Girl in the Machine
Monday, September 3, 2007
On Female Leads

So I was fortunate enough to indulge in a few new game purchases recently, and on my way home I underwent the tried-and-true ritual of ripping open each object of my affection to get at the meaty instruction booklets within. The hardbound art book packaged with Persona 3 was particularly delectable. When I flipped to the sketches of the game's silent protagonist, however, I paused. Art Director Shigenori Soejima writes:
"Initially, [the protagonist] looked more honest, like an ordinary, handsome young man. But, I worked to achieve greater ambiguity in his expression. This was the final result."
Of course, this got me thinking about leads in general.

Video game leads. We, as gamers, use them to insert ourselves into the game. We do not passively watch (as with television or movies) but actively engage in this medium, and the protagonist is the connecting link. Oftentimes, game leads are made generic, more ambiguous by developers so that, presumably, more people can identify with them. And thus, cue a slew of white male protagonists.

Female leads are difficult to come by (and women of color even more so). Usually, I'm so grateful to see a female lead that I'm initially blind to her negatives. Take Princess Peach, for example. Or Lara Croft. Even Final Fantasy X-2's crew slipped under my radar at first. (Wait. Sorry, I'm totally lying about that one.)

When it comes to female leads, as few and far between (relatively speaking) as they are, we've seen all kinds. It's no question that those the likes of Princess Peach (gimmicky damsel-turned-hero) or Lara Croft (eye candy extraordinaire) weren't crafted to meet a generic ideal for the sake of women gamers. Female leads have a sort of "specialized" air around them that separates them from their male fellows, exoticizing them if you will, and it breeds interesting questions. How does this divide perpetuate the concept of women as the "other," alien to the generic male/humanity figure? And furthermore, how much should we value the state of being generic, if even for the purpose of equality?

In my mind, three issues are key in the formation of a proper female lead:

1. The character avoids female stereotypes.
This is a given, and afflicting female leads with typically female stereotypes is what I most often see in video games. In my above-linked post on femininity, I mused over the socially-conditioned attitudes towards women and how we are all taught to subconsciously scorn the female sex -- even those of us who identify as such. These stereotypes (such as the bimbo blond) are used to demean and humiliate women, and they make the idea of a woman in power -- acting as the avatar of the almighty player -- laughable.

A female lead who avoids these stereotypes not only eliminates the woman/other figure (by transforming her from a caricature into an actual human being), she also serves as a better avatar with which a player of any sexual persuasion can identify.

2. The character's motivation is not dependent on a man.
A long-standing myth about women is that we are frail, delicate little creatures who require the guidance and authority of the stronger sex to function. This myth manifests in many fictive forms, including video games, as the character whose actions completely center around a man. I target my hatred of this trend on the obligatory "love interest" role, as it's become so common for a female supporting character to exist solely for the sake of the dashing male lead. This carries over to female protagonists as well, and it often takes form as their motivations. And then we have Yuna from FFX-2, for example, who couldn't do anything for herself if, say, her own life depended on it.

When we see a female lead that quite realistically does something for the million other reasons that don't involve men, it's unusual, a pleasant surprise. It's a welcome change from a patriarchal society where even men are conditioned to find their motivation in other men (in a typically competitive nature).

3. Being a woman is not integral to the character's role.
This rule is a lot less cut-and-dried than the others, so bear with me. The conundrum here is that, time and time again, female leads find themselves singled out because of their sex. In this case, a woman's body or some other recognizable state of femaleness is used to justify her role as the game's lead. Thus, in order for a woman to be the protagonist, her sex HAS to have some kind of purpose.

For example, as much as I love and adore Heather Mason, it's very easy to see why she's the only female lead in the Silent Hill series (the upcoming Origins and 5 included). As explained by Claudia Wolf near the beginning of the game, Heather's body is needed for the rebirth of God. While James or Henry or Harry could have just as easily been women (and Harry was even rewritten as Rose for the Silent Hill movie), Heather's biological femaleness is necessary for her existence, providing us with yet another example of the female/other figure.

While I feel that an emphasis on femaleness casts an isolating pall over female leads, I do realize that it's important not to embrace the generic state entirely. Celebrating both womanhood and femininity is both essential and empowering. And video games that do underscore their female characters' sex can be eye-opening, as the brilliant Rule of Rose has shown. It's all a matter of context, and no hard-and-fast rule can possibly apply to something so complicated.

Above all, whatever the answer -- and, unfortunately, I don't have one -- an increase in female leads (of at least partially the above caliber) can only be a good thing. Finding a place among the generic protagonists in gaming is one goal, but I feel that joining the ranks of already-established women leads is even better.

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