Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Tropes vs. Women Protagonists

Shamus Young | 28 Sep 2012 21:00
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But the focus of the Tropes vs. Women series seems to be missing the point. It's not that the premise is inherently invalid, it's just that focusing on secondary characters when we have so few protagonists is like arguing over the thermostat during a house fire.

In your bog-standard action story, you've got the protagonist, the antagonist, and everyone else. As mentioned, the protagonist is almost always male. If you've got a male protagonist, then the antagonist is probably male as well. (Not saying man hero vs. woman villain can't work, but I'm sure you can see how that could go horribly wrong for everyone.) So if we're going to have women in our story, they get relegated to the secondary roles as victims, prisoners, peasants, romance interests, exposition vessels, plot devices, oracles, mentors, adoring admirers, and so on. These tropes aren't some sort of conspiracy to keep women down and convince them they can't be heroic, they're just a byproduct of stories where all of the strength and wit goes to the player's avatar, who is a guy. Listing tropes is just listing all the ways in which a woman is not the hero of the story.

As a way of moving forward and having a productive conversation, I'm much more interested in talking about the central issue: Women want to play too. Right now, games are failing them. Sure, we get the odd female lead, but they are few and far between, and too many of them wind up in bad games that are bad for reasons completely unrelated to gender. Velvet Assassin, Wet, and Mirror's Edge come to mind.

You might hold up Bayonetta or Lollipop Chainsaw as games with strong female leads. I might respond by pointing out that the heroines of those titles exist to titillate males, and don't really look much like the idealized hero women want to inhabit. You'll probably respond by pointing out that the cheesecake and fanservice are done ironically. Ok, fine. I won't even debate that point. But it doesn't matter, because your average power-fantasy-seeking female player isn't likely to want to "ironically" stare at another girl's bouncing tits for six hours. It's still not really a game for them in the same way that Max Payne 3 is a game for guys.

So what should a proper female lead look like? Where do you draw the line between "attractive" and "cheap pandering cheesecake"? Which female leads resonate with women? Which ones repel them? Is it better to have a variable gender protagonist like in Fable II where you can choose a gender that basically doesn't matter, or is it better to have a protagonist with a specifically crafted character? What genres of action-type badassery are most attractive to females, and would make a good starting point for a developer looking to court a female audience?

These are all good questions, and they don't have simple answers. More importantly, they can really only be answered by talking to women - preferably in a safe forum away from the screaming murlocs. It's a conversation that should be launched by a woman. I hope that if Sarkeesian doesn't, someone else will.

If you want to read more from Shamus Young, check out his blog, these books or maybe this software.

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