>Gender-swapping female characters: Vanille

>Some of the arguments here about the sexualized design of female video game characters got me to thinking about how I could illustrate this more clearly, since some people just seem to understand that idealization of male characters JUST ISN’T THE SAME as the sexualization of female characters. I got to thinking about a post I saw several years ago on LiveJournal in which a female blogger photoshopped hypothetical comic covers with extreme male fanservice.

I wanted to do something along those lines, only with game art and perhaps a bit less extreme. When discussing sexualized character design, people seem to focus on the body parts – perhaps just because distorted anatomy is very easy for us to recognize. But posing plays just as big a part – even when it’s not the subtle-as-a-brick “take me now” posing that all of us are pretty used to seeing. So I decided that I’m going to start doing a series of gender-swapped female game characters, starting with Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII – mostly just because that’s the game I’m playing right now.

So here’s female Vanille:

And here’s my genderswapped “Van”:


I did contemplate leaving Vanille’s ridiculous bikini top and mini skirt combo intact, but I decided that instead I would swap the clothing for their nearest gender equivalents – which is why Van is in a wife-beater and shortish shorts. Van here comes off as pretty gender-inappropriate by conventional standards, and not just because I kept the pink shirt. According to what we’re conditioned to expect, everything about the pose is incredibly inappropriate on a male figure.

Vanille’s spine is arched in such a way that her breasts are thrust forward. Her legs and clothing are arranged in such a way that your eyes are drawn to her ladybits that are just barely covered by the arrangement of her limbs. And despite this being a somewhat action-y pose, the posing of her arms doesn’t suggest strength or action – they suggest softness and femininity. Everything about Vanille’s pose is designed to be inviting and appealing to the male viewer. And yet a lot of that gets lost in the gender-swap. Van isn’t that much more covered than Vanille, but you don’t get the “collection of parts” impression looking at him that you do looking at Vanille.

So all in all, I consider this a pretty successful experiment, and one that I’ll definitely repeat. My only regret in that trying to go less extreme than the photoshopped comic covers, I think I went a little too far. Next time I’ll pick a character and pose that are a little more obviously sexual and see what happens. (Suggestions?)

Lastly, as recommended reading I’ll suggest you check out this great LJ post here with lots of scans from a book on how to draw comic characters that highlights a lot of what I’m talking about. Especially check out the first three scanned pages which highlight pretty much what I’m talking about here.

24 thoughts on “>Gender-swapping female characters: Vanille

  1. >One thing I've noticed with these kinds of conversions (both yours and <a href="http://rosalarian.tumblr.com/post/2325861377/dressed-to-kill>another one I'd seen linked through Sociological Images recently</a>) is that the male characters tend to look a lot pudgier than the women do, which changes the dynamic a bit. I think this might be part of the reason why you don't get the "collection of parts" feel — the impression that he's too big for the outfit could draw attention away from that.The other part, I think, is that the changes to the outfit take away too much of the voyeurism. Leaving the bikini top might be too strange-looking to take seriously, but the tucked-in wifebeater shirt just seems too long — if it cut straight across where the highest point of his shorts are, which would leave the part of his musculature under his abs (the lines that seem to point to the groin) visible and better retain the "looking at parts, not person" feel.As for suggestions… how about Aya Brea from Parasite Eve? (You can take your pick from any of the official images with her =/ )

  2. >Ikkin: The problem is that Vanille here is so terrifyingly skinny that when I draw an average dude, he just looks plump next to her. But yeah, I get what you're saying.

  3. >It's a good experiment, very cool!I would recommend Miranda from Mass Effect 2 for this, actually. I think you could generate something interesting.

  4. >Wundergeek: The strange thing is, he doesn't really look too broad if I just look at the top half. I think a lot of the "heavy" effect is down to the forced posing of the original (which causes the top half and bottom half point to point in different directions) — fixing the anatomy makes him look like his body is wider from front-to-back at the butt area than it should be for a skinny person.And the other part is, he's got much thicker legs without much in the way of muscle definition. Men have thicker legs in general, and I can see why you'd want to leave him looking soft rather than muscular, but it does make him look like he'd be squishy if you poked him (as opposed to Vanille, whose legs are virtually skin and bones).I think you did really good considering what you had to work from, though. I don't envy the task you had trying to replicate that pose with a realistic male figure.

