There was this thing, last time I posted, where I was exhausted and preparing to go away for a weekend of LARPing. I didn’t ramble about flying purple bagels or anything–last I checked–but I don’t think I fully explored my ideas, as various professors used to say.
So, okay. The thing about the ambiguous-gender protagonist is that it helps steer clear of a lot of baggage. Because people have baggage. I’ve got it, you’ve got it, insert complicated thing about patriarchal society and the formation of subconscious attitudes in re: gender roles that I should maybe have paid attention to sophomore year instead of plotting out game sessions and/or anticipating the Thursday night drunken party. (And for the benefit of anyone who may be reading this while being my mother, I should note that I did actually get my diploma and everything. Really, Ma. They called my name and everything. You were there–it was right before the car got stolen.*) The basic idea is that our culture infuses us with a whole bunch of attitudes about What Women Are Like and What Women Should Be Like–many of which contradict each other, because that’s all the more fun–like so much tea into hot water.
Like: women shouldn’t be violent.
Like: women can only be violent if that violence is sexualized, or if they have Traumatic Pasts.
Like: women can only be sexual if they have Traumatic Pasts.
Like: men should always be physically more powerful, more sexually experienced, and more comfortable with violence than the women they’re involved with.
Like: any situation that contradicts the above must be an in-story Big Deal.
That last one is subtle, but it’s the one that trips up a lot of people most these days, me included. See, most of us have pretty much accepted that girls, say, can be tough and competent by this point. That’s not (generally) a problem–except that a lot of us don’t really take it as a given, so we have to prove it, and the desire for awesome overtakes the need for solid characterization. Alice is no longer the ace starship pilot who likes country music and is weirdly superstitious about the socks she wears on every mission, she’s an ace starship pilot and a world-class guitar player (Mary Sue) or she’s an ace starship pilot WHO’S A GIRL OH MY GOD, at which point everything becomes about her issues being a girl and she starts wearing skin-tight flight suits when everyone else is in mecha. Sarah Rees Brennan wrote an awesome essay about this, and now the link is broken. Bah.
The romance thing is another biggish deal. Again, there are a fair number of Action Girls (tm TVTropes) out there these days, but their love interests, when heterosexual, are generally men who can go toe-to-toe with them in a fight, even if that means they have to be inhuman. And said love interests are almost never in “sidekick” roles: they’re nearly always independent agents, leaders of a rival faction, or whatever. Buffy springs to mind–there’s Spike and Angel, basically, and a handful of one-episode losers. Oh, and Riley, who got all pouty and Proving My Manhood Guy pretty early into the season where he wasn’t a super-soldier any more. My point, I believe. I, personally, never wanted Buffy to get with Xander: how much of that is the fact that I really don’t like the guy and how much is my own internalized whatever-the-hell?
Disconcerting, a little bit.
One of the things that really seems to work in terms of avoiding the above is to make a gender-neutral protagonist. Or, rather, to start with a guy and then switch genders and basically nothing else midway through. It’s a sad commentary on our society, but the default gender has been male for so long that it has a lot less baggage associated: the idea of male heroism encompasses everything from John Wayne to Bertie Wooster. The How Men Are baggage exists, don’t get me wrong, but as the above range suggests, it’s a lot more flexible. Starting with a guy resulted in Ripley, who’s competent and violent without being fetishized or broken, and it gave us Kara Thrace back before the addition of stupid backstory and WTF metaphysics.**
And now, video games, and how they do this particularly well.
See, western RPGs have a pretty long tradition of having the PC be what TVTropes (and, apparently, Zork: Grand Inquisitor, which I’ve got to play sometime) calls an “Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person”. Interactive fiction started out that way–though most of the stories I’ve played lately have featured a very specific PC character–the Wizardry games did it, etc. The theory is, I guess, that it’s easier for the player to project themselves into the AFGNCAAP than to identify with a random Italian plumber. Fair enough. As games and their settings got more complex, the PC attributes switched from being neutral to being customizable. (Pretty quickly, too. One of my fonder childhood memories is making damn sure my Pools of Radiance party had the best possible VGA hairstyles. Oh, and going through all the randomly-generated backgrounds in Moria until I found one where my parents liked me.) Within certain limits, you can choose your face, your age, your culture–if they exist–and your gender.
This is fun and all, particularly in Rock Band, but it wouldn’t have any more impact than that bit of Oregon Trail where you name all your party members after people you hate*** except for, well, the “role-playing” aspect, by which I mean dialogue. In early games, this was pretty scarce and/or pre-set–haggling with shopkeepers or ASK PROFESSOR ABOUT DEMON was about as good as you got–but then came dialogue trees, and morality options, and all sorts of other strange pathways for your character’s personal interactions to go down. You could actually choose how you wanted to relate to other characters and develop semi-complicated relationships…well, as complicated as the AI would allow.
Which is where, I think, an inadvertent point of awesomeness for gender equality emerged. Because a game primarily focused on slaying the evil wizard and restoring peace to the land isn’t going to have completely different dialogue options for male and female characters. There’s only so much memory, plus I’m given to understand that the people who design such games are actually mortal and have families who like to see them at the end of the day. Re-writing the witty-banter-where-you’re-clearly-in-charge dialogue that a “default male” PC has with a sidekick to significantly alter the power dynamics just because the player took the you-have-boobs option? Not happening. So you have sidekick banter plus romantic interest…where the woman is the leader and the guy is the sidekick…and that’s pretty cool, because there aren’t many places where you get that dynamic.
So I’m helping transform the existing paradigm of relationship models in the context of Third Wave feminism, is what I’m saying: the zombies are incidental. Or at least that’s the story I’m giving the alumni magazine, if they ask what I’m doing these days.
*See, when you make me go to graduation ceremonies, the Universe exacts a terrible retribution.
**Jennifer Kesler at The Hathor Legacy has a good post about writing women here . My gender markers are different–I’m not conscious of any precautions I take that a man wouldn’t, which is probably a living-situation thing–but it’s an excellent essay.
***So you can watch them die of snakebite, of course.