comScore
  1. Mediaite
  2. Gossip Cop
  3. Geekosystem
  4. Styleite
  5. SportsGrid
  6. The Mary Sue
  7. The Maude
  8. The Braiser

What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Essay

Why Talking About Character Gender Still Matters (Even Though It Shouldn’t)


Last weekend, I played Omega, the latest DLC for Mass Effect 3. It’s good. Not great. Solidly good. But while it’s not the most memorable DLC of the series (Lair of the Shadow Broker still reigns supreme in my book), there was one thing I noticed right off the bat. Omega does not give you a choice of squadmates, so for most of the mission, you’re teamed up with ruthless crime boss Aria T’Loak and chaotic good newcomer Nyreen Kandros, the game’s first female Turian. If you play Commander Shepard as a woman, as I do, this means that the entire story revolves around the heroic exploits of three ladies. Three badass, intelligent, well-written ladies, two of which have a compelling romantic history. I grinned, aimed my assault rifle, and thought, “This is awesome.”

Later, my reaction made me tangentially think of a family of comments I’ve often seen whenever conversations about female characters in pop culture arise: Why does it matter? If we believe that all people are equal, regardless of gender, then why do we care about how many women are on screen? Aren’t there more important things to worry about? Why are we creating a divide by putting a separate focus on female characters? Doesn’t that just prove that we prefer female-driven stories, and that we’d like to do away with male protagonists entirely?

And honestly, fascinating as I find gender discussions to be, they shouldn’t matter. I wish that was the case. I wish that seeing three combat-ready women on screen didn’t make my ears prick. When I launched the game, I did not have a notebook on hand, ready to tally how many women showed up. I did not crack my knuckles and say, “Ah, yes, time for my daily dose of gender studies.” All I did was sit down to play a video game, because I wanted to spend my Saturday afternoon being a space hero. When I took note of the women on my screen, it wasn’t a conscious, analytical reaction. It was the instinctive kick of my lizard brain alerting me to the presence of something it doesn’t often see.

I witnessed a similar reaction several months ago, when my partner’s non-gaming sister stopped by our apartment during a playthrough of ME3. She walked in during a cutscene on Lesuss, a world populated by Asari. She watched for a moment or so and said, “Wait, is everyone in this game a girl?” My mind was still focused on dealing with banshees, so I switched gears and took inventory. My partner’s choice of protagonist gender and squadmates had indeed resulted in an scene without men: Shepard, Liara, Tali, Samara, and her daughters. “No,” I said, “but this planet is run by an all-female species, and there are a lot of women you can choose to have on your team. It just kind of happened this way.” “That’s really cool,” she said. And it is — not just for the number of women, but also for the fact that they are all distinctive characters with a wide range of personality traits and motivations. How often do you see a scene like that in any sort of media, let alone a military sci-fi setting?

That rarity is why I find myself drawn to this topic. If you have an egalitarian view of gender but still find yourself surprised to see women portrayed as more than tokens or eye candy, this begs the question of why. If society has reached a point where gender doesn’t matter, as the aforementioned comments suggest, then why am I surprised by such scenes? The answer is that regardless of what I believe about gender (namely that we all deserve equal respect and opportunities, and that the notion of “boys versus girls” needs to die already), popular culture is telling me something different. It’s a bothersome dissonance, and the only way I know how to grok it is by putting narratives under the microscope. That’s not to say that the problem is with individual stories. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with an all-male cast, or a story that lacks prominent female characters. As isolated storytelling possibilities, those are perfectly valid. But in the context of a dominant trend that spans across media (that is, more than one medium) and genres, they warrant dissection. Nothing will change if we just ignore it and hope that the imbalance will correct itself. When has that ever worked?

