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Women in fantasy

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Chilari, Mar 10, 2013.

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  1. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Statistically, games starring men make much more money than games starring women. However, statistically, games starring men have significantly larger marketing budgets. I'm not convinced that a significant number of men will actually avoid a game just because it stars a woman.

    Come to think of it, Tomb Raider sells pretty well, doesn't it? And I've heard Bayonetta was a bestseller. I don't think that's necessarily because those series are more sexualized than, say, Beyond Good and Evil or The Longest Journey--it could just be because they were marketed more aggressively.
     
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2013
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Of course, in Donkey Kong Country Returns, another mainstay Nintendo franchise, the role of damsel in distress has been filled by a stolen barrel of bananas. There's two points I mean to make with that. The first is the one being made in the video, that the damsel in distress - in its most stereotypical form - is just a McGuffin, hardly even a character, and stands alongside the girlfriend Trapped in the Refrigerator as just a motivation for the male hero.

    But the second is that virtually no effort went into developing the plots or characters of many of the games in question. Mario is as much a cliche in his role as Peach is in hers. Platform video games and their characters are usually simple and formulaic, so they exaggerate everything, including the negative traits. Many of the games they're referring to in the video only spend brief seconds to establish a story or a character's motivations, giving them only a few options to do something compelling. Mario, by now, is deliberately parodying themselves when they continue to use it. Video Game companies also afraid of changing the pattern they've established - the "core series" of a Mario video game is just an updated remake of the exact same game.

    In that sense, much of what happened with the "damsel in distress" in video games would almost be comical, in that one silly motivation was successful, and was escalated by a million sequels and copy cats trying to outdo the first, with each copycat trying to do something edgier than the one before, escalating the handful of elements connected to the trope. While it's easy to isolate it and discuss the impact it makes on women, for the most part it was a fad, not much more representative of our broader culture than beanie babies.

    At the same time you were seeing a ten second clip of Mario rescuing Peach, there was also Super Mario RPG, followed by the Paper Mario series, which develop real characters, even for Peach. In fact, RPGs represent a whole genre of video games developing solid characters, and none of them were mentioned in the video. Terra was the main character of FFIII (FFVI), and Chrono Trigger opened with a damsel in distress character that would be hard to characterize negatively as she, eventually, returns the favor.

    Not that any of this would apply to the StarFox game mentioned at the beginning, which shows a greater degree of awareness on the part of the designers about what they're doing and why. I would assume they could have found a way to add the female hero to the Star Fox universe without stripping her of the role and giving her Snow White's apple - at a glance she seemed compelling enough, and I think the video said she was supposed to be one of two playable characters, after all.


    That would be true if these were the only games ever produced. But there have been console video games designed for women, and women didn't buy them in numbers large enough to warrant heavy development costs. The kind of video games that a lot of women play are casual, the sort of game you see on Facebook, the iPad, or to some extent the Wii.

    And when asked in surveys what they want from a video game, that's how women respond. Loosely speaking, women don't want to spend hours playing a long and difficult video game. But they'll flock to a game like Angry Birds, which a three-person team could develop in their back yard.

    So if you want to develop a long and involving console game, with some exception you have to target men in order to justify the expense.
     
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2013
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  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Perhaps. But if all of the other type of games are heavily gender-stereotyped such that they turn off women gamers, then the fact women gamers don't play them doesn't necessarily tell me a lot. Instead of designing a game specifically for women, which leads to other gender bias issues, I wonder what would happen if someone took one of these very popular games that only males are thought to play and removed any sexist imagery, storylines, and so on. Would guys suddenly stop playing them (are we that shallow?). Would more women start playing them? I don't know.
     
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  4. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    Dragon Age 2 allows you to play as a female MC. I don't think the sexualization has anything to do with its success. I would have to say God of War I - III would do just fine without the brief sexualization. Women love Zelda just as much as men (In fact, at any gaming conventions you see women dress up like Link). Assassin's Creed could have been a woman as easily as a man, and the game would have done just as well. Honestly, I think this whole argument is baseless.

    I don't like the attacks on the "Damsel in Distress" trope because, in the end, it's a valid trope. I think that those who voice concern for the lack of diversified representation in recreational media need to ask for more of their preferred representation, not attack what has already come before.

    Negative representation of both genders exist. Turn on the TV from 6 to 10 PM EST and you'll get you're fill of man bashing. I think all consumers need to do as I do: watch (read/play) what doesn't offend you and ignore the rest. DVR is great for ignoring all the man-hate in commercials.
     
