Over the weekend I went to see Nell Gwynn, a play which revolves in part around the drama that arose from the introduction of women to acting on stage. A moment that really stuck with me was when the theatre director told the playwright that he could stop writing such exaggeratedly waify feminine women because now that they had actual women to play the parts, no one would believe it.
In the restoration and preceding literary periods, female characters were more often than not either weak in their femininity or villainous for their refusal to be weakly feminine. In Nell Gwynn, the playwright is encouraged to write “for a real woman with skin and heart and some sense in her head.” This led me to think about how I see female characters written in videogames (because I will connect everything to videogames), and how we can make the women on that platform more real.
It seems that in order to justify a female protagonist or a even a female sidekick, there’s an expectation that they have to be strong to the point of infallibility and unfailingly moral. They can’t be in any way “unlikeable”, and often this leads to a character who is, yes, physically strong and inspiringly capable, but overall pretty shallow and likely to give the “world peace” answer if asked what she wanted.
As I’ve been playing Life is Strange with a critical eye, something has come to my attention when it comes to the characters; they’re likeable in their unlikeability. Victoria is a bully, but she has soft moments, Chloe is whiny and self-pitying but she’s loyal and strong, and Max? Well, Max might be the hero of the story but she’s also very judgemental and pretty snide, surprised when anyone from the Vortex Club turns out not to be an absolute tool.
We need more of this, we need more female characters who aren’t just strong, they’re ‘unlikeable.’ For one thing, it might make us reassess why we’re so quick to hate some characters. So often I’ve found myself saying “I love that character, he’s such a sarcastic asshole” but rarely have I given female characters that kind of adoration for their more negative traits. But I want to. And I should, because having female characters that are likeable as well as unlikeable is part of what will bring us to writing female characters that are actually human.
I don’t know if writers are afraid that even the slightest negative character trait is enough for a female character to be considered negative in her entirety, so instead they must set up this incredible woman that no one can hate and no one can question.
Take Lara Croft for example. Now, I love Lara because she’s intelligent, strong, and independent. But she isn’t much else, really, is she? I have absolutely no reason to dislike her at all. The game developers couldn’t even give her a bit of bloodthirst that we don’t question in male action heroes, instead they had to emphasise that she’s vulnerable. Producer Ron Rosenberg said he wanted to make people feel like they were protecting Lara, because “when people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character.” I have a couple of things to say about this. One is the fact that this is an admittance that Lara is not a deep enough character for the player to lose themselves in. And another is that promising us that we’ll feel like we’re protecting her vulnerability is easier and makes Lara more likeable than telling us that Lara is taking just a little bit of satisfaction from killing these bastards that are out to kill her and all her friends.
I’ve seen quite a few comparisons being made between the Uncharted series and the Tomb Raider reboot, leading to comparisons of Nathan Drake and Lara Croft. If the games are becoming so similar, why does Nathan Drake get to be brilliant, rude, sarcastic, funny, and callous but Lara has to be strong and sometimes vulnerable?
Why does Nathan Drake have a personality section on his Wikipedia page while Lara’s is about her appearance and backstory? It’s not just about being strong and weak anymore. We have female protagonists – let’s move them past that.
There’s a sense of the idea that female characters must abide by impossible standards set for womanhood or they’re not deserving of a space. The fact that the creators of Never Alone have an entire blog post to justify the fact that they have a female protagonist says it all, really.
Female protagonists must be likeable, or at the very least sexy, to go unquestioned. This need for women to be likeable sets up an accepted code of behaviour that must be obeyed, lest a woman be a negative presence who is flouting convention and making herself unlikeable. “Why aren’t you altering your personality to be pleasing to everyone? Why aren’t you so selfless and afraid of irritating anyone that you lack depth and individuality?”
Perhaps it’s simply an unwillingness to accept that women have negative qualities.
I want to see more women in games who have admirable traits alongside the negative ones, to acknowledge that women are rich, complex and most importantly human, rather than sex objects, devices, or indistinguishable from male characters except for their tits.
I want characters that not only give me someone I can aspire to be like, but also characters that make me feel better about who I already am. Characters who have my negativity or impatience, but are also kind and interesting. Characters whose softness doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not strong. I want less Quiets and more characters like Cassandra Pentaghast from Dragon Age; she’s a religious warrior who isn’t afraid of being disliked for her beliefs. She can hold her own in a sword fight, but she reads love poetry because why the hell shouldn’t she be violent and capable of romance? She’s opinionated and often gets in the way of what I want to do. Sometimes I hate her, but the game would be less without her.
Watching Nell Gwynn allowed me to see a character who was loud, bawdy, selfish, reckless, and jealous, but I loved her because I can be all of those things. And despite exhibiting these traits, she was still the play’s heroine. That’s what you want to take away from seeing your gender represented. Being a ball of contradictions is what makes a great complex human character. So stop simplifying my women, stop making them less human.
Reading this over I sound quite demanding and opinionated, don’t I? It’s probably quite unlikeable isn’t it? Deal with it.
Main Image via Flickr © JP Freethinker