It’s hard to believe it’s only been five years since my ‘feminist awakening’ so to speak, but then again, I was still posturing as a straight woman back then. I guess the core of one’s self-identity really can change in a small amount of time. Is it all circumstance? Did Bioware help push along what I already knew to be true, but just couldn’t accept? If that’s true, I owe a lot more to the franchise than just my money (but you can continue taking that too, please and thanks).
Come with me back to 2009 when Lady Gaga was just hitting the music scene and the Twilight craze was reaching its zenith. Now, this was around the time I was watching 4PlayerPodcast (now known as 4PlayerNetwork) almost every day. They were, as far as I could tell at the time, one of the only male-centric Twitch channels that weren’t laden with misogynistic and otherwise unsavory commentary, which made watching a painless affair. It was with them that I began my journey into Thedas, and subsequently, my second introduction to RPGs: Dragon Age: Origins.
As any avid Bioware fan and initiate into the wide world of character creation, I spent an embarrassingly long time shaping my Cousland to suit absurd expectations. (I’ve restarted the game so many times I can recite Duncan’s speech verbatim. “The Chantry teaches us that it is the hubris of men which brought the darkspawn into our world …” C’mon, I know you know it.) The start of the game went as expected—insofar as my Cousland was surrounded by men (with the exception of Wynne, who I wrote off immediately as a grandmother figure) and all the men commented on the fact. “You know … It just occurred to me that there have never been many women in the Grey Wardens.” No shit, Alistair.
For all intents and purposes, I’d settled into my play style secure in the fact that I (Cousland) was being permitted into a male space primarily due to necessity and circumstance (all other Grey Wardens were presumed dead) and that the women I’d meet along the way would fit neatly into the usual brand of virgin/whore subset.
And then I met Morrigan. That’s when things started to change.
I’m the first to admit that my initial impression of a scantily-clad, deep-voiced witch emerging from the woods wasn’t very kind. She fit perfectly into my narrow view of the women so often written in the scope of mainstream media narratives. That is, up until the moment when she addressed my Cousland directly.
“You there. Women do not frighten like little boys. Tell me your name and I shall tell you mine.”
The shock was real, people. I still get chills playing through that scene again, being confronted with something twisted and thorny I’d internalized about myself and my fellow women for as long as I’d been alive. From there, dialogue tree by dialogue tree, Morrigan deconstructed and reformed my assumptions. I began to see her not for what Flemeth intended her to be and not for what Alistair presumed she might do—but for who she was as a living, breathing, fully realized human being. That is to say: I identified with Morrigan on a level that unsettled me. She found strength in the scorn of others, rising above her roots for a cause she believed in, however much she pretended otherwise along the way. Rather than relegate her to draconian notions of womanhood, I looked to Morrigan for my own strength, borrowing from her keen understanding of human judgment and the shortcomings of our inherently damaging labeling system.
For some, an awakening of this magnitude—one which fills the world with colors previously unseen, in all kinds of shades—comes from a loved one or trusted friend. But for me, it was Morrigan who gently nudged me in a different direction with a well-timed jibe or unexpected moment of tenderness. I embarked on the journey of a Warden expecting to romance Alistair, scorn Morrigan, and save the world in short order. What ended up happening was far more rewarding: I romanced Leliana, grew to respect Wynne, and bonded in sisterhood with Morrigan. (It’s a good thing my Cousland was a warrior, otherwise our party wouldn’t have made it very far in combat.)
It’s important to note that Origins isn’t without its faults, however. Dymphna makes excellent points on the ‘monstrous women‘ featured in-game, all of which I agree need to be deconstructed and analyzed. These images of desire demons and the Broodmother in particular are incredibly damaging, and worse, frequently passed over in favor of praise for the game as a whole. It’s probably why I didn’t even process their negative imagery—I’d internalized these images for too long, just as I judged Morrigan’s character the moment I saw what she was wearing (or lack thereof).
While Bioware has come a long way from the days of the Wardens, it still has its lessons to learn. Despite including a trans character in the newest installment of Dragon Age Inquisition—which, in and of itself is (sadly) an achievement given the cis white male landscape that saturates the gaming industry—transmisogyny is still alive and well in the form of Sera.
Systematically silencing valid critique of a narrative is as unsettling as the offense itself, and I can only hope these issues are addressed in the future. It’s so vitally important that we police ourselves within our own circles and respect the voices that so often go unheard. Yes, privilege can be a difficult thing to analyze when it comes to ourselves, but I wouldn’t give up that self-awareness for anything. While I don’t suppose there’s any magical plateau of full understanding in this regard, we—all of us—are constrained in some way by whatever preconceived notions we internalized as children.
Still, I’ve learned a valuable lesson from the Witch of the Wilds: Never be lazy in the pursuit of self-actualization and open dialogue with the people around you. If you do, no one and nothing will grow, and what kind of world would that be? Not one I’d like to live in, thank you very much. Now back to my playthrough of Inquisition and trying to romance Cassandra as a woman. Sigh.