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MORE THAN WENCHES & WIVES: FEMALE CHARACTERS

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Maid, Mother & Crone: The Limitations of Female Stereotypes in Gaming

Stored inside our minds are characters we've absorbed from books, movies, and life.  We draw from this arsenal of personalities when we create characters for roleplaying games, and we often assign gender based on the typical roles we've seen men and women play.  While this can lead to some amazing characters, it can also result in unintended limitations and predictability.  It can be interesting to examine the characters you've created to see which patterns stand out.  Making an excel spreadsheet with information like gender, class, level, and such can help show trends you might miss if you're just working from memory.  Have a look at the simple numbers first: how many men and women are there?  If one gender greatly outnumbers the other, it might be because you have a default NPC that fills common roles with one gender.  Examine how powerful or active male characters are compared to females.  And then consider whether you've portrayed most females according to the stereotypes of the maid, the mother, and the crone.

The maid is usually the young, beautiful sex symbol.  Her major functions are being pretty, fertile, and available.  She might be able to show a little moxy and play hard to get, but that will only last for so long.  She shows up in a lot of Dungeons and Dragons games as tavern wenches and princesses.  Maids tend to be valuable only through their relationships with others - they're the daughters of kings, for example, but don't (or can't) make their own fortunes.

The mother is defined by her capacity for procreation and/or her duties as a caregiver.  She might be pregnant or already in charge of children when she is encountered.  The thing is, not all motherly characters have children - some just spend their time mothering other characters.  Some mother characters remain sexy and sensual, but many are portrayed in less sexualized terms.  One thing that the maid and mother tend to have in common is overall passivity.  These characters do not tend to assert themselves and are generally vulnerable, if not victims outright.

The crone is the most outright unappealing category of the three.  Despite the name, the crone is not always an elderly character.  Rather, the crone can also be the bitch, the ice queen, and the raving lunatic - the opposite of the sweet and loving mother, the crone hates, dominates, and cajoles.  Crones are drained of their sexual appeal completely, even if they are portrayed with young bodies.  These characters are granted few positive or admirable traits, and they tend to misuse any acceptable talents they have.  They rely on deception and subtle influence rather than direct aggression (as with many female characters).  It is interesting to note that crone characters are more than able to assert themselves - they actually go too far with their own wants and powers, abusing others around them.  Crone characters tend to be a bit more complex than mothers or maids and can make for great villains.

Through manipulating your established patterns, you can create potent changes in your game.  While there's a lot to be said for the shortcut that stereotypes offer, it can be more engaging for everyone to go against the grain.  Those playing female characters are probably going to want more than the old stereotypes offer, and players will probably be pleasantly surprised to see females presented different ways.

Some Alternative Roles

female spartan warrior running

In most Western European nations during history, women were not allowed a terribly wide variety of roles in society because of many factors, not the least of which were patriarchy and childbearing.  Roleplaying games don't always have the limitations of the real world, however.  Women can be more than tavern wenches, mothers and victims.  Princesses need not be damsels in distress but real contenders to power.  By reexamining and refiguring the roles female characters perform, we add a greater level of complexity to the game and throw a monkey-wrench into common stereotypes.  Dungeon Masters, the next time you're creating NPCs, consider these archetypes:

The Hero: Some games have one character at the center of the story, and such characters are often male.  You know the type: the man destined to grow up, avenge his father's death and ascend the throne, that kind of thing.  Why couldn't the hero be a woman?  For example: The king of the realm receives a prophesy that a newborn babe will grow up to overthrow him.  The king orders the death of every male child under the age of two in the entire kingdom... but the prophesy did not specify gender, and the destined baby girl escapes the efforts of the king.  She will grow up, she will avenge deaths and move toward the throne, but only with much toil.

The Judge: Why couldn't women take over the long arm of the law?  The face of the law is very often male in the mind's eye, but women in roleplaying worlds can deliver justice just as well.  Why not use female judges, ladies of court, and policewomen?  Women in D&D can definitely wield the power to make and defend the law.

The Ruler: Just as there can be lone kings or heads of state, there can be lone females in power as well.  Show brilliant female tacticians, feminine military minds and careful diplomatic women.  Just as a man can rule with an iron fist, so can a woman.  A group might expect the queen to be sweet or a pushover, but you can really send them spinning with an efficient female who is a natural leader.

The Prankster/Smart Ass: A lot of games have a wiseguy, but wouldn't it be a neat change to have a wisegirl?  The sarcastic, bemused, cynical member of the crew might give the old banter new life if they're female.  You could use a woman as the comic relief but you could also use her for true, biting satire.  This role is not attached to any particular character class - anyone can deliver surgical strike sarcasm, provided they have the intelligence for it - so why attach it to a gender?