Games — and comics, and movies, and books — aren’t on the same level of importance as many of the pressing challenges that our species faces, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important at all. Stories are important. Expression is important. Art is important. The human race has always come to know itself through abstraction. In world history, the kinds of stories that a particular people told are hugely relevant. When we learn about the Ancient Greeks, we learn about their mythology. When we learn about the Middle Ages, we learn about passion plays and pageant wagons. When we learn about the Industrial Revolution, we learn about early science fiction. Stories are the means by which we understand the prominent values of a culture. So when we see that our own stories overwhelmingly represent a narrow portion of the population, the underlying message troubles us. If gender no longer matters, then why are our stories showing us worlds in which half of humanity barely exists? Why are girls outnumbered three to one in children’s media? Why does it blow our minds when we first learn about the Bechdel test? Why can none but those with encyclopedic knowledge of video games name ten or more fixed-gender female protagonists? If women — or people of color, or LGBT people, or any other marginalized group — are valued equally, then why aren’t our stories being told?

If you’ve never had the feeling that part of your identity isn’t represented in popular culture, if you have an easy time of finding stories that include people who look and act like you, it can be really difficult to understand why this is so important to some of us. I get that. This is a tricky thing to relate to if you’ve never encountered it yourself. As someone who has experienced that feeling her entire life, believe me when I say that it leaves a void in you. If you often feel like the odd one out in reality, a lack of visibility in the stories that you love insidiously re-enforces the belief that that’s exactly how it’s meant to be — that you’re weird, or lesser, or unwanted. If you carry that feeling around with you, finding a story that does include you, that tells you that you’re both welcome and awesome, is a transformative experience. My favorite example of this is Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to become an astronaut, who was inspired to join the space program after seeing Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek. Fictional characters make a real difference. And even if we don’t become astronauts or people of note, the feeling of acceptance that comes with seeing a hero like ourselves is still profound, especially when it’s within a medium or a setting that we already care about. When I first played Mass Effect and saw that the savior of the galaxy could not only be a courageous, persevering woman, but that she could also get the girl, I felt like I had come home. As the crew of the Normandy fought Sovereign, and later Harbinger, I battled my personal demons — my discomfort with my sexuality, my lack of confidence, my low self-esteem. Those games walked alongside me as I learned to open up to others and love myself a little more. Commander Shepard gave me armor, and I wear it still. I’m not sure that would’ve happened if she hadn’t been, categorically speaking, someone like me.

As much as I want gender to not matter, the stories I consume typically tell me otherwise, and I think that’s worth talking about. Not because women view female characters as superior to male characters, or because we want to do away with male-led stories entirely. Goodness, no. Imagine a world without Link, or Cloud Strife, or Gordon Freeman. Imagine — I’m about to make my editor’s blood run cold — a world without Batman. I don’t want those stories to disappear. All I want is a game culture (or really, a storytelling culture) in which things like Omega don’t strike me as unusual. I want to see more fictional universes that accurately represent the diversity of our existence. Making an even playing field does not mean depriving people of the types of stories that they already love. There is a place for all stories, even the ones that I don’t like or can’t relate to. I think a world in which stories only appealed to or represented me would be a bizarre, stagnant, dishonest thing.

Which is rather the point.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles and can always be found on Twitter.

TAGS: | | |


  • http://twitter.com/Rmjonesc13 R.M. Jones

    “I want to see more fictional universes that accurately represent the diversity of our existence.”

    THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS.

    Especially in concern with PoCs. I mean, really. I remember being shocked when I realized how few PoCs show up in media, and how few writers CARE. And with women characters, how many are simply used as arm candy or a reward for the male character as their primary reason for being a woman.

    I like male characters. I love Sherlock Holmes and Tony Stark and etc, and I identify with them. But the problem is that I rarely find a female character that strikes me as real. I rarely find a queer character that reminds me of me instead of making me uncomfortable because they seem like a bunch of stereotypes strung together.

  • Anonymous

    “Imagine a world without Batman.”