  5. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I'm not defending sexist imagery, only trying to put it in perspective. There are serious offenses and minor ones.

    Mostly likely, a game without much sexist imagery would do worse with teenagers but better with older males. It would do marginally better with women. It would probably do better all around, now that the video game customer base has aged sufficiently, unless removing the imagery broke with an existing brand image that the company was committed to. Overall, it would depend on which market was being targeted by other elements of the game.
     
  6. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    To some extent, the problem is arguably with producers and publishers not being willing to take risks and expand to new markets. (Which is a big part of the self-publishing revolution--I can go onto Keenspot and find premises mainstream publishers wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.)
     
  7. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    I think you misunderstood what I'm getting at. I phrased that poorly. Let me try again: it seems that she's criticizing female secondary characters simply for being secondary. As if in order to rectify a social injustice, all female characters must have as much agency as as the male character, and the fact that she isn't the protagonist has no bearing on the matter. AKA, "affirmative action characterization."
     
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2013
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yeah. I think it stems from the predominance of things. Any given instance of a marginalized female character might be something you look at and say "OK, well that's not who the story is about. Whatever." But when you look at the genre in its totality and see how heavily it is skewed that way, it raises questions.

    As a hypothetical, think about this. Suppose you took every single instance of marginalization and stereotypical or sexist representation of women in fantasy, and replaced them with marginalized black characters, or overt racist depictions of black characters, or stereotypical representations of some erroneous idea of what a black person is like. As a black man, would you be as much a fan of the genre as you are now? Would you be buying as many of the products? In one or two cases here or there you might say "Whatever, that's just not the main character" (at least, you might say it for secondary characters; it doesn't work for stereotypical or racist depictions, whether secondary or not). I think that's similar in many ways to how a lot of women feel when they're trying to get into fantasy gaming, graphic novels, books, and so on. When they're trying to get into things that occupy "geek culture" in general, in fact.
     
  9. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    He's spoken about this already, and it was a decent post, so I'll quote it:

     
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  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    It's more that certain video game series have branded themselves into a niche, where they've escalated certain elements to the point where they can't turn around anymore. I'm not thinking of Mario and the "Damsel in Distress" with this so much as I am the more edgy and risque video games which - well - I can't even think of names because I don't play them.
     
  11. Nihal

    Nihal Vala

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    One thing that bothers me way more than the reoccurring Damsel in Distress: The Faux Action Girl.

    You could argue that it's a bad writing problem (and I agree), but I don't think it's only this. If I had to guess I would say it's also the writing a "woman" instead of a "person" problem.
     
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  12. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    I'm not sure you can make an accurate comparison to racism (which fantasy has been accused of, but that's another topic entirely). Racism is more an "additive" offense, whereas the video is arguing against "subtractive" offenses. What do I mean by this? Well something is seen as racist because of something that is present versus something being absent. For example, the Twins in Transformers 2 have been called out as racist because the have caricatured "black" behavioral patterns. They exhibit a racist stereotype. This makes racism relatively easy to spot and less easy to confuse with something else.

    By contrast, this damsel business is a subtractive offense, notable because the character lacks something. In this case, agency. Whereas with racism, the presence of racist stereotypes is quickly identifiable as racism, a female character's lack of agency can be attributed to multiple possible explanations, such as her simply being a secondary character. As a result, it's a bit harder to tell what is really sexist (marginalized female character) from what is just natural story dynamics (secondary character who just happens to be female).

    And the only way to put an airtight seal on that issue is what Ms. Sarkeesian seems to be advocating: female characters cannot ever be secondary. Just in case. That solution doesn't agree with me, and I think going case-by-case is a better approach than making sweeping condemnations of every female character who needs to be rescued ever.
     
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  13. WyrdMystic

    WyrdMystic Inkling

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    Part of it is also lag - as in fantasy roles are male dominant because they have been for a long time, so it will take a long time for things to balance out a bit more - imagine 1 million books on one side ot the scales and for every 2 books added to other side of the scales, one more is added to the original pile.
     
  14. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    I'm flattered by Feo's quoting me, and he (I?) makes a good point. The best way forward is to foster a creative environment that welcomes a variety of creators, which will in turn lead to a variety of stories and innovations across genres and mediums. More than sexism, the damsel trope exhibits a lack of creativity and fresh ideas IMO.
     
