Anita Sarkeesian’s positive female characters in video games

Throughout 2013 and 2014, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency made a lot of headlines in the video game community. Her video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” is critical of the depiction and uses of female characters in games. On the whole, she finds that all too often female characters are sexualized, abused, and made the objects of male conquests.

While many people, especially the journalism community, have been supportive of Feminist Frequency, many more rank and file gamers have been critical. Remove from the discussion the anonymous rabbles that issue death threats and spew verbal abuse against Sarkeesian. Intelligent and thoughtful gamers have looked at her critiques and asked, “Why are you so negative about the depictions of females in video games? What about all of the positive female characters who don’t fit your narrative of oppression?”

In the three previous posts I’ve critiqued Sarkeesian, that’s been one of my main objections. I acknowledge that female characters are often sexualized to the point of absurdity. But as a longtime gamer, I can think of numerous examples of positive female characters in games (e.g., such as the two or three dozen female characters in the Final Fantasy series).

Thankfully, Sarkeesian has started addressing this criticism with her new mini-series, Positive Female Characters in Video Games. I’ve been waiting for months now to write this post, in the hopes that she’d post a few more videos on this topic.

As of now, there are only two videos, so let’s look at her analysis in each.

The Scythian: Sword and Sworcery


Sarkeesian begins her series by examining a character known only as “the Scythian” from the indie game Sword & Sworcery. In short, the game pays homage to the Legend of Zelda series: there’s exploration, combat, and environmental puzzle solving. There are also a few differences: the character doesn’t level up throughout the game, but gets weaker. There’s less combat than Zelda. And the protagonist is a female.

These differences shouldn’t be interpreted as a critique of Zelda, as if Sword & Sworcery is a better game. It’s just a different game.

Sarkeesian discusses at length how the Scythian “subverts” traditional gender roles because she doesn’t appear female:

Thankfully, the game doesn’t resort to clear gendered signifiers like a pink outfit or a pretty bow in her hair, nor does it present her gender as some kind of surprise twist like we see in the original Metroid.

She goes on to say:

It’s not just in the visual sense that the Scythian lacks clear definition. We know very little about her history, and nothing about why she has undertaken the quest to defeat an ancient evil. While games often give us images of heroes who are fated to defeat evil forces, it’s rare for these heroes of myth to be women. Like many video game heroes, the Scythian is essentially a silent protagonist, a figure defined primarily by her actions, which makes her a blank slate for all players to project themselves onto.

What strikes me as curious is that Sarkeesian looks to the Scythian as a positive female character, yet visually she looks male, and on her quest, she does all the things that male protagonists do. She ends by saying:

Sword & Sworcery gives us a female protagonist and encourages us to see her as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman.

In effect, Sarkeesian is saying that female characters are positive if they are indistinguishable from male characters: visually, thematically, purposely.

Yet in her previous Ms. Male video, Sarkeesian critiqued female characters that were essentially carbon copies of male characters, albeit with a visual signifier like a ribbon or bow in their hair.

Personally, I think it’s fine if a female character is androgynous, as it’s fine when male characters are androgynous (to use Final Fantasy again, I’m thinking of some of the male characters, like Vaan or Kuja).

But I wouldn’t say that female characters are better when they are androgynous, as it seems Sarkeesian is saying. Men and women are different. For one, their body shapes, on average, are different, so including those differences in a video game isn’t sexist: it’s a matter of art reflecting reality.

Many of Sarkeesian’s critics have pointed out various positive female characters in games, characters who “just happen” to be a woman. Dixie Kong is one of my favorite female characters in this regard. She’s just as strong, just as fast, just as capable as Diddy Kong. She’s a clone in every regard, except for her special ability. She “just happens” to be a woman.

Yet if you’ve been following Sarkeesian’s work, you’ll find that she doesn’t believe a character can “just happen” to be a woman. In other words, a character cannot be judged on their own merits apart from their gender. In her feminist worldview, gender is inextricably linked to a character (or in the real world, a person), and the history of gendered violence cannot be easily untangled from women.

There’s a discrepancy, then, between Sarkeesian’s arguments in this video and her arguments in past videos. I won’t, however, go so far as to say she’s a hypocrite, as some have said. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, the more she researches these topics, her own views on women are changing. Maybe she’s starting to see, as many have long argued, that female characters can “just happen” to be female, and the history of gendered violence doesn’t have to inform our appreciation of these female characters.

Jade: Beyond Good and Evil


For the second video, Sarkeesian extols Jade from Beyond Good and Evil. Like Sword & Sworcery, I haven’t played Beyond Good and Evil, though I hear great things about the game all the time.

And before Sarkeesian started this mini-series, many critics referred her to this game as an example of a positive female character.

On the surface, then, it appears that Jade is universally recognized as a strong character, so Sarkeesian made a safe choice in highlighting her.

As usual, I have a few quibbles with her analysis.

In the beginning, Sarkeesian discusses Jade’s appearance:

We learn about who characters are not just from the things they say and do, but also from how they look: visual design is an important way for game designers to communicate information at a glance about a character’s experience and personality traits. Sadly, women in games are often depicted in wildly impractical, sexualized clothing designed to make them appealing to straight male players. But Jade isn’t designed to fulfill someone else’s fantasy. The midriff top is a little silly, but for the most part, she looks like someone who is dressed to accommodate her own needs. I mean, you don’t get much more practical than cargo pants.

