On October 5th, 1789 a mob of women – many of them market sellers armed with knives – stormed into Paris’ city hall. The riot had begun over high bread prices, but as the six thousand women swarmed over the guards at the Hôtel de Ville they started grabbing more than bread. Taking up pikes, guns and even cannons, they coalesced into a single marching column.
They were headed to Versailles.
By morning they’d besieged Louis XVI’s palace, breached the gates, slaughtered two guards, forced Louis to accept the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Most importantly, they forced the king to move his residence to Paris – a demand they formulated themselves during the march. It effectively made Louis the people’s prisoner.
Even though they had no representation in the revolutionary National Assembly and had been left out of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, on that October day it was largely women who struck the crown from Louis’ head.
This is what rose to my mind during the furor over Ubisoft not including playable women in Assassin’s Creed: Unity. While the decision to leave women out galls me on principle, I find it particularly inappropriate in the French Revolutionary period, when women made a concerted effort for representation only to be marginalized and even killed by the government they’d helped bring to power. Though I’m certain Unity‘s campaign will shed some light on these issues, I worry Ubisoft will tell the story without hearing the lesson. Simply put, we should be able to play as a woman in Assassin’s Creed: Unity because playing as a woman is in itself a revolutionary act: In videogames, there is no greater act of liberation than putting a character under player control.
Women were active political agents during the French Revolution, as everything from rioters, to writers and – yes, even assassins. For a broad example, take bread riots. While political representation drove the intellectual side of the revolutionary movement, bread prices galvanized the political base. Before the revolution, bad harvests and economic mismanagement drove the price of flour to such a height that a loaf of bread could cost a month’s salary. Since at this time women’s traditional roles included shopping for food and preparing meals, bread prices directly impacted them. And as a result, working-class women formed the core of many bread riots and mobs that attacked accused food hoarders. Indeed, many contemporary accounts state that the most radical group in the Women’s March on Versailles were women who ran stalls at the fish market, who showed up carrying their long scaling knives. The presence of these working-class women in demonstrations was so notable that English political cartoonists made filthy, wild-haired crones a staple of anti-French propaganda – an image that lingered so long in the English consciousness that Blackadder The Third references it repeatedly. Regardless of this belittlement, women continued to play active militant roles in both pro and counter-revolutionary protests. At times, groups of Jacobin women had street brawls with women from opposing political factions, such as market women who opposed price controls, and religious women who hated the Jacobin attacks on religion. Judging by the footage we saw at E3, Ubisoft understands this – the rioting crowd in the demo includes women in its ranks.
But women’s participation wasn’t limited to the mob. The revolutionary period had a fair share of female intellectual leaders who advocated through writing, oration and public meetings. Though constitutions of the time considered women “passive citizens” – suitable for raising families but taking no role in public life – women largely didn’t act that way. They circulated petitions, proposed laws and spoke in front of the National Assembly. Several influential revolutionary clubs, such as the Confederation of the Friends of the Truth, welcomed women, and women’s clubs became a normal sight during the time. The most famous organization was the zealous and often violent Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, who patrolled the streets armed with pistols and daggers, arresting people suspected of counter-revolutionary activity. The Society’s militancy and determination to carry weapons wasn’t concealed, either. Article I in their regulations stated: “The Society’s purpose is to be armed to rush to the defense of the Fatherland.”
Individual women made their influence felt, too – Madame Roland presided over a political salon where revolutionaries met, edited her husband’s letters and speeches, and affected his policies as interior minister. While her contributions mostly occurred behind the scenes, her skill in organizing political networks, her letters to political allies and eventually her memoir proved influential.
In addition to supporting the revolution, many female intellectuals also advocated for women’s rights. The most prominent face of feminism during the revolution belongs to playwright and essayist Olympe de Gouges. An early abolitionist and supporter of the revolution, de Gouges became disillusioned when revolutionary politics failed to address women’s rights and gender issues such as divorce, recognition of illegitimate children and legal equality. The last issue formed the basis for her most famous piece Declaration of the Rights of Woman, an incisive essay that rewrote the revolutionary’s core document Declaration of the Rights of Man to show how the law unfairly excluded women from basic rights. The most famous line contrasts how women could be executed in front of a crowd, but weren’t allowed to speak in front of one: “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold, she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.” She wasn’t the only one, either – activists Pauline Léon and Théroigne de Méricourt argued for giving women citizenship and even tried to persuade the National Assembly to draw up female National Guard units.
