Female Protagonists: Are They an Issue or Do We Make Them One?

Female protagonists, encouraged by self-proclaimed progressives, but kept the straggler by the majority who hold the pervasive comfort of playing as the generic male beefcake. In this article I will explore the possible reasons why there aren’t many female protagonists, why people do and don’t want them, and their importance. Not all opinions are my own.

There’s a lot of worrying evidence to suggest that the casual buys-three-games-a-year consumer doesn’t want to play as or associate themselves with a female character in a game. Whether this is because the casual gamer is more likely to be a male, or because female protagonists are created as less favourable is irrelevant at this point, but for this article and its discussion to be relevant we must first acknowledge that there is a consumer-imposed deficit of the likes of Lara Croft. If you have any respect for yourself, you will have already played Bioshock Infinite. First, I ask you to remember the main character of the game. Who was the person the great adventure revolved around? Who was the person who reeled you in with unabating allure and mystery? Was it Booker? To you, perhaps, but to many, Elizabeth stole the show. You are sent to Columbia to fetch Elizabeth, throughout the game you bond with Elizabeth, the many mysteries regarding Columbia are all linked to and unravel through Elizabeth, Irrational Games went through the effort of mastering the mocap, voice, and facial expression individually to minimise the disconnect between the player and Elizabeth; the game is about Elizabeth. So why then, is Elizabeth literally out of sight from the casual consumer, hidden behind a mask of masculinity? I ask you to remember those times you removed your disc from its box. Did you ever wonder why only Booker was on the front cover of the game? Throughout the entirety of the game you never see Booker’s face at all, but, judging by the box art his image is supposedly more important than the woman whose depth and faculty surpasses his in every aspect. Her relevance is diminished to that of which is in parity to the software specifications by putting her at the back of the box, away from the sight of the passer by. She should be represented at least alongside the protagonist if not in front of him, so why is this the case? Creative director Ken Levine stated that he intended for the box art to be as such so that the casual gamer would be more inclined to buy it, so that he could sell a game, whose feminine presence was the heart of its identity, with a generic masculine face, on the basis that the man “looks kind of cool” whereas the demi-goddess doesn’t (http://www.wired.com/2012/12/bioshock-infinite-box-art/).

The idea that the woman doesn’t sell because she’s ‘uncool’ is unsettling to say the least, as it reflects the attitudes a lot of casual gamers hold towards female characters, but what’s worse is Irrational’s complicity in all this, their reluctance to be proud of the woman they have created, and to hide it all through a veil of a marketable male. I digress. This whole box-art incident goes to show that if a casual gamer is offered a female to play as, they would decline. This brings me on to another point: does this matter? Does it matter that a casual won’t buy your game if you’re playing as a woman? Do the success of these games need to be in parity with that of the triple-As’? Do we need more women in videogames? Let’s look at two schools of thought:

Yes

Many would say that too many females are represented as anything but idealised to the female gamer, that popular videogames today are saturated with trophies for the straight male gamer to win, masquerading as women. It is because of this that some believe that we need respectable female heroes, to balance out the overall image of females in gaming. However, the idea that men are idealised and women are objectified in video games is only true to an extent, as men are objectified also. Mostly men say that they are idealised because they can’t grasp that the ubiquitous 6′ chiselled male protagonist is just as sexy to the straight woman as the female protagonist is to them, with the chest that holds its own independent gravitational field, meaning that the objectification of Lara Croft is tantamount to that of, say, BJ Blazkowicz. Both are intelligent, layered characters, whilst still maintaining the zeniths of ideal beauty for both genders. However, on a much larger scale, female supporting characters in videogames are too often made as conversationally subordinate, less intelligent, new age feminists that we’re meant to laugh at, eager to engage in sex, nondescript, or sometimes just as naked. I can count past my fingers the number of eerily realistically rendered strip clubs I’ve visited in certain open world games, as a male protagonist, but I cannot recall one club that exhibits and celebrates the beauty of the male physique. Perhaps we need more female protagonists to balance the see-saw, to show that women can be just as much heroes as men in videogames, to tackle the player’s overexposure to women as playthings, videogames in microcosm, as something to beat, or win. But another reason why people believe we need female protagonists links back to the idea of the box art. Ken Levine assumed that the majority of gamers, being straight men (“Frat guys”), would buy the game because a generic chiselled man was more appealing than Elizabeth. By this logic, a female gamer would’ve been more interested in buying the game had Elizabeth been the poster girl. Surely then, if all popular games had a feminine face, more female gamers would start playing popular games, feel more accepted and catered to if popular games had a feminine element to them, something that many strive for in today’s market, to achieve a female audience.