    I suddenly feel very cold, small and scared. :’(

  • http://monkeylologist.blogspot.com/ Jenny Cabotage

    I really love the Gears of War games. All of ‘em. Love ‘em. But you probably know what the characters you play usually look like – great big beefy men made broader and beefier by their armor. So when I was playing GoW 3 campaign coop with my fiancé, I kept getting these tantalizing glimpses of female characters in the same body armor, running around and shooting aliens. I kept hoping and hoping that I would get to play one. And I had to wait until the game was two thirds over, but I finally got to play as Anya. It’s hard for me to describe the huge uptick in pleasure I felt while I was playing. I could so much better empathize with a character whose body and voice were much more like my own. I felt so much more immersed in the game, for the first time I felt like I was strong and kickass, and not just a girl playing a strong and kickass character. And again, I love all these games, even the ones where you can only play as guys. Being able to play as a girl just added a whole new dimension of delight.

    I don’t feel bad for feeling the way I do about playing a female character in GoW. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a woman preferring female characters and female driven stories. I most definitely prefer them, and to try to say otherwise would just be lying to myself and the rest of the world. But I also harbor no hatred for people who enjoy to create and play male characters and male driven stories. I have no desire to wipe male driven stories out of existence. What I want is the option, the ability to pursue my preference just as much as the next person. The problem is not with the existence of male driven stories but with their overwhelming majority, and that’s what brings up all the things that Becky talked about.

  • Terence Ng

    Agreed. There’s a scene in The Boondocks that I always feel captures the mentality of “if gender/race/sexual orientation/whatever doesn’t matter, then why focus so much on it, and why criticize how white/male/straight/etc. the characters are”?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNow4k-iVR0&t=14m50s

    Because the idea is that if it doesn’t matter, then the status quo of depictions of predominantly white characters, male characters, and/or straight characters “stays” under the guise of “color/gender/sexual blindness”, when all it really is is a way to keep things as they are. “How about white?” indeed.

    Obviously, in this example, the issue is race, but it applies to anything else. Why not make the protagonist male? If gender shouldn’t matter, then why do you have a problem with it? And the reality is that others asking for change DON’T have a problem with A male/straight/white protagonist. We have a problem with YET ANOTHER male/white/straight protagonist. We’ve accepted the straight/male/white protagonist for as long as the industry has made them the focus of the majority of their works. Being asked to do the same with a PoC/woman/queer character shouldn’t be such a problem, since we’ve been expected (without much choice) to do the same for ages.

  • Lucas Picador

    Your experience with Mass Effect was very similar to mine. I could never bring myself to play Shepard as a dude — maybe the voice actor rubbed me the wrong way, but I just found that character to be way less interesting and likable than FemShep. I also often found myself with an all-female squad: Liara and EDI, Liara and Tali, Jack and Tali, Jack and Samara… I found myself drawn to these characters, both by the way they were written and visually presented, but more importantly by their usefulness as squad members. (Jack and Liara’s special abilities were actually, I thought, kind of overpowered.)

    I’m a dude. I didn’t go out of my way to select all-female teams. And I didn’t do it exclusively — sometimes Garrus or Wrex or Alenko were the right people for the job, and I liked fighting alongside them as well. But Bioware did a great job of creating compelling, badass female characters who were well-balanced with the male characters, and were present in enough numbers that I often found the old Salt ‘n’ Peppa lyrics running through my head: “hot damn, I got an all-girl band”.

    It was cool.

  • http://www.iamuhura.tumblr.com/ iamuhura

    Brava. Well said.

  • Anonymous

    I too have a hard time with female characters. It’s almost like they don’t know HOW to make a “real” female character. She’s either a stereotype, or some kind of Marry Sue intentionally left kind of blank so that we can insert ourselves into her role…

  • Anonymous

    Very big ditto on the queer character side!

  • Natalie Willoughby

    “When I launched the game, I did not have a notebook on hand, ready to tally how many women showed up. I did not crack my knuckles and say, “Ah, yes, time for my daily dose of gender studies.” All I did was sit down to play a video game, because I wanted to spend my Saturday afternoon being a space hero. When I took note of the women on my screen, it wasn’t a conscious, analytical reaction. It was the instinctive kick of my lizard brain alerting me to the presence of something it doesn’t often see.”