  5. >Didn't someone go through and re-draw all the pictures from that second link, keeping the poses and swapping the genders? I swear I've seen it before…

  6. >Wundergeek: You did a good job because 'Van' just sends all kinds of 'WRONG!' alarm bells buzzing in my brain. Part of me wonders if some of the backlash against Final Fantasy XII (which I loved) was due to the open-vested, non-macho look of Vaan.Ikkin: Wow, that's hilarious, particularly the fact that he went through and changed all the text as well. It really drives home how skeevy some of the things being said are… and worse, how easy it is to not notice because it's so common when said about women.

  7. >My wires got a bit crossed with this for a moment. My first thought was that the pose is altogether too feminine to prove the point of sexualizing a male character, but then it's not necessarily feminine so much as passive and nonsensical — not something you'd expect out of one of the six heroes that goes on three discs worth of adventure. So yeah, point proved. I'd recommend something more overtly sexual, like the girls-with-boobs-touching image from your previous post with the bad fanart.

  8. >Interesting experiment, I approve.This is probably feminism 101 here but it certainly challenges me to consider that feminine identity and image are so wrapped up in sexualization across the board (both in fiction and reality) that it's difficult to unsee it no matter how its portrayed. I don't really know how to excuse the male gaze or qualify it or offer recommendations on how to change it, it's certainly a conundrum.Off-topic, what's your take on Zak Sabbath's recent blog post about women-friendlifying D&D?http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2010/12/how-to-actually-market-rpgs-to-women.html

  9. >Koboldstyle: Huh. So, I agreed right until the 2nd to last paragraph. And then I facepalmed. Wanting powerful and non-sexual women on stuff has nothing with wanting the marketing to match the product. It has everything to do with just wanting to see more powerful and non-sexual women on stuff. And yes, I have bought stuff that featured powerful non-sexual women. (See: anything by BioWare, all Final Fantasy games since FFVII)

  10. >Seeing the arguments from bloggers like Sabbath and Raggi I guess we're seeing a clash between the hope for visualizing greater non-sexualizing gender depiction versus the creator's desire for authenticity in reflecting a culture where sexuality is (forced/embraced/reduced to?) into female identity. The desire for so-called authenticity is made even weirder when we're delving into a world of fiction which is fundamentally an offshoot of our psychological desires predicated from that very culture. If we're engaging in a fiction based off of blatant self-indulgence of these cultural desires, any dilution of it for "broader appeal" can be pretty painful.This strikes me as a separate debate from the more obvious pandering of a lot of fantasy marketing – which is basically purposefully inauthentic and diluted in the worst possible ways.Trollsmyth makes some wonderful points on the subject here:http://trollsmyth.blogspot.com/2010/12/gender-of-art.htmlHe notes that non-specifically-women-directed marketing is utterly terrified of ever being seen as specifically directed towards women because it is literally psychological poison for the male audience. What a double standard!

  11. >Koboldstyle: I'm not so sure it is authentic to conflate sexualization so strongly with feminization. As much as cultural standards of beauty for women are sexualized, real women are unlikely to be so blatant about it — and as much as the sexualization of men is rendered as awkward, some of the techniques used on women still work really well for guys.So I suspect that the level to which it's taken probably has more to do with that macho fear that guys have, that they might possibly find another guy attractive, than anything inherent in this culture's men and women.

  12. >Kobold/Wunder (re: Zak's post) > The product matching the advertising is a tertiary benefit to the realization of a few feminist goals, but alot of RPG products are already halfway there in terms of their product, system and setting. In some cases it literally is just the advertising that says "this is a boys-only club." Though some more inclusive distribution on the interior art wouldn't hurt either.And Kobold/Ikkin (re: authenticity) > More the problem isn't that it isn't "authentic" that femininity and sexualization are the "same thing," it's more that such trappings seem to trump actual characterization and take priority even when it wouldn't make sense (see also the why-don't-you-stab-my-exposed-vitals series of female body armor).By and large, I don't think people would have a as much a problem with some of these characters if they weren't either nonsensical or one-dimensional excuses to stroke the male ego. Sexy is fine. Attraction is fine. To exclusivity and objectivity is where things stumble.Ikkin > Seems like that interpretation (while potentially true for a subset of the male population) is reaching for the stars when the actual explanation is much more mundane: gender is seen as a binary, mutually exclusive function. So the reason why men avoid products with for-women codifiers is the same reason they don't use the women's restroom: there's basically a sign on the door that tells them it's not for men.Given how this little dance plays out differently in different cultures, I'd say it is fairly firmly rooted in culture, rather than some primordial homophobic fear that all men must surely possess.