No

An opposing opinion is that trying to achieve a respectable female protagonist is impossible, because no matter how you form them, no one can ever fully agree with them. Take the divisive Bayonetta, for example, a strong authoritative woman who still manages to be, what some would call, sexy. She is hailed by many to be the perfect feminist icon, as someone who owns themselves in every aspect, taking a revolutionary step in the way gamers view women (an example here http://the-geek-spot.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/the-feminist-stance-on-bayonetta.html). But, many people disagree and say that Bayonetta’s perfect form is not there to evoke confidence in the female gamer, but rather to cater to the male gaze instead (http://www.rightwardgamers.com/2014/10/14/opinion-feminists-disagree-on-bayonetta/). No one can completely agree on who the hero was made for, is it there to invite women or to feed men? It’s an endless cycle, if we had a less conventionally attractive Bayonetta I’m sure we’d hear the cries of ‘why do all powerful women have to be ugly?’ ‘strong women can be sexy too!’. I think a lot of people who disagree with Bayonetta’s body mistake male admiration for objectification. By this logic, BJ Blazkovicz’s herculean biceps are simply and unequivocally catering to the female gaze, instead of giving confidence to the male gamer that you can be both ripped and thoughtful. Besides which, what is the point of having a female protagonist, if supposedly the only difference is that the character has feminine rather than masculine traits? What makes feminine traits better? If you have the kind of mind where you would change the protagonist simply because they had the wrong gender, then you would probably have the kind of mind to change other aspects of the game to cater to female gamers as well. This leads on to an interesting point, why fight masculinity with femininity? Surely you are being just as bad as the masculine triple-As if you fight with equal feminine force, excluding male gamers from your game and being subsequently just as fascist. As well as this, why do games need to be feminine for female gamers to enjoy them? Can’t a woman enjoy a game with a male protagonist? If you insist we need female protagonists, then you are infantilizing all the female gamers that you assume simply cannot handle the male presence, infantilizing them by saying that girls cannot play with boys’ toys. Want to play a videogame? Well, it has to be predominantly feminine, because accepting and enjoying masculinity is simply not an option. Says the feminist.

The Verdict 

I personally think that if you dedicate a lot of time into thinking about this particular argument, then you are missing the more important question; why is this argument about solely men and women? Why do triple a games insist on having one compulsory protagonist? You can never cater to everyone, no matter how progressive you strive to be. What triple-A games need to incorporate is a character creator, where you can be a man, a woman, Puerto-Rican, where you can have a prosthetic limb or a lisp if need be. Then and only then will truly everyone, not just women, feel catered to. Not only this but the entire discussion is ignoring the fact that most triple-A games are not about the protagonist. If it really bothers you that, whilst roaming the beautifully, scrupulously rendered Colosseum, whilst attempting to hide from a pursuer, invisible, between the Roman crowds, whilst scaling the rooftops next to the Pantheon under the sunset, that Ezio Auditore da Firenze, legendary Assassin, is a male, then maybe videogames aren’t your thing.

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10 thoughts on “Female Protagonists: Are They an Issue or Do We Make Them One?

  1. They’re an issue like black protagonists. Its just uncommon. In fact I’d say female protagonists are more common now than anything that’s not white. Not to make this racial, but well if no one makes that an issue, no one will talk about it.

    Also studies have shown that when a female is alone on the cover it doesn’t sell as well unless its Lara Croft. She slipped in as the first female protagonist in the polygon era.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The only sole black protagonist I’ve played as, and loved, was Lee Everett. I would do an article on black protagonists but, as you say, there’s not really much to go on in terms of AAA.

      Like

      • Oh yeah Lee, I remember non gamers I knew in real life pissed that well he was black. Like they don’t game at all, but they bought it because of the Walking Dead’s popularity. Its odd that they don’t seem like racists, they just didn’t want to play as him.

        As for black protagonists, the only 2 that come to mind are Marlow Briggs and Shadowman from like 15 years ago.

        As for females, Heavenly Sword, Lara Croft, Bayonetta. I would say Samus, but really she’s a suit of armor. My cousin’s daughters were pretty sure Link was a girl and that’s why they liked playing as her.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think it’s an issue. It’s marketing. Developers make games for the majority of the people who play them. Without the proof in my hand, I can’t say for certain, but I’m guessing that white males make up the biggest demographic of video game players.

    That being said, Lara Croft, who in my opinion is a strong female protagonist, was also viewed as a sex-object in the 90’s, eye candy for males. I’m sure there were girls who played, but I never knew of any.

    Am I happy that there isn’t more diversity in video games? No, because that would be an incredibly stupid thing to be happy about. Do I think it makes sense? Yes, because I realize that if there is money to be made from female protagonists, developers will start making more. As the number of female gamers continue to increase, I think we’ll see a trend of increasing female leading characters.

    As for The Walking Dead games, I didn’t have a problem with Lee being black. I’m surprised that people had a problem with it…. No, no I’m not surprised, but maybe a little disappointed. I thought it was refreshing to play as someone from a different ethnicity who WASN’T playing as a stereotype. Lee was a dynamic character that I could identify with, and that’s what made him a compelling character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All good points, I find that a lot of black protagonists in AAA games are uncomfortably archetypal, and use the N word like it’s going out of style a la Franklin. Thanks for commenting 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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