American feminism was not made with women and girls of color in mind. Sure, this seems like a downer to start off with, but being ignored by a massive Western movement supposedly trying to create better livelihoods for women for the past 200 years isn’t exactly positive. Intersectionality, a term coined by black scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes the crossroads of race and gender and how it uniquely affects women and girls of color in the West. Mainstream vernacular has grabbed hold of the term to discuss any intersections of identity, be it woman and lesbian, woman and Muslim, or woman and transgender (also known as transmisogyny).
Below, we’re going to look at women and girls of color in Western or Western-released games. Some of these characters are well-written. Hell, some of these characters are incredible and long-time favorites of mine! But it’s important to dissect the omnipresent, harmful clichés and myopic narratives that favor the perspectives of white people or men (or both) if we’re to create stronger, more authentic media in the future. And, really, just support women and girls of color making their own games. That’ll already solve, like, 90 percent of the issues I have on this list. (Spoilers are marked.)
1. Daisy, BioShock Infinite
[Spoilers!] Let’s start off the list with the most egregious example of why white people should generally step the hell off when it comes to taking inspiration from historical racism (which, let’s be real, isn’t that different from modern racism). BioShock Infinite is a steampunk first-person shooter where you play an agent sent to rescue a young girl from the floating city of Colombia, an old-timey Americana paradise with all the unsettling genocide, slavery, and war-related undercurrents that implies. Daisy Fitzroy is the leader of the Vox Populi, a rebel group created to fight back against the rampant racism and classism the founder of Colombia established. Where the game got its visuals and atmosphere right, it fumbled its racial issues like a hot potato.
Daisy is initially presented as an almost folkloric hero, passionate and charismatic and doing whatever it takes to achieve her goal of a just future. You hear her audio logs throughout the game detailing her actions and philosophies, and it makes you chomp at the bit to finally meet her. When you do, you have to kill her. Why? Well, when she decides to take a young white boy hostage to, and I quote, “If you wanna get rid of the weed, you got to pull it up from the root.” That scene made me hate this game. It made me hate this game a lot. Daisy was created in a similar vein to Harriet Tubman and Josephine Baker, proud black women who struggled and fought through their circumstances to create a better future. With a game revolving around race and class and patriarchal ideals, she should have been the unquestioning hero. Instead, a white man decided to make the active choice to write her ‘just as bad as the bad guys she was fighting.’ What a load of crap.
Daisy deserved better than to become a physical manifestation of the cheap ‘We’re All Bad Guys in the End’ mentality white liberals procure to duck responsibility for the social system they inherited.
2. Aveline de Grandpré, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation
On the other hand, this is a game that actually got racial and class issues right. Your role is that of a biracial black woman born into wealth and subsequently turning the multifaceted social dilemmas of 18th century New Orleans in her favor. Her exploiting the various roles society expects from a mixed-race woman into a quest for justice is realistic and respectfully executed. I have less issue with this title and more on how it was marketed. Aveline de Grandpré’s launch title was hastily shuffled onto the PlayStation Vita, a system nobody asked for and hardly anyone bought. Advertisements were few and far between and, to make matters worse, the game was riddled with bugs out the wazoo (not new to Ubisoft, but it did feel like insult to injury).
While clamors from die-hard fans eventually saw Liberation re-released onto the PC and Xbox with patches, it says a lot when it takes THIS long to have a biracial black woman as the lead in a mainstream video game. It also says a lot when there’s a sheer lack of effort getting her out there compared to her white and light-skinned men of color counterparts. So wonderful and so terrible all at the same time.
Aveline de Grandpré deserved better than to be a hasty, easily forgotten grab at diversity.
3. Riley, The Last of Us
[Spoilers!] This one’s a doozy. Not only are there racial issues with Riley’s portrayal, there are sexuality ones, too. Riley is a well-drawn character who reminds me of many girls I grew up with. She’s sharp and funny in turns, and her natural rapport with her best friend Ellie is nothing short of carefully crafted nostalgia. Unfortunately, she’s black, so that means she has to die. She also has a crush on Ellie, so she really has to die. A frustrating pattern in mainstream media are the minority based tropes Tragic Lesbians and White Angst. Think of the last action or sci-fi movie you saw where the token black friend had to die because. Or a pair of side characters who couldn’t culminate their romance because they’re just not straight enough.
