When you’re just starting to come out of your haze and the world sharpens into focus, you’re met with the sight of three men covered in what’s probably horse shit, though only one of them is gagged. Pity. The other two catch you up on the situation that’s apparently escalated to the point where you’re stuck in a rickety carriage with a horse thief, Zoolander’s Hansel, and Thorin Oakenshield. You’re implicated in the brewing civil war you had absolutely nothing to do with until this moment, and you’re going to get your head lopped off for it.
Winter’s coming, and you don’t have a sweater.
The first woman you meet of any plot substance is aptly named ‘Imperial Captain.’ She’s a hardass with sparse dialogue who presumably dies after the dragon lays waste to Helgen. Cool. If you venture to the next village after the siege, you’ll meet Camilla Valerius in Riverwood, a beautiful woman stifled under her brother’s control and pitted between two sleazy men with nothing better to do than vie for her affections like she’s a limited edition Amiibo. I’m still disappointed there wasn’t an option to toss both men into the river. Alas.
Next — insofar as major ladies go if you’re following the main plot — you’ll meet Aela the Huntress. Or at least, I’m assuming she hunts things based entirely on her title and not her completely nonsensical, hole-y excuse for “armor.” Starting to notice a pattern?
Skyrim is a sprawling open world game with hundreds of diverse characters from all walks of life. I’m not disputing the fact that this game marked a major shift in the industry, daring studios to work harder. They’re forever free to continue taking money from me. But when I’d finally stopped playing the game for a few months and had a chance to really sit back and reflect … I came up short on the way women were portrayed. And that bothers the hell out of me for a title that purports to be the be-all, end-all of open world games.
Women vs Nature: Desirability By Design
Really? Flaming breasts were an absolute gameplay necessity? The frost atronach should have had ice balls, then.
It’s interesting that even in this day and age, women are still being designed for and relegated to antiquated concepts of “virgin” and “whore.” You’re either a desirable woman in the narrative (and depicted that way) or, unsurprisingly, you’re undesirable, which translates to deadly and unpredictable. It’s an endless game of guess which one’s venerated and which one’s condemned, though Skyrim makes that easy when you consider its natural world state.
You can summon a flame atronach for yourself if you wield that type of magic, thus gifting you full and complete control over her autonomy. She is yours to command, and her hyper-sexualized appearance is meant to reinforce that concept. In direct contrast, the hagravens represent the aging, decrepit form of the typical witch stereotype. You can’t control them in-game because they control themselves — after having sold their humanity in order to possess such power. Surprise, surprise. Even the draugr women can’t escape this design. Their chest rags lay just so to emphasize the outline of their breasts … on a skeletal body. I mean, come on.
I’ve talked a little bit about this topic in relation to Dragon Age: Origins and the all too common stereotype certainly holds true in Skyrim as well. “Monstrous women” are far from a new concept, and it seems everywhere I look, they’re entrenched within the narrative. Are writers just lazy, or do they think we can’t suss out any meaning in the storyline if there aren’t women’s bodies marking certain narrative points like road signs on a highway? This is a serious question I have no answer to.
Women vs Women: Undesirability as an Asset
The enemy creatures you encounter only furthers this agenda: to pit what few women there are in-game either against or as far away from each other as possible. Consider, for a moment, that several storylines involve men supporting one another. Ulfric has the ever-faithful Galmar and Balgruuf has the admittedly short-sighted Hrongar. General Tullius, at least, has Legate to balance him, but no other woman in sight. There’s my personal favorite in the form of Delphine, but even she’s bound up in the story of another man — Esbern.
Where are all the friendships between women? Why aren’t there any ladies hanging out up on High Hrothgar? And what the hell happened to a dragon voiced by a woman? For a game that prides itself on breaking new ground in the industry, Skyrim disappoints in the lady department pretty badly. Like, Heimskr levels of bad.
But let’s scale it back even further. Of the nine initial jarls at the start of the game, only three are women. Elisif gained power after her husband died, but we’re told her steward basically handles everything because … reasons? Laila rules Riften and apparently has no scope of how corrupt her city is despite there being a widely talked about Thieves Guild and various places named “The Pawned Prawn” and “The Ratway.” Yeesh.
Really, Idgrod is the refreshing change of pace among her fellows. She’s the only older woman portrayed in power, which is interesting given the fact that her husband acts as her steward. I would’ve liked to have seen more of their power dynamic and how that apparently clashes with the widely accepted belief that all women in Skyrim are either flighty, seductive, or dead.
To some extent, I’m grateful the first housecarl assigned to your character is a woman. It gave me the chance to imagine we faced the challenges of the often ridiculously misogynistic world together, Lydia and my Dragonborn, and nothing could stop us. But with all the advancements in technology and awards being delegated to gameplay narrative, should I really have to go so far as to imagine for myself what an open world game would be like where women interact with each other … at all?