Yes, this is a shameless attempt to catch your attention! Did it work?
[Spoiler warning for the entire Mass Effect and Dragon Age series]
[Trigger warning for mentions of rape and mutilation.]
Recently, I’ve seen more and more people discuss oversexualization of female characters in games in articles, on Twitter, and real life. And it’s not just us girl gamers who are annoyed, but also the guys who are tired of being treated like teenage boys. And, as Brenna Hillier (whose Twitter is @draqul and you should insta-follow her) put it so nicely in an article on vg24/7:
“The industry’s reliance on over-sexualised, impossible female design is somewhat insulting to those who’ve grown past the point of getting erections from passing bra stores.”
I also remember that the Liara collectible for ME3 was subjected to breast size reduction surgery before going into production. Unfortunately for Liara, this means that she won’t ever become a leader of Asari society (regardless of any ME3-related galactic travel problems), because Asari leaders are recognizeable by their enormous melon-sized breasts (says deviantartist Epantiras in her funny-as-hell parody cartoon “Mess Perfect”).
In general, this discussion is a step in the right direction, I hope it will gain momentum and find its way into the brains of the game developers! [Yes I’m an optimist. I couldn’t bear blogging about gender & games if I weren’t.] I could go on about this and try to retrieve all the other links on character designs, armors and whatnot. (There are AWESOME blogs about this springing up like mushrooms after the rain.) But right now, I have something more insidious and immensely literal in mind: Big, bad, boobs.
I’d ask again if I have your attention, but we’ve just established that gamers aren’t all about pixel boobs, so let’s skip this part and move to something serious! There are quite different kinds of (over-)sexualization of women. I am going to list a few examples, and also play advocatus diaboli, trying to argue why their portrayal makes sense in the context of the game. (Yes this is going to be hard.)
The probably most common kind is the sexualization of every single female character in an entire franchise. In some games, all female characters happen to be a size M (for melon), some of them may wear reasonable clothing, while others may “show off their goods”. In other games, there are female villains who either use their sexuality as a weapon, or have had their sexuality and biology twisted and turned against them. The latter is sometimes taken to a level I find almost unbearable.
As I’ve mentioned Asari melons… I mean, matriarchs, above, here’s the antagonist Matriarch Benezia from Mass Effect 1. She is voiced by Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi on Star Trek) and for me, there is a chilling discrepancy between her soft voice and her harsh “cold sexy” character design.
She’s been indoctrinated and tries to kill her own daughter before (and after) telling her she’s proud of her. She’s a good example of an “Evil Mom” trope – hang on, TV tropes literally calls this one “Evil Matriarch”. (As always: Visit TV tropes at your own risk of wasting time. I managed to stay under 10 minutes right now, phew.) Epantiras had this to
say draw about Benezia’s foreseeable but not unseeable end.
Advocatus diaboli says: She’s an Asari. Having and showing off cleavage like that is in her genes. You can’t fight your genes, right? She wasn’t even pole-dancing for Shepard before she died, that has to count for something! And regarding that attempted murder of her daughter: It wasn’t her own will, she was indoctrinated, blah.
Next example: The desire demons of Dragon Age are deadly serious about being scantily-clad and kinky. There are only females, because apparently, the women of Ferelden are immune to the lures of man (unlike the women in Mass Effect, as another Mess Perfect cartoon illustrates), and thus, no male desire demons managed to survive!?
These demons are also quite a good example of the Evil Demon Seductress from Feminist Frequency’s awesome series on tropes on YouTube. I’ve always wondered, if they can use magic to charm their victims, why the outfit? All in all, I consider them quite a cliché of a cliché, even if some of the related quests were quite good, IIRC.
Advocatus diaboli says: They just want to be happy, too! Since there are no male desire demons, they are very, very lonely. But their horns scare off the human guys, so they have to resort to…. oh, and it’s certainly hot on their plane of demonic origin, too hot to wear… basically anything, except silly trumpet sleeves!
Meta question: Why does pop culture never (rarely?) depict women who are falling for teh smex of a cute half-naked male demon!? Is it – once again – because the followers of that very pop culture can’t stand to see cute half-naked males making passes at their avatar? That one is growing SO old!
Now, about turning female physiology into weapons: Behold the brood mothers from Dragon Age. I am reluctant to find words for this atrocity, so I am going to quote the DA Wiki:
“Broodmothers are created by subjecting females of the humanoid races to the darkspawn taint, possibly by being force-fed darkspawn tissue, though depending on how you take Hespith’s poem, the point could be made that they “inject” the taint in different ways.
If not killed outright because of the effects, the female then starts to mutate, develops cannibalistic urges and begins to feed on other sapient prisoners. She devours massive amounts of flesh and grows into a broodmother.”