The Ne'er Do Well: There are some characters who don't take the world seriously.  They drink, party, and copulate with anything that comes their way.  They lie and might even steal, but a disenfranchised soldier can be a ne'ver do well as easily as a bard or rogue.  These characters are often male, in part because of the way we link promiscuity with men.  Why not make the shiftless drifters women?

The Professional: The average game is full of tavern wenches, but surely women perform more than just food duties.  Try inserting some female blacksmiths, armorers, merchants and minstrels.  Likewise, try some female barbarians, bards and paladins.  This alone will set your game apart.

The Other Species: There can even be variation in the structures of monster race societies.  Who says that all females of a certain race must guard the young away from the eyes of the world?  Why should all of the bugbears you see be male?  And what of centaurs, undead, demons and dragons?  You know there are female genies and giants out there.  Golems can be built to the wizard's specifications and surely some would look female.  A female minotaur?  Rakshasa?  How about a nasty clutch of female sahuagin?  Don't just go with the gender shown in the pictures of the Monster Manual - the gender difference can be made quite interesting.

The Villain: There are many advantages to female villains.  People may trust them more by mistakenly judging them the weaker sex, so they might give a woman information they wouldn't feel comfortable with giving a man.  Chivalric teachings can make it hard for people to hurt female villains - when you have been taught all your life that you shouldn't hit girls, it can be hard to overcome.  Women also have a powerful weapon in that they can use sex to get what they want.  Women's sexual power has been feared for eons and may never be fully understood, but female characters can use their sexual power as they wish.  Last but not least, motherhood can make a great shield for a female villain.  It takes a hard heart to hurt a pregnant woman, let alone a woman who has children who depend on her and love her.  Yet such women can commit crimes in D&D with all of the aid of magic and deception.  You can make female villains of all kinds, not just the sexual or manipulative sort. 

Gender and Power Structure

      You can run a game in any kind of setting you want, with any kind of power structure you want. You can run the whole gamut and show different power structures with each new city, or you can set up contrasts between larger entities, like countries. In some areas, women might still be confined to being marriage bait and mothers while women fifty miles away enjoy leadership roles and judicial power.  Adventuring parties get to experience the spectrum of cultures, races, and laws - why shouldn't they encounter the spectrum of gender politics?

Think about these things when you game. DMs, consider the placement of power when you create cities, or when you run pre-made cities. Do not assume that cities from pre-made settings are patriarchal. You can make them what you wish. Likewise, do not think that all lawful good places are egalitarian and all chaotic evil places are patriarchal. Play with the dynamics of gender, power and alignment. How might a lawful evil city be made even more complex with a matriarchal underpinning? Would the city have a feminine feel, with architecture and law to match women's concerns? How might an egalitarian neutral evil kingdom work? 

You might be able to make a place more memorable by playing with such things, adjusting them and trying out different methods of gender presentation. You can explore different types of arrangements all at once, especially if you run a game in which the player characters travel. You can even bring everything together: just how would a lawful evil matriarchal city respond to a neutral evil egalitarian neighbor? This layering effect lends to depth to storytelling and realism to an entire world. (For a more in-depth look at location alignments, click here.)

Sexual Objectification

     There have been some efforts in recent years to draw more women into playing D&D, and with many good reasons.  Women make up a good percentage of the video game market and their dollars are wanted, and many groups welcome women in any case.  The publication of Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress and the creation of Astrid's Parlor, a board dedicated to women's issues in D&D, have brought women into the limelight, and not always in easy ways.  There have been questions about why a special board is needed for women, why certain elements are viewed as sexist, and so on.  I think that a lot of disagreements stem back to something we should've all heard about by now, even if we don't fully understand it: sexual objectification.

"What," you may ask, "does sexual objectification have to do with gaming?  It's just a hobby, a fantasy; we don't want ugly feminist terms in our fantasies.  And it's not a problem, anyway, since we treat everyone the same."  And many groups do treat everyone with equal respect.  But there are groups out there that reduce females to sexual objects regularly and don't even realize they've done it, because it happens in character, inside the reality of the game.  In some gamers' estimations, anything goes inside the fantasy - if monsters and magic can exist, why not misogynists?  If dwarves are miners and halflings are rogues, why can't women be tavern wenches?  They're not real people, after all.  Where's the harm?

