Taking the idea of a flawed female character to heart
Nobody likes this term, the ‘Strong Female Character.’ Not the dirty sjews nor the dirty sjews’ enemies. Not even me, anymore – there was enough pushback on the adjective ‘female’ that I hear it too. It’s detached, anthropological. We could go with ‘Strong Woman Character,’ to modernize the term, but I don’t want to eschew its roots in controversy.
To recap, critics feel that the SFC is the promotion of a singular dimension, and gives the already liable-to-fuckup creators license to ignore the whole that is woman – or, human, you might say. ‘I don’t want a strong female character, I want a real one. I want flaws, complexity.’ I’d agree, if any bad strong female characters typically cited in these discussions weren’t also examples of ‘bad characters.’ I’d wager you can count the number of truly great SFCs without switching hands, so I’ll add a few of my personal favorites: Mace from Strange Days, Eden Sinclair from Doomsday, Emily on Revenge, Erin from You’re Next, and the Major.
Each are a main character in their respective story, with the exception of Mace, but – come on. Not making an exception for Angela Bassett? I don’t want to get struck by lightning. Regardless, these characters helped formulate my personal understanding, and the key tenet was physical strength. Seems trivial, but its exclusion with other women characters opens doors for those creators to do bad things to them, and then dream up all manner of reasonings which somehow register as plausible deniability.
On the flipside, I think, we have recent favorites like Lara Croft from the rebooted Tomb Raider and its exhausting sequel, and Faith from Mirror’s Edge. I like both of these characters a lot, but I’ve had to wrestle with a few of their characteristics, which turn out to be nearly entirely external to them.
The vision of 2013’s Tomb Raider was to make Lara Croft a survivor, to touch a finger-tip to the rape and revenge subgenre of horror/action cinema, and create a vulnerable heroine. The result was stunning. We’d never seen a game avatar who scrambles instead of combat-rolls, who chucks dirt as a primary attack instead of swinging a mighty axe. Whose axe is technically designed for recreational rock-climbing anyway…
Lara Croft is always scraping and bruising and panting, muttering to herself words of urgent encouragement instead of giving some artificial address to the player (though she does that too, wondering if maybe she should pull on that rope over they-a…). It’s a little weird, because in interviews, the designers noted giving Lara’s face some baby-fat so the player would want to protect her (like, for example, from a 20-foot spike that kabobs her through the fucking throat if you fail a contextual quicktime event. Fuck you forever for that shit).
Overall, it’s a step in the right direction for the medium, and this is a medium, after all. It’s a medium. We’re talking about the medium, and no discussion of a video-game can end without a gesture toward what it says about the future of the medium. We ought to have more characters like this, and Lara Croft’s vulnerability seems in response to the chiseled, utter unfuckwittableness of Nathan Drake and Marcus Fenix and even the Master Chief, who’s spry, but a bit of an old guard on the transition between faceless pixel heroes of the 80s and modern, emotive characters like… well, modern, face-having characters like those mentioned.
Joel is a good example of a modern video-game protagonist. From The Last of Us, dumbass. He’s a complex character whose arc interrogates selfishness and morality better than Breaking Bad, and he also feels vulnerable. Remember the frustration you felt getting clocked by that sniper? Or anytime he just sat on his ass, shot in the shoulder and knocked over? They did ‘just barely scraping by’ very effectively.
But Joel didn’t have baby-fat. The Last of Us’s text was about survival, not some marketing-fueled metanarrative where they cut out this rape scene and we’re all watching very, very intently the deconstruction of Lara Croft, as it unfolds. So the question asks itself: is it coincidence that mamoru no Croft is a female?
Or is it simply impossible to imagine a 2013 audience accepting the Lara Croft of old, now that we have the technology to unbuild her? The hip-pistols, kick a velociraptor in the face Lara Croft, whose physical antics are up there with the Drakes and the Chiefs? It’s odd, is what I’m saying, that we took such a giant leap for vulnerable video-game protagonists with a woman avatar.
It was a problem. And now it’s a pattern, though an inexact one. Faith from Mirror’s Edge is one of the most popular game characters out there, quite a feat for such a tiny franchise (of one). Her popularity is initially surprising, but then… altogether not, given her rarity.
Her rarity which surprised me also, because critics lauded how Faith wasn’t sexualized, and I’m looking at images of this nearly photorealistic athletic East Asian woman with a 90s punk attitude and tattoos – she’s somebody’s wet dream. I guess we’re to take it that ‘sexualization’ is sun’s out buns out only, Itagaki or Team Soul-level jiggles and boob windows.
Sure, Faith dresses like a normal-ass person, but you know how models and actresses are usually airbrushed for magazine covers? Faith is literally an airbrush. She’s an idealized person, and you know what? That’s fine. That’s not really my issue here, and I don’t have a problem with it, which means you’re free to have a problem with me (I know I do). It’s just that people’s reactions to Faith as unsexualized speak to a larger concern, with respect to the bar, and its stratospheric place.
