The game Beyond Good & Evil (2003) supplies the second positive female character for the series Positive Female Characters in Video Games, created by Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian. (the Scythian was the first – my reaction is here.) Jade is, as Sarkeesian tells those of us who have not played the game, a journalist trying to save the world from an alien invasion.
“Refreshingly,” Sarkeesian says, “she actually looks the part of the active, practical, young woman of color who has a job to do.” This allows her to segue into an explanation of why the visual attributes of characters are important—shorthand for “why women should wear more than a metal bikini.” It’s an important discussion, and one that we should be having more often about characters of all genders. After all, as the Iron Bull points out in Dragon Age: Inquisition, armor with boob-plates is horrifically impractical because it just directs the pointy things toward the wearer’s heart.
Visual appeal is important, yes, but so is the idea that characters are designed with their work in mind; for instance, the female sniper outfits from Warface are idiotic (there’s a cleavage window), and the various armor choices presented in World of Warcraft are even worse (no one wants to wear a metal bikini, ever). It’s possible to make a character aesthetically appealing without putting him or her in scanty clothing (and it’s even possible to make them sexy without exposing all manner of skin, take Miranda in Mass Effect 2).
Sarkeesian points out that visual design also communicates something about the work a character needs to do—like the gear worn by the rebooted Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (2013) or Batman in Arkham Asylum/City, or the armor worn in the Gears of War franchise by both male and female characters alike. What a character is wearing tells us what they’re trying to do—and whether we ought to take them seriously.
BGE also appears to be aware of economics—money is a real component of the game’s narrative and gameplay, and the impetus for Jade to take photographs of the animals and plants on her planet (one of the game’s primary mechanics)—but I’m not really understanding the connection between this gameplay design choice and the purpose of the series; sure, it’s nice to see a game being discussed that isn’t about shooting, but as far as I can tell, that has little to nothing to do with the gender of the game’s protagonist.
Except for one very important factor. It implies that women don’t belong in the military industrial complex. And that is actually a problem. (More on this in a second.)
Let me digress for a little bit before I get back to that. I’m not saying that BGE ought to have made a shooter or that Jade should have been a male protagonist. Not in the least. What I am saying is that the fact that the gameplay is about documenting nature should not feature in why it has a positive female protagonist.
This brings me to a sub-point that has recently been discussed (by Sarkeesian, among others) relating to the recent release of the Mad Max: Fury Road reboot. Sarkeesian argues that Mad Max cannot be considered feminist because its female co-protagonist engages in the same behavior (violence, shooting, driving) as Max. In short, female characters who participate in violence cannot be feminist because violence is a part of hegemonic masculinity and is therefore patriarchal.
I do not buy this. Not in the least. (And neither does Shoshana Kessock, who summarizes both sides of the Mad Max debate very well here.)
While I understand the argument that says that women should not have to engage in masculine-coded behaviors in order to be equal (aka “Lean in” feminism), they should also be able to engage in those behaviors and be accepted as equals if they so choose. If a woman wants to be a soldier, that should be just as feminist as if she wants to be a stay-at-home-mom. Feminism is (and ought to be) about equal worth (to paraphrase Estelle Freedman’s No Turning Back) not about equal action (although equal action is one method of attaining equal worth).
For this reason, while a standard review of BGE might wish to discuss the mechanics of Jade’s photography, a series devoted to explaining why Jade is a positive female character ought to make clear that the fact that Jade shoots with a camera rather than a gun is not what makes her an exemplary female protagonist.
Sarkeesian doesn’t exactly do this. She says that the designers give us “a pleasant, nonviolent way of interacting with and appreciating the beauty of the game’s world while reinforcing that Jade is a woman of many talents.” This suggests that her use of a camera—rather than a rifle scope—is somehow inherently tied to Jade’s female identity.