    YES. Especially the last line. This is a point I have often tried to make to people who simply don’t understand, but seem to mean well. This was beautifully written, and is everything I’ve always wanted to say but never really known how.

  • http://www.youtube.com/cherubicwindigo Laura

    I admit, I cried a little. “… it leaves a void in you”. This perfectly describes how I feel.

  • http://twitter.com/Rmjonesc13 R.M. Jones

    Exactly! Like with women characters, it’s not that I dislike the sexually dressed, kick-ass but secretly vulnerable women character. It’s that I’m really freakin’ tired of that being the only type of female who gets the spotlight in adventure movies.

    But so many will defend these depictions to the death because they seem to have this fear that by us saying “Can’t we get a reasonably army dressed women character?” we are asking for there to never ever be a sexually dressed one. It’s like Bill O’reily moaning about the decline of the “white establishment”, as if they are so deathly afraid of the “others” getting power that they will be nudged out.

    While the rest of us are just going “We just want a freakin’ reasonably sliced piece of the freakin’ pie! Good lord. Y’all are getting 99% of it right now! SHARE A BIT.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/Quantarum Eric Gilreath

    Jennifer Hale is just an amazing voice, she really brought Shepard to life. -Q.

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    When I was a kid, I thought I just didn’t like female characters. It took me getting a lot older and reading books with some freaking awesome ladies (like, say, Power Girl, Oracle, Renee Montoya, Black Canary) before I realized that what I didn’t like was the Smurfette Principle–that there will only be one female character, and she will be defined by her sex, instead of by an interesting character trait.

    (The exception to this as a kid was Babs Bunny, who was more defined by wanting to be a comedianne, and generally being funnier than Buster.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashe.samuels Ashe P. Samuels

    B-But sharing with people who usually get nothing means that you will suddenly get nothing!

    And that’s not fair!

    /saideverysingleprivilegedpersonever

  • Lina

    Jack and Liara’s special abilities were supposed to be overpowered — biotics are insanely powerful. They tried to have this be moreso in the first game, but made biotics less powerful in latter games for gameplay reasons.

    I couldn’t get into EDI’s design in ME3. I felt it insulting to me the player and to EDI the character. EDI was an AI and had a human female vocal output, perhaps due to being programmed that way, but EDI is no more female than Legion/any geth is male — any perception of either’s gender should be on the player’s part or on Shep’s part. (Also, being EDI is an AI, EDI should be able to hack any old mec as a mobile platform — even using a fleet of them whilst still being the Normandy. It’d've been awesome.)

    Then again, I also couldn’t get into all asari being mercs or dancers as young (except Liara because she’s special), Samara’s outfit, Ashley’s redesign, Miranda’s odd portrayal design whilst also being portrayed as both comfortable and uncomfortable with her designed perfection (due in part to having two different writers and the separation of character design and writing)…. I often felt the visual designs of the characters was incongruous with the characters themselves — save Jack, Aria, and Ashley in the first game.

  • rykocolor

    You’re right, but why? The author completely leaves out two of the biggest factors here: consumer and developer! Most consumers of games, especially ones like ME, are overwhelmingly male. More importantly, most developers are also male (I think all of them even in ME were male?). If you want more well written female characters, we need more female gaming consumers and developers. It’s like television, it’s hard for me to watch most shows at this point because they are largely female driven/oriented and depict men as very singular, often ignorant beings –> but I believe this is due to females consuming the product more (not to mention they are generally the target of commercials as they consume more in general) and because in the television development and production industry more women are present. (possibly due to the ‘arts’ being seen in many areas as ‘girly’ which has pushed many men out the industry – yay gender issues)

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I’m not even a gamer. I was referring to female characters in literature. Sure, there are SOME good female characters, but most seem to be Mary Sues or caricatures. I don’t know how to fix that since women probably read more than men, yet we keep getting this characters. And, sadly, lately women seem to be far more inclined to obsess over books with particularly bad (female AND male) characters….ie, “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Gray”.