Riley was an unfortunate culmination of both of these tropes, which is a damn shame when you take into account the well-written dialogue and strong writing that Naughty Dog has become known for. However, better is not synonymous with good. Next time, let’s have an interracial same-sex romance that isn’t shoved onto an optional DLC where the only outcome was something tragic. While there’s a fair argument that tropes are not inherently harmful, the issue lies more in the pervasive pattern of the same old tired clichés. We need to step away from it.
Riley deserved better than to be a narrative repeat of racist and heteronormative anxieties in a society that’s supposedly out of the Middle Ages.
4. Sheva Alomar, Resident Evil 5
Yeah, I don’t think anybody missed the uncomfortable anti-blackness in Resident Evil 5. The white hero being drafted to a grungy and gritty generic Africa straight out of a late-night Good Samaritan charity commercial is one thing, the colorism and Good Black tropes of Sheva are another. It’s no coincidence that your black partner is conveniently lighter-skinned, light-eyed, and straight-haired compared to the dark-skinned and less ambiguous appearances of the enemies you gun down. If you’re new to the issue of colorism and respectability politics in the black diaspora, don’t be: it’s been around for well over 200 years.
I’m biracial myself and it pisses me off to no end that people on the more ‘Ambiguously Brown’ spectrum are used to assuage the anti-black sentiments of developers and directors all around the world. Sheva Alomar is a capable and loyal character who comes from a hard history. She is more than capable of holding her own throughout the game and gave many a black cosplayer someone to dress up as at their next convention.
She deserved better than being a walking, talking But Not Too Black trope. Oh, and being introduced by the camera butt-first. Developers, stop doing that.
5. Sarah, The Walking Dead
[Spoilers!] Just because you do something well doesn’t mean you can’t mess up spectacularly in other areas, and nothing makes this clearer than The Walking Dead: Season Two. While black girl of color Clementine is a fan favorite for many reasons, Sarah represents the other half of the coin. An anxious and sheltered girl thrust into a violent world, Sarah regularly struggles with the newly gruesome setting she’s found herself in and, at times, gets her group into trouble.
Over the course of the game, you are offered multiple opportunities to kill her for the ‘sake of the team’ … only to have her die near the end of the game anyway. The sheer ableism in her writing is enough to make you stagger. While her neuroatypical status is left up to interpretation (some call it anxiety, while others consider it autism), it’s disgusting and painful to see narrative implications that people with mental illness are a liability at best, and someone to hate and actively get rid of at worst.
Sarah was a complex character with relatable flaws who deserved better than being a catalyst for ableist retribution.
6. Luisa, Red Dead Redemption
Why the hell couldn’t I play as this character? Moping aside, Luisa is yet another example in the conga line that is intersectional failings in media dominated by white men. While I greatly enjoyed Red Dead Redemption and John Marston is one of the few generic protagonists that manages to be both compelling and likable in the mainstream, it disappointed me how women of color were almost nonexistent in this world. While white women aren’t well-populated in the game, they have far more speaking roles and NPCs than literally any other racial group. Forget ye not the sliding scale of privilege: the closer you are to the standard, the better off you have it.
Luisa is a leader for a small group of Mexican rebel fighters attempting to establish control in a hostile West struggling under the weight of colonialism. She pines for the affections of another leader, who only sees her as a tool to be used. While you get to know her through a few missions, she ends up dying in an attempt to save said rebel leader when he’s taken hostage. My issue is not even with Luisa’s naive single-mindedness toward a callous man—rather, it sucks to see yet another woman of color relegated to a cheap death for the sake of white pain. We could’ve seen her move past her infatuation. We could’ve learned more about the West from her perspective as a Mexican woman. Heck, we could’ve even played as her at some points. We could’ve had it all!
Luisa Fortuna deserved better than to play second-fiddle to the romanticized white Western perspective we’ve been force-fed for decades. And boy howdy, is anyone else tired of rebel women of color being killed off while white vigilante men soak up the spotlight?
