What Does a Heroine Look Like?

So in the furor over Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames, the content of what she’s producing has been largely overlooked. But The Mary Sue‘s Becky Chambers has a suggestion:

I want a character who makes me feel emboldened on sight. If I’m a soldier, I want to look like the rest of my squad. If I’m escaping a zombie apocalypse, I want shoes I can run in and clothes that minimize the likelihood of getting bitten. If I’m a warrior of song and legend, I want a set of plate mail that will silence a room when I walk in. None of these things require a trade-off of my sexuality or femininity. I want my character to be beautiful, but I also want her to wear what I would want to wear in her circumstances. And if I’m given a pre-designed character, I’m fine with makeup or flowing hair or a lower-cut top, so long as it feels in character. It’s a costume, after all. Creative liberties are to be expected.

I have to say, I agree. I have said before that Shepard is my favorite female protagonist. Her costume is armor (I put her in the ridiculous black dress only for the mission where I have no choice) or a uniform that is appropriate to her context (as Chambers says), and she behaves and speaks like a soldier, which she is. She looks like the others in her position, male and female (this is also true of the women in Gears of War 3 and Halo Reach, for which both games should receive credit).

But what is more important is that she doesn’t “act like a girl.” Like Chambers, I am less concerned about what a female protagonist is wearing (within reason… she does need to be wearing actual clothing that is more or less what someone in her position would be wearing) and more with what she does and says. Shepard is a great protagonist because she was written to be a male protagonist (with a few adjustments for the female version).

Chambers presents a list of things that can “break” an otherwise-positive female protagonist:

    • Women in combat roles who lament their loss of femininity or express a desire to be a “normal girl.”
    • Women who cannot act without a man to instruct and/or save them (cough, Metroid: Other M, cough).
    • The sense that the protagonist is the only woman in the game world who has ever become a hero.

That last point is perhaps the most important. If I’m playing a female protagonist, I’m keenly aware of how the other characters treat her and who the other female characters are. If my character is the only woman on the battlefield, or the only one deemed worthy of full armor, that’s a problem. The warm fuzzy feeling I get from playing a strong female protagonist dies quickly if the only other women I see are damsels or love interests (I say that as someone wholeheartedly in favor of getting laid in-game).

Shepard fits all these criteria, too. While she may be the only woman who somehow manages to do all the things she can do, the same would be true if she were a male Shepard… and those who accompany her (both companions and non-companion NPCs) are both men and women who are capable of doing the jobs that the story requires of them… not to mention the fact that the villains of the Mass Effect universe are both male and female.

But Chambers makes a final point that even Shepard can’t answer. She says that while gender-variable protagonists (like Shepard) are great and work in games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout, or Fable, it is also important to have games with female-only protagonists (and male-only protagonists). It’s important for developers to be able to construct a story that requires (or limits, if you prefer) the gender of their player-character. And when it’s important for a protagonist to be female, it’s also important for her to be a female who is realistic (as much as she can be) and practical, and not only for the women who might play her, but for the men who will come to associate her with positive femininity.