  • Anonymous

    Feminist Frequency is launching a big project to study “tropes” in video games: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8I0Wy58adM

  • Anonymous

    Where are you getting your books from? And your readers, for that matter? You have to look beyond the bestseller lists, but particularly in fantasy and sf, and in YA, there are some really powerful female characters. Try reading some Eric Flint, Maggie Stiefvater, Lois McMaster Bujold, Holly Black, Alison Goodman, Rachel Hartmann, Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews, Carrie Vaughn, Kerry Greenwood, Charles Todd, Ariana Franklin, Connie Willis, Elizabeth Bear, Barbara Hambly (who also writes as Barbara Hamilton)–give those a try, and tell me about Mary Sues and caricatures. Please.

  • Anonymous

    And if that were the only problem, the solution would be easy, as it would be with every other marginal group: bring in female/LGBTQ/black/Asian/Latino/disabled/all minorities writers. People with friends from that group, and family, who can draw on a variety of bases for those characters. If that were truly the only problem.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much. This is a really well articulated explanation about why we need to look at the mirror of any culture and see ourselves–all of ourselves, whoever we are. And I like to see all of those that I am not. I grew up in straight white man land, and I much prefer the more variegated landscape we have: I just wish it was *bigger.* And *more*. And DEEPER. Other sexualities, races, nationalities, abilities, they’re all interesting in the way they face the world. Are those who produce our ways of amusing and informing ourselves afraid we might actually think revolutionary thoughts if our experience expands?

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashe.samuels Ashe P. Samuels

    This article is absolutely fantastic. And it’s a shame that many of the people who need to read it more than I do will likely shrug it off as political-correctness or ‘overthinking’.

    I watched a playthrough of this Mass Effect 3 DLC with Femshep in the lead and I have to say, it felt damn good seeing all the major players as women. So many tropes that would’ve tried to appear up and died every time Femshep opened her mouth. Affirmative Action Girl, Two Girls and a Guy, The Chick, Guys Smash Girls Shoot; none stood a chance here.

    We still got Combat Stilettos, but I can more than shrug that off.

    Tropes aside, it really got me narrowing down as to why it felt so fulfilling to see women almost completely dominating the show. Is it because my gender is so underrepresented, with the added vice of misrepresentation? Is it finally feeling the thrill of a power fantasy?

    After a lot of thinking, I realized it’s because the lie is being called out for what it is.

    Women are not rare creatures deviating from the norm of male identity: we’re just over half of the total population. Women are not sexual objects: we are in control of our sexual identities, wants and desires. Women are not frail creatures who need to be rescued, shepherded or left out of the fray altogether: we’re paving new roads in many major fields, we’re committing great feats of intelligence, strength and perseverance (two words: Hawa Abdi).

    Every time something like this DLC is released, these lies are being rounded up, dragged out kicking and screaming into the open for everyone to see, and soundly shot in the head.

    And that’s awesome.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashe.samuels Ashe P. Samuels

    While you’re right in that that’s not the only solution, I’d say that’s definitely a good place to start. Too many companies, studios, whatever are all too willing to have dominating demographics, and their work suffers for it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashe.samuels Ashe P. Samuels

    Going to have to say yes to that last comment.

    Straight White Man Land is partially governed by the fear that anyone who deviates from that norm will ‘take over’, and what better way to maintain the status quo than to repeatedly suggest that other types of people don’t exist, or if they do, in extremely limited/lackluster ways?

    Racism, sexism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, xenophobia-those are some powerful, nasty drugs.

  • http://twitter.com/seriouslyyouguy you guys

    Probably because the real world isn’t like LGBT-friendly video games.

