Women want heroes too

A little while ago, I was reading a blog post about a guy who was playing a Bayonetta game. He mentioned that critics call the game sexist but he didn’t think so because while she is sexy, she was first and foremost badass in his mind. So how could that be a bad thing?

I won’t link to the post because I don’t want to pick on the guy, but by the time I had finished reading, I had this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach and I couldn’t click away fast enough. I’d really like to forget that I ever read it but I can’t. Mostly because this isn’t the first time I’ve come across posts like that and it certainly won’t be the last.

Go Make Me a Sandwich does a better job than I would about explaining why Bayonetta is pretty much made for the male gaze, how she has a completely unrealistic anatomy, and how Scarlett Johansson would look with the same proportions. So instead I’m going to talk about my own reactions and some of the thoughts it’s led me to.

Bayonetta
“I want my superpower to be that my clothes are made of my hair” said no one ever.

I wish I could articulate just how I feel when I read posts defending what are essentially sex objects in female form. It’s not so much a feeling of disgust as one of complete and utter dread. While it’s not something that I’ve experienced a lot, I have been viewed as merely a sex object several times in my life and I remember each time vividly. It is a horrible feeling that makes me feel like the tiniest speck of dust, not even a human any more, and I’m certain it has contributed to my social anxiety and avoidance of crowds and strangers. So when I encounter it on the internet, it’s like it’s happening all over again and I just want to get away from it as fast as I can.

Hiding won’t make it go away though and I know it. Just as I couldn’t hide from GamerGate or a bigoted D&D group, I know I have to say something, that I have to try and make my voice be heard. What better place than a blog, right? And I don’t want to attack anyone, I just want to try and explain my point of view (which I imagine reflects a lot of other female gamers’ views).

I thought about this for a long time off and on, weeks of mulling it over. How could I explain that just because a character is female and fights doesn’t mean that she’s a good thing? After all, isn’t that the sort of thing that I want? Well, yes, but that’s an incomplete description. It was yesterday that the answer popped into my head: “Women (and girls) want heroes too.”

Gendered armors chart

If you don’t understand the difference between heroically idealized and sexualized, get thee to Bikini Battle Armor Damage.

I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s where we had all sorts of shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Batman cartoon, the Spiderman cartoon, Power Rangers, Darkwing Duck, Inspector Gadget, The Tick, Redwall, and so on. A lot of those shows had their heroes, but next to none were female. Sure, Power Rangers had the pink ranger (white woman) and the yellow ranger (Asian woman) but I don’t think I even have to go into the obvious sexism AND racism there. Besides, I’ve always hated the colour pink and how it’s always associated with being female. (Which was the opposite less than 100 years ago by the way.)

Most of those shows and the associated toys were geared towards boys. They were the ones with the heroes, while us girls got Barbie and her ilk. When you think of Barbie, I doubt that “hero” ever comes to mind. The closest thing that I had to a hero was Wendy from little-known and regrettably short-lived cartoon The Legend of White Fang. I’d wake up early every school morning to watch it, even when it was just the same reruns over and over again. Here was a quick-witted girl in the Yukon who wasn’t afraid to get dirty and was always going on an adventure with her friend White Fang. Is it any wonder I fell in love with the show?

Wendy
The best kind of heroes calmly hold back snarling wolves while rocking a dress.

But it’s hard to have a hero to look up to and to aspire to be when the character is perpetually 12 years old. So I made do as a kid. When we played Lego, I just had to put a ponytail hairstyle on my unisex Lego figure and instantly I had a female hero who was an intrepid underwater explorer and also lived in a castle, saving marine animals on a daily basis and befriending dragons in her spare time. But I had no heroes that weren’t of my own making. I may have played Ocarina of Time, Pokemon Red, and Siege of Avalon, but I couldn’t associate with those heroes the way I wanted to. They were made for boys and as much as a tomboy as I was, I was still a girl.

So I grew up without a hero. I wrote a lot of stories with female protagonists to try and make up for it but it was never quite the same thing. I don’t think that I’m a broken person because of it but part of me feels a bit bereft that I don’t have a childhood hero. I wish I could send back games like Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed: Liberation to my younger self so I would have had heroes to love and worship and want to be. Maybe it would have made me more confident and less self-hating if I had been able to see someone like me who was a fighter and had a distinct, confident personality while still being female.

Aveline
Being intimidating would also be pretty handy at times.

FemShep and Aveline are heroic women. Bayonetta is not. The first two are portrayed as individuals with their own decisions and personalities. They look and feel like real people, ones that can also kick an enormous amount of ass. The latter is a pretty but hollow husk designed to be ogled at. I would not want to be Bayonetta even if you paid me.

I am a human being with my own feelings and personality, and it is wretched to feel as something less than that. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for my heroes to be treated the same way.

2 comments

  1. I was actually having a discussion about this with my husband the other day. I forget what started it, or what character we were discussing, but he was lamenting that some female character in something had a love interest when she was an otherwise interesting person. And I looked at him dead in the eye and asked if I was an interesting person. “Of course you are!” he responded, “if you weren’t, I wouldn’t have married you!” “So then, how is a television character any different? Why can’t she have a love interest, and be an interesting and flawed person at the same time?” He kind of stood there dumbfounded for a bit.

    While some folks lament the gender-swapping of roles (such as Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica reboot), I enjoy them. Because it shows that women are just as multi-faceted as men. Write a role for a man, and then have a woman play it. *THAT’S* what game developers should do, if they don’t know how to write a female hero. Because in the end, female heroes are just like male heroes. (Also: Sorry to rant :P)

    1. Definitely agree, there would be a lot more interesting female characters in games if the writers just started swapping genders. That’s one of the reasons that Ripley in the first Alien movie was so awesome, it was a role originally written for a male character. But they switched it while filming and got a wonderful icon out of it. And it also might dispel the myth that some guys hold that women are these strange Other creatures, when really we’re just a bunch of varied individuals like men.

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