Thursday, September 8, 2011

In defense of Bioware - when did boobs start equalling sexism?

This may well get my feminism stripes taken off me, but I've been doing a lot of internetting in recent times (no more so than usual, mind you) and since I've been revisiting Dragonage Origins I've found myself frequently on Bioware forums, the Dragonage wiki, things like that. Anyone who's done something similar will agree that it's a sometimes infuriating read. Everyone's a critic, everyone hates everything, so on and so forth. But the one thing that REALLY seems to get everyones hackles up is a particular character from Dragonage 2 - namely Isabela.

More after the cut:

Here she is, in all her colossally boobed glory. Without going hugely into her backstory, she's a pirate captain stranded in Kirkwall on account of her sunken ship and decides to tag along with Hawke (i.e. you). She's also one of the four romancible options, whether you play a female or a male. She's also - and here's where it gets difficult - a complete slut. I know there's politics attached to such a term, so I'm going to define it: in my perspective, it's someone who has a lot of sex with a lot of different people. Indiscriminately. Which as far as I can gather, suits Isabela down to the ground. She's also kind of wonderfully matter of fact about it as well, in that refreshing, doesn't-give-a-damn-about-anyone-else kind of way. And this seems to really disturb people, falling into two categories - the far smaller "ugh, typical male developers" team and the far larger "RAR THIS IS SEXIST SHE'S GOT FAR TOO BIG BOOBS AND HER COSTUMES RIDICULOUS AND NO ONES ALLOWED TO CALL HER A SLUT" team.

Firstly I think both attitudes are selling the character quite epically short. She's one of the few female characters I've encountered - film, TV, whatever - who's flaws are authentic. The developers have refrained from making her either the awesome at everything, arsekicking, complete badarse or the beautiful wallflower, which tends to be the only two options for most female characters. She can certainly kick arse (though that depends on you - you have to distribute her stats and make sure she's levelled up) and she's tough, but she's also brash and impulsive and selfish and has the occasional moment of surprising vulnerability. She's been written to within an inch of her life and it shows.

Now - the costume. Certainly it shows the most skin out of all your dudes. But I do have to be the devil's advocate, here - yep, there's thigh high boots, but they aren't heeled. Yep, she doesn't wear pants, but the boot/tunic combo essentially covers her except for that slice of upper thigh. And she's a pirate, for Gods sake, if you spend all your time in the sun climbing ropes I probably wouldn't want too many extra layers either. Granted the armor is sparse and not very universal, but she's also Rogue class - i.e. speed over defense. Varric, the dwarven buddy who's your other Rogue, has no armor whatsoever, just a big old leather coat and a lot of chest hair. (The other, other Rogue is Sebastian, but he's also a rich kid from the Chantry and different rules apply to him) I think she's slightly prey to the visual illusion of being half naked by virtue of her body shape (any lady who's boobs have gotten suddenly bigger can explain this phenomenon to you). I will happily admit that those jugs are completely ridiculous. But I feel like her character would legitimately present herself like this (i.e. cleavage city) because it can be a feasible distraction/disarmer in a negotiating or fighting situation. She is calculating enough to do that.

And now, on to to "ugh, male developers" bracket. Outside of Hawke/companions, there are six main players in the story - three female, three male. Lets have a look at them.

You meet Flemeth early and she doesn't have a big role. But she's a continuation point from DA:O and an absolutely epic piece of design, voicework and scripting. She's legitimately unnerving and one of the few characters who you really feel like are far, far bigger than you and your doods. And people go away thinking about her, too - there's a big body of theories regarding Flemeth, her origin and her true character. People are speculating. It's very cool. And note that she's not young and hot. Though I do think she's kind of hot.

Goddamn, the Arishok is one gigantic slab of Awesome. The design is incredible, his voice is kind of devastating and the writing for him is really tight. He's a Qunari, stranded in Kirkwall to retrieve an item lost in his travels. He's been given some property by the Viscount to appease him and his presence (along with all his Qunari doods) makes everyone lose their minds around them. The Chantry (i.e. the Church) are freaking out because people are converting to the Qun, the Qunari are getting tense because they aren't loving the implication that that's a bad thing, things are gunna get baaaad. I always looked forward to going and seeing the Arishok - all his dialogue is great and all his guys have warpainted six packs. I have a hard time, in the Qunari compound, believing that the developers didn't slightly tweak the Qunari for the sake of the ladies.

