Of Atronachs & Hagravens: The Problem With Women in ‘Skyrim’

Skyrim

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.

Skyrim

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.

Skyrim

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?

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13 Comments on “Of Atronachs & Hagravens: The Problem With Women in ‘Skyrim’

  1. I was just thinking to myself the other day that I should write a post about Skyrim mods focused on this subject lol :p My SO and I were looking at different mods (I finally converted him to play on PC) and I was rather annoyed at the many pointless mods that involved over-sexualizing the women. I mean really, if you’re going to write a mod, why not make it purposeful and useful in the game? Well written and great points! Peace

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    • Funny you should mention that! In the first draft I had of this piece, I went on a rambling tangent re: pointless mods in the “related videos” I had to slog through on YouTube during research. It’s just … disheartening. And more than a little scary. I don’t like to kink-shame anyone, but searching for anything related to Lydia uncovered a lot of things I would’ve preferred not knowing existed. :/

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed the read!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel like I have to defend Skyrim here. The lack of memorable and well-written female characters in games has always been a problem, and progress on this front was extremely slow until recently. Even now, the amount of great women in games is far outweighed by the men. I find it extremely annoying, to be honest, and this is coming from a man (albeit a feminist man, but still).

    However, Skyrim did a ton to balance the scales. Right now, off the top of my head, I can name more than a dozen memorable women that I found in this Elder Scrolls game alone. We’ve got Karliah, who, acting alone, wreaked havoc on the Thieves’ Guild. We’ve got Irileth, who watched you slay a dragon and devour its soul, but *still* threatens your life if you get too close to the Jarl. We’ve got Eisa Blackthorn, a badass mercenary who singlehandedly kills three bandits within seconds of meeting her. We’ve got Valerica, who betrayed her husband Harkon (a ludicrously powerful super-vampire) in order to stop him from taking over the world. Honorable mention goes to her daughter Serana, who ALSO betrayed Harkon the moment she got the chance, and even helped you kill him at the end of Dawnguard. And don’t forget the female Daedric Princes like Azura, Mephala, Meridia, Nocturnal, and Namira. They’ll happily swat down mortals like flies if you push their buttons, and yet Meridia, Azura, and Nocturnal are portrayed in a reasonably good light.

    Even the examples you use to prove your point can serve as counters. Take Elisif the Fair, for example. She had the position of world leader dumped on her without warning. She had no prior experience, half of Skyrim wants her head on a pike, and everyone that’s supposed to be helping her is trying to manipulate her instead. If I were put in that position, I would be halfway to Blackmarsh by the end of day one. But every day, she musters the courage to sit down on that throne and do her best to make the tough calls. That takes an inhuman amount of strength. And yet if she were a wise, strong, and nigh-infallible leader like Balgruuf (who was the least interesting Jarl to me), everything that made me identify with Elisif would never have existed. She would have been just another Jarl, and a poorly-written one at that.

    Delphine, too. You accuse her of playing second fiddle to Esbern, but I never got that impression in my hundreds of hours of play. She was busy manipulating the events of the main quest from minute one while Esbern cowered in the Ratway (where he would have died had Delphine not sent you to pull him out). Esbern, meanwhile, does very little beyond tell you the location of Sky Haven Temple and explain the prophecy about you and Alduin. The only reason Delphine isn’t the de facto leader is because Esbern held that position before the Blades fell in the Great War. Delphine was always the more active and more competent one of the two.

    Finally, Leila. At first glance, she appears to be a moron. That’s true. But try snooping around in Mistveil Keep for a while. You’ll find a number of extremely frank letters from Maven Black-Briar (basically the crime kingpin of Riften) that prove the two are collaborating. She’s not stupid–she’s just scarily good at acting like she is. And if that’s not enough for you, you can always side with the Imperials and ultimately have her replaced by Maven herself, who’s extremely cunning, practical, and ruthless in her own right.

    And of course, we can’t forget the thousands of women land-owners, blacksmiths, merchants, soldiers, wizards, vampire hunters, marauding bandits, and mercenaries that inhabit the game world. Or that the Dragonborn themselves can be a woman should you so choose at character creation. In Skyrim (and Tamriel in general), women are men are treated with complete and total equality, something that’s pretty rare in fantasy settings. That, too, should be a huge plus in their favor. But that, too, isn’t even mentioned here.

