When I was a kid, I was far more interested in movies than in games. Whether it be Pixar films or movies about superheroes, there was nothing better than spending even a couple hours in a movie theater. Inarguably, movies were the pop culture medium that contributed the most to my perceptions of how the world should be, what people value, and how relationships are formed. Being that young, it was difficult to even notice the messaging in many of my favorite movies, let alone question them. This is especially true when it comes to how my favorite movies communicated the roles of women to me. Watching Spiderman, I never shook my head in confusion or frustration as Mary Jane Watson was ‘damseled’ over and over throughout the three films. I held indifference to her as a character; I never truly felt for her or saw her as anything other than what she was: a motivation and conflict-creator for the protagonist, Peter Parker.
Categorizing Mary Jane as both a damsel and a love interest played into a larger message that movies kept telling me: women only have so many options for depiction, while men can be anything. It took me quite a while to start looking at movies more critically, but I found a surprising connection between their messages of gender roles and the video games I play now. After some reflection on my experiences with Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Far Cry 4, I’ve determined that this underlying message of “damsel or girlfriend or both” was still with me and still holds influence over how I perceive stories and characters within games.
Predicting plot points and character relationships is an activity I feel most gamers can’t help but partake in. Being able to guess the twist or predict an element of future scenes is rewarding, as it makes one feel smarter and more in-tune with video game tropes. But when it comes to making guesses involving female characters, my mind suddenly narrows. I’ve found that women can exist in three scopes: damsel, dead, or girlfriend (the latter being especially rare in games due to sparing use of actual human relationships). Most often, games will replace this role in favor of a character that exists only for sex/sex appeal.
I viewed both Clara from Watch Dogs (portrayed as an expert hacker) and Amita of Far Cry 4 (portrayed as a determined revolutionary) within these confines. I remember thinking to myself throughout these games, “Well, I’m definitely gonna have to save her at some point. And then she’ll probably die anyway.” The concept of either character existing outside of this realm of thinking never crossed my mind while playing. Without spoiling either game, I can conclude that one character falls into two of the three categories, while the other manages to escape all expected roles (yay!).
These roles set in place for women are a learned response: they are ideas about women that have been communicated to our culture repeatedly. Identifying as a feminist myself, I don’t feel very proud to have predicted these characters’ conclusions with such a narrow mind. If anything, the fact that these views have followed me throughout the years and have the ability to transcend mediums is testament to how strong and damaging they are.
But I’ve made an even stranger realization throughout this self-reflection. Upon completion of the game featuring the female character who avoided falling into any gender roles, I found myself at odds with two feelings: appreciation for a female character that exists in a video game without being confined to these roles, and bewilderment at the game for not using these tropes. Having the idea so ingrained in me (not just from movies but also other games and even other mediums such as music) and continuing to be indifferent to depictions of gender roles throughout my adolescent has created a rather strong idea of what women should be and how they should be depicted. So, when these ideas are tarnished—in any medium—I am genuinely shocked by well-written female characters.
This may not seem like a bad or abnormal thing, but the problem lies in the fact that I don’t want to be shocked by how good a female character is written. Being well-written and well-represented shouldn’t be shocking or out of the ordinary. It shouldn’t be something edgy or new or unexpected. Female characters being well-written (especially in video games) should be the norm to the point where I’m only shocked at how good the writing of the character is rather than shocked that such a well-written character is also a woman.
Having grown up with such a narrow perspective of what women on screen could be, I’ve never been more appreciative and proud of how things are changing for both film and games. Movies like Brave and Frozen are teaching children a new and better lesson. Games like The Last of Us and Gone Home are redefining women’s roles in games. Woman’s voices in the games industry have never been more strong or vital. Overall, I’m glad to take a glimpse at the current state of pop culture and find that it is becoming better than what I was exposed to as a child.