More than Wenches & Wives: Female Characters



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


Bounty Hunter by captdiablo

"Bounty Hunter " by captdiablo (resized) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0


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 a 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 often the young, beautiful sex symbol. In this guise, her major functions are being pretty, fertile, and available; she's usually a goal to be pursued or a prize to be won. She might be able to show a little moxy and play "hard to get," but that will only last for so long. She might be a naive figure to be protected, instead, in which case, the goal is to safeguard her. In either case, she's meant to be pleasant to look at and deal with, so she'll go along with what others want. The maid shows up in a lot of Dungeons and Dragons games as tavern wenches and princesses. She tends to be valuable only through their relationships with others and doesn't really have much agency of her own.

The mother is defined by her capacity for procreation, her nurturing nature, and/or her duties as a caregiver. She might be pregnant or in charge of children when she's first encountered. This also means that she's often an object to be protected and revered rather than a multi-dimensional woman. She reflects stereotypes that women are kind, emotional, and giving. On the other hand, not all motherly characters have children - some spend their time being responsible for other characters, including grown adults. Some mother characters remain sexy and sensual, but many are portrayed in nonsexual 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 designed to be the most unappealing category of the three. Despite the name, the crone isn't always an elderly character. Rather, she can also be the bitch, the ice queen, or 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're 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). Crone characters assert themselves but go too far and abuse others around them. They 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 stereotypes offer ready shortcuts, 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

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

You know the type: the man destined to grow up, avenge his father's death and ascend the throne. 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, so he orders the death of every male child under the age of two...but the prophesy didn't specify gender, and the destined baby girl escapes his efforts. Decades later, she's all grow up and looking for help to claim the throne, and the PCs might benefit from backing her.

The Judge

Why couldn't women take over the long arm of the law? The face of the legal system is very often male in the mind's eye, but women can deliver justice just as well. Why not use female judges, ladies of the court, and policewomen? Show them pronouncing verdicts and carrying out punishments. 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 women 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 lady who's 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. Rather than making her the butt of jokes or simple comic relief, use her to deliver true, biting satire. This role isn't attached to any particular character class - anyone can deliver surgical sarcasm, provided they have the intelligence for it - so why attach it to a gender?

The Ne'er Do Well

Some characters don't take the world seriously. They drink, party, and copulate with anyone who 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 and ribald fun with men. Why not make the shiftless drifters women?

The Professional

An 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. A regular mix of genders across the professions can set your game apart from the norm.

The Other Species

Consider gender when presenting monstrous races. For instance, why should all bugbear parties be male? And what of centaurs, undead, demons, and dragons? Feminine genies and giants aren't a stretch, and neither are golems; they're built to wizards' specifications, after all. A lady minotaur can be as likely as a feminine rakshasa. There's no reason to stick with the genders shown in the Monster Manual art when we can imagine more. There's also no reason to assume females of all species will be stuck at home in non-combative roles.

The Villain

There can be advantages to female villains. People may mistakenly think they're the weaker sex and reveal weaknesses they should hide. Chivalric beliefs could make it hard for the public to suspect female villains, let alone stop them. Motherhood can make a great shield for a villain, especially if she uses pregnancy and small children as a shield. Women are stereotypically thought to use sexual attraction to get what they want, but what if sex is the one arena of life in which a villain is honest? What if an otherwise toxic woman is looking for a connection with someone who believes in her? The point is that you can make female villains of all kinds, not just the sexual or manipulative sort.

Gender & Power Structures

You can run a game in any kind of setting you want, with any kind of power dynamics 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 daughters and mothers while women fifty miles away enjoy leadership roles and judicial power. Adventuring parties often get to experience the spectrum of cultures, races, and laws - why shouldn't they encounter a 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 locations. Don't assume that cities from pre-made settings are patriarchal. You can make them what you wish. Likewise, don't 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? How might an egalitarian neutral evil kingdom work? Gender-based expectations - like those we have about bodies, social roles, clothing, and mannerisms - can all be tweaked as you design societies. 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 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 - brought women into the limelight in 2007, and not always in easy ways. Some questioned why a special board was needed for women, why certain elements were sexist, and so on. (Astrid's Parlor closed in 2012, as far as I know.) I think a lot of disagreements are rooted in something we're all affected by, 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 also groups that reduce female characters to sexual objects regularly. Some do so with various levels of awareness. Maybe they think it's funny; maybe they're only interested in women in D&D if they're foes or bedmates. Others 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 usually miners and halflings usually are rogues, why can't most women be tavern wenches? They're not real people, after all. Where's the harm?