  • http://twitter.com/seriouslyyouguy you guys

    Jennifer Hale does a better job than Meer overall, but when she’s delivering lines that are meant to be dry or sardonic, she’s just terribly hammy. I still think there could have been better actors for both sexes.

  • http://twitter.com/seriouslyyouguy you guys

    Liara was a cowering academic with no acknowledged superbiotic abilities or combat training in ME1. TAnd Jack’s only some legendary Biotic weapon of mass destruction in cutscenes, she’s just a generic weaker-than-Shepard NPC in gameplay.

    Also it’s pretty clear that EDI was designed from the start to be Joker’s romantic interest. Besides, who are you to say that Cerberus didn’t design their AI to be female, much less to get offended about it? Miranda was genetically engineered to be female, by the standard you’re applying to EDI, shouldn’t you be insulted about her being female more than her being a male-gaze sex object in this case?

    It’s like getting mad at a little boy playing with transformers and slapping them out of his hands and chiding his parents for letting him be forced into some “artificial gender role” defined by some “arbitrary molecule” that lies at the heart of every cell in his body and which dictates every aspect of his biology and most aspects of his psychology.

  • Anonymous

    True story.

  • Lina

    Liara was a cowering academic with no acknowledged superbiotic abilities or combat training in ME1.

    Doesn’t matter. Biotics are still canonically supposed to be extremely powerful, thus why they are somewhat feared in human society and placed in separate squads, etc. in other societies.

    Jack’s only some legendary Biotic weapon of mass destruction in cutscenes

    Gameplay reasons, much like with Samara. They are both supposed to be extremely powerful. Note how neither can create a biotic bubble in game, yet can in the Suicide Mission.

    Also it’s pretty clear that EDI was designed from the start to be Joker’s romantic interest.

    Absolutely not. ME2 EDI — who was an excellent character — was an AI that was mostly written by the same writer who did Legion, Ashley, and Thane. One seriously doubts his obvious good understanding of the difference between a program and a person would lead him to agree with the character progression of EDI. Joker’s “crush” on EDI (she’s the ship! his baby!) in ME2 was a cute joke at times. However, EDI’s redesign in ME3 — because, yes, it *was* because Joker needed a Hot Girlfriend — was insulting, as was the related dialogue. (As if Joker wouldn’t know how *not to hurt himself having sex*.)

    Miranda was genetically engineered to be female, by the standard you’re applying to EDI, shouldn’t you be insulted about her being female more than her being a male-gaze sex object in this case?

    Miranda is a product of her disgusting father, and Miranda is very cognizant of that fact and dislikes him strongly for it. She went so far as to fight for her sister’s freedom due to that disgust. I respect her character very much for that progression.

    It’s like getting mad at a little boy playing with transformers and slapping them out of his hands and chiding his parents for letting him be forced into some “artificial gender role” defined by some “arbitrary molecule” that lies at the heart of every cell in his body and which dictates every aspect of his biology and most aspects of his psychology.

    Nope, it isn’t at all. But thanks for playing. Try again next time!

  • Anonymous

    Seconding all of these, and adding Kate Griffin, Dorothy L. Sayers, Neil Gaiman, Joan Aiken, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), Moto Hagio, Hiromu Arakawa, Philip Pullman, Seanan McGuire. They’re out there if you look.

  • Anonymous

    Babs also wasn’t the only female regular on Tiny Toons. It might have helped.

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    There was that too. And every single one had her own wacky defining characteristics that didn’t hinge on a man.

  • http://discord-inc.tumblr.com/ James Fletcher

    Out of curiosity, I tried to see if I could think of 10 video game franchises that are headlined for a female protagonist. I didn’t set any hard guidelines of what constitutions a franchise since I quickly found there weren’t that many to chose from.

    Some of them were pretty easy (Metroid, Tomb Raider, Portal), others required summoning obscure gaming knowledge (Umihara Kawase, Pocky and Rocky), and some of them were Bloodrayne because I ran out of other ideas.