Yes, it is good to have female characters who don’t fall into the “Strong Female Character” archetype (where the character has generally suffered horribly in some way, usually as a victim of rape or assault—see a good overview of this here from Leigh Alexander on Gamasutra), but that circles back to the idea that there is something wrong with women who have overcome trauma in the development of agency.
start second digression
Let’s think about the most essential of plots for a moment—the bildungsroman, or “coming of age” story. One of the essential components of most (not all) bildungsroman stories is some sort of hardship or trauma. Now it is important to recognize that this does not necessarily mean sexual trauma, which is often where Strong Female Characters’ trauma comes from, and that narratives of women’s coming-of-age can present a variety of hardships which are not sexual (and that men’s coming-of-age can present a sexual trauma).
The point is that the reason so many Strong Female Characters have a trauma in their past is because that is a core component of literary tradition around the globe. Certainly, it would behoove storytellers (especially in the videogames industry) to diversify that narrative and make sure that not every Strong Female Character has a sexually traumatic past, but such a narrative arc does not and should not automatically disqualify a female protagonist from being positive. As with any narrative choice, what kind of trauma is in a protagonist’s past (or in the early part of their story) should be carefully considered and chosen, rather than a default. The fact that we default our Strong Female Characters to a sexual trauma (assault, rape, incest, molestation) most of the time is enormously problematic, and it’s important that we recognize this, but it does not de facto make a Strong Female Character a “bad” character simply because she has this.
end second digression
Jade’s hardship is—as the mechanics of the game imply—more economic, and that’s fine (in fact, good in the scheme of interesting narrative and gameplay design), but is also not inherently tied (and should not be) to the positivity of her role as a positive female character.
Sarkeesian then suggests that other protagonists (with an image of Kratos behind her) are one-dimensional and uninterested in saving their worlds or protecting others first and foremost. Certainly, there are such characters (and Kratos is one of them) whose sole purpose is vengeance or attaining a high body-count, but the video implies that most characters in video games (mostly male) are uninterested in mercy or protection and lack character depth. While not all of them are as complex as Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre) or Aragorn (Lord of the Rings), there is depth to many of them: Marcus Fenix has complex relationships with his companions and his father throughout the Gears of War series; Jack Ryan in BioShock and Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite are more complex than even they know; and Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider is complex, as are most of the NPCs with whom she interacts. I’m not even going to address protagonists like Corvo (Dishonored), the Warden (Dragon Age: Origins), Hawke (Dragon Age 2), the Inquisitor (Dragon Age: Inquisition), the Dragonborn (Skyrim), or Shepard (Mass Effect), whose personalities and behavior are utterly under the control of the player and are thus as simple or complex as the player wishes to make them.
Again, being female does not necessarily correlate to complexity here, and while complexity does make Jade a better female character (and is thus relevant), it seems disingenuous to imply that complexity is somehow not expected or found in modern videogame character design.
As the video continues, it seems to me as though it is ultimately less about describing a positive female character than it is about applauding a game that questions patriarchal authority. For instance, Sarkeesian goes on to describe the core conspiracy at the heart of the game involving the invading aliens, the government, and the “corporate news media.” She says that the game is ultimately focused on “questioning mass media messages and challenging institutions of power that perpetuate injustice.” Now don’t get me wrong—this is great. I want more games that do this, but it seems to me that Jade’s characteristics as a positive female protagonist are in service of this, rather than the other way around.
One of the key points that Sarkeesian makes that is right on point has to do with Jade’s capture and need to be freed early in the game. Pey’j (an anthropomorphized boar-alien) comes to her assistance when she is trapped, but instead of breaking her free, throws her a staff and tells her to “free yourself, Jade!” Sarkeesian rightly points out that this is very important; Jade is trapped and needs help, but Pey’j is there to assist, not do all the work for her. The distinction may seem semantic, at best, but semantics are important and illustrate that ultimately Jade does have to work to free herself—she’s trapped, but she’s not a damsel.