Knight Commander Meredith
Barring Viscount Dumar, she is the most powerful person in Kirkwall, and the leader of the Templars. Unhinged, and full of righteous holiness and all that stuff, but also a force to be reckoned with and a military powerhouse. And no skin, notice? Though there appears to be an impressive rack happening under that breastplate.

Grand Cleric Althina
The spiritual leader of Kirkwall. She's sort of the Ghandi of DA2, preaching temperance and keeping the peace between Meredith and Orsino. She's obviously a pacifist, but she doesn't even flinch when people drop dead around her. She's made of steel.

First Enchanter Orsino
I really love Orsino, but I have trouble explaining why. He's an odd looking thing with a great outfit and one helluva staff (both robes and the Staff of Violation  are available to dress you Xbox avatar in), but more importantly a gentleman in an intolerable situation.

Viscount Dumar
The ruler of Kirkwall. A harried, older man with an adult son who is essentially crushed between the opposing forces in the city. He's in a constant state of depression over the situation, and has a complete lack of ability to deal with it. He's a very sympathetic character, actually - a victim of everything and everyone, and he has so much horrible shit happen to him you can't help but feel for him.

Okay - that being done - lets look at the male/female representation. Both Meredith and Orsino succumb to their personal demons (no more details, spoilers) and have been very carefully engineered to be on equal par in terms of representation. The Viscount is a weak ruler and a victim - the Arishok is anything but. Flemeth is the most powerful thing you will meet in the whole game (and perhaps franchise?) but also an extremely "Chaotic-Neutral" type and volatile. And Elthina is strong, compassionate and a good woman. Across this board, I certainly don't feel like the woman are under-represented - if anything, I think there's a surprising amount of female authority happening in the game structure.

Ultimately, haters gunna hate. But I think Bioware has done an almighty service to the female representation in videogames with DA2. And whilst I was pretty unsure about Isabela when I first started playing, she certainly won me over. Boobs and all.


  1. A well thought out, interesting read that I agree with completely. The plethora of strong female authority in this game really stuck out (to me, at least) but it wasn't something that made me feel uncomfortable, it felt ... natural.

  2. I agree with you about most of the above. I actually think Isabela is, for the most part, a great example of a strong, sex-positive character.

    I really do take issue with her design, though. I'd debate you about the practicality of the costume, but my main bone of contention is that cartoonishly large and buoyant breasts are more than just eye candy. There's nothing wrong with having attractive, even idealized characters, but huge breasts are an established part of the culture of video game art, and in that context they send a message that this is something for men to enjoy, not for women.

    I don't think that's an intended message - not at all, far from it! - but it can come across that way for people who walk by the screen while you're playing. I don't like that. I hate that my non-gamer friends who haven't played the game roll my eyes when they see Isabela art. And yeah, I agree, Isabela would show off her cleavage, dress scantily, etc. But the designers could have made her attractive with a realistic anatomy, and they chose not to, and I wish they hadn't.

    Doesn't mean it's not a great game, and it doesn't mean it doesn't have very positive portrayals of women. It's just one element in a great game that irks me.

  3. Very nice read overall, although my view of Elthina is somewhat different. I don't see her as "strong and good", but rather as someone acting (or refraining to act) out of sheer dogmatism. I half expected the world to crumble around her and her to stand on its ruins saying "We must trust that the Maker will guide us", blah blah. Unreasonable dogmatism is neither the trait of the strong nor the good in my view. But rather the trait of the passive or weak-willed?

    Is it not enough for good men to do nothing in the face of danger for the world to succumb to it?

    PS: David Gaider's twitter brought me here, just so you know. :)

  4. I am grateful for female characters that have a healthy love of Sex like Isabelle. It still amuses and at times frightens me that some folk still have such prejudice over women who embrace and enjoy their sexual side.

    I do however get frustrated with female characters who have enormous knockers and only nipple coverage. For one thing no woman would dress like that in a battle scenario...think of all the scars on the decoutage!

    It's a bit like when women in horror flicks flee from Godzilla without kicking off their 4inch heels. Stoopid!

    Over and Out.