Where, indeed? Except that conditions inside the fantasy can affect the group in real ways, 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 - even though there are many accounts of women in various roles in many wars. 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 historical accuracy must be a priority. So long as the whole group is actually having fun, so be it. Yet how many female gamers encounter these situations and feel disappointed? How many withdraw from groups - and the hobby - because they don't want to face potential arguments when they too just want to have fun? 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 have assigned female characters special penalties simply for being female, and these penalties are not always well balanced against penalties for males. This is often rationalized for pregnant or menstruating characters based on demeaning stereotypes of women. Some games have had class restrictions that limited the roles female characters could play, although these games have been relatively rare (and are even moreso now). 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.

Problems with Gaming Art   

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 gamers look to the books for models of competent heroes and villains. Traditionally, they've found women who were 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, it's difficult for some gamers to take her seriously. Why would you leave your chest or your midriff undefended, if you're a serious combatant? Why would you be in a pose that seems to do nothing more than emphasize your legs or butt when you're fighting? 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 (and, in some people's eyes, from women as a whole).

There have been major efforts to show women in a variety of roles and poses in recent gaming art, and they should be applauded as steps forward. Ladies have been drawn more often in full adventuring garb, weapons in hand, sometimes festooned with tool belts. They look like they belong in battle and can hold their own there. The cover of the 5th edition Player's Handbook has a fierce warrior woman who's covered from her neck to her feet; while her clothing is still form-fitting and her body shape is ideal, she's about to unload a spell in the fire giant king's face. Women are shown in poses that frame them as credible threats; they wield weapons like they know how; some have well-developed muscles; breasts have a range of sizes. There are still pieces that focus on prettiness, which is just fine. It still seems like most female characters have idealized looks and light skin, which isn't great, but real strides have been made despite the loud pushback by some gamers.

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. In general, they want to see women who look like active, plausible heroes with confidence that comes from capabilities beyond sex and beauty. Their concerns deserve to be taken into account, too, and all gamers benefit from more variety and respect in the hobby.

Portraying Other Genders

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, and not all DMs are women. 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 sought when playing a character that's more stereotypically masculine, 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 take place in all-male adventuring parties. A female character might not join the group at the local tavern/brothel, but a male character might be more welcome to carouse with the rest. 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 men want to play female characters. A few gamers play women to make fun of them in many ways, from their voices to their values to their bodies. Others do so to act out sexualized lesbian fantasies; they're not interested in portraying heterosexual women because they're usually heterosexual men. Some players figure that portraying 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 try to seize advantages they imagine all women have. Such female characters often become little more than ongoing jokes. It shouldn't be difficult to understand why gamers might be unhappy with these choices.

Sadly, it can be even more disruptive 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 or more so than other populations. But when feminine traits are demeaned in men and tied to being gay (which is also demeaned), a homophobic chord is likely to be struck. Some gamers believe that the only reason a man would want to play a woman is to act out homosexual desires. There's 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, to various degrees.

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?  But there are other valid and 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 female people.

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's barely mentioned, even if it is kept within the confines of the fantasy world, and even if the male player is known to be heterosexual, such choices seem to confirm concerns about hidden homosexual desires. 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. Respect for everyone at the table should be enforced by the DM and other players because roleplaying is a social activity among equals. Communication is also key, 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 reactions. 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

Rape is an extremely sensitive subject to bring into a gaming environment, regardless of the group or intention. It invokes strong emotions, traumatic memories, and deep disgust that can alienate players and destroy any hopes for a fun fantasy experience. Period, full stop. But it's also complicated by gender-based expectations, misogyny, and callousness. Some gamers might believe that it's more "realistic" or "historically accurate" for female characters to be targets for sexual assault. Some might even assume that if someone is playing a female character, they should already be prepared for this eventuality. Others assume that male characters - particularly evil ones - will inevitably try to rape captive or unconscious women and girls because that's what bad men do. It can be easy to rationalize this as a way to show that the assailant really is a very bad guy in a way that everyone will take seriously.