So what is the issue? Not that Faith in the upcoming Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst starts out in bondage, because goddamn. That prison intro is hint one of two that this future world is egalitarian: the guard is huge, clad in armor and facemask – and a woman. That’s kind of the opposite of a boob window, isn’t it? Don’t they know the rules, that we don’t not see women’s faces? Ever? Hint two of two is how that guy says “you deal with him,” to an innocuous-looking woman (though on closer inspection, also Asian), and she does. She does. This woman who doesn’t look like Ronda Rousey – or Summer Glau* – just trucks that cyber-ninja. I’m in love with this game, and Mirror’s Edge – while fun – is not one of my mainstays. It is now…
No, the issue is something I read about Faith’s character, actually, which clarified a niggling issue I had playing the first game and watching the second: Faith is a team member, simply another “member of the gang.” She takes orders from this Noah dickhead, people underestimate her. She’s doing what she does for others, not for herself – at least, initially.
Let me real quick – is Marcus Fenix a team member? No, he’s a special snowflake. Is Baird even a fucking team member? No, he gets the spin-off! Faith is, because it’s gotta be real. Not it’s real that a woman can’t be the special, I won’t assume that intent on the part of the creators, but that nobody is. And I think, theoretically, that’s great.
I remember watching Argo in the theatre and being impressed that Ben Affleck’s character was about to just materialize as one of these guys in suits walking down the hall, but no – what kind of character introduction does he get? The telephone rings, he rolls over in bed and answers it. Oh, what the fuck? It’s like he never graduated from Kevin Smith!
Truly, I think it would be cool if more main characters emerged naturally, rather than starting out the chosen one. Like Faith. But again, she’s a woman. Lara Croft is not invulnerable, Faith is not special. Not, not, not. Almost every guy hero is both invulnerable and special, likely because they slot into established precepts. Indiana Jones is both those things, so why deviate with Nathan Drake? Faith has no precedent, so you default to ‘well, she’s a woman, therefore…’
So I ask again: is it coincidence?
I don’t think so. I think it’s something else, and it goes back to my definition of the Strong Female Character, the one I stand by because I’ve discovered its utility, and I’m not a woman so I have nothing to lose. No, this is about progressivism. That if you’re socially progressive enough to want to have a woman lead in the first place, and to portray her correctly, you’re likely uninterested in the sociopaths and super-dudebro killers who run around arenas slapping-ass and shooting RPGs.
I congratulate you for that, although forgoing “Capture the Babe” for literally anything else is hardly laudatory, it should just – how does that even enter your mind? No, you wanted to have real characters, because video-games need them. The medium does. And you wanted to have women characters because the world needs them.
But maybe we’re skipping a step. Faith running and leaping over the SFC is cheating her of a solid foundation. Now all we got is rocks, a rocky foundation, and that’s slightly tougher for even your hardcore parkour spirits. The story of Lara “I’m a Croft” Croft in 2013 was fine, because it was about survival. As such, making her more badass in the second one worked for me, where the rest of the game didn’t. But if we see yet another woman protagonist** who’s flawed in some way, it might be about something other than ‘real characters are flawed.’ It might be that we can’t envision what a flawless heroine is like, where we can envision all stripes and colors of flawless men.
That’s why the Major is important to me, oily boat scenes and pedophilic predations notwithstanding (don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it). That fight with Jarti – remember that? My personal fav for spinkicks – she knocks some teeth out. The Major is hyper-competent, and she never loses a fight. And even when she does, she’s still accomplishing her larger tactical goal of drawing the arm suit away from Batou and Imakarutz. And she has her vengeance, boy howdy.
You might be thinking, well there’s no suspense in that. If we’re not worried about the Major possibly losing, what’s the point? Lara Croft has to be this way. I shall point you to literally every action movie ever made. They’re not entertaining because we’re worried Arnold might not get off the plane – we heard the steelpan, he’s getting off that plane! It doesn’t have to be about vulnerability, so let’s try to degender it.
That’s all this is. There are human qualities floating out there for creators to grasp and make use of, but historically, they haven’t. Our heroes have been machines. And they’ve been male. So alternating off those two defaults, you get paragons of humanity in Croft and Faith. You asked for flaws, you got them. These are flawed women. They’re complicated. Incompetent. Losers.
Like with everything, this is a call for balance. But for whom? Because it isn’t like the creators of Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge assembled in a conference room and decided the future of women’s representation in games. They’re working independently, individually. So it’s more about the next creator, weighing the possibilities of a woman lead in an action role. That, nothing is too wild. It’s supposed to be big and fantastical, so your creation is utterly a reflection of your imagination, and its limits.
I’ll play Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst five years from now, when I upgrade systems, and I’ll like it. But then I’ll look over at the current iteration of Ghost in the Shell, and wish that somebody still carried the flame for the true SFC.
Oh, I’m sorry. What’s that you were saying about Rey being a Mary Sue?