The butches, where have they gone? Oh, right. They were never here in the first place.
We’re at a crux in video games in which women are slowly—truly, slowly—moving away from hypersexualization, and where they are beginning to have more diverse roles and storylines in games. As much as gamers should applaud the industry as a whole making those steady strides to create women who are not sexualized for men, one of the hard points of women that have yet to be presented in games at all is ardent female masculinity, especially within the context of butchness as a trait in women.
The use of “butch” is deliberate here because it is a very specific subset of female masculinity. They are not simply women who are able to play with big swords and guns and swear like their male counterparts while wearing pants, but women who visually subvert gender stereotypes, adopt striking “masculine” attributes, and whose presence is inherently devoid of romantic attachment to any man.
Despite the fact that just within five years we’ve had an influx of queer women represented in AAA and popular indie games, many of these characters do not adopt a “butch” presence, remaining fairly feminine or existing in environments where gender expression cannot be fully explored. Indeed, we have very few characters in the gaming industry who would fit a description of “butch.” Kat in Halo: Reach and Sam from Gears of War could possibly fit. In the upcoming Overwatch, Zarya is, in many ways, coded to be butch.
Though their butch-ish coding may be recognizable to many players, these women are not in games that explore their characters’ stories or personalities, much less their sexualities, leaving any possible hope of butchness up to speculation and easily written off due to their environments and not their specific expression of their sexuality. Indeed, in may of the games in the FPS genre where some of these more “masculine” women exist, players can only speculate about the romantic and sexual modalities of these women—if their lives are explored at all—as the main men usually have their romantic lives explored.
So if we’re unlikely to encounter a butch character in traditional Western FPS and online shooters, perhaps we can look to RPGs and story-based games in which there’s a breadth of opportunity to explore the sexuality of many characters. However, in these types of games, we in fact come across an even more glaring problem. Here, characters coded to be butch may be found—and we see glimpses of their sexualities—but their butchness is always very separated from queerness.
The only character that comes to mind who could be described as butch AND is confirmed queer is Athena from the Borderlands series. The rest of the landscape of story-based butches is not so clear cut. Two of the most notoriously straight characters coded as butch are Jack from Mass Effect and Cassandra from Dragon Age. They fit many modalities of butch women except for the key aspect: sexuality. They’re tough, they don’t dress to impress, they have that vicious scowl that causes soldiers to run away and queer ladies’ hearts to skip a beat, yet they are both unabashedly heterosexual.
Jack has to make it clear to any interested FemShep that she is not a “girls’ club” type of person, while Cassandra goes so far as to fawn over hokey hetero romance novels. Their ardent heterosexuality is almost anathema for two of the most queer franchises in mainstream gaming, but very common in an entertainment industry that still, whether it knows it or not, caters women characters to players who are straight men.
So, when several fans expressed a touch of disappointment that Cassandra from DA was completely heterosexual, there were people—mainly straight men—who defended her sexuality, saying that she “couldn’t” and “shouldn’t” be bisexual or a lesbian because it would be “perpetuating stereotypes,” since we pretty much all recognize that she otherwise could be coded as butch. These naysayers (or as I call them, nayplayers) would even go so far as to accuse the gamer’s expression disappointment by calling them homophobic for wanting Cassandra to play into lesbian stereotypes by making her romantically available to a woman Inquisitor.
These concerns, however, are unabashedly misplaced, and I know this might be shocking, but sometimes straight men who are gamers do not have the interest of queer women in mind when they argue for keeping a woman heterosexual.
Plus, sometimes those men mean well, but misunderstand the context of their defenses. If these defenders of denying the queer butch existence had any traction to their arguments, there would be more butch characters we could turn to as examples—but there aren’t. Where is there this mystical butch bisexual or lesbian woman in video games that has perpetuated a stereotype? Where are there queer butch women at all? The absence of these types of women is not a testament to the gaming industry being uncharacteristically sensitive to queer stereotypes, it’s a testament to how female masculinity is rarely presented at all—and that, in fact, it must be overcompensated through clear heterosexuality. Not only does this prevent diverse representations of women, it upholds standards of women made for consumption by men. Having more butch bisexual or lesbian characters would subvert those standards and create a wider landscape of women for everyone to enjoy and admire.
In case you are wondering, on the queer men side of Bioware, you have many different representations of gay and bisexual men; Dorian and Zevran are flamboyant sometimes to the point of foppishness, while Kaiden Alenko and Fenris are, in many ways, specimen of heteronormative masculinity, yet they are queer. These differences make the player wonder why this disparity of sexuality is present not just in Bioware, but across the landscape of gaming. You are far more likely to find a character who is a man coded to be flamboyantly gay than a lady character coded to be a butch lesbian.
Indeed, queer men who are represented throughout games have more varied gender expressions and levels of overt masculinity. From Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 2 to Gay Tony in Grand Theft Auto to this year’s Kung Jin from Mortal Kombat X, queer men appear in more varied genres of games and with more varied expressions, though these characters are rarely shown in romantic contexts like queer women are.
If we rightfully expect the gaming industry to stop oversexualizing women, we also have to expect them to create a full portrait of gender expressions and sexual orientations that is divorced from men entirely. Whether or not these well-meaning game companies are aware that they are preventing a full spectrum of women, the overarching absence of butch ladies shows that hypersexualization is not the only problem in games, it is the holistic goal of presenting women as varied and interesting as we are in real life.