    Metroid
    Tomb Raider
    Portal
    Bloodrayne
    Umihara Kawase
    Beyond Good and Evil (cheating a bit here since they haven’t made any sequels yet)
    Pocky and Rocky/Kiki Kaikai
    Rhapsody/Marl Kingdom series
    The Laura Bow Mysteries
    Bayonetta (second game is in production)

    One thing that surprised me was the lack of genre variety, since I could only think of one RPG series that had a female main character (though Phantasy Star gets an honorary mention for the first game) and one adventure game series (which is odd given a large portion of Sierra’s output was created by Roberta Williams).

    Also I must give an semi-honorary mention of the Valis series. What started as an obscure Castlevania-clone with fan-service tendencies later got revived as an H-game. Fortunately, the company that made that went out of business soon after that, but still that’s pretty bad.

  • AmyBeth Inverness

    Excellent article, and it applies to the world of fiction just as much to the world of gaming (Worlds which cross over more and more, to my delight.)

    Adding to the list of great female leads is Michael Underwood’s novel “Geekomancy” in which the MC (who is female) is an uber-geek and learns to use her powers of geekiness to become a superhero. Uber fun!

    One truth I found here that really rang out to me is that, although most intelligent people agree that gender *shouldn’t* matter, it still does. At least, it matters as far as many people will notice “Hey, why are so many characters female?” because that really is unusual.

    There are female writers (JK Rowling among them) who choose to use masculine or gender-neutral pseudonyms because it makes their books more marketable. It *shouldn’t* make a difference. But they know the statistics, and make the choice. Likewise, there are men who write romance and choose a feminine pseudonym, such as Andrew Shaffer who used the pseudonym Fanny Merkin to write a hilarious parody of 50 Shades called “Fifty Shames of Earl Grey.”

    I tried an experiment with a short story (that by coincidence came out today. I won’t spam the link here because it’s erotica and therefore adult only, but the name of the anthology is “Felt Tips” and it’s edited by Tiffany Reisz if you’re curious) and I very carefully never used he/she for the character who is an artificial intelligence. I am intensely curious to hear from people who have read it because I want to know whether they “heard” the AI’s voice as male or female.

  • http://twitter.com/omg_vzg VampireZombieGhoul

    This is why I still occasionally have conflicted feelings about Christopher Moore.

    He is an excellent, funny, intelligent writer. He even writes wonderful female characters with personality and their own motivations. Of course, almost one hundred percent of the time they’re nearly paired up with some guy, and they’re almost always noted as attractive, but it’s nearly the same for the men in his stories. He also writes about female sexuality in a way that is refreshing and almost relieving, in that the narrative never judges a female character for wanting (or not wanting) sex, or choosing who she wants to have sex with. In his Bloodsucking Fiends series, one of the two main protagonists is even female.

    But a few years ago I went to his website, and in the FAQ there was a question from a reader along the lines of “When will you write a story about a woman?”

    His answer was that he wouldn’t, because women’s stories didn’t interest him, and then he referred to several female writers. I was, and still am, so disappointed.

    That’s half the population, separated only by a chance of nature. It’s also implying that “women’s stories” are somehow separate from men’s stories, and that there are no human stories to connect them.

    The argument that men write about men and white people write about white people because it’s what they know is very frustrating. I’m not asking for men to write about women’s culture or Asian culture or trans culture, I just would like it if they’d write about PEOPLE who happen to fall into those groups. Those people are not fundamentally different from those writers, and to act as though they are is hurtful. It also doesn’t make sense, since it seems as though non-white writers can write about white characters without upsetting their worldview of being out of place, and women can write about men without gaining some kind of secret knowledge. And as for the consumer, it’s quite sad that although women and people of color are expected to happily consume stories focused on white men, white men are apparently not okay with the idea of being entertained by characters that are female or non-white — at least, according to that argument.