    Bear in mind that I’m not saying Skyrim doesn’t have its flaws in the way it portrays women. Aela’s a pretty strong example of unnecessary fanservice. But the good outweighs the bad, and it should praised for what it did just as much as it should be criticized for what it did wrong. Change doesn’t happen overnight–it happens in baby steps. If we ignore those baby steps and slap the ‘sexist’ label on things that don’t deserve it, we’ll lose credibility in the eyes of game developers. They’ll just consider it a lose-lose situation and all the progress we’ve made will be lost. And then we won’t even have the good aspects of Skyrim to comfort us. Overall, a more moderate, even-handed approach to critical articles like this will do much more to help this cause. At the very least, the devs will have a better idea of what they did right along with what they did wrong.

    And if you managed to make it through this entire, several-page-long diatribe (congratulations on your fortitude, by the way; most people would have stopped reading six paragraphs ago), here’s a helpful tip: neither Sven or Faendal (the two guys that are creepily stalking Camilla in Riverwood) are marked as essential in the game’s data. Meaning that dumping them in the river, or siccing a storm atronach on them, or shooting them in the nads with a crossbow, or any other grisly fate you can imagine are actually doable. So if you ever have a rough day, remember that those two bastards are just waiting to be Fus Ro Dahed off the Throat of the World.

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    • Hey! First, I appreciate the fact that your comment is civil. I understood writing about this very popular game might attract some arguments, which I’m fine with. I’d just like to clarify three things things:

      1. When I said Skyrim “marked a major shift in the industry,” I was acknowledging the fact that the game is wonderful and I do enjoy it immensely. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think it’s worthy of a little criticism. There are hundreds and hundreds of think pieces out there praising Skyrim, and since this is a critique piece, I wasn’t going to touch on the positive aspects of the game. Yes, I absolutely agree: there are amazing women in this game. Separately. Which brings me to my next point:

      2. I didn’t intend for my list of characters who are women (Delphine, Legate, etc) to be a slight on their characterization. I said Delphine was my favorite for a reason! Individually, they’re wonderful. But the point I was trying to make was that they don’t get to have another woman at their side the way that the men do. Female friendships are pretty devoid in this game, which makes me sad.

      3. You’re right that women hold various positions of power/land/etc, but I disagree that the world state is equal. I’ve encountered more than a handful of characters who are women that make mention of rampant, sometimes aggressive sexism—whether from their fellow farmers, guards, or otherwise. I’m no longer satisfied with the argument that there are women simply populating a game. If dragons are flying around and elves exist, I want a little more effort made in the representation department.

      tl;dr Again, I appreciate your thoughts! Overall, I definitely agree that there are a lot of women who are well-written and complex. I just felt there were very blatant issues that needed to be addressed. I could blow smoke up Skyrim’s ass all day if that was the type of piece I was going to write—frankly, I adore the game. But that’s not what I set out to discuss.

      Liked by 1 person

      • To be fair on the rampant sexism bit, each and every example I came across was put in a very negative light (ie, it was clear that the devs didn’t want to portray this behavior as ‘good’ in any sense of the word), and more often than not you could do something to make it stop. For example, when Sven came up to me in Riverwood and told me to give Camilla that fake letter, the first thing I did was go to Camilla and tell on him. There’s also a little sidequest in Whiterun where your sole objective is to stop another, completely different bard (seriously, never date a bard) from harassing a single mom. And of course, you can always just kill anyone you don’t like anyway.

        Overall, though, pretty much everything you said is balanced, well-thought-out, and agreeable. And I definitely appreciate that you’re open to criticism and civil about it as well–there are far, far too many people on the Internet that respond to comments like the one I made with impressively dirty strings of insults, and I’m glad there are sane people like you around to balance things out.

        Liked by 1 person

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  5. wow. i did not actually think i would find this entertaining to read. or any of the comments.
    you know i really do not pick up on many of these perspectives while im playing the game.
    but i think Bethesda created a really good game. and they must have had many of these thoughts in mind while creating it. that would be the reason why your npc or any other can not be naked. and the same reason why there is un-killable children. and the most part the clothing in the game is pretty modest. but the point for the flame atronach being female in design i don’t think they did this to be sexist in any way. im assuming that they did this to make it appear mystical and beautiful but deadly. and now that we are on the subject i wonder why there was no male flame atronach? but what would you make this creature look like? to be honest i like what it looks like and it would make sense for a natural creature of flames. to be naked. because clothing would not last long lol. luckily the modding community makes some of these things that were problems in the game not so bad. however there is always the modders that make the things that Bethesda left out available like naked women and men. you can not blame Bethesda for this. but i will say that Bethesda originally had a targeted audience for this title. and that was men. men like the rough and tough characters. and the game involved dragons, fighting, blood, war, all of these are deep within the male mindset. however Bethesda made it so you can make yourself a male or female. just talking about this i really need to stop and go and play lol.