The part that bothers me is the throwaway comment that Jade’s midriff top is “a little silly.” It’s almost as if Sarkeesian finds female characters acceptable only after all hints of sexuality and conventional attractiveness are eliminated. I’m surprised Sarkeesian didn’t go farther and mention Jade’s exceedingly thin waist.

This criticism bothers me because it runs counter to so much popular feminist discourse. In recent years, pop culture feminists have criticized people who engage in “slut-shaming.” Slut-shaming is the social stigma, usually levied at women, that comes from critiques of female bodies and appearance. Feminists decry slut-shaming; in general, I think they are on point here.

For example, they say dress codes–often at high schools or places of work–stigmatize women more than men. They say society (made up of both men and women, as women can shame other women) picks on women, holding them to different standards than men. In this worldview, the patriarchy tries to control women, in part, through a woman’s dress.

Feminists have popularized this idea across social media and college campuses, so much so that whenever somebody, often a male, criticizes the way a woman looks or dresses, they are outed as “slut-shamers,” and ridiculed.

That means that I, as a male, cannot and should not criticize–even comment on–a woman’s appearance or dress. In this worldview, women are autonomous agents, and only they get to decide what they wear. If they want to dress conservatively, that’s fine. If they want to dress provocatively and show off some skin, that’s their decision, and critics, especially men, better shut up and let them be.

It’s interesting, then, that Sarkeesian points out that Jade’s midriff top is “a little silly.” Why? Is not Jade an autonomous woman? Sarkeesian certainly thinks so in the rest of her analysis. A man didn’t dress Jade when she got up in the morning, did he?

In my mind, as I bow to feminist thinking on this issue, I cannot comment on Jade’s appearance, other than affirming the choices that she’s already made. So if she wants to wear a midriff top, good for her.

Certainly millions of high school and college women choose to dress the same way.

(And for the record, I have no problem with Jade’s appearance).

My second contention with this video comes toward the end:

In this early scene, Jade is trapped until Pey’j appears, throwing her a staff she uses to free herself and overcome the destructive alien force.

Pey’j: Hang on Jade! I’m coming! Free yourself, Jade. I’ll create a diversion.

It may seem like a minor detail, but the fact that Pey’j tells Jade to free herself, instead of doing it for her, is incredibly important. He assists her but doesn’t rescue her. He knows that even in this situation, she’s far from helpless, and the fact that Pey’j treats her as a capable partner encourages us to see her that way, too.

This moment also evokes a sense of mutual respect and partnership between these two characters, in a way that is all too rare for female characters in gaming.

Eventually, Uncle Pey’j is kidnapped, and Jade is determined to rescue him.

As a quick side note, it’s important to point out that a kidnapped male character saved by a woman and a kidnapped female character saved by a man are not equivalent, because while a damsel in distress reinforces longstanding regressive myths about women as a group being weak or helpless specifically because of their gender, a dude in distress does not reinforce any such ideas about men.

It’s this idea, that the history of violence against men and women are different, that probably earns Sarkeesian the most criticism. Her larger narrative is not only that violence against men and women are, historically and presently, different, but she goes even further to contend that the history of violence against women is worse than the history of violence against men.

Perhaps in some circumstances, but maybe not in all. I don’t think it’s healthy to try and “prove” which gender has suffered more through violence. But if you want to talk about real-life “dudes in distress,” look no further than the concept of prisoners of war. For thousands of years, across all civilizations, men have been the primary participants in wars between nations.

Civilians of all age groups and genders are killed, of course. But soldiers, by and large, are male, even today. Men suffer uncalculable violence on the frontlines, afterward from temporary and permanent battle wounds, and sometimes as prisoners of war.

In real life, men often do become “dudes in distress.” To cite only one example more than 400,000 soldiers were imprisoned during the American Civil War, about equally between the North and the South. Furthermore, 56,000 soldiers died in captivity.

I’ll concede to Sarkeesian that women, in literature and video games, are captured and imprisoned more often than men. However, this is a concession with a caveat: it really depends on which example of media we are discussing. Taking The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as one example: yes, Zelda is a female and she’s imprisoned (at the end of the game), but throughout the game, Link also saves many other people from imprisonment, such as half a dozen Gorons and four male carpenters (held in a prison run by women).

I am leery, then, in conceding that the history of violence, including imprisonment, is worse for women than men. In some cases it is worse, certainly. Women are more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse, for example, and that’s wrong. And yes, in many cases violence is gendered. But I won’t play this game in trying to determine which gender has it worse.

Violence in any form is wrong, regardless of the perpetrator, victim, or circumstances.

What I can say about Beyond Good and Evil, then, is that both a main male character and main female character are in distress, and they help each other. Their “distress,” then, is fairly balanced. That doesn’t make it right or wrong. The game simply offers one way of telling a story, a different way of creating conflict.

To paraphrase Sarkeesian from an earlier video, Jade is imprisoned and she “just happens” to be a female, and Pey’j is imprisoned, and he “just happens” to be a male.

Game on,
~Dennis