… Actually, you know what, just go watch the second installment in the Tropes Versus Women series by Anita Sarkeesian.
Women are passive/men are active
While all games tend to fail at this, fantasy games tend to fail especially hard because of the stereotypes that have long been held about magic, magic users, and who gets to participate in the action of a story. All too often in fantasy games, the heavily armored melee fighters are big, manly men and the magic-users are frail, delicate (usually scantily-clad) women – the underlying assumption being that the men are the ones putting themselves directly in danger while the women are slinging spells from a position of safety. Which sucks, because on its face the concept of magic-users is awesome – someone who uses arcane arts to bend reality to their will. But the execution almost always leaves something to be desired. An interesting subfail of this stereotype often pops up in those fantasy settings that mix magic and technology together. All too often, you wind up with your magical nature-loving people and your scientific technology-loving people, and never the twain shall meet. And because magic = female and nature = magic, then nature = female. Sometimes this extends to nature = passive, but most of the time you just wind up with nature = sexy. See, for instance, Dragon Age: Origins when the spirit of the forest is a hyper-sexy green lady with no clothes. (Because the physical manifestation of a forest is obviously going to be a sexay naked human. OF COURSE.) Or every irritating piece of druid or ranger art ever that shows them with no damn clothes while posing next to a large, intimidating animal. Or Final Fantasy XII, who went one step further and made their nature lovers both sexy and passive; the viera are a race of lingerie-wearing bunny girls who lounge around in the forest and don’t ever leave or do anything interesting ever. Wanting to actually DO SHIT is, you know, evil and foreign and stuff, so the magical bunny women actually excommunicate anyone who ever leaves the forest, no matter the reason. And yes, Final Fantasy XII also has the Jahara, who are a race of shamanistic male nature lovers. But the Jahara, notably, are fully clothed and are minor characters in a story about the struggle against the evil techno-empire ruled by manly men. (And yes, the techno-empire turns out to be manipulated by weirdo god-like spirits, and then the main villain turns into a robo-angel and… you know what, even by the standards of Final Fantasy, FFXII’s story was pretty goddamn gibberish, so let’s not go too deep with our analysis here.)
Sexism because history
This trope is mostly applicable to fantasy games, which are almost universally set in various incarnations of white crypto-Europe. What happens frequently such games is that the writers fall into the trap of assuming that naturally a crypto-European setting would be sexist because history was also sexist. You know, because it’s not like historians have actively ignored and/or erased the contributions of anyone who wasn’t a white dude for centuries. This leads to female characters who, by and large, stay in the kitchen and pursue only acceptable feminine goals (finding a man, having a baby, marrying some man that is not this other man that other people want her to marry, etc etc). You know, because history! Meanwhile, the heroes of these stories are always white men, because history! Sometimes a writer might make transparent attempts to somewhat circumvent this by having an Atypical Awesome Lady Character – otherwise known as the chick to whom all that awful sexism doesn’t apply because she is just SO. VERY. AWESOME. Unlike all those other awful girly girls who clearly would be able to rise above all that nasty sexism if they just tried harder.
[Taken from Hey, Khaleesi]
The glaring hole in this sort of logic is that why should fantasy settings necessarily include sexism? If your setting includes dragons, wizards, demons, fantastical beasts, other planes of existence that routinely intrude on our own, and a pantheon of deities who routinely empower servants with supernatural powers, clearly we’re already talking about a universe vastly different from our own. (Either that, or history is actually way more awesome than I was led to believe.) Also, it’s pretty nonsensical to argue that gender equality in a fantasy setting would be “unrealistic”, because honestly. DRAGONS.
The most obvious stereotype and most pervasive stereotype of all. It is the low-hanging fruit of how not to fail, and yet almost no one seems interested in even attempting not to do this. Stupid chainmail bikini art in game books, lingerie ninja characters in video games, female characters whose sole purpose is as an object of sexual desire for a male audience… People. PEOPLE. This isn’t rocket science. Women are people. Not collections of sexy ladybits. People. Not only that, but they come in all shapes and sizes and races. There are tall women and short women and fat women and thin women. There are young women and middle-aged women and old women. So represent that diversity! Even if your female characters get to wear clothes, are they all under 30 and built like supermodels? If so, you still fail.