Where, indeed?  Except that conditions inside the game can reflect on the group outside the fantasy environment, and objectifying female characters can make female gamers feel unwelcome and unsupported.  In some games, women aren't really present at all, the way they aren't present in old war stories.  In other games, women only show up in more "historically plausible" roles, like the tavern girl, the prostitute, the damsel in distress, and the mother.  A number of gamers claim that, with historical accuracy a priority, it must be thus in their groups.  So long as the whole group is having fun, so be it.  Yet how many female gamers encounter these situations and feel disappointed?  Being the only female character in an adventuring party can be challenging enough without being the only female character of any substance in the whole world. 

The more confrontational the group and the more discriminatory the methods, the easier it is to point fingers.  Some groups assign female characters special penalties simply for being female, and these penalties are not always well balanced against penalties for males.  Some games have class restrictions that severely limit the roles female characters can play.  Female characters might be made the butts of frequent sexual jokes that don't extend to male characters.  And some Dungeon Masters overemphasize the sexual power of female characters to such an extent that women can't rely on their stats and fantastic abilities as much as flirting and sexual favors.  It's not difficult to see how a female gamer might be put off by such things.      

There are less obvious and more common ways that sexual objectification takes place, however.  The artwork in gaming books is a perennial point of contention because many female gamers look to the books for models of competent female heroes, only to find figures that are drawn more for sexual stimulation.  When a woman shows up half naked for a fight, without all the protective gear and accoutrements that an adventurer needs, to some she looks ridiculous.  Why would you leave your chest or your midriff undefended, if you're a serious combatant?  The simple answer is that you wouldn't, and by emphasizing titillation over the many other functions of female characters, power is given to the viewer and credibility is taken away from the character.

From what I've seen, women want to play powerful people who have many ways to shape the world, first and foremost.  They want to roll good stats, use amazing abilities, and be respected for what they can do.  While gender can come into play in different stories, at the end of the day, women want their characters' personas and decisions to count the most.  In this, female gamers are just like male gamers.  While some women like their characters to be beautiful and don't care about how much flesh is revealed, others want to get away from the constant pressure for women to be attractive.  They don't want to see sexualized roles and behavior at every turn.  They want to see women who look like active, plausible heroes with confidence that comes from capabilities beyond sex and beauty. 

Gender Bending

Not all female characters are portrayed by women in your average roleplaying game.  Dungeon Masters have to take up female roles as a part of their effort to portray the world around the player characters.  This generally doesn't cause much commotion, since it's a necessary task.  Some Dungeon Masters don't particularly enjoy portraying the opposite gender, and a number will ask for tips on how to do so with more convincing detail.  Any major concerns tend to revolve around not feeling silly trying to portray a woman when you're not, and vice versa.

There isn't generally a lot of hullabaloo when a female player chooses to play a male character, either.  Advice might be asked to play a character that's more "manly," and there might be some joking, but it's rare for anyone to be offended.  A female player might have more opportunities to join in activities that tend to take place amongst male adventuring parties.  A female character might not join the group at the local tavern/brothel, but a male character might.  A female player might find it easier to mesh with the party if she's playing a male character, and might feel less pressure to focus on physical attractiveness when building the character.  Best still, a woman can have a lot of fun trying something new, and a male character might be just the thing to add spice to her roleplaying experience.

Difficulties can arise, however, when males want to play female characters.  A few gamers play women to make fun of them.  Yet others do so to act out sexualized, generally lesbian fantasies.  It shouldn't be difficult to understand why players might be unhappy with such choices.  Some gamers figure that playing a female character will offer them different routes to power, which leads them to play very narrow interpretations of women, namely the bitch and/or the whore.  By playing a harsh, forbidding woman, some players get away from feminine sexuality and focus on the social power that women purportedly have.  By focusing on sexual favors and influence, other players seek to take an advantage they imagine all women have.  Such female characters often become little more than ongoing jokes.

More potentially disruptive is when male players genuinely want to play female characters, and not for the sake of ridicule.  This can spark very negative reactions, usually in other guys at the table, and often tied to homophobia.  This is not to say that gamers are rampantly homophobic but for some reason, a homophobic chord is struck.  Some gamers believe that the only reason a man would want to play a woman would be to act out gay desires.  There is real confusion about what another reason could be.  Deep down, I believe this ties into a general value judgment that many of us have, even though we're not aware of it.  Western society often values males and the masculine more than females and the feminine, at least a little bit. 

  The physical aggression, tactical thinking, and reliance on logic associated with men are often prized in games like D&D; they're the stuff heroes are made of.  Why would a man want to distance himself from those qualities with a feminine character, or deal with the trivialities for which women are known?  There are a few common reasons for trying female characters.  There's often an interest in having a new playing experience; gender is just one element that can be changed, like class or race.  Gender doesn't have to play a major part but it can affect all kinds of choices, if one is so inclined.  A player might wonder how the group or the world will react differently to a woman.  A player might also want to know how they themselves will react to playing a woman and if they'll be able to do it well.  And it must be said that some players make the choice as a simple change of character, because about half the world is made up of females. 