  15. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    I raised the damsel in distress video because I feel it's a trope that appears frequently in fantasy fiction too, and the reason it is bad is well explained in that video: it removes female agency and makes her role male centric. The sidekick issue does not apply to the same degree as in video games as not everything has to be protagonist-driven outside video games. But video games are not what is at discussion here; improving fantasy fiction is. Damsels in distress are worse in novels than video games because there is no excuse, yet they remain as prevalent.

    Can we please keep the discussion away from dismissing the need for better female characters in whatever context and focus more on improving them. please remember that dismissive language is very off putting to the female posters here trying to contribute and if indeed you think it's involving under represented voices to present under represented characters that what is needed, dismissing our concerns is counter productive.
     
  16. saellys

    saellys Inkling

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    In the hopes of turning this back to women in fantasy (and because I'm really really tired of threads getting locked), there was discussion a few pages ago about women in military roles and how realistic one could make it while still representing characters as distinctively male or female. Steerpike mentioned Sheepfarmer's Daughter again, and I want to point out one (very crude) distinction Elizabeth Moon established early on: herbal contraceptives are available on every table in the mess hall. One minor character washed out of the army because she didn't take hers and got pregnant.

    That's a pretty extreme example, but Moon's cast is so broad that it embraces a comprehensive cross section of masculinity and femininity and every shade between. Furthermore, Moon was a US marine in the 1960s--I don't think I could imagine a more male-dominated environment. In her Paksenarrion books, she got as close to a gender/race/sexuality utopia as I've ever seen in fantasy, but that doesn't mean there weren't still bad apples in the bunch (Paks was sexually assaulted early in the story). There are quite a few female soldiers in her military structure, and the only person who commented on it was essentially a slack-jawed yokel Paks encountered herding pigs in the woods. Moon wrote a world that feels recognizable and whole, but is free from that baggage we've been talking about.
     
  17. Zero Angel

    Zero Angel Auror

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    Thread got a bit derailed there with the damsel in distress in video games video. I found it interesting and must have had blinders on because I didn't see any "call to action" that others took offense to.

    I'd just like to say that all of these threads have been very useful in that they make us think about these issues. I grew up in make-believe worlds so I was always pretty sheltered from the existence of sexism, racism, etcism. It's an issue for me because to this day my default thinking is that everyone gets along and that there are no issues. This makes me somewhat blind to things such as female characters being no better than objects in some (many?) of the most popular video games.

    My first novel had strong female characters but I see that I never showed that they were strong. Their stories were secondary to the story of Val & Uriel's friendship, which was the central story I wanted to tell. In this story, the other characters (both male and female) exist primarily to develop these two characters. The main two are reacting to the existence of the others more than anything, which just goes to show that they (being everyone else) are well-developed.

    Again, I don't have a big problem with this because the focus was on the two friends. In the subsequent books, I revisit the characters of the first and flesh them out more, along with introducing new characters, developing them to the point they become strong characters in actuality and not just in planning.

    Still, being exposed to these arguments and thinking about all of these things is helpful for all of us I think. Whether you're like me and even though you know there are issues, are basically blind to problems, or you're actively trying to change the status quo, or whatever you are, discussing these things the way we have been doing the past few threads has been helpful I hope. I have found them helpful anyway.

    I was pretty sickened by the New 52 link, and more glad than ever that I don't consume comic books anymore (although that's because of the soap opera never-ending quality inherent in their serialization than anything else; if I had still been consuming comic books, I'd hope that seeing Starfire like that would put me off them for the rest of my life).
     
  18. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    The point of this thread is discuss how to improve women's characterization in fantasy, but I don't see too many people suggesting ways they've seen authors approach this topic or how they have, other than bringing up Elizabeth Moon.
     
  19. Nebuchadnezzar

    Nebuchadnezzar Troubadour

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    Not sure it contributes much, but one great book with lots of good female characters (strong, weak and otherwise) is The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly. This one has tough warrior women, female cowards and backstabbers, devious women spell binders, noble hero types, etc. all in the context of a very strong, interesting and relatable male MC, the barbarian mercenary captain Sunwolf. I'd recommend this one for anyone who wants top-notch female characters who aren't grinding some gender-specific axe.
     
  20. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Well, to me, creating more interesting female characters is part and parcel of creating more interesting characters in general. For instance, one of the stories I've posted online has as its villain a repentant murderer on a redemption quest, with the catch that her "redemption" requires the torture and forced repentance of other sinners. She's not a standard church-militant villain, or a standard villain at all--she firmly believes that she's no better than other sinners, she tries to help those around her, and she opposes petty cruelty--and as such, she's not a standard female villain.
     
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