  13. >To build on a few things; I think what tomdohm observes is at least partially correct. Certainly in North American culture there is an establishment of what is 'male' as normal, with women who strive for males things viewed either as aberrations or as 'respected for trying to do what anyone should do'. Witness the difference in reaction between the 'Tomboy' and the 'Sissy'. Boys are socialized to regard what is defined as 'girly' as intrinsically not for them. So I don't think the bathroom analogy is a good one, since there is a statement of value there as well. What is girly 'isn't as good' as what is 'boyish'.

  14. >@ Wise OwlThis is totally on the money.The phenomenon plays itself out vividly in the LGBTQ community, where it's generally recognized that lesbians enjoy more mainstream acceptance than gay men, and that FtM transsexuals enjoy easier social transitions (as opposed to medical transitions) than MtF or genderqueer people. Of course these are generalizations and any given individual's experience may differ*, but in general, moving "up" the gender spectrum towards male-appreciated values is rewarded and moving "down" ends in harsh persecution. (note that none of what I say above is meant to construe that anyone in the LGBTQ community has it easy, and homophobia and transphobia are complex intersections of sexism and other kinds of discrimination)

  15. >@Tomdohm (re: what kind of character is a problem): Equating femininity and sexualization isn't so much about trappings (eg. high heels and submissive posture) as it is about the implication of availability. No matter how well-developed a character is, it's going to feel really awkward to me if her design says, "why don't you come 'play' with me?" — not only because being uninterested in women makes that kind of behavior rather uncomfortable, but also because it feels like the game is talking past me to the invisible guy behind me.(Which may, honestly, be why I tend to feel a bit conflicted over whether gender-swapped sexy poses convey the proper feeling — they're plenty awkward, but the feeling of being propositioned by someone of a gender you're not interested in kind of gets drowned out by the absurdity of the feminized posing)Re: my overreaching interpretation, I had meant to restrict that to western geek culture, rather than all men everywhere, though it's probably still assuming too much. I'm inclined to think it's more than just an equivalent to restroom signs, though, because women don't consider the "signs" nearly as binding as men do….or, basically, what Wise Owl said.

  16. >I think Renee and Wise Owl really nailed it with moving "up" the male ladder being seen as better than moving "down" the female ladder. What a brief metaphor that summarizes so much. I'll have to remember that.And Ikken, you're right and I think I meant to touch on that: but basically reducing the ubiquity and increasing character quality would make this sort of thing more acceptable. You'd be willing to believe that this particular character's sexiness had a basis in her characterization if there were a few that were not but still just as well defined. That, and not conflating "sexy" with "come fuck me."

  17. >@ReneeMm, I'm not trying to be rude or anything but I myself do not believe lesbians actually have anything close to acceptance concerning mainstream media. Mainly because of the way lesbians are usually portrayed in it.For me the most I've seen are two instances, both surrounding sex. The 'sweeps' kiss type stuff that happens in a few TV shows and the 'girl on girl is hot' idea. But really they're the same thing, the women themselves aren't really being accepted, only what they can do for the guys in the audience. It's always framed as there to titillate the men and is treated largely like a floor show.Few things in media I've seen actually portray their actual relationships and feelings and actual characters beyond this (stuff like that will usually be hidden in subtext, if there at all). It's more like they're seen as sexual entertainment than anything (for the guys in the audience). Seems like the same old sexualization as other women get, really.

  18. >Tomdohm: Reducing the ubiquity and increasing the character quality are important, but they only really work if they're consequences of a change in attitude about women in general — a depiction which shares the current attitude would still be problematic even if there aren't nearly as many of them around (I would say "even if she's a well-developed character," but that's basically impossible under the sexy-first rule).And whether or not a character's sexiness is believable as a character trait seems to me to be something intrinsic to that character, and not a function of how other characters are portrayed. Whether she seems competent and in control seems far more important to me than what the other characters around her look like.

  19. >@ LilithXIVNo, you're correct, totally. I should be clearer when I write, the "acceptance" I'm talking about is a sort of privileged male take on the idea…the fact that they find lesbians less threatening. It certainly doesn't mean that lesbians are understood or not objectified. Same goes with with trans men; I don't think cis men (or cis people in general) really do that much better of a job recognizing and validating their gender, but statistically speaking, they're less violently oppressed because cis society sees the pursuit of "manliness" as being more valuable than the other way around (which is not to say they're not ever violently oppressed, because they totally are).And that doesn't even begin to address the other intersections of prejudice that befall the different LGBTQ communities. Like classism, which seems to favor gay men by virtue of the fact that they're men, and therefore they have more earning power, which means greater potential household wealth (than even hetero couple, sometimes). So yeah, I agree with you, and should have been more clear about what exactly I meant.

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