However, most famous politically active woman was, luckily for Ubisoft, an assassin. Charlotte Corday was the daughter of a minor noble and allied with the moderate Girondist faction. Alarmed by increasing Jacobin radicalism and support for massacres, Corday resolved to murder the man she deemed responsible: the journalist Jean-Paul Marat. More than a mere writer, Marat’s paper The Voice of the People served as a mouthpiece for the most extreme Jacobin faction, and advocated violence against “enemies of republicanism” like the moderate Girondists. On 13th July, 1793 Charlotte Corday went to Marat’s home claiming that she wanted to expose a Girondist plot. Marat met her in his usual workspace – taking notes while soaking in a bathtub to alleviate a painful skin disease. The position made him especially vulnerable, and Corday stabbed him thrice in the heart. She went to the guillotine convinced she’d prevented a civil war, but instead she’d made Marat a saint – during the dechristianization campaign, Robespierre removed crucifixes from Paris cathedrals and replaced them with busts of Marat.
The execution of Corday and the larger fall of the Girdonists not only led directly to the Terror, but also spelled an end for the revolution’s feminist movement. Many feminists had connections to moderate factions, while others had their loyalty called into doubt based on their writing or extremism. On October 30th – after several brawls between the Revolutionary Republican Women and market women – the Jacobins dissolved the Society and banned all women’s organizations, stating that women belonged in the home. Olympe de Gouges, who distrusted Robespierre and was an early critic of his rising extremism, was imprisoned for three months, denied a lawyer, and guillotined on 2nd November. Six days later Madame Roland met the same fate as part of the Girdonist purge. Théroigne de Méricourt had left politics several months before when a mob of Jacobin-allied women stripped her naked and beat her during a speech, an event so traumatizing that she was declared insane and institutionalized. After a bread riot in 1795, the Jacobin-controlled National Convention decided to legally enforce women’s status, making any public gathering of five or more women illegal and reserving the right to disband it by force. The purges broke the feminist movement’s back, relegating women to the second-class “passive” citizens they’d been before the revolution rather than the political actors they were evolving into.
So we see that women played a significant public role in the French Revolution – indeed, much more than at any other time period Assassin’s Creed has represented. And to be honest, I feel fairly certain that this will come across in the game’s single-player campaign. After all, Ubisoft has a pretty good record at depicting diversity in historical periods, and this is a historical event where you simply can’t avoid it. In fact, I know for a fact that there are team members at Ubisoft who’re passionate about diversity and getting the time period right – Assassin’s Creed III originally contained a scalping mechanic, but Ubisoft cut it on the advice of their Mowhawk cultural advisor. I deeply believe that for every statement by a developer about women being “too expensive” to animate, there are ten animators and writers quietly pushing to make it happen.
But that’s what makes this decision about leaving female avatars out of co-op so frustrating. Sure, one can say it was a financial decision, but in a conversation I had with James Portnow recently, he suggested that it would probably cost less money than Ubisoft spent on their E3 booth. Besides, we’ve had playable characters of both genders in every Assassin’s Creed title since Brotherhood. So really it comes down to this: It’s an issue of planning. Somewhere along the line – probably early in development – someone sitting in on a focus group decided that this was not a priority and they should build the co-op avatars on a single foundation.
And they were wrong.
It was wrong because presenting a French Revolution with women as NPCs rather than PCs reinforces the narrative that women were the “passive” citizens that politicians and laws painted them as. Well-written NPCs can certainly teach players about women in the revolution, but by definition an NPC is a character with a scripted routine, one who isn’t free to make her own choices. An NPC does not act – she is acted upon. In other words, by confining women to NPC roles, Ubisoft figuratively condemns its female characters to the second-class status and scripted life women in the actual French Revolution fought – and died – to escape.
In this way, playing a woman in Assassin’s Creed: Unity would in itself be a revolutionary act. To play as a historical woman taking part in political life – and in that period violence was a part of political life – upends the narrative that women were “passive” citizens. But more than that it gives the character a sense of freedom and choice that NPCs don’t have – the power to act rather than react. There is no greater act of liberation than putting a character under player control. A character under programming is an asset, but a character under a player’s hand has free will within the game’s laws. To make an oppressed character playable is to give them the tools to break their chains.
Therefore, I think this controversy is about historical representation as well as gender representation. It’s true that women who play the game want to identify with a character, and also true that these homogenous avatars are disappointing given Assassin’s Creed‘s more diverse past titles, but it’s also about getting the period right. Not everyone holding the controller will be white and male – this is true – but not everyone in the French Revolution was white and male either. In fact, people that point to whiteness as “historically correct,” are ignoring that France ended slavery in 1794, seated a black and a mixed-race deputy on the National Convention that same year, and promoted a black man to brigadier-general in 1793.
We don’t have to make up narratives about diversity and representation in the French Revolution – they’re already there, and using them makes a statement. Men and women of different races fighting together would more than anything else convey the revolutionary ideas embodied in Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
Of course while revolutionary feminists were all for liberty and equality, they weren’t crazy about the third part of the tripartite motto reading brotherhood.
They proposed a different word: Unity.