The worst trouble seems to occur when a man, playing a female character, has any kind of romantic interaction with a male character.  This doesn't have to involve graphic details or much time to disturb others.  Even if it is barely mentioned, even if it is kept within the confines of the fantasy world, such choices seem to confirm concerns about homosexuality.  Nasty arguments and a lot of pressure against playing a woman can result.  A careful distinction between player and character can allay some of this tension, since characters do all kinds of things that players wouldn't want to act out in real life.  Communication is also key, even and especially if the group is willing to give gender-bending a try.  

Good communication within the group can be the most helpful when trying something new. Sometimes "gender-bending," as some gamers call it, needs gradual introduction into the game the way that house rules might.  Maybe the group needs a trial run, with a male player playing a woman for a one-time session.  Maybe the group just can't handle romantic interaction without game-stopping difficulty.  A careful Dungeon Master can be indispensable when integrating gender-bending into a game.  A DM can help bring it in slowly and make sure all players are acting respectfully toward one another.  Players who are comfortable with the concept or at the very least willing to try it out should also help smooth out any misunderstandings.  The overall attitude of the group will decide if gender-bending works and a player might have to find other gamers to make such an experiment work well.

Pregnancy and Childbirth

For discussion of pregnancy and childbirth in gaming, please click here.

Sexual Aggression

It might seem elementary to say that rape is a very sensitive subject to bring into a gaming environment, and that female characters - particularly player characters - should not be raped without some kind of discussion beforehand with the players.  There's no knowing how people truly feel about such a crime without some discussion, and players can take it as a personal affront if their characters are sexually assaulted.  Such a reaction is not entirely out of line, even with a clear distinction between the player and the character.  A player character is the player's main focus and the way through which the player can participate in the fantasy world.  To have one's representation raped can be insulting in a general sense, and for those who have very strong feelings about sexual assault, rape can bring up disgust and distrust of the DM's motives.

  Graphic details about rape are not common D&D fare and are not found in standard D&D products.  The rules are varied enough that they can be used to preside over assaults of most kinds, rape included.  Although villains might be described as slavers and rape might be implied, it isn't directly stated.  Some magical spells can be used to incapacitate and influence, and might be used to take sexual advantage, but most times they are used in run of the mill combat situations.  It's not even necessarily common for NPCs to reveal they've been raped but it can make for all the reason heroes need to bring down the bad guys.  Since non player characters are run by the Dungeon Master and might not have great connections to the player characters, they tend to have more distance and more horrible things can be done to them without horrifying the players.

But there are players out there who have had their characters raped, sometimes by NPCs and other times by other player characters, and often without any warning.  When I have heard of such things happening, they have invariably happened to female characters; male characters in the same games might be in the same bad situations, like being imprisoned, without fearing rape.  Most instances I have heard have also occurred while female players were portraying women.  My experience might not be the best criteria, but it is what I have and this phenomenon is not going away.  If anything, with video games and detailed, graphic avatars, sexual assault in games might be more common.  For some gamers, it is a way to gain power over a character or to act out a sexual fantasy.  Indeed, some male gamers do not understand what the big deal is.  Without prior consent, however, this is grave disregard for the player.  It makes them feel singled out, misused, and unhappy with their gaming experience.

Sometimes the argument is made that females are more at risk for rape, and so the "realistic" consequences should be carried out as they would plausibly occur.  We can discuss statistics, if we wish.  Our statistics are overwhelmingly focused on female survivors and are by no means complete, particularly since male survivors have notoriously low reporting rates.  But statistics are unlikely to make rape more palatable for players who genuinely do not want it to enter into their gaming experience, and there is far more at work here than meets the eye.  Forcing rape on a character enforces their role as a sexual object, first and foremost (and often the deck is so stacked against the character that their ability to fight off attackers doesn't really mater).  It might also restrict the way a player handles their character, since they may feel pressured to portray obvious emotional trauma.

      It is vital to remember that one group's entertainment is another group's horror story.  Since each group is its own entity, composed of different personalities, tastes are going to vary.  Some groups can include rape as a standard detail and be fine, but no one who has any respect for the people they play with can afford to take that for granted.  Everyone at the table should have equal regard and equal opportunity for fun; violations of these assertions tend to lead to negative experiences and lost players.  It is important that Dungeon Masters talk with their players, but it is equally important for players to speak up if and when they see something unfair taking place.  If a player seems upset, other players should not be afraid to address it.

 
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