Hespith tells the Warden and her/his companions this:
“They took us all, turned us. The men, they kill… they’re merciful. But the women, they want. They want to touch, to mold, to change until you are filled with them.”
This “injection” and Hespith’s words could mean a lot of things, but I’m reading “rape” here. Rape that turns a woman into a “factory” (direct quote from BioWare) of all of Ferelden’s arch enemies:
“The race of the broodmother directly influences which kind of darkspawn she will give birth to. An elven broodmother will spawn shrieks, a dwarven broodmother genlocks, a human broodmother hurlocks, and a Qunari broodmother ogres. Each broodmother is capable of spawning thousands of darkspawn.”
Pictured below is the Brood Mother encountered in Origins. She used to be a Dwarf from Branka’s House, called Laryn. Branka has gone mad about finding the Anvil of the Void, and allowed Laryn’s rape and subsequent transformation into this atrocity to breed cannon fodder for the traps securing the entrance to the Anvil. In plain English: One woman allows the rape of another woman for her own personal gains. It’s twisted as shit – and I admit I didn’t want to see it when I played Dragon Age the first time around.
Here is a link to the concept art, which shows the side view.
Here’s the Brood Mother from Awakenings, who is much more self-aware of what she has become, but also is deliberately evil. She used to be human. Interestingly, her figure was toned down considerably, compared to the one above. Since I don’t want to argue about the inherent beauty of dwarves vs. humans, I’m going to theorize that her being a major antagonist in the add-on, they reduced the sexually disfigured parts and added gender-neutral disfigured parts like the pronounced vessels, bloodied face and the way half her face opens up when she screams her last words (see last 15 secs or so), like the mutated vampires in the Blade movie series.
It gets “better” yet: BioWare writer David Gaider answered, when confronted with the valid question of “If Darkspawn don’t need to eat, why do Brood Mothers have so many breasts?” with “Artists find them endlessly fascinating”. [Source: BioWare forums]
I consider Gaider a good writer in general, and he’s definitely a supporter of inclusive game design. I also don’t know who actually wrote and designed the brood mothers, so I’ll not blame anyone in particular. BUT his reply makes me wonder: Why do you create a twisted abomination of a mother, that is the product of rape and then go on to add abhorrent rows of breasts-like heaps of flesh that serve no purpose? Is it really so fascinating for artists to ponder what raped mutated women could look like, and draw them? I’m not an artist, but I don’t think I’d feel the need to sketch what mutated penises and testicles (without a purpose, of course) would look like. Even though, trust me, I do find them endlessly fascinating. 😀
I can’t recall much, if at all, of how the underlying serious issues of rape and bearing your enemies’ children, etc. are dealt with in the game (beyond your party being disgusted and killing them off), but I’m still inclined to call out a cheap trick for the shock value. Oh, BioWare! I didn’t need to know who created the Reapers to begin with, but I certainly didn’t need to know so much about how Darkspawn are created! And though I usually preach that games need to be able to discuss topics such as rape, I don’t see much discussing here, just showing off the miserable victims.
Advocatus diaboli says: Someone in the same thread points out that, since the women turned into brood mothers have breasts, perhaps their growth and multiplication is an unintentional side effect of the mutation. The tentacles could be useful to….. I don’t know, I suppose the brood mothers still need to eat, so they could use them to grab their victims to…. ewww.
Speaking of Reapers. Epantiras has a few strips about how BioWare recycled themes from Knights of the Old Republic for Mass Effect. No specific links this time, since you should read all of her “Mess Perfect” stuff anyway. (For teh lulz, brethren and sistren!) BioWare also recycled the idea of different races of brood mother creating different kinds of enemies, as described above: Corpses from different races are turned into different kinds of ground troops by the Reapers: Humans become Husks, Turians Marauders or Brutes, Rachni Ravagers, and so on.
Asari, our intergalactic gogo girls, turn into Banshees, who look like this:
They are quite tough opponents, with barriers, armor and strong biotic abilities. They have bloated bellies; sutures and tubes all over their maltreated bodies (a bit reminiscent of the Borg, but clearly not as androgynous). They also have glowing nipples – so they can read in the dark!?! (WTF?)
Also, Banshees enjoy staging forceful lesbian kiss scenes with their victims. (WTF???)
Advocatus diaboli says: Nothing, because they’re speechless.
I am appalled that the (in my opinion) most horrifying characters you encounter in all games of either series are naked, oversexualized, mutilated humanoid women.
Neither Dragon Age nor Mass Effect are horror games, neither discusses this phenomenon in-game and neither subjects men to similar sexual(ized) violence. So no, I won’t accept this as “fitting” for the respective settings and storylines of the games, but honestly, I’m not really sure what to call this stuff. It seems that Gaider’s reason is enough, and these depictions are an end unto themselves.