Queerphobia and Cissexism
[Before I continue, you’ll notice that this section is shorter than the previous. That’s not because it’s less important! It’s because a lot of homophobic tropes overlap heavily with your more “traditional” sexism. The one’s I’m calling out here go above and beyond the garden-level sexism and veer into heterosexism and cissexism. However, pretty much everything in the previous sections can apply to queer and non-binary characters as well.]
Gay (and/or trans) people are evil
Thankfully, due to changing attitudes with regard to marriage equality, this stereotype is less prevalent than it once once. But game culture is not exactly a terribly enlightened place, and there’s still an awful lot of this one out there. And often when you see an Evil Gay Villain in a game, that character will be the only gay character depicted. I don’t need to explain why that’s awful do I? That it’s bad to have your only representative of an already marginalized group be evil? Because this is the sort of thing that you see in “real life” all the time by certain groups – the insistence that all gay/queer people are promiscuous and evil people who want to either molest your children or make them gay/queer. So by using this stereotype, you’re simultaneously reinforcing harmful cultural narratives and writing an unoriginal character. Hooray!
There’s a watered down version of this that is also pretty common – that of the male evil cross-dresser. Of course anyone who doesn’t adhere to traditional definitions of masculinity gots to be evil! Because cooties? This stereotype manages to not only be sexist and homophobic, but transphobic as well. If you’re after checking as many “awful human being” boxes as possible, then by all means pack your cast with evil cross-dressers. Otherwise, please for the love of god can we let this stereotype die already?
Making excuses for gay
Game companies are getting better about representing gay characters in their games that aren’t Evil Gays, but an awful lot of the time there seems to be an impulse to need to be able to rationalize the gay. Gay characters aren’t allowed to just be gay and have it not be a big deal. It has to be explained somehow to make it more palatable for your typical dudebro audience. The Asari from Mass Effect are the perfect example of having your lesbians and eating them too. They’re a race of totally hawt lady space elves that are totally lesbians. Oh, except for how they’re not supposed to mate with each other because stigma. But they can mate with women from other species, so lesbians! Oh, but they also mate with men from other species, and they could theoretically mate with intelligent squid-things too. But when you go to a club, all the hawt lady space elves are all dancing sexy with each other! And there are totally cut scenes of an Asari bumping female uglies with LadyShep, so… Lesbians, brah!
No happy endings
So you’ve written a gay character that isn’t evil, that isn’t the lone gay character in a cast of straight characters, that gets to have an on-screen romance. Awesome. Now how can you heighten the tension in your story? By killing the gay love interest?
Now you’re just using the disposable woman stereotype and slotting in “gay” instead of “woman”. (Unless we’re talking about killing a gay woman, in which case you’re actually doubling down on your awful.)
For whatever reason, gay characters rarely get to have happy endings. Either they or their love interest gets killed or otherwise removed from the story, or their relationship falls apart, or they find true love and happiness with the opposite-sex partner they were clearly meant to be with all along. Too many times, gay characters in relationships have a giant narrative target painted on their chests.
And honestly, I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I game is to escape my real-world stressors for a while. So how much would it suck to sit down to play a game and have to choose between either not being represented or being represented but never getting to have a happy ending. LGBT people have to put up with enough bullshit in their daily lives already. How about we let them have the occasional story where the gay characters get to be not evil, gay, and still in a happy relationship at the end of the story, huh? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Erasure of nominally “invisible” populations
As much as there are some pretty awful portrayals of gay characters, the fact remains that remains that representations of gay characters are increasing in games. Which is great! Unfortunately, however, there is no commensurate increase in representation of characters that are trans, bi, poly, what have you.
And if you’re not sure how to write a good trans character, for example, one thing you can try is writing the character as a man (since men are who we’re conditioned to see as protagonists) and later going back and changing the character. It’s an excellent way to turn what would normally be a traditional character type into something new and compelling. For instance, Fang in Final Fantasy XIII was originally written as a man and later switched to a woman, and she remains one of my favorite female characters I’ve yet encountered in gaming.
And that’s all for now. Next time: awful race stereotypes to avoid
—-  And then watch the rest of it.  See what I did there?