This may be one of the most important parts of Sarkeesian’s review, particularly as she points out that the reciprocal scene later in the game where Jade saves Pey’j is “not equivalent.” This is because—as Sarkeesian says—the trope of damsel in distress reinforces negative images of the helpless female, thus making it more negative than the “dudes in distress” counterpart. Within the game, however, the fact that both Jade and Pey’j are kidnapped is a nod to the two characters’ equality.
Sarkeesian goes on to discuss the importance of Jade’s companions (NPCCs) in the game, talking about how they are more than just mechanical additions to the game. This may be true, but—again—is not necessarily related to her gender. Many RPGs with NPCCs go out of their way to make sure that the NPCCs are more than just mechanical for those players who wish them to be (Dragon Age, Mass Effect, BioShock Infinite). As before, this, too, seems to be part of an overall review of the game, rather than immediately relevant to Jade herself.
Ultimately, this seems more like a “positive social justice games” review than it does a real analysis of Jade herself as a protagonist. Sarkeesian says that we need more games like BGE because they focus on “taking a stand against corrupt systems of power,” on compassion, and on friendship. And I would also like to see games like these, but the video didn’t really do what it said it was going to. Instead, it presented a positive review of Beyond Good & Evil that is interesting, but doesn’t really (at least to me) highlight what makes Jade a particularly good female protagonist.
What would I like to see instead? That’s not really the right question. As a review of a game, this was decent, it just wasn’t a focus on Jade as a role-model character. It emphasized the mechanics of a game rather than the protagonist on which it was supposedly focused, and therefore didn’t really address the ostensible topic of the series.
I’d also like to see something more…relevant, I suppose. So far, Sarkeesian has analyzed indie games in this series rather than AAA games. On the one hand, that’s likely due to the fact that there are far fewer female protagonists in AAA games than in indie games. On the other, it still seems to me like she should start off big—with a positive depiction that has done well and will be recognizable as positive to gamers. I’d suggest Chell (Portal, Portal 2), a female protagonist who helps herself, has to be clever enough to solve complex puzzles, and whose games have gotten gamers interested in science and physics. She even fits the doesn’t-shoot-anyone and questions-the-man (literally and metaphorically) criteria stated here.
I guess, as with most of Sarkeesian’s videos, I keep ending up feeling disappointed. In this case, there are a lot of presumptions about what is “good” and what is “bad” (non-violence versus shooters) that I’m just not willing to accept. While I do think it’s good to have games that aren’t focused on shooting as a mechanic (and yes, I know that technically, Jade does shoot things, just with a camera), I also think that it’s possible to have a strongly feminist game that is a shooter. I think it’s possible to have a character like femShep be a positive female figure in a game (and I know she doesn’t count here because the player chooses her gender) who is hardened, who has experienced trauma, and who is still a positive female figure.
In essence—to bring a very long post to a close—there are many ways to create a positive female character, and some of them involve traditionally masculine attributes and pursuits. Other positive female characters—like Jade, who does appear to be a good positive figure—will not be soldiers or warriors or mercenaries, but artists or journalists or archaeologists. Or even professors with a penchant for long-winded blog posts.
To get to the point, though, I think that Sarkeesian is making some flawed assumptions about what constitutes—and does not constitute—a positive female character which are themselves rooted in patriarchy. Within feminism, there’s a dangerous tendency to participate in the same kind of gender essentialism inherent in sexism by assuming that anything coded masculine is therefore negative, and that in order to make women “strong,” they have to be strong in ways that men are or cannot be. And that is just as problematic as saying that women can only be equal if they do the exact same things as men. Yes, it is important not to just flip a trope around (as in the example of kidnapping in this episode), because centuries of oppression don’t just go away when the male character gets abducted. It is also important to recognize that our goal is equal worth, no matter what form that worth takes.
tl;dr Men and women should be valued equally whether they do “masculine” things or “feminine” things because gender coding is all socialized bs anyway.