    I remember being in my freshman year of high school and reading His Dark Materials for the first time. A male classmate remarked that it was his favorite series, and it was like a revelation to me. I wanted to THANK him, just because he liked a series with a female protagonist. (Arguably Will becomes Lyra’s equal, but I believe it is more about Lyra, and it does start with only her.) It really shouldn’t be an extraordinary idea for men to be interested in stories about women.

  • Anonymous

    “Most consumers of games, especially ones like ME, are overwhelmingly male.”

    According to whom? That’s certainly the stereotype, but such actual data as I’ve seen (which, admittedly, isn’t a huge amount) suggests that the numbers of people playing games like Mass Effect are, if not equal, at least much closer to it than most people think.

  • Anonymous

    I can think of some RPG series with fixed gender female protagonists:

    -Several Final Fantasy games: 6 (Terra & Celes), 10-2 (Yuna), 13 (Lightning), 13-2 (Serah)
    -Parasite Eve (Aya Brea)
    -Xenosaga (Shion Uzuki)

    While it’s still a pretty male-dominated field, I think RPGs are better about this than many other genres. First, because in addition to various fixed gender female protagonists, there are also many cases in which the player can choose the protagonist’s gender (pretty much anything BioWare made, the Persona 3 rerelease, etc.), which when done well allows for the type of FemShep identification that the author describes above. Second, because female RPG protagonists like Terra, Shion, and Lightning consistently come across like people, with thoughts, feelings, and depth, as opposed to characters like Bloodrayne and Bayonetta, who are basically on screen to kill things and look pretty. This gap is narrowing a bit, as more story-driven games have appeared in other genres, and there are definitely worthwhile female characters in other genres, but it’s still present to an extent, was even more so historically.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashe.samuels Ashe P. Samuels

    Which ‘arts’ are viewed as girly/are driving men out of the industry? Craftwork? Sewing? Watercolor landscaping?

    Because I’m sure that commercial art still has a hefty male population, except for perhaps advertising, which is a very obvious gender issue. Game design, film, directing, animation, sequential art-very typically male professions.

  • katyrex

    Sweetie, why do you think consumers are male? Do you think it could have anything to do with the fact that, for the last 20 years that I as a woman have spent gaming, only a handful of games have allowed me to play as a female character? Or maybe it could be related to the fact that it was, in 1992 (when I started gaming at age 6), way less socially acceptable for girls to game than boys? Yes, the industry has been historically dominated by men. And now that women are increasingly joining the gaming community, shouldn’t the games (and characters) reflect that? If, even after years of having the only female characters be on screen for “bounce factor,” I and other women still want to play video games, shouldn’t that say something about how video games might not be something that only men are interested in?

  • katyrex

    You know what is silly? How you and I have the absolutely normal desire to see ourselves reflected in video games, and we feel like we have to not only defend that desire, but to reassure men that we’re not trying to take anything away from them. We have to say them in almost the same breath, “I want to be represented but please don’t worry I think you should still be represented too.” And even if, right now, all gaming studios went on a male-character-hiatus and only did strong female character driven games for A YEAR, the industry would still have an exponentially larger number of male-driven games. Having to apologize for a relative impossibility when asking, politely, to be considered as people is really silly.

  • http://twitter.com/MelissiaKuromoi Melissia

    Boys also obsess over boring, one-dimensional characters. It’s more to do with age than gender.

    Keep in mind, Rob Liefeld is actually quite popular, despite being completely and utterly unable to write, create, or draw.

  • http://twitter.com/MelissiaKuromoi Melissia

    The industry’s own research has shown that much. Actually, young adult/middle aged women are a bigger gaming demographic than teenaged boys are.

    That the media has no fucking clue how to make games for them means that they are often invisible.

  • MagcargoMan

    You have a great point. It’s well thought out and there is indeed an imbalance that should be made smaller.

    Personally, when I play video games, I don’t even think about the character’s gender. When I play Mario for example, I never think about playing as a male; I just think of playing as Mario. Likewise, when I play Mirror’s Edge or Portal, I don’t think about playing as a female, I just think of playing as Faith or Chell.