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  6. Just wanted to point out, in support of this, that there are two pages worth of named female characters and four pages of males. So basically Skyrim has double the number of important males in it…which is insanely ridiculous. I also notice that almost all guards are male and, as you pointed out, there’s a total lack of female dragons and this infuriates me as well.

    http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Skyrim:_Females
    http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Skyrim:_Males

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    • Oh my gosh, EMPRESS. I literally didn’t even think to dig up the Wikipedia for this piece, but it totally makes sense! Thank you so much for the comment — I didn’t realize the gap was so large, and yet, here it is. :/ Wow.

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  7. How do you know there aren’t any female dragons? Can you tell the difference between a male and female lizard just by looking or listening to the noises it makes? Not usually, unless you’re an expert. Dragon voices are somewhat deep, but they’re very big creatures. Many times the only way to tell if a reptile is male or female is to closely examine the cloaca and look for signs there…their “voices” sound almost identical, and their body shapes are also almost exactly the same.

    Honestly, I’m much more offended by there being no female giants.

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    • Hey there, Jesse! Thanks for reading. 🙂 I was referring to the fact that all of the actors cast to voice the dragons are men, not that there aren’t (or couldn’t be) lady dragons flying around — I imagine there are! But they’re invisible, and thus, don’t count toward representation.

      I’m operating under the assumption that there are lady giants, lady wolves, lady bears, and even lady TROLLS, but I could totally be wrong. It’s the fact that we interact with none who are fully voiced that gave me pause.

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  8. Okay so a few points need to be adressed, because while yes there are more men then women some of your sticking points are skewed and need to be addressed.
    On the issue of Dragons, dragons are GENDERLESS their the OLD GODS, who humanity dethroned, (one of which i must point out is a woman, yes of the 3 people who Banished Alduin one is a woman, one of the first HEROES of skyrim is a woman.) As for the voice actors have you ever looked into the actual data files of skyrim? There are about 7 voices total that are recycled for EVERY NPC, each of those voice actors does about 14,000 lines but its hardly fair to say shyrim has some sort of massive cast of voice actors and most of male.

    But onto key female NPCs let’s take thing rought out of the cave and into riverwood
    We have Gurder who OWNS AND RUNS the lumber mill, and if you save her brother Rolof she becomes your first safespot, on the imperal side for saving Hadvar we have a mother AND HER DAUGHTER who are maried to the black smith, and what does the Daughter want to grow up to be?

    A blacksmith

    Then there Delphine, who has a massivve quest, the main quest tied to her, AND then there camilla, oh and don’t forget Sven’s mother who warns about the dragons before you do but is seen as senile. So despite her advanced age she saw what no one else did.

    Onto Whiterun
    Let’s see we have the Blacksmith who owns WARMAIDENS, the bully Braith, 2 children, the single mother, a up and comming merchant, a inn keeper, the alchamist, and the preistest of Kyne, oh and 2 Companions, and a Sellsword you can recruit named Janassa, AND Irilith as well. (and most of these NPCs and many more do interact it’s just that like with all Bethesda games they cut a great deal of content including radiant dialog of npcs interacting)

    I could go On but i think you get my point, there are a tone of significant female NPCs, and even xcluding the cut content we DO have several female on female dialogs.

    Hulda the innkeepr and Yosolda often talk, Hulda of couse talks to Sadia, Sybl Stendor the COURT WIZARD in Solitude advises Elisif the Fair. Most of the mage College is female, and the person who handles day to day affairs is not the male Archmage but the female Mirabele.

    Again i can go on, honestly if anything the male NPCs come up short as most of them fall into the standard role of “warrior” or “yarl” seriously how many Interesting Male NPCs can you name who don’t boil down to “i rule this land” or “i hit stuff with a sword”

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