Female Villains Can't Win

NWN 2 Villains
NWN2 Villains

The lineup for the villains in the next Never Winter Nights game has gotten some press over at Joystiq. Despite neither of the female villains being the “evil hot babe[s] we’ve grown accustomed to in the role playing genre”, the contrast between their stances and that of the male villain are striking.

He’s hunched slightly, in a way that looks like he’s going to charge you; a very active stance, and not one that draws attention to either his sexual organs or his musculature (the former being the trope for “powerful” women and the latter being the trope for “powerful” men). Described by Joystiq’s Alan Rose as “a frenzied berserker”, this “bald dude” seems to typify the Brute; he’s not exactly a high class villain, but even so he’s only one of many types of villain archetypes that one can choose from.

Which brings me to the next villain in the lineup; the “blue chick”. In terms of body type, if you took away the blue skin, changed her head, and upped her breast size a cup, she could almost be the twin of the other female villain. Of course, the one-size-fits-all female body type isn’t an issue confined to NWN (or even video games), and I gotta give the company points for the differences that are there.

In some ways, the blue villain isn’t the ideal of beauty: most notably, she has an odd-shaped head. But, looking at her posturing and her outfit there is definitely an element of sexuality that isn’t there with the Brute. While, with her sword raised high there’s no doubt that there’s an element to power in the blue villain’s posture, she’s shown in a 3/4 pose that causes the lines of her arms form a V that emphasises her chest. Costume wise, though I’m not sure what’s skin and what’s fabric, she appears to be wearing a chainmail loincloth and a halter top that is open to cleavage.

Finally, we have the last villain. Though her face is the recipient of Rose’s criticism (“Seriously, if you take away the flotation devices, we’ve got some serious androgyny going on here.”), I rather like that her face is less feminine than the blue villain’s. No, it’s not because I hate attractiveness, but rather because it seems to be one step in the direction of portraying many different types of women.

That said, she, too, is sexualized for all of her supposed androgyny. Her hands-on-hips position is, again, one of power (in this case its’ the power of defiance), but it also emphasizes her hips in a way that makes it clear that she’s supposed to be read as feminine. Her costume, with the focal point being her cleavage, does the same.

Honestly, I feel bad for the female villains out there — not only do they have to contend with the sexist digs if they don’t fit the “hot villain babe” category, but they still can’t seem to get away from sexualization even when it seems that their characters aren’t there to be sexualized! Come on, video game companies, won’t somebody think of the villains?

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15 thoughts on “Female Villains Can't Win

  1. Nice breakdown, Tekanji. There is definitely a mix of good and bad in those character designs, and you covered it. (Who said feminists only complain?)

    What’s sad is that, when I read, “In terms of body type, if you took away the blue skin, changed her head, and upped her breast size a cup, she could almost be the twin of the other female villain,” my automatic first reaction was, “What other differences could there be?” It looks like I’ve internalized the assumption that women are all the same height, weight, and shape, with variations only in coloring and boobs. D:

  2. Yeah, the costuming looks very similar. Seriously, though, what kind of a warrior would be caught dead in an outfit that practically paints a target on her most vulnerable spots? I wish artists would stop going for sexy over practical when it comes to women; the only male warrior costumes subject to that sort of idiocy are the barbarian types and they’re supposed to be stupid and over confident.

  3. Well at least this gives me some hope that I can make more androgynous or non-beautiful female characters for the game. However, I don’t know if this is art is from game play or a cut-scene. Besides the inability to make non-sexpot female characters in the first NWN (unless you like half-orcs) I’ve been flustered over the inability to make male characters that looked different. I’d love the kind of customization that City of Heroes offered so I could juggle heights, weights, facial features, and most importantly body scale. I want fat characters, maybe there’s some good reason why an athletic character type is slender or muscular but something like a mage, cleric, bard or sorcerer, no logical reason why they can’t be tubby.

    Anyway, no self respecting warrior woman leaves her vital organs exposed. I dispair of any game company ever catching on. Just once I’d like to see a male character with armor that fails to cover his heart and stomach areas.

  4. I had hoped that the blue chick was an undead female warrior who was killed because she went into battle in such a skimpy outfit, but no.

    I don’t think that Torio is mannish on purpose. I think it’s just bad art. Behold Mira, from Obsidian’s other game:

    Although Mira does have the odd and likely unique quality where her exposed breasts are no larger than a B-cup and actually look natural, her face still looks “off” and not just because it’s somewhat masculine. All that makes me think is that the artists spent more time on the chests of the characters than they did on their faces.

  5. Yup. Female villians are definately screwed in the armor area. Female Heros are typically pretty screwed there too… who in the gaming world really thinks that armor does a bit of good when it leaves you stomach exposed like that?

  6. This is a really good post.

    For a notable exception, though, look at Princess Theradras of World of Warcraft. I suppose in her case, though, her radical ugliness is sort of the mirror image of other female villains’ beauty: instead of being beautiful and therefore wicked, she’s ugly and therefore wicked.


  7. I have heard of a character you can unlock in Dead or Alive 4, and she is a female. Unlike the other women in the game, she actually has body armor to protect herself in combat. The unlockable character is a Spartan 458 modeled after Master Chief of Halo 2. Of course, it still does not take away from the overall message of gender roles in both the hero and villian roles of video games. There should be more feminist video games as well as feminist comic books. That would be awesome!

  8. Great post – can you think of any ‘power’ posture for females that couldn’t be described as sexual? I tried, but couldn’t come up with anything 🙁

  9. I don’t think those images are very sexual at all. The last one shows a bit of cleavage but I don’t think that’s necessarily a sexual thing. In fact I think it’s a massive improvement from NWN 1 and far better than many other games. Remember NWN? Load up the main screen and have a look at the random woman wearing a chainmail bikini. It has nipple points in it. You know, so that the 13 year old fanboys don’t have to think too much about what her boobs look like.

  10. Zeev: Of course this is an improvement, not just from NWN 1, but from a lot of video games out there. I acknowledge this in my article, and indeed most of what I say is praise of the character designs for laying the foundation for a broader range of female villian archetypes.

    My point, however, is that even with those improvements, they can’t escape being sexualized — not just in the screenshots, but as importantly by the author of the Joystiq article. The parts that I praise, he criticizes because it doesn’t fit the “hot babe” villain archetype that is the most common for women in video games (and, indeed, most of the mainstream fantasy genre). Sexy women are not a problem, but when there’s a culture of entitlement that expects sexy women and therefore limits the range of expression for female characters then that is a problem.

    Does that make sense?

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