7. Humba Wumba, Banjo Kazooie
While I never played Tooie or Nuts & Bolts, this amalgam of crass Native American stereotypes makes it seem like I didn’t miss much. If you thought Mumbo Jumbo was squirm-in-your-seat uncomfortable, just wait until you get a load of Humba Wumba. She’s a gal with magical powers who you can find in a wigwam whenever you require a spell. A wigwam, you say? So she’s Apache or perhaps Paiute? Who cares! She’s ‘Native,’ as evidenced by the single feather in her hair and the fact that the game tells you so.
One of the easiest ways of dehumanizing Native people is to paint them all with a broad brush and remove the diversity and texture of their numerous cultures, histories, and languages. It only gets better when you see her design in the relatively recent Nuts & Bolts, where her skin is considerably lightened and she sports a classic American cowgirl look. You see, it’s ironic because Natives have been (and still are) violently assimilated into dominant American culture.
8. That Darn Colorism Thing
This slot is just going to be dedicated to the countless women and girls of color who had their skin ‘conspicuously’ lightened in later iterations of their respective franchises. Vanessa of Virtua Fighter, Lisa of Dead Or Alive 5, and Talim of Soul Calibur are just a few of the gals who can’t seem to have their skin tone stay consistent. Colorism is a pervasive issue that has its roots in colonialism and classism, dating back many decades and still manifesting in modern day media through photoshopping, reduced amount of merchandise, and more.
I was disappointed to see Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword‘s Impa lightened in the recent Hyrule Warriors (and while her design was tweaked, there’s no doubt she was inspired heavily by her Skyward Sword iteration). I sighed when [Spoilers!] Wind Waker‘s Tetra lost her brown skin upon transforming into Zelda. I gasped in shock when Fran of Revenant Wings, the DS sequel to Final Fantasy XII, actually kept her dark brown skin tone in the promotional and in-game artwork. To be a gamer and woman of color in the West is to juggle a constant state of disappointment and frustration. Doubly so if you have brown skin or kinky hair.
We deserve better than to be a comparison model for Eurocentric beauty standards.
Daisy Fitzroy fascinated me. Luisa captured my attention every time she was on screen. Aveline de Grandpré is easily one of my favorite characters in any video game (let it be known, I will cosplay her someday). At the same time, it doesn’t escape my notice what delicate tune many developers sing: reach the bare minimum, then fall right back into that comfort zone. It’s not good enough to write a realistic woman or girl of color only to kill them off. Or push them to the side. Or have them play cheerleader to a character who is white or a man (or both). This pattern is still more common than the alternative. Hell, it’s the nigh-constant static that fills the background of anyone who’s unlucky enough to lack access to whiteness or the patriarchy. We do not exist with conditions. This is just not good enough.
In the end, we’re not asking for much. To expend our time and money on products that, at best, tokenize and fetishize us and—at a debatable worst—ignore us is an unhealthy media relationship. To my fellow women and girls of color of all backgrounds, religions, body sizes, shades, and ethnicities: you’re not a footnote. You’re not an afterthought. You’re not a side option, you’re not an Aesop, you’re not a fetish. Games like Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, Mirror’s Edge, and Remember Me are just a few of the AAA titles that eschewed the common narrative of relegating us to support for white people and men, but the AAA industry is not one I generally turn to for representation. The fact that my above examples are often the default to bring up in casual conversation is less a testament to their quality (which, don’t get me wrong, is quite high!), but that they are some of the few women of color-led AAA titles period.
Independent games, much like independent filmmaking, are more and more becoming the rewarding option for minorities who are tired of being shafted by the mainstream. While I’m all for supporting a big budget title that’s willing to buck prejudiced convention, we need to turn our gaze to indie development. With beautiful and evocative titles like last year’s Never Alone or the recent Kickstarters of Battle Chef Brigade, Sunset, and Charmixy Witch Academy, we have far more to whet our appetite than the table scraps a bloated industry occasionally tosses our way. Money talks, so let’s support the craft of people who are less interested in coddling sour perspectives and more geared toward creating stirring art that will last us for years. Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Steam, and Patreon: they’re all waiting to be found and supported. The media you want to see is, quite literally, in your hands.
To current and future developers: treat us with respect, put our humanity on full blast, and let us stay ourselves. And if you won’t do that bare minimum, no worries. We’ll spend our money elsewhere.