There are a number of deep problems with these assumptions. First, it's true that many girls and women have been raped, historically and currently; the statistics and stories survivors share are awful. But it also doesn't matter what you're wearing, how attractive you're perceived to be, or how old you are - anyone can be the target of sexual assault. This includes boys and men, who are sexually assaulted far more often than we tend to believe. Since being victimized is often deemed a sign of weakness, and men and boys aren't supposed to be weak, they face a special stigma when it comes to speaking up and being heard. As a result, our statistics about male survivors are deeply inaccurate, and many boys and men are among us, suffering silently. Furthermore, tabletop RPGs are fantasy-based; even historic games aren't 100% true to life. Many times, this fact is accepted and touted as the reason for all kinds of decisions. As we should all know by now, not everyone shares the same fantasies or desires at the table. Building a fantasy game that the whole group enjoys can be a fine reason for not including rape as a story element.

It's also problematic to assume that rape must be possible for realism's sake, or to make the characters feel threatened enough to fight harder. Even though it's one of the ultimate crimes, rape isn't needed to force the players or their characters to take the situation seriously. In fact, using rape as a shortcut is irresponsible and lazy storytelling. The idea that male villains will threaten or try to carry out sexual assault because of course they would is also seriously skewed. Not everyone thinks of raping others, even when presented with vulnerable people and the opportunity to get away with it. Not all perpetrators of abuse rely on rape as part of their arsenal of attacks; perpetrators who commit other types of harm can easily draw the line at sexual abuse. And many men despise sexual assault because they care and have seen the damage it causes. They do all they can to ensure they don't impose on anyone. Forcing male characters into the role of sexual aggressors inevitably and repeatedly is unfair and can be avoided.

Finally, the idea that players should expect female characters to be targeted for sexual assault is toxic in more ways than one. Rape is not just like any other attack; it carries a heavy psychological weight that's very personal. Players can quickly take it as a personal affront if their characters are raped, and that reaction isn't out of line. Even if a group or a player usually maintains a strict division between the player and the character, it's natural for some bleed-through to happen. A player character is the player's main focus and the only way they 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. If they weren't consulted beforehand, if their concerns weren't respected, or if their reactions aren't honored, players can and should think about leaving the group.

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've heard of such things happening, they've 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've heard have also occurred while female players were portraying women. This is anecdotal, but I've never heard of a study that's asked about such things, and it's a phenomenon that's probably not going to go away. In video games with detailed avatars and sexual interactions, sexual assault in games might be more common. In tabletop games, whenever consent is raised as a topic online, the incredible blowback should give us some concerns. Because if gamers and groups can't be bothered with consent, they are likely to cross lines when it comes to sex - and sex crimes - in gaming. Without prior consent, however, this is grave disregard for the player. It makes them feel singled out, misused, and unhappy with their gaming experience.

Players of all genders may not want to deal with sexual aggression at all in their gaming experience. They may want nothing more than to imagine a world without cat-calling, unwanted touches, or forced sex. They may not want their character to have to fend off a sexual attack like it's any other kind of combat. They might know all too well that whether or not a person is raped depends on a lot more than the roll of the dice. They may not be okay with their character being raped off-screen, either. Forcing rape on a character enforces their role as a sexual object, first and foremost. It might also restrict the way a player handles their character, since they may feel pressured to portray deep emotional trauma. If we're learned one thing from rape, I hope we've learned not to force, cajole, or berate others into doing things they don't want to do. That's as true at the gaming table as it is anywhere else.

The good news it that references to rape aren't found in standard D&D products. Although it's impossible to know how much sexual assault is mentioned in third party products or fan-made fare on the Dungeon Master's Guild, it's safe to assume that it's not common, since creators often try to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and avoid outraging their supporters. So if a group never wants to deal with the topic, it's not difficult to avoid it. The general combat rules are varied enough that they can be used to preside over most kinds of assault, but rape isn't mentioned as a possibility in mainstream games. Although villains might be slavers, rape isn't usually implied. Some magical spells can be used to incapacitate and influence, but their potential in sexual assault is left unsaid. If a group wants to include sexual assault as a story trope, carefully and with respect for all involved, I offer some guidance on how to do so here.

In the end, it's vital to remember that one group's entertainment is another group's horror story. Each group is its own entity, composed of different personalities, and tastes are going to vary. Some groups can include rape as a story trope and be fine, but no one who respects the people they play with will take their permission for granted. Everyone at the table should have equal regard and equal opportunity for fun; violations of these assertions lead to negative experiences, disrupted games, and lost friendships. It's important that Dungeon Masters talk with their players, but it's equally important for players to speak up if and when they see anything unfair and upsetting taking place. If one player seems upset, other players should not be afraid to address it. Because caring and looking out for each other is how we make everything better, in D&D and real life.


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